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It doesn't have the best reputation, so why is John Simpson planning to rush back to Khartoum?
They advise you not to go to Khartoum unless you have to, and they are probably right. Yet it’s got a real attraction, and I for one am already planning to go there again soon. Maybe it’s the elegant colonial buildings along the Nile. Maybe it’s the long robes the men wear, and the vibrant colours of the women’s clothes. Maybe it’s something in the crisp desert air.
There are all sorts of annoyances, of course. One morning, the three of us – Nick the cameraman, Oggy the producer, and I – wandered across to the pleasant little riverside park that overlooks the spot where the Blue Nile converges with the White Nile. The result isn’t quite as grand as you might expect. The two rivers merge calmly rather than clash. All you get is a continuous line of rippling water where they join, and an interesting variety of soil colours.
We were doing the tourist stuff, taking pictures of each other and of the river, when a man selling cold drinks nearby started yelling that we were spies. The old-style Soviet influence that turned everyone into a busybody for the state is still around.
Our government minder, a pleasant old chap whom I’ll call Dr Ali, calmed him down and showed him documents that said we were allowed to do everything we wanted. Including taking happy-snaps at places of interest. The self-appointed guardian of security headed off, muttering to himself.
Sudan isn’t exactly geared up for tourists, then. The hotels are pretty basic, though we stayed at a very pleasant one run by a Greek family: the Acropole. The owner, a charming man in his early 60s, has put his main effort into providing high-quality internet connections and good back-up for travelling and working in Sudan. The rooms may be two star, but the services are better than in plenty of grand hotels I’ve stayed at around the world.
The place is full of people of a certain age, working for international aid agencies. The hotel atmosphere, as a result, reminded me of a Cambridge college, with people sprawled around reading reports and working on their computers, and the conversation (when they finally looked up and registered your presence) was good.
As for Dr Ali, he was a bit of a mystery. He would talk of his 30 years as a taxi driver, and then claim to have taught Hamlet to generations of students. At other times he would describe his life as a lawyer, fighting for people’s human rights. Perhaps, of course, there was no mystery about it, and he was just a taxi driver with an imagination. Yet he drove remarkably badly, and had an appallingly broken-down car.
Oggy and Nick found him annoying; I rather liked him. I particularly enjoyed it when he started on about General Gordon. At the time we were driving past the presidential palace where Gordon was killed in 1885, revolver and sword in hand, resisting an angry crowd that came rushing up the grand staircase.
He had been sent to Khartoum the previous year to superintend the evacuation of the Egyptian forces there. They were under increasing threat from Sudanese rebels led by Muhammed Ahmad al-Mahdi – ‘the mad Mahdi’, the British called him, though he seems to have been perfectly level- headed. His followers attacked the palace, and murdered Gordon despite the Mahdi’s specific orders to capture him alive.
Dr Ali approved of the Mahdi, but he approved of General Gordon even more. ‘He was loving Sudanese people,’ he said, waving his arms about. ‘He set up the first university in all of Africa, here in Khartoum. And he arranged education of women. And he created the best water supply. And…’
But my mind wandered to the thought of Gordon fighting the mob at the top of the stairs, and eventually falling at their feet, wounded a hundred times. To me he had always been just another colonial figure with a bushy moustache and solar topee. Now with Dr Ali’s voice in my ear, he was becoming much more attractive. ‘…And he burnt the account books so that prisoners’ debts were cancelled, and then he closed down the debtors’ prison.’
The following morning Dr Ali announced that he was taking us out to breakfast. We left the centre of town, and headed for Omdurman, where, 15 years after Gordon’s death, the culminating battle was fought and the British (whose troops included the young Winston Churchill) had their revenge. On the river bank, we wandered round the earthen fortifications, which the Mahdi’s followers had built in an attempt to keep the British out. Then we headed for an ancient village on the edge of the Omdurman plain, now almost swallowed up in the general Khartoum sprawl across the desert floor.
We drove along the sandy pathways between the buildings until we came to a place that looked from the outside like a garage. It proved to be a little restaurant with half a dozen rickety plastic tables. The old man and his son who ran the place treated us as though we were General Gordon himself on a visit. For a moment the big-shot politicians at another table were ignored.
‘Now,’ said Dr Ali, ‘you will see Nile fish’. And ten minutes later, four freshly caught and freshly cooked Nile fish, long and white-fleshed and delicately battered, were set in front of us on sheets of local newspaper. No knives and forks, just fingers. It was as good as anything I have ever eaten, anywhere.
Khartoum is welcoming, fascinating, complex. And the fish was close to perfection. Even wrapped in newspaper.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on the BBC World news channel. BBC World is available in 200 countries and territories worldwide and on selected BA flights.