Memoir: Robert M. Martin; Sudan, 1972

(S.O.S. Mursi-Mursi)

Historical backdrop

Africa's largest country is the Sudan, an ancient land first recorded as Nubia. Its earliest noted monarchy evolved into the Kingdom of Cush, ruling an extensive territory from the 8th Century B.C. until the 4th Century A.D. Christianity, in its Coptic form, was established by the 6th Century A.D. and Islam prevailed by the early 1600s.

Egypt claimed sovereignty over the Sudan in 1821, but was expelled by the theocratic MAHDI in 1881. His fundamentalist religious state dominated the region until being defeated by a British military expedition in 1899.

Sudan achieved independence in 1956. Turmoil, political and religious, plagued the country into the early 1970s. Ongoing provincial and regional strife, mayhem, brutality, and genocide began in the first decade of the 21st Century, and continue at the time of the writing of this story. Neither the national government, nor concerned outside nations of the world seems to have the will or gumption to quell the ethnic, tribal, and political conflicts.

Port Sudan our North Africa destination

Gun, a most talented lady and traveling companion par excellent, and I began the landward portion of our journey in West Germany. We drove our VW Beetle through parts of Eastern Europe, across Turkey, and into Western Asia. In Latakia, Syria, we booked passage on a Soviet freighter/passenger ship bound for Alexandria, Egypt.

Due to some incorrect official information, we ended up having to give our car to a friend in Cairo. Without a vehicle, we traveled south, often within sight of the Nile or in the desert, by train, bus, or boat to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

We have charted our way through numerous byways of the world together. Her appreciation of photography and similar cross-cultural things dovetailed well with my interests when visiting parts of the globe that were new for us. Occasionally, we have worked hand in glove to extricate ourselves from politically tight situations.

Political Realities

Sudan was, as it is at the time of this writing, a police state. The double speak geo-political realities that greeted Gun and me when we entered the Sudan was unexpected. What may have seemed comical in a fictional stage drama was disconcerting to experience in real life from a United Nations member state. This created travel anomalies that we had not anticipated.

Except for Khartoum, Sudan's capital, the police monitored our movements from location to location by frequently checking our travel documents. In Port Sudan, the police also informed us that we must register with them, but they neglected to specify any particular location. We wrongly assumed that any police station would do.

Our hotel manager suggested that we might fulfill our obligation at the nearby neighborhood station. It was there, that the police told us, incorrectly, that our hotel registration was sufficient. This cross-information, coupled with the post-Ramadan holiday produced a comedy of errors, including two visits by a police inspector to our hotel.

An angry inspector's second visit

A full post-Ramadan moon lit the street and silhouetted the sidewalk trees and shrubby much better than the available municipal lighting. In fact, the moonlight added to the festive lighting in many of the downtown shops and business windows.

By the time Gun and I arrived back at our hotel, the neighborhood was quiet. The street vendors were gone and most of the restaurants were closed. We had a full day, and looked forward to a restful evening. That expectation turned out to be a bit too optimistic. No sooner had we fallen asleep then we were abruptly awakened.

Like the reappearance of some irascible shade from the beyond, a heavy rap resonated at our door, precisely at 11 p.m. "Oh, oh", I murmured, rousing from a heavy slumber. Even before opening the door, I knew it wasn't the Western Union man with a congratulatory message announcing that I had won a lottery.

Again, it was detective Said with a police officer behind him. The scowl on Said's face gave me an uncomfortable feeling, even before he spoke.

"I should arrest both of you! Why didn't you register with the police as you promised?" he demanded.

"The Central Police Station you requested us to register at was closed due to the holiday," I protested.

"Your excuse is not believable, and not acceptable", Said countered. "If you had been interested in fulfilling your obligation, you would have continued your search and discovered a second, smaller but unlocked gate at the rear of the building which is open throughout all holidays."

I explained, "Yes, if that was what we were told, but the couple we asked told us that the station was closed due to the holiday and that sounded reasonable to us. Now that you have informed us that the Central Police Station is always open, we will do our duty tomorrow, rain or shine, come what may, without fail. May we have one more opportunity?"

Said's jaw grimaced slightly. He paused for a long moment, "OK, I will grant you both one last opportunity to register with the police. If you fail again, it means court, and possible imprisonment for both of you. There will not be another exemption."

"Yes, yes, we both agree", I assured the inspector, speaking for both Gun and myself. "We will fulfill our duty promptly and completely tomorrow morning."

Don't even think about getting a receipt!

We didn't feel like having anything more than a cup of tea and a piece of toast the following morning. We arrived at police headquarters just after 9:00 a.m. The main gate was open.

We went directly into the Non-Citizens Registration Bureau Office. We had the necessary documentation ready; filled out the single sheet form handed to us, signed it, and returned it to the clerk. We felt relieved. Nearly.

"May we have a receipt of compliance confirming that we have registered?" Gun requested.

"No", was the definite reply. "The police know who has registered and who has not. A receipt is unnecessary. If you are in compliance with the law, there is nothing further that you need to be concerned about," snapped the proud and disdainful clerk.

Last day ashore, maybe!

When we arrived in Port Sudan two days earlier, we had booked passage on a Polish freighter, the Wasa. We had booked passage as far as Mombasa, Kenya. As it turned out, she was sailing the same day we registered. Since this was our last full day in Port Sudan, we accepted another luncheon invitation at the Armenian Club in town.

We estimated that we had ample time to clear customs, stow our things on board ship, go ashore for a pleasant afternoon gathering, and still return to the Wasa in ample time before its scheduled sailing.

Since Port Sudan is a comparatively small coastal city, we factored in less discretionary time than we might otherwise have done. We felt confident that we could easily move from one location to another.

Clearing Customs

An hour and a half before our club invitation, we were at the dockside in the port authority shed along with a couple of dozen other people, all passengers clearing customs for several of the ships at quayside.

Much of the procedure was routine. Documents were examined and stamped, and luggage inspection was completed with a broad white chalk mark on each item cleared.

I thought that the requirement to display all of our money was excessive. We saw people ahead of us emptying their pockets of every bill and coin, even the nearly worthless base metal ones.

The custom's officer dutifully counted every coin and made note of the tally. My turn was next. Without a word, the clerk gave me the "Gim-me" motion with his fingers. "Rude, how rude," I thought.

"OK, OK", I protested, then deposited what I had on the table in front of the clerk. The coins were tallied and their total scribbled on a tally sheet, probably a total value of less than one U.S. dollar.

I was fed up with the constant reminders of a police state atmosphere. Since we arrived in Sudan, we had been bombarded with restrictive rules and regulations, enforced by the police and perpetuated by a cadre of minor bureaucrats and public servants.

Many of the laws controlling the public and their enforcement had no relationship to fostering the common good nor of any help in building a healthy environment for living the good life. Sudan's concept of security and control had been taken to Chekhovian extremities.

Checking aboard the Wasa

"Welcome aboard," was the greeting from the ship's purser and assistant as we reached the top of the gangway. The purser checked our tickets, and showed us to our cabin.

With one voice Gun and I said, "Clean!" After having stayed in some Sudanese rooms of less than stellar quality, this onboard cabin was a delight.

The bed had clean and ironed sheets, the washbasin was sparkling porcelain clean, and the medicine cabinet itself was clean, with cleaned and covered drinking glasses inside. The floors, walls, and ceiling were all clean. The overhead cabin and bunk lighting not only worked, but also was strong enough to read by day or night. The purser nodded approvingly, and guided us next to the galley.

He opened the refrigerator door and gave us words that were welcoming and generous to our ears, "You may come to this pantry whenever you wish, and have snacks as you wish." The items inside were abundant and familiar and a pleasant sight to a desert traveler's eyes.

We were also informed that we would be sitting at the Captain's table with the only other passenger on board this journey.

Our Captain turned out to be a soft-spoken, kindly gentleman, who ruled his vessel with an iron hand. He was widely read, well informed on a broad spectrum of topics, and had a good sense of humor. He made a superb host.

As we were leaving, we met the other passenger, Richard. He was gaunt, frail, and someone who definitely needed a rest, plenty of nourishing food, and, probably, medication. His smile was genuine, but he obviously drew on his energy reserves to manage a barely audible greeting, "Hello, pleased to meet you both."

We greeted Richard in return, thanked the purser, and left.

Guests of the Armenians

The luncheon had a stimulating group of guests, mostly Armenians, with a sprinkling of European businessmen and some diplomatic corps personnel; as well as, Gun and me.

"It's good to see you both again. I hope that you had a pleasant stay in the Sudan?" Mr. Turgikian queried, as we entered the social room of the clubhouse. His son, Joseph had invited us to be his guests at the luncheon. We first met Joseph and his family at a restaurant in town the night we arrived.

"It's pleasant to be in such congenial and familial surrounding after days of travel in the desert," I responded.

"But we didn't see Joseph this after noon. Is he joining the gathering later on this afternoon?" I asked.

"No, he left for Khartoum early this morning for a few days of business. He asked me to send his best wishes to you and to say, 'Good bye,' for him."

"Thank you, Mr. Turgikian, Gun and I appreciate the consideration, and please give Joseph our regards when he returns," I requested.

"Of course. Enjoy yourselves and my best to you and Gun for a safe and pleasant sea voyage to Kenya." Mr. Turgikian excused himself as another couple hailed him.

"Isn't it odd that there are no indigenous Sudanese here?" Gun asked me.

"Maybe not, this is the Armenian club," I said, feeling some empathy for the Armenian practice.

"Considering the tensions brewing in the country, maybe the Armenians should consider being a little more flexible," Gun insisted.

Gun had a good point. During our brief time in Sudan, we had become increasingly more aware of the many and varied class distinctions and divisions in Sudanese society. There was a constant low-level tension between the Sudanese and non-Sudanese nationals.

The Armenians are a "dispersed" people. Many of them fled their ancestral homeland in Eastern Turkey after their unsuccessful uprising against the Turks during the First World War. Turkish military retribution was immediate and severe.

The Armenians abroad often entered the ranks of the business and professional community, and are considered part of the educated classes in and around the Mediterranean, assuming some of the same occupational niches as those which the Jewish population filled after the loss of Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish War with Rome in 70 A.D.

"It's time for us to go," I reluctantly reminded Gun. Conversation was good, the food very tasty, and the time had passed too quickly as far as both of us were concerned. Still, it was time to leave.

As we left the Armenian Club we thought that this was our last major activity in Port Sudan. Unbeknown to us, there was more to come. Considerably more!

Shore leave is not permitted

When we arrived back at the Wasa, the police were waiting for us. The officer in charge announced that we were in violation of Sudanese law.

We were not aware of the maritime law governing ship's passengers. Once we had cleared customs, we were legally out of Sudan, and were not permitted back ashore without completing the legal formalities permitting us back into the country.

Since we had gone ashore after clearing customs, we were in violation of Sudanese law. The police also had apprehended Richard, completely innocent, but guilty by association with Gun and me.

According to Sudanese reasoning, Richard was the only other passenger on board and must have been with us. Therefore, he was also guilty of breaching Sudan's maritime law. Just looking at Richard's frailty would have immediately cleared him. Even if he had wanted to, his physical condition couldn't sustain the exertion.

A plain-clothes detective told us that we had to clear customs again, and obtain a new exit permit before we would be allowed to return to the ship. The detective was not concerned about our need to be back on board that evening before sailing. The law was the law!

A travel agent's solution

We were given over to the custody of a truck driver, a man who didn't seem a bit pleased at being given the additional duty of carting around foreigners near the end of his workday. We three "prisoners" squeezed into the truck's cab with the driver.

Five men wearing paramilitary police uniforms, some with rifles, others with machetes, climbed into the back of the back. These were guards. Given our preference, we would not have chosen to travel with such a motley group of armed men and disgruntled driver.

Dusk had given way to darkness as we reentered Port Sudan City. The truck was driven to a plaza in the middle of town where the driver pulled over to the curb, turned off the engine, and climbed down from the cab. The guards hopped off the back of the truck.

"Hey, what's up? Is this the changing of the guard or something?" I needed to know.

"Day over, job over. Now we go home," said the driver with a certain amount of tiredness in his voice.

"Weird!" I said aloud. "You can't just leave us here. We are your prisoners. We need our passports stamped, remember?"

"We go home now. Day over," he repeated.

Our warden and keepers walked away, melting into the crowd. We three "prisoners", stood beside the truck, stranded.

By good luck, our ticketing agent was just coming out of a bar-restaurant across the street. "Mursi-Mursi", I called. He came over.

"I'm so glad to see you," I said as we shook hands.

"This has been a most unusual day. Just minutes ago, we three passengers were removed from the Wasa because Gun and I went to a luncheon ashore after clearing customs. The gentleman with us is Richard; he is completely innocent. He didn't even leave the boat."

As I got wrapped up in the story, Mursi-Mursi nodded his head knowingly. He didn't seem a bit surprised at our predicament, but he did have an idea.

"Come with me, we need to visit the Chief of the Port Authority. We'll go together by taxi," he said with veiled assurance.

We accepted. He hailed a passing cab, made a brief query, and then hopped into the front seat with the driver. We three hopeful Wasa passengers squeezed into the back. Within minutes, we were in one of the better residential parts of town.

The cab pulled up in front of an older, well maintained sprawling two-story house.

It was dark inside, like many of the other houses in the neighborhood. I didn't feel comfortable about disturbing a government officer at home well after the end of his work day. Mursi-Mursi felt otherwise.

He went up to the iron gate, rang the bell and waited. After a second ring, a light went on inside. Moments later a servant appeared at the front door. She came over and inquired about what business we had.

Mursi-Mursi explained the urgency of seeing Mr. Khadi. The servant returned into the house, and was gone a short while. More house lights went on. Soon a well-built trim senior gentleman, in neat and smart casual clothes, appeared at the gate. A brief embrace between him and Mursi-Mursi indicated a long-standing friendship.

Our host

The senior gentleman was Mr. Khadi, Chief Customs Officer for Port Sudan. Introductions were made all around, and our host invited us into his front pallor. Before Mursi-Mursi was allowed to begin explaining any particulars of our plight we were served cookies, and exchanged pleasantries.

It was difficult for me not to look at my watch occasionally, even if protocol demanded a relaxed composure with an air of having all the time in the world.

"Have you enjoyed your stay in the Sudan?" our host asked.

"Fascinating!" was my candid answer, while avoiding any mention of the political realities in the Sudan.

Mr. Khadi was as efficient as he was polite. Within minutes he had completed and noted our paper work in his ledger.

"Your documents are once again in order. I wish each of you a safe and enjoyable voyage," Mr. Khadi concluded our brief visit.

While we were completing our segments of exit papers the servant had made a telephone call for a taxi. By the time we reached the sidewalk gate, a cab was waiting. Gun and I agreed that our benefactors were two very smooth operators.

As we drove towards the harbor, just minutes away, I had my doubts that the Wasa would still be moored at dockside. The tide was full and sailing could begin any time.

"Where's the captain?"

Not only was our ship still at dockside, all lines were still in place, and all security floodlights were on. The scene looked rather permanent, much as though there wasn't going to be a sailing any time soon.

We thanked, and said our good byes to, Mursi-Mursi. He stayed and waved us off from taxi-side. He didn't want to hold us up and press our luck any further. By the time we had reached our cabin and looked out, he had gone.

"Welcome back," the purser greeted us at the top of the gangway. "We will not be sailing at this time."

"Why not," I queried.

"The captain has been taken by the Port Sudan Police for being in violation of Sudanese law."

Luckily enough, our captain's stay with the authorities was brief. As far as Gun and I could surmise, the ship's manifest was not according to the Sudanese liking, but the matter was quickly resolved.

Our mooring lines were cast before midnight and the Wasa maneuvered into a deeper channel, to begin its journey due south along some of the world's most ancient sailing lanes.

Behind us, strands of port and city lights gradually faded from view. Their mellow glow replaced by a waning moon's shimmering brilliance across the face of the Red Sea.

Copyright © R. M. Martin, S.O.S., Mursi-Mursi, 1972.

Memoirs Directory for Robert M. Martin.