Philiip Hensher: Where past meets future on the streets of Khartoum

A case as absurd as that involving Gillian Gibbons could probably happen only in the Sudanese capital
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The Independent Online

Khartoum is, without doubt, a very peculiar place. For a start, you can hardly believe that it is the capital of a country which has been torn apart by civil war on two fronts for decades. Untouched directly both by conflict and, until very recently, by development, it can easily strike the visitor as an unexpectedly enchanting city. What it becomes what it wants to become are questions which underlie the totally puzzling case of Gillian Gibbon and the teddy-bear named after the Prophet.

Khartoum has a spectacular setting, at the joining of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Though it is enormously spread out, surprisingly large parts of central Khartoum have been left undeveloped. Tuti Island, a very substantial river island right in the middle of the city, is for the moment almost entirely given over to small-scale farming, a lovely pastoral idyll where you can spend the whole day pottering about on a motor-rickshaw. There is, rather amazingly, a substantial mangrove swamp on the way to Omdurman, surrounded by suburbs.

These won't last much longer. When I first went to Khartoum, Tuti Island could only be reached by a rusty ferry. When I went this year in the spring, a gigantic bridge was almost complete, and there were plans to cover this splendid green resource with giant hotels and, amazingly, a casino. The mangrove swamp is to be drained and turned into a golf course.

It is unlikely that there is much call for any of this, but you can't be in Khartoum long without becoming aware of a kind of cack-handed yearning for modernity. The centre of Khartoum is still marked by the British interventions the street plan is in the rough shape of a Union Jack, making for terrible gridlock all day long. But elsewhere, vast luxury villas are everywhere, put up, people say, without much in the way of planning approval; modern Khartoum is an ostentatious anthology of unrestrained domestic architectural fantasy.

Almost every week, a new caf or restaurant opens up, mostly doing its best to look as much as possible like the caf in Friends. There is money in Khartoum, and these establishments cater for the rich Sudanese as well as the armies of expatriate officials in the city. There are limits to all of this sophistication; it is a dry country, of course, and Western owners of restaurants have been recently thrown into jail for serving "special tea" under the table.

The expatriate community, on the whole, will tell you that life there is not particularly exciting. The possibilities of entertainment are few, and invitations to pool parties at the various embassies are eagerly sought after.

On the other hand, it's fairly agreeable. People are decent and civil in everyday transactions; everything takes time, but there is a culture of honesty and basic reasonableness. It must be the safest large city in Africa you wouldn't think twice about walking out at night in most of the city. Best just to enjoy this, without considering the oppressive rule of law which ensures the tranquillity. If you did have the bad fortune to be robbed, you might seriously consider not making a complaint to the police, in the interests of the robber's welfare. What the police and the law courts would do to anyone who robbed a foreigner would, I think, lie too heavily on the conscience.

In some ways, it feels like the Cairo of 50 or even a hundred years ago. In others, it is a boom town, filled with hard-faced engineers from China or Peru. There are elegant little ice-cream parlours, but the streets are filled with giant UN vehicles, and many official buildings are hung with tetchy slogans against Western interventions. It is a place which is decidedly on edge.

From any point of view, including most Muslim ones, the case of Gillian Gibbon and the teddy bear is completely absurd. I suspect it could only happen in quite this way in Khartoum. A protester, interviewed on Friday, was at pains to specify that the offence came from a British woman, going to Sudan to educate Sudanese children. There is, clearly, a high degree of simmering resentment and tension among a Sudanese minority at European high-handedness and interference. It doesn't surprise me at all that the complaint originated from a national colleague of Miss Gibbon's in her international-run school. An opportunity, however absurd in its specifics, has been seized.

You could probably find a thousand people prepared to march and scream on the pretext of religious offence in any country in the world, including Britain. Khartoum is evidently a predominantly Muslim city. Its forces of oppression, however, are not controlled by religious leaders, but by politicians. Some of its leaders are eager to have an opportunity to take offence at interference, and now a religious minority has found a pretext. The purpose has been served; Britain has been placed in the position of begging for clemency.

The whole history of the relations between Sudan and Britain is one of suspicion and tension. Very few Sudanese can forget the story that Kitchener quite seriously wanted to dig up the body of the Mahdi, the great nationalist leader, and to use his skull as an ashtray.

These days, however, the capital is torn between a desire for a huge leap into modernity and an ineradicable touchiness towards much of the international community. Some fairly grotesque emotions have been allowed to display themselves in the past few days. They are, unmistakably, national emotions, not religious or even cultural ones.