Atchafalaya Swamp

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SSS: Sudan Sandstorm Sonata Season I (Reruns)

I WROTE THIS PIECE on my first trip to Sudan, and was first published in the In Boxes of various friends. A couple of years ago and in a manner unfit to stand trial - if I was in a court of law that is - I agreed like a lamb to the slaughter to work the oilfields of southwestern Sudan. That area, is of course, deep in Christian rebel territory - The War Zone.

Why I need to catalogue my experiences I’ll never know. After all, I’m not a journalist. I’m more at home pushing tongs, making or breaking out a pipe connection, or barking orders to drillers whose entire English vocabulary consists of only two words: “up” or “down”. But that’s being generous, because I was also making wild hand gestures while shouting myself hoarse.

It was mostly written on a PDA, a first for me. Normally I don’t write at all. Back in Malaysia, I had long been jealous of white collar types with this gadget in their pockets, looking important, and going somewhere. So I bought one of the early 02 models; the “xda mini” not only because it has a “quad band” – whatever that means - but it has a pocket version of Word as well. It took some mean pictures too (I mean in the nasty sense, washed out and out-of-focus). It felt like I was going somewhere too. But not looking important enough, so nobody noticed. And so did the rest of the civilized world.

Khartoum, sometime early this Millenium

What goes through your mind whenever Sudan is mentioned?

The images I presume you must conjure is a plethora of inhumane suffering; civil strife, genocide, and of course malnourished toddlers with distended bellies, huge saucer-like eyes and flies around their runny noses. And you’d be mostly right. According to a U.N. report, by end the end of the first five years in the new millennium, TWO million (that's two followed by six zeroes) of its subjects in the western frontier will die of hunger. Those two million have probably gone to heaven as I write because that prediction was done years ago. Now, the UN is also being chased out, and reliable news from Darfur is as likely as me marrying Siti Nurhaliza. So we will never be able to confirm this.

Not many know this “pariah nation” is the largest country in the continent of Africa. It has 26 states, of which Darfur in the west is the largest. Darfur alone is about the size of France. If you believe Darwin, then you must also believe it is The Cradle of Civilization, long before the existence of Sphinxes' and Pharaoh’s up north. Its population is about the size of Malaysia’s, but fear not, there is no population boom here, only the reverse is true. By the next decade or two the negative population growth would make it about the size of Singapore. But that’s a poor analogy. Sudan is famous for being the poorest country on earth, and Singapore the richest. The Singapore premier’s salary is at least twice of that neo-con in the White House. Singapore is to Bukit Tunku / Damansara / Taman Tun conurbation what Malaysia is to Kampong Jawa, Klang.

Iraq is the other hot topic in the news.

Who can forget the face of two-year-old Muhammad Hassan of the Turkoman tribe in Mosul, just 2 years old and not yet weaned from his mother's breasts? He was in that celebrated Getty images photograph seen whimpering by the wall, clothes splattered in his parents' blood just after a US patrol gunned down his parents in the front seat of the family's Opel. Of course it made orphans of his six other siblings too. Widespread uproar! Condemnation everywhere! These outbursts of protests did not come from ordinary Iraqi’s, mind you, but from ordinary US citizens in the Pacific Northwest. Some soul in Oregon (a charitable Christian American, if there ever is such a thing) has even founded an organization and website to aid the Hassan survivors.

The last paragraph is called a digression of which I’ve been known to embark upon. Well, sometimes, only if the urge gets the better of me.

When my plane made its final approach to land in Khartoum International, I viewed with trepidation at the tarmac littered with UN planes. It looked like I had just landed at a "UN Airport", instead of some country’s international airport we are accustomed to. No Lufthansa’s, British Airways’, Air France’, or Malaysian Airlines’ planes on the apron. You can forget Singapore Airlines. Just big bellied behemoths double-parked everywhere with a fine tinge of red dust over its once-white bodies; the sides of the fuselage emblazoned with huge blocky UN logos that no self-respecting hand-shouldered RPG’s could miss.

The immigration check-in lanes at Khartoum airport, to put it mildly, is a joke. And so is the customs. There are no queues, only jostling and waving and name throwing. I’ll have you know, I’m a V.I.P., and therefore I’m “above” the hoi polloi. I learned this many years ago when I became a favored guest of despotic nations. Back in ’98, I had my work visa to Burma (Myanmar) approved in a record time of two hours at their embassy in Bangkok. I didn’t even have to appear in person. Which is great, so can I put the time to good use, like being face down on a mattress with my face looking through a hole at the floor, while a sinewy lithesome expert expertly walked over my back. The agent only had to show my nice 2 x 2 photos and a letter from the large multinational I worked for, presenting my credentials as a “hole digger”. At around the same time, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the U.N. Special Representative to Myanmar, with a cover letter from UN supremo Kofi Annan no less, had his visa denied. So I must be a V.I.P.

When I mean V.I.P, I mean in the sense that not only am I rarely hassled at these ports of entry, but just the opposite - I am welcomed with arms wide open, often waved through a special lane. They want my filthy, uncouth oilfield-thrashy hands to grope their women, spend my dollars in their seedy bars, but most of all, they want me to remain sober enough to help them dig some black liquid gold. This would ensure that their leaders will be kept in power forever.

Yes Sir, we are prepared to look the other way, just drill these wells for us please. Oh, while you're in town, please free to have a good time.

I am perhaps doing a patriotic duty to these nations. Furthermore, even my luggage hardly gets checked.

“Sir, what this – three cartons of Dunhill’s and five cartons of Marlboro’s?” asked the Sudanese customs agent in flip-flops with trace of mirth, his teeth shining against a skin so black that it was almost blue, the flip-flops belied his heavily sing-song but otherwise excellent English. 200 sticks is the usual limit, but some countries let you through with 400. But 1600 sticks? I knew I would be alright, smug in my "V.I.P." look, if you can imagine what V.I.P.'s wearing stupid knock-off Man-U T-shirts and Teva sandals looked like. I took two packs out as a gesture of International Goodwill, and the agent helped me zipped my bag up. Khalas. The only thing I didn’t attempt was to smuggle in whiskey. That would be too much, Sudan being a Syaria state. I have no desire to flogged, especially since my name is a dead give-away. The whiskey, I would later learn, was easily available on the streets anyway. Later I would find whiskeys to be an essential currency that would help me get out of a jam in the rebel-controlled South.

I later chatted with Leonardo, my house guard for the night. In wholly-Moslem Khartoum, Leonardo is an anomaly because he is a Christian from the Christian South (read: rebel south). The strongly built security guard, fifty-ish and sporting scarred ivory muscled skin had fled the South some twenty years ago. Only half of his family is with him while other half are languishing in refugee camps over the western Sudanese border in the Central African Republic. He was waiting for a time to go “home”, if you can imagine what home to poor Leonardo is. Probably pock-marked patches of bombed-out red clay hovels patched with dung.

I asked Leonardo how far he had to walk through the bush to Khartoum. Over 2000 km was his nonplussed reply. A man used to so much suffering, dragging his family through thousands of kilometers of desert. I could see that he is upbeat at the prospect of returning.

Peace had just been restored, which is a tenuous thing. What is means is the rebels have agreed to (temporarily) lay down arms while the treaty is being discussed. The treaty is really about how to split the oil revenues in a fair, equitable manner. And also to discuss the future role of Janjaweeds; militiamen on horsebacks aligned to the Moslem North to not take way the Christian men, Dinka mostly, while raping and pillaging the villages wholesale. Nor let attack helicopters carpet bomb the villages either, after the raping and pillaging is done of course. I believe they call this genocide, which is distasteful term, so it’s definitely more pleasant to discuss Production Sharing Contracts. Not to mention more rewarding. Future profits from PSC’s would not be channeled to Education or Trade, but merely to buy more arms to kill each other. But for the moment that would have to wait. Let's get that Black Liquid Gold out of the ground first.

I awoke early. My newly acquired triple sensor-ed Protek Casio glowed 5:00 am in the dark. Quite late by Malaysian standards actually since it’s already ten in the morning in Malaysia. The Protek is my most exciting recent purchase: It has an analog hand that you can set independently of the digital. Which means you can run two time zones at a glance without having to press any buttons. Useful to fantasize what people are doing in Malaysia I suppose. It also has a digital compass, which I use for work and a barometer to detect impending inclement weather. Although Khartoum looks hot and arid, I’ve been told that where I’m going to in the South, some 1200 km away, is subject to torrential rains. Also, it has a digital temperature and what else? It is solar powered so it never needs any change in batteries.

Today I met the client. The client is Petronas, of course. The drilling superintendent, known for his nom de guerre “old man”, is a crony of mine from Terengganu. Same people, just the environment differs, and no Mamak teh tarik stalls around the corner. We make our own teh tarik at the corner table where incidentally, our Drilling and Other Plans are hatched. Our worlds are smaller then small (hence the need to hatch Other Plans), and no six-degree-of separation theory need apply. We sometimes even grope the same women, at the same bars on our stopovers in Dubai (there’s no direct flights to Khartoum from Malaysia or Singapore). What entices us to come here in this wonderland you might ask? If I knew the answer to that, then I would have the answers to all Questions That Plague Mankind Today.

I was stumped when a fellow employee from Egypt who share the fortified villa with me asked, “So, you must have fucked-up really badly for the company to send you here, eh?” It was said in jest, but somehow I couldn’t help feeling that it might be true. Did I fuck up? I probably did, because just as we left for the office a sandstorm hit us. I looked up at the hazy skies thinking doubtfully if planes can land in this “weather”. Visibility was reduced to a few hundred feet. The driver, to my chagrin, responded that it’s quite normal for planes to be diverted back to their point-of-origin, Dubai whatever, whenever sandstorms occur. Great, nobody told me about this.

At the office I was forced to attend The Security Briefing, mandatory to all newcomers, given by the company's head of security worldwide no less, an affable but bearish Brit, presumably an ex-MI5 agent something or other. In a grave voice, more Irish than true Cockney, he assured me that the security measures in place were “the best”. "Best" compared to what? He claimed that the recommendations came from the world’s premier civilian anti-terrorist outfit CRD, a consultant group based in Madrid. Among other things, CRD teaches Russky bodyguards in certain automobile environments how best to evade kidnappers and save their Boss' hides with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a high-powered small caliber handgun, and cheap cigarrette dangling out the mouth. I believe CRD is staffed with Soldiers of Fortune types, sort of a retirement job for baby killers with CV's detailing experiences in Congo and Angola. I felt a warm glow all over, knowing my own sorry hide is being watched by expert "perps".

The gist was: No taking local taxis, no discussing politics, and no consumption of alcohol (even in the privacy of your home). Only three restaurants and one supermarket for groceries are on the OK list. Keep a low profile and never - he stressed the never part and pausing for effect - draw attention to yourself because you DON’T want to be kidnapped, and being Moslem is not an advantage here. Why, in the Christian South is surely no advantage at all, you dimmie! And please, armed escorts when traveling to worksites in remote areas, blaa, blaa, blaa. Oh, he added, there were no serious issues (yet) but in 2001 some employees had to be evacuated by the Sudanese Army at Thar Jaj, the place where I am scheduled to go to tonight. Great. Be on your toes, be wary, and never let your guard down. At the end of the lecture, with drool dripping the side of my mouth, I’m issued a “Thuraya” satellite phone, which I haven’t figured out to use yet, for emergencies.

And that’s just the security brief. The medical brief is the other. I’m handed a malaria testing kit and some drugs to take weekly as prevention. Nobody I know takes these drugs because it induces some sort of psychosis in some people and worse, potential kidney and liver damage. Psychosis is fine; one needs to be psychotic anyway to want to earn a living in a cesspit. So I dumped the pills in the backpack.

On a lighter note, while waiting outside the house for my driver to take me to the airport for my flight to Thar Jath, I was surprised to see about a dozen Melayus milling about the street a few houses up. You can spot a Melayu a mile away, because next to Arabs, Melayus are also fond of milling and lounging. A subsidiary of Petronas that does pipelines has its offices nearby, so they were either waiting to go in to work, or ask for a raise, or submit a resignation letter or all three. Pleasantries were exchanged, although none suspected me being a fellow Melayu (there were plenty of Indonesians in these parts as well) until I said in jest, “So, bila bas ke Felda Sendayan nak sampai ni?” This was met by awkward surprise that quickly turned to nervous laughter. The Dunhills were passed around. Trust Alfred D for being a fabulous ice-breaker.

Funny how when you meet Melayus in a faraway land, Melayus you’ve never met, Melayus you might never consider rubbing shoulders with, will talk the most inane things with you in an intimate way. It’s as if you’ve known each other all your life. And then wish you hadn’t.

Somewhere along the way I passed some earthen colored apartments called “Block F”, and lo and behold, I saw some twenty Melayu-looking lads playing football. These are students at the university. Where? I couldn’t find a building large enough to pass muster as a University. And yet I knew that prior to World War II, the British had dubbed the University of Khartoum the “Cambridge of the Arabs”. Its entrance requirements are notoriously tough: Only the top one percentile of Sudanese high school super-achievers can dream of gaining a seat. The rest can take up arms. I should go there sometime because some of the more enterprising Melayu lads had opened a canteen serving nasi lemak and nasi goreng. But I doubt they serve teh tarik, not the real kind anyway, because you just cannot find condensed milk in Sudan. There’s an embargo on sweetened condensed milk. Before you roll your eyes increduluosly - this is true - along with Dell Computers and all other Yankee-derived goods.

And where are all the nubile women that Sudan is famous for? Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” looped foolishly inside my puny brain:

I crawl like a viper
through these suburban streets
make love to these women
so languid and bitter sweet

Deacon Blues: from Aja (1977) ©W.Becker, D. Fagen, G.Katz, prod.

Well, I wasn’t exactly “crawling like a viper” but the term nubile had its origins in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan in central Sudan (in “nubilistic” terms, think David Bowie’s first-rate beauty of a wife, Iman, and you’re not far off). I couldn’t find any, let alone paw my grubby mitts on one, but what I saw along the dusty streets of Khartoum looked promising. And that is the tragedy of our modern times – the Imans had all gone overseas only to be discovered in shopping malls of suburban London. Actually Iman isn’t from Sudan, but is a native of Somalia - well, close enough. After some googling-but-not-ogling I am gratified to present you Sudanese-born supermodels like Sonja Wonda (whose nubile proportions grace London buses in alluring advertisements for Top Shop), Alex Wek, and Clara Aker Benjamin. There’s plenty more I reckon, only if we can stop these people from dying. Some Sudanese supermodels, believe me, were indeed discovered in refugee camps.

In the small twin propeller Beechcraft, on my 1200 kilometers trek to the darkest interiors of Africa, the less-than-majestic Nuba mountain range passed below me in a quilt of reds, browns and yellows. Well, they weren’t really mountains, just pointed hills. I looked out my window, and consoled myself that I might, just might – discover some nubile beauties if I looked hard enough.

Satisfied with tall, bare breasted nubile women trailing in my thoughts, I settled into a doze, aided and abetted by the rhythmic thuck thuck thuck of the Beechcraft's engines.

I would have a very rude awakening indeed. But that’s for another chapter.

*The author would like to assert that groping, is strictly, metamophorical. Does that make sense?
© 2007 Mat Salo Images. Photos that appear in this post date-stamped Dawn, Wednesday, May 23, 2007