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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sudan: Looking for Pyramids in War Zone; Short Updates on the UAE; Now in Iran

Sudan: Looking for Pyramids in War Zone; Short Updates on the UAE; Now in Iran
Sudan for holiday? Isn't this country plagued by civil war and coups since independence in 1956? For many years, Sudan seems to be synonymous with famine, war, genocide and slavery. In short, a failed state. First, it was the Christian south that wants to break away from the Islamic north. Then, just as the south signed a peace agreement with the north, the Darfur crisis broke out.
But Sudan, land of the blacks, as the name means in Arabic, is an ancient land with a history dating back for more than 4000 years. The ancient land of Nubia, once the southern frontier land of the ancient Egyptian civilization, is today part of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Nubia was an ethnic melting pot, where African tribes faded into Egypt. This was the land of the tropical trade, where merchants from deep African south supply elephants, giraffes, lions and other exotic goods to the pharaohs' courts.
Political and military control switched back and forth between the Egyptians and the native Nubians, whom by then had adapted Egyptian culture and added African elements of their own. The Kush-Nubian kings built pyramids and great temples where they worshipped Egyptian gods as well as their own, mummify their dead rulers and developed their own writing system which was evolved from Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Nubian kings even conquered and ruled Egypt in 1550 BC.
Later, after the Kushites, as the Nubians were then known as, were defeated by the Asyrians from what is today Iraq, they retreated south to Meroe, 300km north of Khartoum, where they built more pyramids and great temples. Here where they practised Egyptian religion and customs with a vengeance, they lasted much longer than the Egyptian civilization itself – in the meantime, Egypt itself was conquered by the Greeks of Alexander the Great and later, the Romans, and Greek and Roman gods replaced the ancient Egyptian ones. Even the Roman gods were eventually replaced by the monotheistic Christian faith (and later the Islamic religion). The Meroe kingdom survived with all its hybrid African-Egyptian culture, untill 350 AD where it was destroyed by invading Axumites from Ethiopia (see my earlier Northern Ethiopian travelogue).
Today, the ancient pyramids of Nubia and Meroe still stood, timelessly, in the bare wind-swept deserts of northern Sudan. Unfortunately, just like Ethiopian's ancient glorious past was overshadowed by the famines and wars of recent decades, hardly anyone outside Sudan have heard of its relatively obscure and once cosmopolitan civilization. The news elsewhere spoke of nothing but mayhem and crisis.
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I arrived in a Sudan hot in more ways than one. Firstly, this is the height of the Sudanese summer. I landed at 4:45am from Cairo and the temperature was 33'C. Day time temperature would rise to 53'C by mid-day.
Secondly, merely four days before, Khartoum, capital of Sudan, was attacked by rebels from the province of Darfur, where a bitter conflict had waged on during the last few years. Although the Sudan (Sudan is always correctly called "The Sudan"; its official name is The Republic of the Sudan.) had seen insurgency since 1956, Khartoum had never been attacked. Apart from a few coups, the city has always been an oasis of peace. It shocked everyone that the rebels could travel 700km from faraway Darfur without detection by the government troops and suddenly attacked the heart of the Sudanese state.
The rebels were crushed after two to three days of street fighting in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city in its western suburbs. I had heard about the fighting while in Libya, and had contemplating aborting the trip. But I cast the die to come here while in Cairo, when I heard that the fighting had ceased, flights had resumed to Khartoum and that the Sudanese embassy in Cairo could grant me a visa in the same day.
The Egyptair Boeing was completely full, mostly with Sudanese stranded abroad when Khartoum airport was closed for a few days during the rebel attack, and lightly sprinkled with a few European members of UN agencies and NGOs based in Khartoum. Yes, the UN and NGOs – I have seen so many of them across Africa's conflict zones past and present. Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda - just to name a few.
In Sudan, the UN presence is so big that it is the largest operator of domestic flights within the country. The breakout of conflicts and even for many years after the end of conflict, the UN and assorted NGOs would provide employment not only for a number of locals, but also a large number of very highly paid international civil servants, whose tax-free income would no doubt stimulate the economy through the appearance of expensive restaurants, night clubs, bars, supermarkets with flashy imported goods and luxuries of any kind imaginable. To the poor of these countries, however, would also lead to high inflation and the appearance of a sex industry.
I had an interesting chat with a Dutch NGO couple on the flight. They have spent the last two decades in various troubled spots in Africa – Congo, Rwanda, Chad, etc, plus Kurdistan. Now they work in Khartoum and South Sudan, the latter now ruled by former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The leader of SPLM is now also the President of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) and Vice President of all Sudan. A referendum would be held in 2010 to decide if oil-rich South Sudan should become independent. (Many predict that war might break out again at that time, as it seems almost certain that the South Sudanese, embittered by years of brutal rule from the north, would certainly vote for independence.) The Dutch said that if I wanted to go to South Sudan, I should have entered from Kenya or Uganda, as nobody needed any visa when entering from the south,, where they run their own immigration.
On the day the Dafur rebels attacked Omdurman, the Dutch had heard gun shots and saw some smoke rising from Omdurman. They simply walked to the airport – no taxis available because no one wanted to drive out given the trouble and conflicting news - and took the last, yet-to-be-cancelled Egyptair flight out to Cairo, where they went on a shopping spree while waiting for the fighting to cease.
Over the next few days, I would speak to the locals about the fighting. The friendly Sudanese would smile and said the fighting was no big deal (though foreign reports indicated a few hundred dead). In an understated way, they would say, "only a few were killed." Some of them did admitted that maybe it was serious after all, and the Sudanese were so used to conflicts that they simply stayed at home and waited for the battle to finish.
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Khartoum is a city of great contrasts. The airport was very modern and there were chic mobile ads everywhere. There was even free internet and WIFI at the airport. For a country with a longstanding civil conflict, immigration clearance was surprisingly fast and efficient. No questions asked. I changed money and found a booth belonging to Zain Celtel, the pan-African mobile operator. I added value to my Celtel Uganda mobile phone which works in a total of 12 African countries including Sudan.
Interestingly, most of the airport's workers were either Filipinos or Indians. This might be a bit surprising given Sudan's high unemployment, but I suppose these expat workers are also the reason why this airport is run so well, not to mention the WIFI, the presence of a never-stop cleaning crew and English speaking Filipino counter-staff everywhere. The Sudanese, with all my due respects, are a lot more relaxed with time; few of them could speak English; and even fewer had studied anything more than a stint in the village Quranic school where the main (and sometimes sole) goal was to enable the student to participate in rote-reading the Quran and participation in the annual district Quran recital competition.
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I checked into the very basic Hotel Al Nakhil right at the heart of Souk Arabiya. It has bed sheets that looked they hadn't been washed for 20 years; broken furniture with sharp uneven angles; exposed wire across the entire wall and one thick cable that ran across my room; and a squat toilet (no toilet paper provided) whose poorly angled flush was so strong that it spurted not only out of the toilet but into the room snaking across its uneven floor, like a flash flood gushing into a normally dry riverbed in a desert, then under the door into the corridor.
After I had caused the first major flood of the day shortly after checking in, the Nubian cleaning ladies knocked on my door to point out the resulting collateral damage, and then indicated by sign language that I should use the tap and hose instead of the flush. The naughty boy had to lower his eye brows and pretended nothing had occurred. Even then, over the next four days, something would slip my mind and three more deluges would occur. I was more worried about the electrical leakages of that strange cable on the floor and half expected to be the first Singaporean to be electrocuted in Sudan.
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My hotel lies in the middle of the city centre souk, Souk Arabiya – Arabian Market in English. Loud African rap mixed with classical Egyptian music. Strange mix. Not surprising, as Sudan, Land of the Blacks in the Arabic language, after all, is where the Arab World becomes African. In Sudan, you still have to bargain to buy things, but people are more reasonable than in Egypt. Many people have heard of Singapore and said that many of their products came from Singapore, although I hadn't seen any. Maybe many products did used to come from Singapore at one time, that is, before factories all moved to China.
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Khartoum was a very dusty and sandy city full of one or two storey buildings. But huge changes were taking place. The huge oil revenue that has come in the last 2 years, courtesy of sanction-busting Mainland Chinese, Indian and Malaysian oil companies meant a suddenly hugely enriched upper class and lots of cash floating around seeking all the good things of life. Whilst many roads remained unpaved, huge blocks in the centre are being torn down for redevelopment. Skyscrapers and shopping malls are being built in Khartoum and its suburbs, and huge billboards advertise developments with fanciful names reminding one of those in the Riviera, Dubai and Long Beach. Some went as far as to call Khartoum the new Dubai of the Nile.
With sanctions in place, Westerners are hardly in the scene, at least not openly except as employees of UN agencies or NGOs, and a few assorted mobile companies that I have met. Khartoum is the playground of the Chinese, Indians and Malaysians. I was to pass the huge refineries of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) outside Khartoum, together with several huge billboards proclaiming eternal Sino-Sudanese friendship in Chinese and Arabic languages; and every few hundred meters on Khartoum's streets, locals greeted me "Ni hao". The Chinese have also invested in at least one major Sudanese mineral water company. The labels contained Chinese words praising the water quality. Many petrol stations of Petronas, Malaysia's national oil company, were found across Khartoum and one of the two five star hotels in the city was the Malaysian-owned Holiday Villas Hotel which charged US$250 per night.
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I was very cautious during my first few hours in Khartoum. The normally trigger-happy Wee Cheng took few photos that day. According to Sudanese law, tourists have to register with the Police's Aliens Registration Office (ARO); those who want to take photos must get photography permits from the Ministry of Tourism; and those heading south of Khartoum needed travel permits from the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. I had arrived on a Friday and none of these offices were open.
But things were not right even as I walked around Khartoum's sandy streets. The streets were full of soldiers given the failed rebel attack over the last weekend. They were found at many street corners and junctions, often on armoured Toyota pickups with machine guns and anti-aircraft mounted as well. Some government offices even had sand bags and barb wire. That made it impossible for me to take photos of any large building or even public square in Khartoum. A photo of a national flag was always something I did wherever I went, but I have done Sudan without any photo of the Sudanese flag, for they were inevitably flown from public buildings heavily guarded by troops.
The moment I took out my camera, stern-looking plainclothes secret police would run over, shouting "no, no!" There were many secret policemen around. They tended to wear nicely ironed shirts, stood around street corners, observing the scene with rather stern looks that betrayed their presence. You would notice them immediately. Unconfirmed foreign press reports say that these secret police were now busy arresting people from Dafur province who reside in Khartoum, some of whom are suspected by the authorities as the "Fifth Column" who might have assisted the provincial rebels in attacking the capital.
Sudanese soldiers tended to sit under trees taking shelter from the heat, often looking very bored and some did small talk with me (How are you? Where are you from? What is your name? Do you like Sudan?). Some were amused that I was here as a tourist and most were friendly. On hind sight, I had to consider myself to be lucky not to have been arrested as a suspected spy – but who could I be spying for? Certainly not for tiny, faraway Singapore? Or for the Chinese – not a problem for them as China was the Sudanese government's favourite ally. A few soldiers even asked me to come by to chat with them. It is such boredom that often plagued soldiers in guerilla wars. Rebels often take advantage of a seemingly prolonged lull to strike again. Thank goodness they did not do so while I was in swinging Khartoum.
Ironically, while I was unable to take photos of buildings, many Sudanese, including women, loved to have their photos taken. As I walked through the souks (market) and Oudurman's Hamed el Nil, many people asked me to take their photos. They really enjoyed posing (often too sternly) and then looking at the photos taken direct from my digital camera.
Oh, I love the spiced Sudanese coffee, or jabanna. It's like the coffee version of the Indian masala tea, with the excitement of spices infused with traditional coffee. Fresh fruit juice was great too. Concentrated fresh mango juice costs only SDG 0.50 (US$0.25). I am a little worried with the small ice cubes inside but I guess my stomach is getting acclimatized to local water and bacteria. I am less happy about food here. In the city centre, there weren't anything more than street kebabs and grilled chicken sold from stalls whose hygiene I was not really comfortable with. Desperate for real food, I was to head for the expats' suburbs later, with a minor fiasco I was to describe more about.
I passed by the huge offices of CNPC and Petronas, the oil companies of China and Malaysia, by the Blue Nile, just north of central Khartoum very near to the presidential palace. (Petronas took up a large part of the Holiday Villas Hotel as their local HQ). BP or Shell would have taken up posh offices here in this breezy prime location if it was the British who were the proconsuls of Sudan.
Nearby was the futuristic building, Burj al Fatah, which in its sailing yacht shape, looked like a carbon copy of the world renowned Burj of Dubai. The Sudanese version is financed by Col Gaddafi of Libya and was guarded by a bunch of very fierce soldiers. Although photos of the building had appeared in articles and brochures on Khartoum (- I guess promoters of Khartoum love the seemingly progressive linkage with Dubai, albeit it was a massive unlicensed copycat version), these soldiers screamed at me when I raised my camera. I half expect them to shoot at me that moment. It was only two days later that I managed to find a safe angle a few hundred meters away to take my well-deserved shot.
Yes, the Blue Nile. This is near where it meets the much longer White Nile. A month or so ago, I was at the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, at Lake Tana. Now I am at its end, where it flows into the White Nile, and then continuing the flow on to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Not too long ago, I was also in Jinja, Uganda, where Lake Victoria flows into the Albert Nile, which later becomes the White Nile that meets the Blue Nile at Khartoum. Last week, I visited Alexandria, Egypt, which is near the mouth of the Nile, where it meets the Mediterranean.
Wow - the picture is kind of complete now!
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I crossed the Nile over to Oudurman, Khartoum's twin city, founded in the 19th century as capital by Madhi, an Islamic teacher who proclaimed himself the holy savior and resolved to chase out the corrupt Anglo-Egyptian regime that had conquered Sudan not long ago and transformed Khartoum into a prosperous slave trading centre (despite that the official reason for colonizing this region was to eliminate slavery). He raised an army that defeated the Anglo-Egyptian army under General Gordon – Gordon himself, then a British war hero, was killed during the fall of Khartoum – he was also known as "Gordon of China", for his leadership of the British Army that invaded China and defeated and humiliated the Sun of Heaven. Chinese historical literature described General Gordon as a bloodthirsty imperialist who massacred countless innocent Chinese civilians and destroyed palaces, temples and other Chinese cultural monuments. Today's Chinese and Sudanese political literature proclaimed a solidarity in their common hatred for Gordon, their eternal villain in a struggle against a West they saw as a historical and perhaps current and future enemy. (Madhi's successors were eventually defeated by the British in 1898 and his shrine destroyed, and ashes disinterred and thrown unceremoniously into the Nile.)
This month, however, Oudurman once again entered world headlines when the Dafuri rebel attacked and almost took over this Khartoum suburb. I was there, not so much to look for burnt out buildings, vehicles or bodies, but to attend the weekly ceremony of the whirling deverishes. Under the grand greenish domes of the Hamed el Nil mosque, built to commemorate a Muslim sufi (or mystic) buried here, I had a good time watching the whirling deverishes danced around trance-like proclaiming their love for Allah. They were joined by a few hundred spectators holding hands round them in a big circle, singing sacred songs, interspersed with chorus that included "Allah" repeated again and again.
I had imagined that the session would resemble the well-choreographed order of Turkey's famous sufis which I had seen on photos and video. Instead, the Sudanese version was more spontaneous, rowdy, and involved mass audience participation. It also contained what seemed to me like a vigorous African beat, with lots of hip swinging and swaggering. There was some whirling around by individual sufis, most of whom were dressed in red and green robes. They certainly did not whirl around in the "synchronized" Turkish fashion. Some of the sufis were dancing around in semi-trance, perhaps in a form of ecstasy while proclaiming their love for Allah, and certainly without the possessed looks found among tanki-shaman priests in Singapore.
I spoke to the locals about the rebel attacks. They said many of the rebels were young people in their late teens, who although had been very tactical in driving more than 600km from Dafur to Oudurman, did not quite know their way once in Greater Khartoum. They did not harm civilians, merely asking people the way to go to either the air base, broadcasting station, strategic bridges or presidential palace. Eventually, they were all decimated by government soldiers without great effort. It's all about politics and ordinary civilians just want to get on with life without getting involved. Who knows what devil these rebels represent. After all, the current regime, brutal and nasty they might be, had ruled for 18 years, and are a devil that everyone kind of knew.
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On day two in Khartoum, I had a frustrating wild goose chase trying to get the alien registration required of all foreigners within 3 days of arrival in Sudan. My hotel seemed clueless and gave me neither the requisite letters or pointers. I followed Lonely Planet instructions on going to an office near the Blue Nile, but upon reaching there, no one seemed to know where the office was, and asked me to go to another office on the next street. Over at that office, people were perplexed and they asked me to go to yet another place, this time far from the city centre, at a place called "Buri". They got me into a taxi and told the driver to bring me there. At Buri, they said the place was for long stay visitors or those who needed to extend visas. They told me to get the hotel's official letter certifying I was staying there and go to another office in downtown near the US Embassy. I was very frustrated. I felt like a headless chicken not knowing what to do or where to do the necessary.
I returned to the hotel asking for the official letter needed and they told me to get back in a few hours' time for the letter. When I came back at the appointed time, they got me the required letter and I managed to get them to send a junior staff with me for the Aliens Registration Office. We walked under 53'C heat, but unfortunately, the office was closing for the day when we arrived there at 1pm. They insisted that I had to submit the registration the next day, as the cashier was out. I felt like grabbing the machine gun of the soldier guarding the place, and send all of them to Allah as martyrs of a mad idol-worshipper from the Far East.
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I walked around Khartoum centre, checking out some souvenir shops - nothing special, mostly generic trashy pyramids and pharaohnic trinkets one finds in Egypt at one fifth the price, and lots of crocodile skins and figurines made from ivory, the latter of which are illegal in accordance to CITES, international conventions and the Interpol. Of course, wildlife conventions do not matter that much if the government has already been accused in genocide, massacres and encouraging slavery of minority tribes.
I also passed by some hotels, all of whom had very expensive rooms and some included all meals in the price – something very useful as a journalist covering dangerous places where coups and riots can mean that all restaurants shut suddenly without warning. These hotels can do registration for the busy guest, and would charge US$60 for the work that would cost only US$44 if one appears at the ARO himself like I did.
I wanted to do the National Museum, Ethnographical Museum and the Republican Palace Museum, but they were all closed, for reasons not entirely clear. I suspect it had something to do with the strategic locations of these museums which became critical in a crisis or war situation. In fact, the soldiers at the Republican Palace Museum were very nasty and shouted angrily at me, demanding that I return to the other side of the road. The museum, which appeared to be housed in a decommissioned Anglican cathedral, was just next to the presidential palace and perhaps they were nervous about a rebel attack.
I spoke to a few friendly private security guards at an office building – they were all graduates or undergraduates. One was a law graduate. Sad fact of life. No jobs for graduates in this country. I suspect the Philipino counter-staff I saw at Khartoum Airport gets paid more than these uni-grad security guards but I bet these guards might need a mind-boggling massive change of cultural outlook and attitude towards work and life in order to provide the same level of service at the airport.
A Christian South Sudanese lad chatted to me while I walked around the city centre and he whispered about his access to liquor – Johnny Walker, Vodka, French Reds and Whites, maybe champagnes as well. Sudan is officially a dry country. Its leaders had come to power 18 years ago on the banner of upholding Islam and imposing Sharia law on all, thus provoking the escalation of the campaign by the Christian south to breakaway. But becoming dry, saving my liver and restoring my health was one of my reasons for leaving my previous job, and I was not about to risk getting stoned or whipped in public for transgression of this local law.
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To prove that I was a true-blue shopping-loving Singaporean, I decided to head for Afra Mall, Sudan's only modern shopping mall, near the Airport. (The Philipino receptionist at Holiday Villa Hotel warned me not to expect too much). OK, I was also desperate for some decent food after days of oily hamburgers and kebab in central Khartoum. That stretch near the airport had many restaurants indeed but they seemed to be serving fast food as well, though in a more classy environment than the roadside eatery around Souk Arabiya.
I walked around this Turkish-run mall. Strange that they switched off the air con whereas I had imagined people would want to come here because of the air-con. A potential business failure case? The food court served over-priced food – US$10 to US$20 for a paper-box of sweet and sour pork or fried noodle. I refused to eat the same rubbish fast food here at Singapore restaurant prices and non-functioning air-con.
Interestingly, I bumped into a Liberian UN staffer I met more than a month ago in Ethiopia. He recognized me first and greeted me. I had initially thought he was a local tout. What a coincidence!
Somewhat desperate for Chinese food, I hopped into a tuk tuk asking for the Chinese Panda Restaurant which I heard from Holiday Villa staff was at Amarat area. The tuk tuk driver, in order to grab the business, not only said he knew the place but also said it cost only 5 Sudanese pounds (SDG 5) which sounded fair if it was indeed nearby like what I was told.
However, he drove round and round a residential area not knowing where to go, and eventually drove me to a Mainland Chinese-run hospital. He asked me to ask the Chinese working there where was Panda Restaurant. I was very upset at not only the waste of time but also the unpleasantness of having to step into a huge hospital, not a place to hang around if one was merely looking for dinner. The Chinese staff and nurses here were not familiar with Khartoum. After all, this was perceived as a hardship post where they aimed to make as much money as possible, and then return home. They would save money by cooking themselves rather than eat out in pricy places meant for businessmen, diplomats and the Sudanese upper class. The instructions they gave were vague, and the driver had a hard time but eventually we found the place.
I wanted to give him SDG 5 as agreed earlier but he demanded "fifty". I was fired into anger by what seemed to be a ridiculous demand. I said the most I would give him was SDG 10 because he had not only said earlier that he knew the place but said it cost SDG 5. In fact, he had spoiled my mood by not only wasting much time but bringing me to a hospital, where most traditional Chinese (oh, I'm beginning to think like a traditional Chinese – must be a sign of ageing) would find quite inauspicious. He was upset but could only fume away in Arabic. I had encountered too many of these Sudanese who either tried to cheat on fares, or genuinely couldn't understand my suggested fares in English and nodded even when they couldn't understand so.
I wanted him to get into a pharmacy nearby with me so that I can find an English speaker – I thought pharmacists were probably better educated. He refused and we had a big quarrel on the street – arguing in our own languages and not understanding each other. A local who worked in the pharmacy came out and listened to both of us. He asked me to hand over SDG 10 and he added SDG 5 of his own, and the driver walked away with it. Problem resolved? This, however, also made me wondered if the driver had mispronounced earlier – perhaps he had asked for SDG 15 but mispronounced it as SDG 50, which really provoked and upset me.
I walked into the very pricey Chinese Panda restaurant and spent SDG 33 for rather mediocre fried rice and beef with bamboo shoots and mushrooms. As I left the restaurant, I couldn't help but wandered if the unhappy taxi driver would be waiting for me outside with his friends, ready to take revenge. Not surprising at all, in a country full of guns, machetes and all sorts of dodgy armed people. Maybe I shouldn't have argued over those amounts. Fortunately, nothing worse occurred. I hopped into a SDG 10 taxi back to the hotel where I created yet another major flash flood in Hotel Al Nakhil. Strangely, like a flash flood in the desert, it happened quickly at night and the floor was dry as a bone by morning.
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Day 3 in Sudan and the deadline for alien registration. If I couldn't register by then, I would be in technical breach of Sudanese law. God knows what penalties there would be. Would it be caning or stoning by Sharia law? Or sentence to 30 years in a Sudanese prison? Exiled to be an army labourer in Dafur? A bondage slave in an upper class Khartoum household? Hmm…the last was probably less likely for they were probably used to the physically much stronger South Sudanese and Dafuris occasionally captured by the Arab pro-government janjaweed militias for sale in the underground slave market some said to be still operating in Khartoum today.
I set off for the Aliens Registration Office with the reception boy at 9am. Very hot sun. Unfortunately, when we reached there, we couldn't submit the registration as the staff told the guy that they wanted a photocopy of the ID of the hotel owner, whose name appeared on the hotel's official letter. So we had to walk back to the hotel where with my insistence, they rang the owner to ask him to come to deal with the matter immediately.
I waited for a while and had to pester the hotel staff repeatedly before the hotel owner turned up. We went to the ARO again. After a confusing Arabic conversation between the hotel owner and stodgy-faced ARO bureaucrats, I was told that they didn't really need the ID copy but they wanted the hotel letter to be redrafted with the wordings required. Bloody bureaucrats who either didn't know what they were doing, or that they wanted to test one's patience in life, or both! One of the junior officers even shrugged and admitted very honestly that, "in Sudan, different officials have different rules." We returned to the hotel. Can you believe it? They didn't have any PC at the hotel. The owner had to draft the letter in pen, and then asked the reception guy to bring it to a nearby "business centre" to get it typed and printed.
By coincidence, a Yemeni businessman staying at the hotel also needed to get registered. So we went to the ARO again – my third time in the morning. This time we managed to submit our applications. I was asked to return at 3pm to get the registration sticker needed to be pasted onto the passport to indicate due registration and pay the cashier (now out for lunch) SDG 88 as registration fee. (This amount, about US$44, was on top of the US$100 visa fee I paid to the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo).
I returned to ARO at 3pm and by 3:30pm gotten my registration sticker on my passport. Hurrah! Halleluiah! Allahu Akbar! Huat La! Huat La!
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I went to the amazing National Museum, which is a wonderful depository of artifacts from 5000 years of Sudanese history. The ground floor was full of carvings, pottery, grave objects, mummy cases and all sorts of things from the old Sudanese-Egyptian kingdoms, and the second flour devoted to old Nubian Christian fresco art. After the collapse of Meroe Empire, it split into smaller states which became Christian. The region later became Muslim in the 7th century, with the Arab conquest. During its Christian period, the Nubian Church, which was linked to the Egyptian Coptic Church, produced many great pieces of art, which can be found at the National Museum. In addition, there were also reassembled Egyptian-Nubian-Meroe temples in the museum courtyard. All very fascinating and certainly very inspiring after three days of visiting the Alien Registration Office.
In the evening, a local contact invited me to a private party in an expat's house in Khartoum 2, a district near the airport popular with foreigners. (In conflict zones, foreigners tend to live near the airport so that they could organize speedy evacuation if crisis breaks out). The party was very international. There were a group of Egyptian/Brazilian/Lebanese telecommunications engineers, a Pakistani banker and his family and Philipino maid, a Dutch diplomat, a group of South African aircraft engineers, Syrian business executives, among others. Reminded me of the London parties among expats there, with soft drinks, BBQ and finger food. It was earlier whispered that there could be wine and liquor as well, though I did not see any. There were even a few very westernized Sudanese ladies who dressed like the party girls one sees on Lebanese or Egyptian MTVs. A number of party-goers danced salsa as well. No big deal anywhere else in the world, but seemed scandalously wild by my perceptions of what Middle East is like. An eye-opener.
Everyone I spoke to was amazed I was a tourist. Not quite a tourist in Iraq today or Saigon 1975, but flying in a few days after the last rebel attack was something notable. Some of them probably thought that I was a spy, or a purveyor of fine guns, rockets or even chemical weapons, as we did joked about it. Who knows, some of them might be one too. I told them that I spent half of the last three days to get my alien registration and I would be leaving in 24 hours. My most vivid image of Sudan was the ARO.
A few present at the party convinced me that I should visit Meroe. I rang a local contact, and negotiated for a car/driver for US$250 excluding 4x US$10 entrance fees. In a country where car owners could rent vehicles to UN agencies and NGOs for limitless amounts, especially during crisis, the lone tourist like me has little bargaining power.
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Day 4 and final full day in Sudan. Sherif, my driver for the day, turned up at my hotel. He would drive me to three major archeological sites in Sudan – Naga, Musawarat and Meroe. Naga's avenue of rams in front of its ancient temple and Musawarat's Temple of Lions were interesting though not wildly exciting. They were located near wells and there were nomads around them, which made them all the more picturesque. But anyone who had been to Egypt would have seen many more grander structures and carvings. The two sites were also located off the asphalt road and it would be quite an effort to get there without one's own transport (which would be very expensive).
Meroe, however, was amazing. A valley of over 30 pyramids in the desert, totally deserted, with me as the only visitor for the day. The Egyptian pyramids were much greater but one would have to share them with thousands of tourists, an army of souvenir touts and assorted conmen and tricksters. The wind-swept valley even felt quite eerie. I could almost imagine the ghosts of ancient Sudanese-Egyptian pharaohs, priests and court attendants around me.
Sand dunes everywhere, even pressing the modern wooden doors of the pyramids (installed by the Sudanese Government some years ago) tight. I managed to push one open and found myself staring into amazing carvings of an Egyptian jackal-headed god mummifying a king, plus those of various ancient deities and scenes of everyday life. Could you imagine the sense of excitement and awe as I stood there staring at the carvings, almost frozen with amazement, with a kind of Indiana-Jones-feel about the whole place? Yet my goose bumps suddenly stood up and my instinct told me I had to leave the dead and the gods to their peace. After all, the 50-plus degree heat was simply too much. Although I had considered staying till 7pm for sunset but decided to leave at 5:30pm for Khartoum.
I reached Khartoum Airport by 8:30pm and took the 1:15am Air Arabia flight to Sharjah. I was glad to leave Sudan despite local hospitality. It was above 50'C the past few days. Too hot! I am also tired with the choice of food in that gastronomical heaven called Khartoum.
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My plane arrived in Sharjah at 6am and my Dutch friend, Arian, who teaches at Sharjah University, picked me up. He drove me to his nice house at University City, where we had an elaborate breakfast in his nice mini garden. It was very good catching up. We first met each other in Mauritius-Madagascar in 2003, he hosted me at his place when I was doing city-hopping in the Gulf in 2005, and we had also met before when he passed through Singapore. His house was the same – full of wonderful books on history, culture, anthropology, politics – the sort of things I would like to have at my own home.
We had lunch at the American University of Sharjah – what a palatial uni campus. Amazing Arabesque fantasy type buildings. Sure beats Las Vegas. The wonders of what oil money can do. Many of the students are from the upper middle class and upper class from all over Middle East, Central Asia, ex-USSR and Africa. Sharjah is becoming an education hub. The Uni City area is a lot greener now compared to my previous visit. It is also more built up now. In fact, the back of Arian's home is no longer a desert. It is fully built up now with even more palatial homes. The property fever was going really wild not only in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but now spreading across even to the smallest emirates. Ajman, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah are all building wildly across the desert.
In fact, some say Dubai no longer has a desert – it's fully built up into concrete jungle. Not just apartments but also huge industrial estates with anonymous workers' dormitories aka "prison camp". This industrialization with foreign workforce accounts for much of the UAE-made cookies, soap powder and all sorts of things I have seen in East African supermarkets. It is an interesting business model which Singapore, given limited land, cannot duplicate. However, due to falling real wages caused by inflation and depreciation of Gulf currencies (linked to USD), many South Asian workers are upset and strikes and wild arson have been taking place – some reported, others not. Thousands of workers have been deported recently.
I was also told about Ajman which was building so fast that many of the very expensive new apartments have neither water nor electricity because they had forgotten about the infrastructure. Interestingly, I have seen Ajman ads on either BBC or Al Jazeera. Even they have gone aggressive in promoting themselves. Umm al Qaiwan. is also building a new international airport and Ras Al Khaimah's new airline has begun flying. Fujaira is fast expanding its port and turning it into the alternative oil terminal. If the Straits of Hormuz is cut off by Iran, oil can still be exported via Fujaira located on the coast of the Arabian Sea.
As with before, the UAE is moving fast ahead but its greatest challenge is in how to motivate its own citizens to work. It is well known that many of UAE's female students are more motivated and some even completed the uni degree ahead of schedule. However, male students have very high failure rates and many drop out of uni as they found the courses too rigorous. Most of them would just settle for a government admin job and come to work as and when they wish.
It was a very nice catching up with this great friend. One night in Sharjah and I hopped onto another Air Arabia jet for Tehran, capital of Iran. From Tehran, I got to the domestic airport, hopped onto a US$47 flight more than 1000 km to Kerman in the country's southeast corner, not too far from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tales of the ancient Persian Empire next!
Wee Cheng
Kerman, SE Iran

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