From Khartoum to Juba, tapioca-sack class
They are full of sorghum, millet and tapioca: food for the soldiers who will perch on them, all the way south to Juba and the civil war. It's the ultimate economy class: even Richard Branson draws the line at making his riff-raff travellers eat their seats. But the food-sacks are the only luxury. No windows, no seat-belts, no complimentary face-wipes and in- flight magazines. No steps. To board the ancient Boeing 707, you stand on the Hi-Loader and rise like an old-time cinema organist into the belly of the aeroplane. Up we go, everybody looking straight ahead or down at their shoes, like middle-of-the-litter executives in an air-conditioned lift, except that there's no air-conditioning on the Hi-Loader, only the hot reek of kerosene and, beneath it, persistent, the characteristic aroma of Khartoum, the faint, sweet, over-rich onion fetor of human shit.
Inside the cavernous belly, we dispose ourselves, trying to look insouciant. The Sudanese officers do it best, sitting stony-faced on handy sacks. Their soldiers are less successful; some are nervous, others sullen, a few illegally drunk, flat eyes in sweat-slicked faces. Islamic warriors who die in battle proceed directly to heaven; Allah will forgive their early-morning acquaintanceship with the siddiqi-bottle, and as for the government ... well, everyone knows about the government: furious fundamentalists, holed up in their spanking new parliament-building on the other side of the Nile. There are tanks by the television station and soldiers on every bridge: sure signs of a government not wholly confident of its people's high regard.
The cargo door closes slowly, and we begin to melt and boil. I assess the risks: the wild-eyed soldier, tall and skeletal, fumbling for his AK47 every time he changes position. The knot of squaddies, staring fixedly at me, wondering what this whitey is doing, hitching a lift on their private ride down to their private war. The cargo-door itself, daylight clearly visible through its decrepit pressure-seals: if it blows in flight, I will be sucked out, along with all the other buggers, whirling and yelping, those with guns firing wildly into the inhospitable air. I can do nothing about any of these dangers, so load myself on to a tapioca sack, next to an old man in civilian clothes, a bandage round his head, and a boy of about 10, perhaps his grandson. They, alone, seem full of pleasurable anticipation, chattering happily. How odd to want to go to Juba; don't they know there's a war on? Insurgents, government forces, rapes, disappearances: a nasty little war, by all accounts, except there aren't any accounts. I suppose I should write one, but I'm on holiday: a cargo-jet hitchhiker in convertible trousers and a sweat-stained hat, thumbing a ride to Harare. Juba? Just a transit-stop, a quick fag in a war-scarred lay-by.
The old turbojets fire up and we thump and rumble across the tarmac towards the runway. Back in the Khartoum Hilton (views of the Nile, dominated by a giant Pepsi hoarding), the Americans - aid envoys, commercial diplomats, chancers, politicos - are munching their comfortable breakfasts: sausage, two fried over-easy, orange juice, coffee, how-are-you-today-sir? Liberal, earnest, well-meaning, they drift around the lobby, interesting themselves in the food ("Hey, look! It's Tex-Mex night in the Hilton, Thursdays!"), admiring the absurd Sudanese coffee-pots (a wisp of grass in the spout for a filter), never realising how much they secretly despise the courteous, gentlemanly wogs and their ramshackle, merd-smelling city.
Full power, now, hauling ourselves down the runway. A surreptitious flurry of prayer-beads. The jittery soldier cranes to look through the solitary porthole and drops his Kalashnikov. A creak and shudder of turbulence; the jittery soldier retrieves his rifle and leans back on his sorghum- sack; sunlight moves across the cabin through the porthole; as the temperature drops, I snuggle down on my tapioca and fall asleep.
I dream of Americans in horn-rimmed spectacles and lightweight suits, moving like men themselves in a dream, between Hilton and Club Class and air-conditioned meeting room, writing on yellow pads with gold Cross ballpoints, summarising their reports, shuffling their overhead-projector foils, outlining and bullet-charting and recommending policies, talking, talking, talking, and always missing the point. One day their tremendous, hallucinatory nation will fall, and its epitaph will read: "Here lies America; none the wiser."
Ten thousand feet above Juba, the old 707 shudders to a near dead-stop in mid-air and drops like a stooping hawk, spiralling down to confuse any rebel SAM missiles. I am pinned against the side-wall; then we level out briefly, a burst of power, and whomp on to the runway in an angry scream of reverse thrust. The cargo door opens; the soldiers slouch off glumly; the old man and his descendant giggle and prod at each other, pleased to be home. Twenty miles to the south, rebels are regrouping; government forces are wondering what the hell they are doing there; women are wondering whether today is their turn to be raped. Back in Khartoum, people are going about their business, driving their taxis, selling single cigarettes from cardboard box-lids; chatting in that demotic Arabic which always sounds like near-hysteria; earning a crust, raising their families, hoping for the best. The Americans in the Hilton look at their watches and jot down another policy objective; a global embargo seems the best idea. UN resolution! Global police! Nigras, spics, kikes, wops, slopes, gooks, commies and now goddam Muslims (ie, fundamentalist terrorists): starve the bastards out so the world can be safe.
And over the Blue Nile the Pepsi sign broods, poised to catch the sunset. !
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 2 Perez Hilton apologises for Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
- 5 Jennifer Lawrence 'naked sex video' will be leaked threatens 4Chan celebrity photo hacker
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage