Issue 114 |
Spring 2011


It was 1986 and I was staying with my brother in Omdurman close to Khartoum, where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet. Omdurman was vast, the size of the city, but it was not a city in any way that I recognized. There were no wide streets or squares or municipal buildings, and services, such as electricity and running water and garbage collection, were rudimentary. There was a curfew, and the army was tensely visible in the streets. There were rumors of groups touring the city to break up private parties; they poured any alcohol they found down the drains.

Night fell in that world almost without warning, and there was something dense and magical about the last five minutes of unfolding light. In the often fading electric light, I listened to the BBC World Service until the sound of the radio, too, faded. Most people began to move around in the half-hour before dawn. The dawns were spectacular, the horizon a fierce pink and the sky a clear washed blue, the light sharp, piercing, exact.

My brother spoke Arabic so I had the news of the street translated for me. Neighbors were cheerful; there were many jokes. They called my brother motorbike because he had a motorbike; I was motorbike’s brother. When I first arrived, my brother told me that one of the servants next door, a young man, had disappeared. No one knew where he went. My brother did not think he was abducted or anything like that, just that he had gone, perhaps he had found work elsewhere.

And one day he returned. When he said he had been to Nyala, everyone believed him. Nyala was in the south of Darfur; there was no road between Khartoum and there, just a thousand miles or so of desert. Trucks made the journey in convoy, but it was not easy and made less so by the drought. I had traveled a few hundred miles in that direction and it was tough going; there were dead animals everywhere and abandoned villages and dried-up wells.

And this guy had been there and back. Or so it seemed. He appeared to have done it on his own; he had no money and had no family there. For a while he was the street’s prize subject of discussion. When he came to visit us, he was given tea. My brother and I sat down opposite him and my brother translated. “What was Nyala like?” my brother asked him.

The returned neighbor smiled and sipped his tea and thought for a minute. “Nyala,” he said, “was quoise.”

“What was the journey like?” my brother asked.

The guy smiled again. “The journey,” he said, “was quoise.”

He grinned in a sort of triumph. My brother explained to me that quoise meant “good,” or “not too bad.” The visitor continued to sip his tea; no question we asked him could elicit more than the word quoise. The people he met? The army? The villages? The desert? The truck drivers? All quoise, according to our visitor. Nothing else.

It struck me then that if everyone were like him, there would be no stories told, no stories written, no poems, no songs. It would all be quoise. All dull, left there, no glittering words or images to describe the real or imagined journey we are on, or have just taken.

It took me years to know better. Henry James described a colleague who wrote a much-praised work of fiction about the lives of French Protestant youths. When asked how she knew so much about the subject, she said simply that she was passing an open doorway in Paris once and she saw some of these youths. That was enough for her imagination, as James says, “to trace the implication of things.” Our visitor that day in Omdurman, and the one word he used, should be enough for any writer. The look on his face, the silence around the word, stood for a great deal, left vast spaces for the imagination. From such strange curfewed roots, such reticences—a second of silence, a syllable of speech, a memory from 1985—poets and prose writers make a raid on the inarticulate; we take what we need when the time is right. What happens next is what matters.