‘People say music is a universal language. I say guns are too’

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I was in Delhi recently, when a friend saw the shattered screen of my phone and asked what had happened. I had bought the phone in Sri Lanka the summer before, but to explain what had happened to the screen I had to go back to November 2013.

I was working in Sudan on a three-week programme with a US organisation that runs music, dance, spoken word and theatre workshops. I was leading the ensemble programme, working with student bands in putting together various American and Sudanese tunes for an upcoming concert.

It was one of the last days that I would be in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. I was in a local taxi that was taking me from my hotel to the university. When we stopped at a red light, I took out my camera to take a picture of the happenings on the street. No sooner had I rested my camera out of the window, a man grabbed my wrist and proceeded to try to rip the camera out of my hand. A struggle ensued. He reached into the vehicle to unlock the door, I smashed his hand against the lock to keep the door shut. He was shouting angry things in Arabic and I was cursing at him in English, neither understood the other, when he backed away and walked to a soldier who was standing at the roadside. There is a large soldier presence throughout Khartoum. Looking down at my bloody knuckles, I told the driver to go. He didn’t budge. At this point it dawned on me that this was not a petty thief trying to take my expensive camera. It soon became clear that it was a plain-clothed Sudanese intelligence officer. The soldier, who now accompanied him, had an AK-47 assault rifle at the ready as he marched to the car.

Soon, I found myself huddled in a beat-up, old taxi. I was seated in the back with an armed solider. I had no idea where we were going. No one spoke English.

I had heard stories in the past: that the government in Sudan often detains people indefinitely, that people often disappear for years, that you are not guaranteed rights to legal aid. As these thoughts ran through my head, I pulled out my phone. I wanted to call my programme coordinator but my phone was snatched and smashed on the car door. “No phones!” yelled the man who initiated this whole episode. For the first time I began to feel fear.

After 10 minutes of driving, we came up to an unmarked compound and the soldier made a motion with his gun. Some people say music is a universal language. I say guns are too.

I was taken into a small room and interrogated. With his broken English, an officer questioned. “Are you a spy?”, “Where is your passport?”, “Why are you taking pictures?”, “What is an American doing alone in Khartoum?”, “Who do you work for?” After about 30 minutes and a few rounds of questioning I was deemed safe. He told me that it was illegal to take pictures in Sudan without pre-approved written permission from the government. He then demanded $100 to pay the fine. When I told him I didn’t have money, he offered to take me to the ATM to get cash, whereupon I threatened to contact the American embassy.

He gave up and let me go, but not before graciously offering me a cup of tea. I responded with some of the only Arabic words I know: “Ney, shukran.” Happy to be out of that compound and in the sunlight again, I left the room and got into a taxi as quickly as I could and made it to the university just in time for my class.

Shortly after retelling this story to my friend, I forgot my phone in an auto rickshaw in New Delhi. It is now lost to thestreets of this giant metropolis, but the story will surely stay with me for a long time to come.



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