He calls it “Dharphur”. When you correct him — “Darfur” — Mohammad Majibul Khan chuckles and says, “For me, it is Dharphur… like Rampur.” The perky hotel manager is the “go to” guy for wary travellers in Nyala, a city in war-torn Darfur.
“Be careful what you say to whom,” is the first pearl of wisdom from Khan, 26, a native of Assam who finds himself in the bloodied western region of Sudan, Africa’s largest country.
A hub for foreigners, El Firdaus hotel, like Ricks Café, is always under the vigilant gaze of local authorities. The setting is Darfur instead of Casablanca, but the war-time ingredients are still spies, secrecy and danger. “They know everything that is going on here,” says Khan who is the Rick Blaine. of these parts. The movement of outsiders is tracked. Journalists are accompanied by government agents; phone lines are believed to be bugged and emails monitored.
Khan walks a tight rope everyday, keeping his guests safe and not offending the powers that be. “Here it only takes a minute for things to go bad,” he says. “They will arrest first and ask questions later.” As a military jeep with an open machine gun hurtles down the street, the hotel manager looks away. “It makes me uncomfortable,” he admits, smiling sheepishly.
Nyala is a small oasis barricaded by stretches of sand. The thinly scattered shrubs accentuate the breathtaking expanse of the Sahara desert. The town isn’t an active war zone but everywhere there are signs of the brutal conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Soldiers in green uniforms go back and forth from the city to the interiors of the untamed province. The crowds scatter for the hulking armoured vehicles of the United Nations peacekeepers. The displacement camps on the outskirts of the city are remnants of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.
Two years ago, Khan applied to a hotel company for a job to work abroad. The manager admits he did not read the terms of the contract properly before signing the papers. “It all happened so fast,” he explains. “My dream was to see the world and earn some money.” Like scores of other contract workers, Khan blindly signed the papers and rushed off abroad. After working in Khartoum for a few months, the young recruit, unaware of the region’s tragedy, was sent to Darfur. “I only learnt about all these killing and deaths when I landed here,” he recalls.
Khan says he hasn’t yet got an increase in pay or a break to go home. Nor does his family know where he works. “Why worry them,” he shrugs. “I thought this was temporary and someone would come and take me away.” But the days crept into months. Now it is almost a year. Next time, he vows he will read his contract papers carefully. “I wanted to go to Japan,” he says wistfully, kicking up dust on the sandy road of the market place.
Despite his circumstances, Khan uses his time to make the “Wild Wild West” as homely as possible. From dawn to dusk, he flits about, with a mop and a cheeky grin. The lone crusader bangs out a clear image from the television, fiddles with the Internet, battles the drainage system and even manages to dish up some spicy food.
Sudanese affinity for Indians also runs deep. The first trader, Lavchand Amarchand Batavia, washed up on the coastal city of Suakin after his boat capsized in the Red Sea in 1856. Since then, the trading community has grown to around 2,000 all over Sudan. Bollywood, too, plays an enticing tune. “Shah Rukh Khan” is the shared language that cracks the tension between an exclusively Arab speaking official and an uneasy Indian visitor on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.
Old alliances took on a new meaning when Sudan began to export oil in 1999. Today, India is Sudan’s third largest investor in the oil sector, having pumped in more than one billion dollars. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh has a 25 per cent stake in Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, an oil exploration company it runs jointly with China, Malaysia and Sudan.
But these close relations have escaped the wrath that the international community unleashed on Beijing for its ties with the regime responsible for the carnage in Darfur. Tensions have ratcheted up in the region since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in March. Khan knew something was amiss when 13 international NGOs were expelled recently. The hotel lost most of its customers.
Still, Khan isn’t worried about slow business. Indeed, a motley crew of journalists, businesspersons, humanitarian workers and doctors is parked at El Firdaus. “There are always crazy people who want to come here,” he chuckles. When bidding farewell, Khan reveals how lonely he will be until the next Indian blunders into his part of the world. “Talking to someone from home is like going home,” he says.
As the last cup of mint tea is sipped at the grimy airport cafeteria, the words of Rick Blaine walking across the foggy runway at the end of Casablanca strikes the right note. “Khan, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Betwa Sharma is a New York-based freelance journalist