COLUMN SIX: Could I escape the police?

A Khartoum street scene. JOHN SWART PHOTO

African adventure takes a sudden turn

VOICE Correspondent

The only question that mattered was: if I ran, would I, absolutely, one hundred percent for sure, escape the police?

By 8:30 AM distinct shadows lined the dusty, littered streets of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and home to 5 million. Storefronts were coming alive as large, roll-up doors were lifted, soapy water for mopping was splashed across decades-old stone floors, and the night’s debris was swept off stone curbs into the streets.

Food stalls cooked sorghum and millet porridge to serve with sweet hot tea. Bakers with pushcarts wholesaled their morning production of gorraasa and kisra to small shops and hungry merchants, while three-wheeled jitneys searched for fares.

Today was a rest day for our small group of cyclists, and an opportunity to explore the city where the White Nile and Blue Nile converge. Alone, with wandering rather than a reaching a specific destination as my goal, I was keen to let the city’s secrets find me this morning. There would be time later in the day for the museum or perhaps an organized tour.

The al-Kabir Grand Mosque of Khartoum, Sudan. JOHN SWART PHOTO

Visible above and beyond the low-slung commercial buildings around me was the tip of a minaret, quite extraordinary in its intricacy and size. The mosque was beautiful, under restoration, and few worshippers were about. A large sign in Sudanese Arabic and English detailed the history of the restoration project, and welcomed all to attend prayers. The notice explained that this was the al-Kabir Grand Mosque of Khartoum. I didn’t get a chance to investigate.

I raised my small camera, shot a few photos, and was immediately besieged by high-pitched shrieking to my right. A slender, bearded man, perhaps 50 years old, robed in a flowing blue jalabiya, white skull cap, and sandals, was running toward me. Arms flailing, voice screaming, he was very agitated.

I guessed his displeasure was caused by my photography, which surprised me. The sign conveyed, to me at least, that the mosque was of historical as well as religious significance, and I assumed taking a photo would be okay. Wrong assumption.

Calmly walking away from the scene was of no use. The man pursued me, grabbed at my camera and created such a fuss that a young Sudanese police officer came running. The man yelled and pointed and grabbed, conveying to the policeman what offense I had committed, all in a language I had no hope of comprehending. The officer then attempted to take my camera, which I successfully resisted.

I gesticulated to the officer that I would show them both the display screen on the camera, and delete the offensive photos immediately. I didn’t know if this would be acceptable, or if he understood, but I proceeded anyway. Although not yet frightened, I was flustered, and after I showed them a photo of the mosque, I was fumbling too much with the camera’s control buttons to successfully delete the image. All I had succeeded in doing was to confirm their suspicion that I did possess photos of their Grand Mosque.

The policeman’s arm gripped mine, and I was forcibly directed to join him as we marched toward a commercial area. The other man was still screeching, and had by now attracted a fourth participant to our drama.

I had no idea where we were headed, and didn’t feel well about my situation, as I continued to jam at buttons on the camera. Surrendering the camera was not an option in my opinion. I would have lost a month’s travel photos, and, if they scrolled through my photos, they would quickly discover that this mosque was but one of many I had captured, perhaps placing me in further jeopardy.

Our destination turned out to be an electronics and camera shop, where it seemed their intention was to take the memory card from the camera. Fortunately the shop was still closed, and while my three captors argued loudly what to do next, I became concerned.

How long until we attracted additional police, or more irate citizens? What level of force would they exert to take the camera if I continued to resist? Or, would they march me to a police station? The officer’s grip tightened as he yanked me in another direction.

The policeman was in his late 20s or early 30s, and did not appear to have a gun. He did not have a radio or phone that I could see, nor a whistle. A medium-sized nightstick was clipped to his belt, and he was wearing enormously large, heavy, army-style boots. Most importantly, I sensed that although he would do his job, for the moment he was as unsure what to do with me as I was what to expect from him. Decision made.

A strong, decisive jerk of my arm, and I was free. Adrenaline, strong cycling legs and feather-weight running shoes carried me down the street at a speed that surprised even me. No looking back as I zigzagged through a maze of streets and stalls until I ran out of breath. I don’t know if they attempted a pursuit or not, but it was over. There was not a sound behind me, and a smile began to spread over my relaxing face. 

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