Khartoum, Sudan: An Ignorant Tourist (cont.)
I inquire about going to see the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory that America bombed in 1998. It’s on the outskirts of town, I'm told, but in the end I'm too embarrassed to make the trip. Al-Shifa was Sudan’s primary supplier of anti-malaria and tuberculosis medication, and it’s estimated that in the aftermath, tens of thousands of Sudanese ended up dying, deprived of medication that the factory would have produced. The Clinton administration ultimately apologized and acknowledged that, it was, in fact, just a pharmaceutical factory and not making chemical weapons for Bin Laden, a former resident of Khartoum in the 80s. Al-Shifa was valued at $60 million, and its owner reportedly received a lot more than that in compensation from the US government.
I'd only heard Bin Laden’s name mentioned twice since entering Sudan. Once in Abri, a restaurant owner joked, "No Bin Laden here," when welcoming us to his country and later when it was explained to me that he financed one of the only good roads in the country. Government money disappears when it comes to infrastructure spending, and I'm told most planned roads never get build. I wonder what the local sentiment towards Bin Laden is, but language restrictions and fear keep me from asking.
I head to the Department of Humanitarian Affairs to obtain a travel visa for the Eritrean border. I photocopy my passport and visa in triplicate in preparation and bring a pocket full of passport photos. It’s not enough. Four copies are needed, so I venture down the street to make another one. I return, am directed to submit my paperwork to a second office, and told to come back the next day. In a place famous for bureaucracy and corruption the whole undertaking has been relatively painless. After entering the country, I had to register at the police station, which involved a visit to no less than seven different offices.
I return to next day only be told that while my permits have been approved, it will cost an additional $32 US. That's too much as I only have $120 to my name and have no way to obtain funds while in Sudan. The US trade embargo has blocked the use of Visa cards and Amex travelers’ cheques. I head back to my tent on the banks of the Nile and ponder what to do. I decide just to skip Eritrea and head to Ethiopia as originally planned.
But first I need to clean the sand out of my bicycle in preparation. I head to a garage to buy some diesel fuel to clean by bike with. The guy manning the petrol pump asks if I'm Syrian or Turkish, and I decide my beard needs a serious trim. We chat, and he refuse's money for my half liter of fuel. Afterwards, I take a pair of trousers to the market to be fixed. The tailor sews up the rip and refuses payment. Later, I try to buy a Sudan sticker to put on my bike, and the mechanic again refuses payment. I head to the barber to have my beard trimmed. I'm pushed to the front of the line, which I try to refuse, but they insist. He does a thorough job trimming my beard but also chooses to shave my forehead and nose (am I that Hairy?). I realize I will miss this place when I am gone.
I wonder the city’s suburbs and see that they are awash with construction. State nationalization occurred in 1969, and only in the last few years has privatization sprung up. The economy is growing at 10%, and things are looking up, at least for some. I see a digitally enhanced photo of a new waterfront development. It’s massive and modern, lights years away from the sand roads which still pepper the city center. The blueprint is Dubai, Abu Dhabi, The Emirates. Counties which went from economies based on farming camels and diving for pearls, to massive economic powerhouses in 25 years, and how can that not be an inspiration, a role model? I just hope as the decades pass, as it loses its dust, its oppressive heat, its population of refuges, that it doesn’t lose its identity, its chaos, its soul; even if right now I really don’t have a profound understanding what that soul is.
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