Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part I

February 14th 2012 (Happy Valentine’s Day!)
Part I
Our country is going through rough times now. I just asked myself why I don’t write about it. Is it because I know next to nothing about politics, or is it because I shy away from the inconvenient truth that is Sudan today? Even if I don’t know much about politics, I know a whole lot about my life, and I was told, at an early age, to write what I know.
I think of my family as “middle class”, however, in reality, if middle class means average, we are, with the blessings of Allah, in the top 10%. People of the “Industrialized World” or whatever you call yourselves now, would be surprised. I am sure that our concepts of middle class differ considerably.
My husband and I are both working professionals (knock wood, with today’s unemployment rates) and we have three small boys that teach us every day what is important in life. We have a roof over our heads, food on the table and the boys are enrolled in the appropriate bilingual schools. We thank God that we can pay for medical care when required.
Most Sudanese can’t say the same.
Most of my countrymen lack basic needs. And when we say basic, we really mean it. Running water, potable water, food, education and health care. These are things that Sudanese have learned to do without. To be clear, many didn’t have it to begin with, but today we see a generation, that instead of developing has moved backward in time. We listen to our parents tell us how they would call the doctor to come over if someone was sick, in the middle of the night. How gas was delivered to your house, and how, as university students, meals were prepared, laundry done, shoes shined and students could choose one of three beds to sleep in (room, yard or roof) according to weather conditions and their fancy.
When my parents were starting their lives, with three small girls, they lived in a house provided by the University of Khartoum, where they both taught. The pseudo-colonial houses were spacious and cool, with separate quarters for the help. They had nannies for the kids and servants for the laundry and ironing. A chicken coop out back and an extended kitchen where my mother learned to cook, also form part of this idyllic world I vaguely remember, although that is probably just my imagination, putting pictures in my head of the stories that I have heard.
As was common in those days, my father was politically active, although I wonder how this soft spoken man, with the highest moral threshold I have encountered in my life, could be involved in politics. Born into a family that was nearly destitute, he and his brother took turns working and studying to provide for their mother and sisters. The value of education was never lost on their journey. I often think that they could have chosen another route; starting a business, or seeking permanent employment, but it is obvious that this never occurred to those young men, who are both professors today. (May Allah bless them with good health and long lives).
I digress. I know. I will continue to do so, so please bear with me.
My dad and my uncle, in their struggle to provide for their family, in the absence of a father, chose religion as their guidance. In a family oriented society, they did not lack for father figures, but they chose the Prophet PBUH and scholars as their role models. This, I believe was what led them to allying themselves with an Islamic Party, early in their youth.
In those days, the best secondary education was to be found in three boarding schools, Hantoob, Wadi Sayidna and Khor Taggat. My father went to Hantoob. The young men of Sudan that studied and lived together in the 50s and 60s, have a bond that we will never understand. The school was a melting pot of social and cultural diversity that molded upstanding young men who learned, on their own, about equality, diversity and tolerance.
The Islamists and the Communists studied together, bunked together, and a few years later, were incarcerated together. I never heard of animosity between them, or anything similar to the fist fights that sometimes turned fatal, that were commonplace when we studied in the same University of Khartoum most of those boarding school lads ended up in.
The point I was trying to state, before meandering off into my father’s memories, is that under President Nimeri’s rule, my dad (who I call “Poppa”) and his cronies were periodically rounded up and thrown in jail. My father refers to this period as “being guests of the government” with a nostalgic look in his eye, and a catch in his throat.
It is hard to believe that friendships were forged and maintained behind various prison bars, as they were frequently shuttled around. He speaks of the inmate that taught them French, and the other who oversaw Quran Circles and tutored them in recitation. In jail.
When I was in my final year at University (or one of them at least), I visited the Police College to collect information for my thesis. I paid an initial visit to state my requirements, and arranged a follow-up visit, to collect said information. When I went back the second time around, my contact Major General Awad Widaatallah Hussein, was very excited. He could hardly contain himself.
He asked me my full name.
When I answered, he said, “Yes! And, your mother, she doesn’t wear the traditional Sudanese Tob, correct?”
“No, she doesn’t. Not on a daily basis anyway. She’s Egyptian.”
“Yes! And she likes the color blue?”
Frankly confused, first, because of the line of questioning, with no obvious relevance, and doesn’t everyone love blue?
“I guess” I replied.
He had been pacing, while interrogating me, and then he gestured that we were to leave his office, I was to follow him. Policeman in Police College. I followed. He led me to the Dean of the College, who got up from his desk, shook my hand warmly, and with extreme emotion. He kept repeating, “Mashallah, mashallah” which is a term that means “Glory be to God” and used when looking at something remarkable, often a child that has grown, which, apparently, was the case.
Finally, I got to hear the story.
When your father was in prison, I was the police officer assigned to your family. In those days, a policeman was assigned to take care of the families of political prisoners. We would drive you to prison visits, get your groceries and run errands. I was very moved by the plight of your mother, who was taking care of three young girls alone, and going to visit her husband in jail, sometimes taking you with her.
He kept shaking my hand and I realized my petite mother, who always does what needs to be done, and my father who is never less than dignified, had left a lasting impression on a fresh graduate, heading out into the real world. I could see in his whole demeanor, that the memory of that young family had not left him, and he had spent time wondering what had become of them. The fact that I came to him enrolled in the nation’s leading University (at the time) from one of the top departments (at the time) to design a theoretical Police Academy, was a full circle moment for him. I feel good that we were able to give him a happy ending. I just wish one of us could remember what his name was.
Something tells me that political prisoners are not given the same treatment these days.
Back to my young family...

This is an excerpt from an email my father sent to a friend of his, who he forwarded this post to...

I  tell   some   of  what  was   going  on   in  that  six  months  and  ten  days   as "  guest  of  the  government ".
In   the  company  of  many  university  staff  , some   reputed  lawyers,  some   university  students , some  of  them  now  professors  and  very  high  ranking  civil  servants,  and  others  we   were  rounded  in  part  of  the  state   prison  that  was  and  probably  still  is  named   ironically  " Alsaraya"  meaning   'The  Palace'.   Among  other  things  I was  "Head Administrater'  of  the  group  mainly  caring  for  the  two  miserable    meals  of  the  day  and  organizing   cultural  and  sports  activities .    In  fact  it  was    my  sports  responsibilities       which    introduced  me  to   who  would later become  my  beloved   wife,  Taggy's   mother. 
During  that    wonderful  period   in  prison, I  met  wonderful  people  and   made lasting   friends ,  read  more  than    forty  volumes,   making  Quran  khatma  every   ten  days  ..among  other  things..In   prison  each  one  of  us   was   given  two  blankets. No  beds.  You   spread  blankets  on  floor   and  when  it  was  cold   use  one  as  cover.
You  think   six  months  and  ten  days   was  long.  Not  long  brother  Tayeb  spent  two  full  years  as  "Guest  of  Government"    just  for  a  letter  found  with  him  which  I  wrote  to  him  while  he  was    in  Cambridge  for  his  PhD.. He  came  back  with  the  letter   as  part  of  his  personal  effects  and  never  realized   that  would  take  him  where  it  did.
Those  were     wonderful   years  that   brought   us  all  very  very   close.