September 9, 2019

Mahmoud and the Freezing Journey

By Paul Theroux






The Khartoum market was the heart and soul of the city, as markets have been in history. The bus depot was nearby, so was the street of gold and silver merchants, the street of sandal sellers (and illegal leopard skins and snakeskin purses and slippers), the vegetable barrows, the meat stalls and at the centre of the country’s largest mosque. Because of this mosque and the Koran’s specific injunction, ‘Repulse not the beggar’ (95:10) every panhandler and cripple in town jostled with the faithful as they strode to prayers.

Groups of gowned and veiled women sat in the goldsmiths’ shops choosing dangling earrings and bracelets as wide as shirt cuffs, and mesh like necklaces and snake bangles. Gold was the only luxury. Some of these shops were no more than small booths but you knew them by their twinkling gold and their mirrors and air-conditioning.

Mahmoud Amansour was selling gold and spoke English reasonably well.

‘Is because I live New York City,’ Mahmoud said.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Just visiting family, and this-he gestured to the gold objects in a disdainful way.

‘You don’t like the Sudan?’

‘Sudan is nice. Beeble are kind’-he clawed his shaven head and yanked his beard-‘but…’

His emigration story was interesting and perhaps typical. In 1985, aged twenty five, he flew to Mexico City, entered on a tourist visa, and vanished. He surfaced near Tijuana and paid a man $500 to take him across the border. He was sealed into a refrigerator truck that was loaded with fish-Maumoud was standing behind boxes of fish with three Mexicans. At the border crossing the truck driver gave them mittens and hats and turned the thermostat very low so that when US Customs opened the doors frozen air billowed in clouds.

Mahmoud was dumped outside San Diego but did not linger there. In those days no ID was needed to buy an airplane ticket. He flew to Atlanta where –having spent all his money-he picked peaches until the season ended. Then he took a bus to Virginia.

‘More bicking, Bicking, bicking. I bick anything’

Living in migrant workers’ quarters, eating frugally, he saved enough money to move to New York City, where he knew some Sudanese. And he continued to do menial work.

Excerpted from Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, a Travel book by the American writer Paul Theroux, published by Hamish Hamilton 2002.

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