Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Journal Entry for March 5, 2000: Notes from a Trip Down the Nile

Just finished unloading pictures (see below) from my Nile Trip. Was really incredible. I joined for three days the First Nile Expedition. The expedition, headed by Pasquale Scaturro and with Gordon Brown, left the source of the Blue Nile high in Ethiopia on Xmas Day 2003 for the first trip all the way to the mouth of the Nile in Alexandria Egypt. (The Blue Nile carries 85% of the water of the Nile.) While going down the river, they were taking part in making an IMAX film. The Expedition arrived in Khartoum on February 16. After two weeks of rest and re-stocking, plus filming at some sites near Khartoum, they left on Monday (the 1st) to begin the second half of their journey and I went with them. I spent three days and two nights traveling about 210 kilometers to the next big town downriver, Shendi.

Being on the Nile was a real trip. Long ago, the wildlife disappeared from the river. There are no hippos or crocs. Competition with the people was just too intense. That’s because the Nile creates a thin strip of life through the desert. (Every drop of water we went by fell as rain hundreds of miles upstream in Ethiopia and Central Africa.) We passed 100’s of small water pumps lifting water from the river up to the fields on the flood plains. Fields of sorghum, groves of date palms, fields of tomatoes and other produce are everywhere that people can get to. All along the shore, men in their white jellabiyas, women in brightly colored clothes, bashful girls and playing children waved or ran or asked us – mostly in hand signals – who we were and where we were going. Despite that lack of big animals, the Nile reminded me of the Zambezi except usually bigger. It meandered along sometimes seeming more like a big lake with no end rather than a stream rushing to get anywhere. We used two rafts that were necessary for running the upstream rapids. Each had an outboard motor at the back that was connected to a long handle that we used to steer. I was allowed to take the “wheel” and spent many outstanding hours guiding us through the river. Simply no way to describe how cool that felt. The first great river that man ever traveled on over a million years ago and I was on it.

The wind blew most of the time and until we reached the deep desert just south of Shendi, it blew cool and comfortable. The water was muddy and lots of things floated in it, including dead cows, goats and donkeys. The guys washed in the river and our two Sudanese helpers drank it. I did neither. But I did get into the river in a shallow to help reposition the motor. It was cool and probably safe enough since it was flowing rapidly. At night, we made camp on sand bars that were under the river just several weeks ago. These were lovely spots of sand and scrub. We pitched tents while dinner was cooked. I brought along some beer and cigars. We ate under the stars as the moon crawled through the sky and the water pumps went off. I slept in a tent that was mostly just a mosquito net. Both nights it was cool enough to use a cover.

By the third day, I was getting into the rhythm of the river. Waking up, breaking camp, setting out, cruising until late afternoon, making camp, eating, talking till late and then sleeping again. If I stayed another day, I might never have left. 


Friday, June 12, 2015

Journal Entry for March 4, 2004: An evening with the Sufi -- Sophist Night

Tonight I went to a “Sophist Night” in old Omdurman. The occasion was to mark the death of the founder of a school of Islamic jurisprudence who was also the progenitor of the extended clan that traced their descent back to him. A prominent human rights activist and secularist – Ghazi Sulieman – was this year’s organizer of the celebration and invited me. The sophists came out of a 9th century movement within Islam to base one’s relationship to God on reasoned knowledge of the Koran. Various schools of thought developed over the centuries and there are many, many schools that differ in ways that I’ll never understand. Sufism came from this movement.

The celebration took place outside and started at 8:30 pm. I was a bit late but no matter and I was escorted to a place of honor and supplied with drink and food throughout the evening. The field was decorated like a country fair, with lights and a bandstand. But there were no rides and the bandstand was for the speakers and leaders of prayer. Rows of seats circled the stand but with a clear space in front. Various people went to the microphone to make speeches about the founding teacher (sheik), pray or chant. All during the evening, groups from other schools came to pay their respects (thus “Sophist Night”). As they arrived, Ghazi would dance over to them with his ceremonial stick held high in his right hand, pumping it up and down as he went. (The fist or stick pumped this way while dancing by all the men to be greeted is the custom in Sudan for important gatherings.) The group would then dance by “in review.” They dressed colorfully – some all white, some green or red – and usually had percussion sections. The schools reminded me very much of the traditional samba schools of Brazil. And the chanting often reminded me of blues music. Indeed, both the samba schools, the blues and Sufi schools share a common African culture. The Sudanese Sufi’s are Islamic by faith but African by impulse. The Sudanese in prayer can barely refrain from dancing and some don’t even try. I saw little children – it was a family get together although the women sat on the side and did not take part in the ceremonies – breaking into a spontaneous dance that clearly served as precursor to the grownup version called worship. Once the schools danced through, they went over to the side where some really got into the spirit of things through chanting and dancing to their own music.

The evening was warm but not oppressive and the people were very friendly. Ghazi was dressed in his trademark white pants with blue suit-jacket. His hair slanted upwards as usual and I often saw him dancing with his stick in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Two teenage girls (his daughters?) wore jeans and no head-coverings and seemed to serve as his messengers, running here and there. At the end of the ceremony, a small group of people gathered around me to talk. One was a retired general who had trained in the U.S. in the 70s. Another was an opposition politician. Ghazi explained to me that what I had seen that evening was Sudan’s “civil society”, a people united by a shared faith that was their own, varied and apolitical. He also explained that he had dressed in his suit to make a point to the government that a secularist could be a sheik. The small group I was with all agreed that the radicals who mixed religion with politics have to go because they are “alien” to Sudan. On Sophist Night, I could feel what they mean.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Journal Entry for February 26, 2004: Trying to Catch Up with USAID

Started the day running a bit late because I actually slept until my alarm. Checked the email, used my exercise bike and took a shower, leaving a bare 15 minutes for breakfast. At ten, I met the leaders of the new SPLM office in Khartoum. They were clandestine but now the youth and women’s section had become open. I made them feel welcome (and reported same). Bright, committed and focused. It was a pleasure to meet them. For lunch, I went to [my military attaché's] house to meet a couple of Sudanese generals and the local military attaches. Spent some time talking with the PLO attaché. He was polite and likable. I am glad I don’t defend US policy on Palestine for a living. Spoke to Pasquale a couple of times by phone to do him a favor – get extra pages into his passport – and about leaving for the Nile on Sunday. Did some office work and eventually wound up at the British ambassador’s place to hear from him – he was just back from Kenya – what USAID policy on Darfur is. What I mean by that, is that USAID – one part of the USG – is not telling the State Department – another part of the USG – what it is doing about meeting Darfur rebels but is talking to Her Majesty’s Government. After leaving, and on the way to the Japanese Ambassador’s for dinner, I managed to call Nairobi via Washington and transmit the intelligence on USAID to my State Department boss soon to arrive in Kenya. (He had earlier called me from Amsterdam to see what I knew.) Dinner was quite excellent Japanese food including sushi and tempura. The Ambassador had actually brought a Japanese chef with him, the only one to apply for the job. Also at dinner were the Libyan, quite jovial, and his wife, a UN person from Yemen and the Greek Ambassador. The Greek looks dour all the time but is simply Greek – cynical about everything but also with a happy appreciation of the absurd. The Yemeni had a simply endless list of problems that would make the peace process in Sudan “much more difficult than everyone believes.” Another day in the life.