Candy from the sheikh: My last conversation with Turabi

Three years ago, Hassan al-Turabi (1932-2016) — Sudan’s foremost theologian, who is known affectionately by his followers and ironically by his enemies as the sheikh — offered me some candy.

I glanced up to see him holding out the bowl, eyes modestly downcast and bowing elegantly in his white Sudanese robes, his beard white, trimmed and pointed. Charming. There was something absurdly Faustian about that scene in a living room in Khartoum. I hesitated. Then I reached out a hand and took one.

I was there to interview him for my PhD dissertation, and there was something frightening about the notion. Not fear that he would be frightening, but that he would not be. “He is extremely … convincing,” my uncle told me darkly when he heard I was going. “And then, “You had better be careful.”

I knew that one already. Islamism in Sudan could be blamed on no one if not on young Sudanese men, studying in British universities, visiting the house of Hassan al-Turabi. And so I prepared my defenses as best I could and arrived at his house.

I walked past security guards into a quiet house with a living room full of row after row of foldable metal chairs with no one sitting in them, every single one facing an empty stage, and into a small private room to begin one of many conversations over the next few days. The conversation that day was to continue through the morning, past noon, into the afternoon and end shortly before sunset.

After the candy, he set the bowl down and sat for almost a full minute without looking at me, looking down at his hands, quietly. I asked a friend of mine once who had joined the Brotherhood while still a child how it had happened. Well, he said, remembering, he used to go to this place, and there was this old man. Every time he went, he would give him a piece of candy. He was very nice. “A great guy, beautiful, respectable, kind. And he teaches you some Quran and some hadith and he gives you some candy, all of which are things that are all very nice … all, in and of themselves, very positive things … Who in their right minds does not like any of these things?” He kept going to see him and then one day found he was part of the Brotherhood.

I sucked on the candy and watched the old man warily. He seemed shy, painfully so, and had the look of someone standing backstage before the curtains were drawn, but as he began to speak about politics a curious thing began to happen. I had never cared for him as a speaker when I watched him on television — even though he was known to be a good one. He had a honeyed, almost saccharine manner about him. He laughed too often and too placatingly. In person, he was contagiously, almost boyishly excited about politics.

Oh dear, I thought as soon as he began to speak. Democracy — not as a mechanism, but as a real, living and direct practice. The right and the responsibility that people have to decide their own fate. The freedom of the market. How little government should interfere, and how necessarily, at times. Freedom and equality. The law. Its limitations. Islam. Of course. Oh for God’s sake, I asked myself desperately, how the hell is someone supposed to come to a fight armed against, at one and the same time, both liberal democracy and Islam.

Not that there was a difference. As the taste of candy lingered on my tongue, I found out that Turabi found the necessity of the free market economy and minimal government both in Adam Smith and in the Quran’s Surat al-Nisa’. The sovereignty of the popular will was found in the prophetic history before arriving, without explanation, in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Equality and freedom of association sprang at us mid-conversation, sometimes from the pages of  John Locke — the father of liberalism — and sometimes from Madina, where I myself had found them many times.

The more we talked, the more charming he became. He had all the natural egalitarianism of a modern European academic, the concern with manners of an Azhari scholar and the generosity of a desert Arab. Or perhaps it was the egalitarian of an Arab, the generosity of an Azhari and the manners of a European. In any case, all this was a pleasure to hear and experience and, mesmerized, I don’t remember when the taste of candy disappeared from my mouth. It may have been when I stepped out of his house, or it may have been before that, or after, as I walked in the harsh Sudanese sun and the dust, or later when I returned home to the history books.

One way or another, I found that I had come to regret taking that candy and all I had left as I read the history was the bitterness that comes over the tongue after something excessively sweet is taken, and — it being Sudan — the taste of dust. I tasted it in my mouth, and it had covered the books in the few hours I had left them on the table. Remembering the interview, I feel guilt.

In June of 1989, Turabi seized total power over the country by military coup. The story of the next two decades has been told too many times, and like all acts that words do not encompass, the words only seem to insult the people who suffered them: war, electrocution, genocide, rape, murder, poverty, humiliation, injustice. There are words for that kind of thing, but sometimes all words can do is to draw a veil over the reality of a thing. And sometimes that’s a kind of mercy, maybe, to only see the effects of things through the gentle, partial drawing of a veil.

Now, the effects of these particular things had reached even that small, middle-class apartment in Korba, in Cairo’s neighborhood of Heliopolis. Behind Cinema Normandy and the kiosk that still sells, for some reason, one worn, used copy after copy after copy of Great Expectations, my grandfather had finally settled to spend his last days, quietly reading secondhand books written by long dead Englishmen. A particular type of man often arrived at that apartment, soldierly, at the door. They came in a steady stream. There was rarely anything too formal about them, but you could always tell them from other men. There was a kind of weight to their waiting at the door, their requests to see the general, and their practiced patience as the general prepared himself for the audience. Though my grandfather and I rarely required a space between us, these were times when I always seemed to find myself on the far side of the curtain that separated that old living room, with its view high above Cairo, from the rest of the house. But the curtain was old, too, and almost always, there was a parting that showed the general at his armchair somewhere between a witness and a judge, the young soldier across the room from him somewhere between a subordinate and a son, and an air heavy with regret. Men cried in that room, I think. But what I will always remember is that one man, serene with his dignity gathered around him, whom I let in.

Later, as I walked by on the way to the kitchen, I saw through the parting in the curtain the man standing very tall, baring himself to my grandfather, his shirt stripped off, his back muscular and ravaged and undone by deep wounds, furrows, disorderly and frenzied and cruel. He stood there, naked and helpless, with nothing between him and the world. My grandfather — who had made his own mistakes — chin up, eyes looking past his regal aquiline nose, looking at him with the gravity, sadness and generosity that can only be given by a man of command who both regrets and does not regret that he no longer has the power to give anything except the fullness of his attention. And that was the tableau. And then I turned away.

But in our subsequent meetings, after we were done with the PhD and the questions, after I had asked Turabi formally and objectively what he had done, and why, and how, and noted it all down in clear legible words on paper, and as we were served bitter, black Sudanese coffee, I found myself wondering: If a man could regret taking it, perhaps another man could regret offering candy. I noticed more and more as the conversation went on that the slow hum of the air conditioner, the softness of the lights through the thick curtains, the rows and rows of empty seats outside were all hypnotic with regret. I heard myself asking him — and though it was a cruel thing to ask, I found that I asked it without judgment — “What went wrong?”

I remember that he never hesitated. Even as his whole demeanor changed completely from the man who had offered me the candy to something less charming, less shy, more certain and more sad, he said, “We never changed ourselves.” And that seemed to him to be the root of his regrets. And he told me sad stories about power. It seemed important to take it, he said. “We were focused so much on taking power, we never really thought about what would happen after we got it. These things change people.” He was talking about the military. Because do not forget that there were enemies. America would not allow them the opportunity to come democratically to a position of governance. Their fellow Sudanese plotted against them. His most implacable enemy, and brother-in-law, was Sadiq al-Mahdi — prime minister during the first Sudanese civil war. So many others, too. Power first, and then we would see.

“I didn’t even know [Omar] al-Bashir. Never even laid eyes on him. The night before the coup, they brought him to me and he put his hand in mine and took an oath that he would act in the interests of the country.” And that was that. “But once someone has power,” he told me, like someone conveying a revelation, “they refuse to be told what to do.” He went on: “After a while, we told them it was time. People can decide for themselves now, we have put in place the right conditions. But an army officer cannot accept that. ‘Have these civilians order me about,’ he says. ‘Never’.” He makes a helpless gesture with his hand and shakes his head.

Not just power, either. Everything changed people. “People you had known for a long time. People you had put in certain positions precisely because you knew that they had no interest in money, for example, had never had any interest in money. You would find that they had stolen, or taken bribes or favored one thing over another because of the money.” The helplessness, even when in power, to change the people and events he had begun came next.

“We tried to change things. We offered people money. We said to them, here is your official salary, and here, take this, take this, all this money, and if you need more we can give it to you, only don’t steal, just don’t steal. We hoped that would stop them from stealing. But it didn’t.” There was something painful about the simplicity of the realization. “Greed,” he said, still bewildered.

It was all the more painful to see because no one — not his self-righteous liberal critics, not his covetous Islamist partners and later competitors, not even my father who carried after all these years the bitterness of an ex-Communist whose whole revolution had been hijacked and aborted by this one man, nor the general who had in his own way left because of the coup — none of these people had ever accused him of caring about money.

I didn’t really care about the content of these regrets, not because they were not true, but because they were too apparently true. It was too little, came too late, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. Also, I both believed him and didn’t believe him. In any case, I knew, and who knows, maybe he did also, that they were not in fact the roots of the problem at all.

The regret itself was the thing. It filled the room slowly and completely, like a sweet taste in the mouth, and as the conversation went on, it seemed that we had never really been doing anything but making an incongruous collection of the memories of one man’s minor regrets.  It began with what still seemed to be political questions. When I asked him, cruelly, about why he had betrayed Carlos the Jackal — the Marxist guerrilla fighter who became a symbol of Cold War anti-imperialism — to the French authorities, after extending him his guarantee of safety, I expected him to tell me, as he had told me repeatedly over the past days, that this was simply the nature of politics. Instead, I felt him draw away as if in pain.

“I told him,” he said, “I said to him please, we will take you wherever you want to go. Name a place, and we will arrange it. But he just wouldn’t listen.” He paused. “When you have influence, people think you control every little thing,” he said quietly. “But you don’t.” Even his own brothers would not listen anymore. “I went to Cairo right after [Hosni] Mubarak was gone to speak to the Brothers. I told them, don’t take it yet, everything is too uncertain. Don’t make the mistakes we did. But they only said, the things that happen in a place like Sudan cannot possibly happen in a place like Egypt.” He shook his head. “You know how Egyptians are,” he told me. “They never listen.”

The regrets became tied to events more and more distant, drew farther and farther away from his own moment of power and toward his childhood, in such a manner that I wonder now how it’s possible that I did not have a premonition of his death. I asked him, because I had all sorts of clever theories, about the effects of the tensions between the strict and modern education he received at the British Gordon Memorial College on the one hand, and on the other the strict and traditional education at the hands of his father that had filled his after-school hours and vacations.

He answered me with his own clever theories, and then he said, “You know, I never wanted to be made different from my friends this way. What I really wanted,” and here he gave me a wistful, shy and childlike smile, “was to play football after school.” And that one tiny, childish regret is enough to make anyone understand things they would otherwise only have read in books. Not just about Turabi, but about his enemies and about us. About my father and about the general. How difficult it is to live two lives: one for the English boarding school and one for home; one for God and one for Adam Smith; one for your family at the farm picking cotton in the sun and the dust, and the other for Karl Marx.  How difficult to know that you are not being educated, but groomed. I wonder if there is a difference between a man seeing himself at a distance like this and hubris.

Either way, it is a painful thing, it seems to me. It must have been difficult, the erudite Sudanese academic and former Communist Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim wrote once, for Turabi to have seen his father — the venerable scholar valued by the community, the sheikh and the Sharia judge — be dismissed as a sad remnant of some old way of life by children his son’s age, who understood nothing. To serve a foreign, British state as a man of deep Arab and Islamic roots. To see learning that he must have considered alien and disturbingly superficial take the children of his generation. The old man, who has a reputation for learning and wisdom, called the elite graduates of the College “awlad saakit”: just children, just immature children. But he sent his son to be one of them. Ibrahim thinks these contradictions were causative of the whole bloody recent history of the country.

I realized something, while hearing his regrets — that Turabi, my father, my grandfather and everyone else had known all along that all of us were implicated in these regrets, and God only knows going back for how long.

“Who are your people?” Turabi asked me near the end. I told him. He looked at me coolly, and for the first time since we had spoken there was a distance, perhaps of blame, perhaps of something else, to his regret. “Your grandfather,” he said, meaning the general’s grandfather, “was my father’s teacher.” He looked at me. “He is the one who made my father take that job as a judge. My father hated the idea. It frightened him. But your grandfather insisted.”

In any case, they’re all dead now: Turabi and the old general, their fathers and grandfathers and all the young men and women who perished because of the civil wars and revolutions, and governments — foreign or otherwise — that they had established, or supported or fought. My own defense against the sheikh held, though it took over 300 pages to elaborate. Some things I know I should have done differently, probably. I should have been tougher on him, more honest, more courageous. I should have told him about that man, half-naked, scarred and helpless in our living room. I should have been kinder to him, and not asked him that question about Carlos. There’s one thing I don’t regret, but only because it passed, and because through what came after it I find that now, I know that we are not so different from him, and I also know that I want nothing for him but mercy. I don’t regret having taken — but only for one single, finite and dangerous moment — some candy from the sheikh.

Postscript

 Human Rights Watch biography of Turabi

“Hassan al-Turabi, a graduate of Khartoum University School of Law and of the Sorbonne, became a leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s. When General Jafa’ar Nimeiri took power in a coup in 1969, Turabi’s Islamist party was dissolved and its members arrested, only to return to political life in 1977 in reconciliation with Nimeiri, whose attorney general Turabi became. Nimeiri made Sharia the law of the land in Sudan in September 1983, but Sharia amputations and hangings contributed to a popular nonviolent overthrow of Nimeiri in 1985, and the reinstatement of parliamentary rule. In the 1986 elections, Turabi led a new faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Islamic Front (NIF), to third place in the national assembly. The NIF sought to create an Islamic state in Sudan. In 1989, from behind the scenes, this party participated in a military coup overthrowing the elected government. From that time until 2001, Turabi was the power behind the throne, whether as leader of the NIF or later as speaker of the assembly. He led the creation of the NIF police state and associated NIF militias to consolidate Islamist power and prevent a popular uprising. The NIF police state and militias committed many human rights abuses, including summary executions, torture, ill treatment, arbitrary detentions, denial of freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, and violations of the rules of war, particularly in the South, where a civil war was being waged from 1983 to the present. In 1990-91 Turabi also established a regional umbrella for political Islamist militants, the Popular Arab Islamic conference (PAIC), headquartered in Khartoum. It was formed with the immediate aim of opposing American involvement in the Gulf War. Turabi became its secretary general. Under his guidance, the Sudan government created an open-door policy for Arabs, including Turabi’s Islamist associate Osama bin Laden, who made his base in Sudan in 1990-1996. The efforts of the NIF to refashion Sudan into an Islamic state bore mixed results because of the opposition it inspired and the civil war. The government of Sudan ceased hosting PAIC in 2000.”

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Waleed Almusharaf