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Feather's Miscellany: Wilderness

John Waddington-Feather tells of wildernesses he has visited in various parts of the world – and also of an encounter with a desert angel.

I was brought up in a wilderness of sorts, an urban wilderness.

When I was born in 1933, Keighley, a middling mill-town in West Yorkshire, was a filthy place – but don’t mistake me. The folk who lived there were, by and large, as clean-living as any. They battled constantly against the daily deluge of soot and smoke which fell from the skies, swilling and scrubbing the pavements outside their homes and scouring the doorsteps before whitening them with donkey-stone.

Alas, they fought a losing battle against the grime and smoke of the mills, the foundries and factories they worked in until many of them closed in the 1950s and 60s; and with them went the filth they made. Keighley now is a very different place with clean air and clean rivers like most of the old industrial towns of West Yorkshire; a pleasant place to live in.

But even when pollution was at its worst, I could escape to the hills and moors, where I lifted up my eyes daily from our terraced house down Lawkholme Lane on the edge of the town. Up there, high above the town, was another world: moorland, acres and acres of it, heather and ling stretching from horizon to horizon; broken only by dry-stone walls and huge stone boulders, random from the Ice Age. And from another Age on the moors were manmade arcane signs thousands of years old carved onto some of those boulders: a mysterious swastika and cup and rings. Some of those gigantic stones had been placed upright by pre-historic man as markers across the moors. All in all, a kind of wilderness uninhabited by people with only the wind and the long plaintive calls of curlews, or the startling chatter of grouse breaking the silence of the solitude.

There were two other wildernesses I came to know for a time, thousands of miles away from Keighley: Yukon and the desert in Sudan, two very contrasting wildernesses. I served for one summer in Yukon helping in the diocese. It was a deeply moving experience of the spirit. The landscape, the sheer size of it, the mountains and the forests and the tundra were almost overwhelming. The emptiness of population left me floundering at first till I came to feel at one with it, the nearness to the Creator of it all. And, as in every wilderness I’ve lived in I discovered more of myself and my place in the order of things.

I went to Yukon in the summer of 1982 when the weather was pleasantly warm and the daylight very long. In winter it would have been a very different story. Had I lived there then, the temperatures would have been fifty degrees centigrade below freezing or even lower; and the daylight limited to but a few hours each day. So I was there at the most comfortable time of year and was able to travel widely from Whitehorse in the south to Dawson City in the north – as far as I could go by road. To have travelled further north, say to Old Crow, the northernmost settlement of First Nation folk, I’d have had to fly. Beyond Old Crow you’re into the Arctic Circle and Inuit country.

It was while I was journeying through the Yukon wilderness, I felt put in my place – a tiny individual, almost a nothing in the universe. Would that all the self-trumpeting politicians and despots in the ‘civilised’ world were obliged to spend some time in the Yukon wilderness. They’d get life into perspective and themselves into proportion; and they might even have their eyes opened to the wonder and beauties of nature.

I went to Sudan two years after visiting Yukon and what a contrast! I stayed in Sudan for almost a year teaching in Khartoum but travelling often in the desert surrounding the city. Wherever you go in northern Sudan the desert isn’t far away. Only a narrow strip of fertile land alongside the River Nile, where all the farming is done, holds the desert at bay. Even in the middle of Khartoum which lies at the junction of the Blue and White Nile rivers, there was sand, sand, sand. In the streets, in the houses, in the air when the wind got up and a haboob blew sandstorms into the city. Even on a relatively calm day dust-devils whirled silt around the place. When the wind really got up, houses were quickly shuttered as a sort of twilight descended and the sun was blotted out.

When I was there it hadn’t rained properly in seven years and there was drought. With the drought came famine. All around the city refugees were camped in makeshift tents from as far away as Ethiopia in the east and Darfur in the west. Millions died of starvation. There were bodies everywhere and I was brought face to face with a world very different from the comfortable one I’d left behind in England, just five or six flying hours away.

I’d gone out to teach as a volunteer teacher of English to help a teaching crisis in Sudan. Later I found out why there was such a shortage of academics. Most of them had fled the oppressive regime of General Niemieri, who’d imposed Shar’ia law on the country. A few months after I arrived, all hell was let loose. Niemieri was ousted and a civil war broke out between the black largely Christian south and the Arab Muslim north and it all flared up when Ustaz Mahmood Taha was executed.

Mahmood was an old and experienced Professor of Islamic Law at the university. He was a soft spoken, gentle man, well nigh a saint and certainly a martyr. He was a devout Muslim with a strong following among the academic and educated population of Khartoum. He was opposed to any form of violence and challenged the general and his followers’ interpretation of Islamic Law. When the pressure was put on, many academics fled the country after challenging the dictatorship of Niemieri. Many more were to follow and I found myself holed up for a few days till I could get out of the country before the airport was closed.

But before that happened I’d made many friends in Sudan and there was one occasion I remember vividly and with affection. Quite by chance I bumped into a young Sudanese engineer while trying to pay a bill in the administrative offices in town. He’d been educated at Manchester University and while there had developed a taste for western classical music, going to Halle Orchestra Concerts in the city. As I’d taken out some tapes of classical music, I invited him to listen to them in my house which was in an Arab suburb, Kober. But in true Arab fashion he said he was going the next evening to visit some relatives who were traditional nomads, camel-dealers, and were camped temporarily in a desert village just out of town, and would I like to go with him. He was sure I would find it interesting. I did!

He called for me in his pick-up the next evening and we drove some miles into the desert to a little village. He brought with him a huge tape-recorder and amplifier on which my tapes were to be played after we’d eaten. Night falls suddenly in Sudan and by the time we reached the village, it was dark; yet the sky was cloudless and bursting with stars and a crescent moon, the perfect backdrop for a magical evening.

It was still very warm and we dined outside a small mud-brick house squatting on mats on the sand, drinking aragi, a spirit drink made from dates and banned in the city by Shar’ia Law. Anyone caught drinking alcohol in public was flogged. Within a short time our hosts were very drunk and fell asleep on the ground just where they were. There were, of course, no women present. They dined separately in some nearby goatskin tents with the children. Meanwhile, my friend, who’d barely touched his drink, brought his player from the truck and we played classical western music under a canopy of brilliant twinkling stars shining from a velvet sky, till late into the night, when, like the rest, I slept on a mat. All around us were the silhouettes of palm trees, the nomads’ tents and hobbled camels standing motionless as our companions lay out to the world and we listened to Rachmaninov, Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Bach and the rest. Surrealistic!

Later, I paid another very different visit into the desert north of Khartoum. By this time Mahmood had been imprisoned and his followers were hiding up in a desert village. Fred Carruthers, a dour, level-headed Canadian Professor of Law working for a sabbatical term at the university, and myself were invited to a secret prayer-meeting of Mahmood’s followers in a large Arab house in a desert village not far from the main railway line leading out to Egypt, built by Kitchener a century before. On our push bikes we travelled along the railway till we reached a point where we’d been told the village lay. There must have been half a dozen villages, all gleaming in the moonlight for it was full moon. The desert looked beautiful, a collage of black and white.

We’d no idea which village it was and we daren’t leave the railway line. There were no lights except oil lamps twinkling through the windows. We were just about to turn back when the tall figure of a jet-black Sudanese man in a white flowing Arab robe and head-dress came walking in a very dignified way towards us. He certainly had presence and we stopped and waited for him.

When he reached us he said in flawless English, which educated Sudanese spoke, “I’ve been sent to lead you to Ustaz Mahmood’s followers,” and that was all. We followed him in silence wheeling our bikes till we reached one of the villages.

When we reached the right house surrounded by a high wall, he pointed to it and told us to enter; then he walked on out of sight. We knocked on the gate and were scrutinised through a peep-hole before being let in by the gaffir, the caretaker. Inside were Mahmood’s followers, male and female sitting on mats in the sand side by side.

We were warmly welcomed and we thanked them for sending a messenger to lead us to their prayer-meeting, as we’d no idea where the house and village were. Then came the greatest surprise of the evening. Their leader told us they’d sent no messenger, but they’d prayed Allah would lead us there safely.

Afterwards, both Fred Carruthers and myself talked about the mysterious stranger who’d led us across the desert to the house. We came to the conclusion he was an angel for he had that strange air about him, a divine presence - and Fred was a hard-nosed Methodist! Sadly, Ustaz Mahmood Taha was hanged publicly in front of my house at Kober Prison not long afterwards and his sect went into hiding or fled the country and I, too, had to hide up.

There is much more I could tell you about my stay in Sudan and my visits to desert places around the city, but suffice it for now to leave you with that story of the desert angel and St Paul’s observation that we sometimes unwittingly meet angels in our daily lives. How true.

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