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Feather's Miscellany: Khartoum Trilogy

John Waddington-Feather is a writer, teacher and Anglican priest who taught in the University of Khartoum during one of the more momentous periods of Sudan's history. While there, he saw the terrible effects of drought and famine, witnessed public hangings under a perverse interpretation of Islamic Shari'a Law, and finally left the country under the turmoil of civil war and anti-government riots.

But it was among the Sudanese people he discovered new dimensions of love and endurance, and a real deepening of his own faith serving as a priest at the Episcopal Cathedral, and among Muslims and Christians alike in his work as a teacher. He was befriended at the university by the Republican Brothers and Sisters, a group of Muslims seeking to establish closer links with Christians to share in a deeper understanding of God.

Their leader, Mahmoud Taha, was hanged by General Nimeiry for heresy at Kober Prison, opposite the author's own apartment, in January 1985. In the preceeding months, 15,000 Falasha Jews, refugees from Ethiopia, were airlifted over that same apartment from Khartoum Airport a couple of miles away across the Nile. All these events are recorded in his trilogy of poems about Khartoum.

The author was born in Yorkshire in 1933 and graduated at Leeds University. He is married with three grown-up daughters and has written children's books, regional histories, drama and other collections of verse, including a series of humourous poems on his Yukon travels. Much of his ministry outside his work has been in prisons.

Khartoum Siege

The desert stalks into the town
step by step with death,
furnacing the air with gusts
that strip the skin and eyes,
whipping to the bone.
Kites glide like aerial sharks
high in the sky, or skirmish
on the garbage heaps below
that fester in the sun;
and there a dead fox snarls defiance
from his wormy mask -
to no avail,
he'll be picked clean by dusk.
Soon, life will slacken in the sun-climb,
gaffirs shamble off to seek the shade
and sleep away the misery of heat;
life will cease round noon;
but now, this sunrise, bustle
stirs the city street,
though few men work.
Right now there is pretence at everything,
by some at least that life is full
though famine rings Khartoum,
blown like the fox with impotence,
as somewhere there, beyond old Omdurman,
starving nomads by the thousand
wait the crucifixion of another sun.

*
gaffir = porter/caretaker.

**

(In 1984 thousands of Sudanese nomads suffering from famine and drought trekked across the desert to the capital, Khartoum. They ringed the city, housed in makeshift tents living in refugee camps. Only the army kept them out of the city to prevent chaos and the spread of epidemics like cholera.)

Khartoum Exodus

The moon is full;
it turns the desert white,
sweetening the warm night air
which blistered in the sun;
gelabiaed ghosts the menfolk
stroll across the sand,
so many gentle spectres
drifting home across the moon
set in a sky so clean that every star
glitters afresh its fourth-day light,
awaiting man and beast
to marvel at its brilliance;
wonder at the miracle
Creation still pursues
in mapping out new galaxies
to the very edge of time.
And into this genesis night
planes leave Khartoum in line,
an exodus of Jews from Ethiopia -
Falashas fleeing from twin terrors, gun and drought,
lifted back to Israel in vindication
of their age-old Covenant with God.

*
gelabia - a long, loose robe worn in Sudan.
Falashas - a remote sect of Jews living in Ethiopia, until they fled from the regime there and the drought of 1984/85 and were taken in a massive airlift from Khartoum to Israel.

**

Hanging at Kober Gaol, Khartoum

A valiant general sent old Mahmoud to his death,
hanged as Sabbath-sacrifice
to purify a faith
and vindicate a Law some holy ones
decreed emphatically came down from God -
so deja vu, so deadly deja vu,
when Islam cuts its own red notch
into the tally Jews and Christians
have hacked before;
the People of the Book
certain all, beyond all doubt, their God,
the Merciful, the All-Compassionate,
has ordered them to kill.
And as I moved away, sickened by
the frenzied crowds who clung to
every vantage point,
seething like maggots round the gibbet's foot,
I thought of Calvary,
the trumped-up charge of heresy
which crucified our Lord,
the Christ Mahmoud believed
would lead mankind to God;
the Christ who I believe has led
Mahmoud into the Brotherhood
all true believers share,
the seekers after truth
who follow it through death
into life immortal.

*

(Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, leader of a pacifist group of Muslim thinkers called the Republican Brothers, was hanged in Khartoum at the age of 76 on a charge of heresy, on January 18th, 1985. Four of his colleagues under sentence of death were made to watch his execution before they 'recanted' on television the same night.)

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