Poetry along the Nile

Khartoum by nightfall, along the Nile
Khartoum by nightfall, along the Nile

Against all odds on the last night of my stay in Sudan, I was sitting along the banks of the river Nile discussing poetry with a kind man who calls himself Mao (not to be associated with the Chinese namesake in anyway, but it is much easier to remember then most names here in Sudan). Mao and I first had company also from Ibra, but about an hour earlier when making a sharp turn in front of the Grand Holiday Hotel along the same bank of the Nile, his gearbox gave out and his car decided to stop there and then. Ibra had no choice, but to wait for help and Mao and I continued our way via taxi. The idea had been to make a small boat tour on the Nile, but both traffic and the breaking down of the car had taken too much time to arrive before the sunset, and with little chance of views left, Khartoum is not as well-lit as let’s say Paris – we abandoned our plan.

Our next best option was to go for a juice and a snack a bit further down the embankment. Instead of sitting down on the terraces with rows and rows of neatly arranged plastic chairs, we sat down on some traditional chisel woven seats and ordered a fresh juice and plunged into a conversation on poetry. It does not take more than a second to convince another poet that this is an excellent topic to converse on.

A little then a week before I had not imagined that this would happen. I started with a rather unlucky streak of travel to and fro to Tunisia. It is probably one of the closest country offices I can travel to, but it took me the longest time. On my way there, the plane was already delayed in Amsterdam, and arriving late in Rome for a transfer, meant we had missed our connection to Tunis and were transported off to one of the airport hotels to wait for the flight the next morning. The only advantage was that I met three employees of the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who gave me an excellent update on recent developments in their country.

Arriving in Tunis next day also did not go too smoothly as my luggage did not arrive and did not so for the next four days. Fortunately I always keep a set of spare clothes in my hand luggage and my colleagues supplied me with fresh socks. My work went well, and I gathered further bits and pieces on how the Maghreb region is fairing since the Arab Spring. Tunisia is probably one of the best examples. While its close neighbour Libya has descended into civil war with refugees flooding the border regions and its further removed neighbour Egypt has returned to new forms of military dictatorship and severe repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia has just finished peaceful elections and has managed to (partly) curtail Islamists’ frustration by including them in the parliamentary and presidential elections.

On the fifth day I left the office with my luggage, but had another night’s delay due to a storm in Rome and luggage that arrived one plane later than I did. The fortunate part was that I hardly needed to repack as all my clothes were still clean and the next day I was leaving for Sudan or so I thought.

The mission to Sudan had been almost from the onset a mission impossible. Sudan’s visa procedures are far from transparent, but that is probably symptomatic of its government, not of the procedure itself. The only thing you do, is be patient and hope for the best. Most of my colleagues have had their visas refused in the past year. So when I finally got a visa, everyone was extremely happy.

Unfortunately the Turkish Airline stewardess was unforgiving, when she discovered a mistake made by the Embassy in the visa expiry date. It was set for January 2014 instead of 2015. I could not believe what was happening, my argument that the Embassy would not give me a visa backwards as that would make no sense, made no impression and I was not even allowed to check-in. It was

Saturday and I had to wait for Monday to go back to the Embassy to fix the mistake. The Embassy apologised, really they did and I got to sleep a little more, which probably was not the worst of ideas, but in the meantime participants that had already traveled to Khartoum were waiting for my arrival, which eventually I did 5 days late on Wednesday.

Was all the travelling stress worth it? Of course, the group to work with was excellent. Sudanese turn out to be extremely hospitable. They even took me to a Sufi ceremony, shared great food and I got to discuss poetry along the banks of the Nile. Is there anything more a traveler, trainer and poet can ask for?

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