A Letter From the Sudan
By Karen Petersen
My dear friend,
There has barely been time enough since our last meeting in Khartoum to relate to you all the strange events that have taken place. Since your departure, the city has undergone a considerable change. As you must have heard by now, the President has fled to Cairo, and our new President is attempting to guide this crazy country between a rock and a hard place.
The Sharia laws are still in effect, although the city itself has considerably relaxed. It is much easier now to get my beloved Ethiopian brandy-I no longer have to sneak over to my ex-wife's house (remember, the one whose teeth you admired? Like little gold jewels, you said that night) to beg her for a spare bottle or two. Of course, there are also rivers of gin flowing, but I refuse to touch the stuff-at 100 pounds a bottle I'd rather be drinking benzene! You will also be pleased to know that unmarried men and women, although not yet completely at ease with one another publicly, can be seen going about together now without the kind of stigma that had been attached to that innocent act of companionship during your last stay here. And do you remember my flourishing underground beer business? Well, that went bust when the floodgates for its importation opened wide. Everybody, even merchants of textiles and taxi drivers, started to import the stuff, and now the market is flooded with over a hundred types!
However, some things never change, mish kida? We still don't have a new phone book. I hang on to my old one more out of habit than necessity, I think. After all, how many numbers will still be in existence from a decade ago?!! How anyone can call anyone else in this infernal place is beyond me-that is, when the phones actually do work. Just yesterday, I had to pay one of the donkey boys 10 pounds again to shimmy up the phone pole I share with my neighbor-that robber baron El-Safi-to check and see if his line was good. Sure enough it was, so I had the boy switch them. Let El-Safi be the one waiting for Khartoum Electric to show up, eh? It'll be a cold day in hell when they do, ha-ha! I guess I'll be paying the boy 2 pounds a night to guard the pole from now on.
Of the servants you knew during your stay here, I think only old Solomon, the gardener, is left. The two Dinkas went south again, and Almaz left the day she received the working papers that I had arranged for her in advance. Never again! I have a new driver though-Mekonen, a 22 year old Ethiopian from Gondar that I picked up in Gedaref. He walked for 9 days on foot to get to Sudan, can you imagine? The poor fellow had only 2.50 pounds stuffed into a sock when I found him, but he is a good worker and an intelligent man.
But as has happened so often in my life, dear friend, my real problems begin and end with women. Ya'allah, one would think I would have understood them by now, but each new one, whether wife or servant, just adds another twist to the Gordian knot already around my neck. Take for example the two new house girls that recently came into my employ...
The incident took place on the morning of Thursday, the 16th of April (an unforgettable date), and by that time Miriam had been in my service for 21 days and young Salome for 8. I had hired Miriam to do the housecleaning and whatever else my wife required during the day; Salome was to mind our children and had a small room in our home for herself and her small son. Since she had not mentioned a husband we’d assumed he was no longer alive.
On the evening of Wednesday the 15th, I left the house at 7:45 p.m. together with my driver, Mekonen. We left behind only Salome with our two young boys, as my wife and Miriam had gone off to the market. We drove to the Araak Hotel to deliver my Land Rover to a group of Germans who had hired it out for ten days. While I was with them, at about 9:30 p.m., I received a phone call from my wife who had returned from the market requesting me to come home immediately.
No reason whatsoever was given but I insisted on knowing what was so urgent. She informed me that Salome's husband had suddenly appeared at the house and drawn a gun on her demanding she leave with him (there had also been some sort of letter from him involved, but Salome did not reveal this until much later). Upon hearing this I excused myself, took a taxi from the Araak, and went immediately to the Police Station, where I explained the story to an officer, who took with him two other policemen, fully armed, straightaway to my house. Upon arrival, we searched the streets around the house but found no one-the man in question was already long gone.
The officer, upon entering the house and not finding anybody, rebuked and blamed me so much that he said I must not make any further complaints of this sort unless I am 100 percent sure and, indeed, see the weapon myself. I apologized and asked for the officer's name and telephone number, just in case the husband returned.
I questioned Salome, who related the story of the gun but not the tell-tale letter. As all Salomes are clever and full of intrigue, she revealed that she had managed to persuade her husband to come to the house again tomorrow, at which time she had said she would leave with him. Poor man, he believed her.
As he had no reason to shoot her then and there, apparently he left my house and paused at the main entrance door to tear up this fateful letter and scatter it on the street. Salome had been the only person in the house at the time, and she took great pains to collect each and every piece of his letter, which was later to prove to be a very important document. I must say that she was extremely lucky to find the shreds of that letter intact, because there had been no wind to disturb it from its place that night.
At 7:00 a.m. that fateful next morning, Salome's husband rang the bell. Mekonen, my driver, opened the door for him and gave him a chair to sit on in the middle of our grass lawn. At 7:30 a.m., I was awakened by Mekonen to go out and meet him, a thing which I did reluctantly. Knowing that he could be armed, I did not want to provoke him in any way or even ask him to remain outside the house, as this might imply to him that I had some intimate connection with his dear wife. So I gently greeted him and found him to be an intelligent and educated Eritrean who spoke excellent Arabic. I really found him to be a charming person who talked so quietly at times I had to strain to hear him. He related to me many things about his personal life in Kosti and how he found his latest job, at the Kenana Sugar Factory, which was giving him a small monthly income of 650 pounds.
I then ordered my morning coffee, and as we shared it together he came to the point of explaining his problems with his wife. I bluntly told him that, under the circumstances, no other person had the right to interfere in such private and personal affairs. The more people interfered, for or against, the more complicated the problem would become, and in the end both of them would be so confused that neither would know what decision to take. He agreed wholeheartedly with what I said, and went further to state that he was very happy that his wife had found a job in the home of a man old enough to be her father (she was only 20), and that he was very glad and honored to have met a person of my caliber. In fact, he said, he did not resent her working for me, and he felt comfortable enough to consider me his friend. For a moment I felt flattered, but later events revealed the bastard-Ibrahim was his name-had other ideas in his mind.
One hour later, after we had several coffees together and Salome had entered the room and joined our conversation, Ibrahim became convinced that she and their child had left him for good and would not return, no matter how much money or gifts he might offer her. He excused himself to leave, as he said he had other things to attend to. I made sure to follow him to the gate, and in the street where we were having our final departing words my two young children came scampering out and calling after me, with their nanny quickly running behind to catch them. Upon seeing Salome so near to him again, he turned and asked if he could have some last words with her. I shrugged in reply. What did it have to do with me?
But their conversation became so lengthy that I finally requested that we please return into the sitting room to talk and not air the matter at the front door. It became another long talk inside. I behaved absolutely neutrally, and in spite of his many appeals and begs she seemed resolved not to comply with his request. He finally walked out, saying curtly that he would return shortly with a parting gift for their young child.
About half an hour later he came back, and we sat together with Mekonen and old Solomon on the veranda, keeping away from the day's heat. As we listened to the rise and fall of the insect chorus around us, Ibrahim began to tell us the story of a film which he'd recently seen in Kosti about Adam and Eve. They had been punished by God and thrown out of heaven for disobeying His Will. The importance of this story never came into my mind then, as I found the atmosphere to be very friendly after he had returned. It appeared to all that he had finally given up his violent notion.
The time was then about 11:15 a.m., and as I was feeling very hungry I asked Miriam and Salome to prepare something to eat. I thought to entertain Ibrahim as a welcome guest and even asked him to drop in at any time when he was again in Khartoum-I felt that comfortable with him. Up until then his situation with his wife had just seemed to me to be a bad misunderstanding. They were both so young, and I knew that these things could happen, especially when one’s spouse was living far away.
Fifteen minutes later the table was set, and all of us took our seats at random, but, as it happened, Ibrahim's position came to be all alone on one side of the long table. We had hardly been at the table for 10 minutes-and were talking generally, everything appearing fine-when Ibrahim put his hand into his pocket and took out 1,000 pounds. This he gave to Solomon, being the nearest to him, saying, "Give it to her parents to raise our child with."
This phrase struck me as odd, even though I did not give it any real importance at the time, because no one really knew what his intentions were. He continued on by saying he would be taking only 10 pounds back for his return journey to his place of work at Kosti. And in fact, as we watched, he took the 10 pound note, put it in his pocket, and at that crucial moment his hand came out with a revolver-which he straightaway aimed at his wife!
Certainly there was panic and fear in all of us, but I acted perfectly calmly and did not lose my head under the circumstances. I started to calm him down-or at least tried to-and to convince him not to commit such a foolish act. However, it was all in vain. We were still seated, the gun was levelled at his wife, and as he was intent on killing her, he pulled the trigger.
There was a click, but no bullet came out. We all froze, not knowing what this tormented man would do next.
I began to talk to him, as I was absolutely sure he had nothing against me, when there was a commotion and begging from his wife's side, and she suddenly took cover behind me. He had walked around the table to get a nearer and better view of her, and in that situation, with me being so close to him, about two feet away only, I was completely covered by his gun. With all confidence I walked toward him, to try to persuade him to stop such nonsense when he finally warned me: "Get out of the way, or be shot!"
I forgot all his warnings, and at that particular moment there was no time to think of fear or anything else. It was just a bad situation that had to be faced.
All this time his wife was still behind me, and the others were paralysed, not knowing what to do. As he came closer, he raised his hand, trying to shoot her over my shoulder. But I took a chance and grabbed both his hands, lifting high the one with the gun.
Things then happened so fast. Salome, upon seeing this, dove down low on the floor, just behind my legs. Ibrahim kept trying to point the gun at a very sharp angle to get at her, and at that moment, when the gun was actually touching my right shoulder, he pulled the trigger again in his excitement. A loud explosion followed, next to my deaf ear. (If it had been on the other side, I'd probably be totally deaf by now!) All hell broke loose, and the women started screaming and yelling for mercy and help. I turned round, looked at the gun, and saw blood trickling down my shoulder, even though I did not feel any pain.
I never looked behind me, but I instinctively realised that the girls must now run for their lives out of the house. I kept my firm grip on his hands and was still trying to dissuade him. I realised the best thing was to buy time for the girls-they had to be as far away from him as possible and hide themselves anywhere, if they could.
I kept my grip until I heard the street door opening, and a few seconds later it closed with a bang, and there! I realised they were out of the house. I hoped they would react intelligently and hide well.
About 30 seconds of struggle later I released him, and he ran straight to the door. Now, I asked myself, if he had anything against me, he had all the chance in the world then to shoot, but nothing of that sort happened. During this time, Mekonen was in my bedroom, and hearing the door open came running out with my old revolver and double-barreled shotgun fully loaded. I gently told him there was no need for all of this, because if I really wanted to get him, one shot only would be enough and down he'd go. I took the guns from him anyway and ran to the fence wall, which was very low, and saw Ibrahim running off in the direction the girls had gone. I could have easily gotten him there and then, and although I had now the full legal right to blow his head off in self defence, I thought otherwise. I preferred to be a victim rather than a full partner in the whole affair. And let's not forget the very important fact that if I had nailed him that would have been my last day of stay in Sudan, as I would have turned the whole Eritrean tribe against me, especially his parents and friends.
So instead, I turned around and walked into the house, unloaded the guns, and gave them back to Mekonen with instructions to return them to their place. It was evident that the police would be coming later, and I did not wish to have any signs from my side that I had been trying to use force of any sort against Ibrahim (as might come into the heads of our clever policemen).
I began to dial the police on the phone, all the time crossing my fingers that things out there in the street would come to a good end. It was only a matter of 15 or 20 seconds that I had been on the phone, just during this short interval only, that the whole affair came to a tragic end.
The man eventually caught up with his wife, and from a distance of 5 or 6 feet he fired at her, but missed. She was very close to the only house which had an open door, and she had been trying to enter. She entered the house and slammed the door. Abraham then turned round and saw the other girl, Miriam, and thinking that she was in league with Salome and coming to her aid, fired at her from a short distance. Fortunately, the bullet just scratched her on the surface, but the girl, full of fear and panic, collapsed on the ground from shock when she saw the blood coming out of her.
This is now only my assumption-most probably, I think, it's the truth-that the man, upon seeing the girl Miriam on the ground thought she was fatally wounded. He must have turned around to the direction of my house, and not seeing me running behind him with a gun to take my revenge, he most probably thought I was fatally wounded also. So he put his gun right under his ribs, and aiming upwards to get at his tortured heart, he fired out a final shot.
From not too far away and scared to death, Mekonen saw all this while I was on the phone. I had failed to get the police, the lines having been switched again by my blasted neighbour. So I left the house and peered over the wall and saw the man fully stretched out on the ground nearby. I sighed a big sigh and knew what had happened. I think most surely that he took his own life, presuming that he had killed two persons. Although he failed to get at his wife, who came out completely unscathed and who had been his prime target, he thought now the police would be after him for sure, and he'd be hanged. So he preferred to save them the trouble, and did it himself.
It was about 12 noon when the whole affair was finally over, so I locked the house, and together with Mekonen, went to the police station where I gave a quick report of the incident. The station became almost empty in no time, as all the officers hurried to the place where the dead man lay. I was asked to wait for them until their return. It was not before 2:00 p.m. when they came back, and then I was asked to accompany them to my house where the whole thing had started.
There were no less than 500 people in the open space right in front of the house where the man was lying dead, and dozens of cars of onlookers. You would have thought the President himself had been shot, there were so many people.
I opened the house and in came the officers, who were joined by the local reporter and press photographer. I related exactly the whole story and showed them step by step how we had moved from one place to another. At each point, a policeman sat in Ibrahim's place and photos were taken. However, I want to assure you there was no case whatsoever, and the topic was closed immediately there and then, on the very same day we gave our reports, simply because the culprit himself was dead.
As for the letter of Salome's, I told you earlier that the letter she had was very significant in confirming this chain of events.
Three days later, after she had regained some control of herself from the trauma, Salome brought out the letter to me and it was in a hundred pieces. She was exceedingly curious as to its contents, but confided that she suspected she knew what it contained. It was a very difficult puzzle game, and it took me more than five diligent hours to put it together.
Because it was written on both sides of paper, I had to tape each one onto a sheet of clear glass, piece by piece. This was fortunate indeed, because it turned out that one side was more important than the other. Ibrahim wrote that he had discovered Salome's love affair with a wealthy Syrian businessman. Dishonoured, he had come to kill her for her adultery. Knowing this to be the case, and that the law supported her husband, she’d hidden the letter from all of us. She had hoped that the incident could be worked out smoothly, and her husband's lingering love would enable her to deceive him, giving her a chance to escape. In the last line of his letter he had said, "When I come to Khartoum, if you don't repent and come back with me, I will kill you and then kill myself, God Willing." Of course, this became a wish he partly accomplished, killing nobody in the end except himself.
As for Salome, clever girl that she was, she remained in my employ for two more months, at which point she left to join the wealthy Syrian whom she had met in Kosti many months earlier and who had just then returned to Khartoum. They had been corresponding during his absence, and she had expected his arrival. Poor Ibrahim, I think he's better off dead.
Well, enough of this story! Today is another mail day, and I did not want to let it go by without sending off this correspondence which I had started a long time ago. Due to many interruptions-especially failure of electricity, personal matters and other reasons (my neighbour is switching the phone lines again)-I was writing it in bits and pieces. At any rate, I will close now by wishing you very good times, together with your brother and family in the coming New Year, and I hope to see you back in Khartoum again soon.
Your faithful friend, Soubhi.