Page 2 of 2   <      

In Khartoum, a Surreally Mundane Experience

We looked into the office where the alleged authenticating was going on. The officials were dozing.

I phoned a few key people in the outside world and described the situation. Then my colleagues and I decided we'd try a kind of test. We gathered our gear and headed for the door.

"We're leaving!" we said. "We're not arrested, right? So we're leaving! Bye!"

They gently told us we were not leaving, but the move at least brought a change of scenery: we were escorted to a more official-looking building a few miles away. Walking in, we glanced into a room where perhaps two dozen young men in khakis -- the dreaded Sudanese security forces -- were asleep on the floor like so many kindergartners at nap time.

We were shown to a room with oversized, overstuffed cream-colored leather couches. Here came the Pepsi. And this time, a TV. It was playing the Sudanese equivalent of the Home Shopping Network. The air was hot, the couches comfortable. What was Usher doing? Did another hour pass? Two? I was sleepy. I looked over at my colleague: his hat was tipped over his eyes.

At some point in the drowsy afternoon haze, it became clear that the main threat was not prison, but passivity -- slipping into what we now realized was a beurocratic vortex of indecision, indifference and endless naps. We decided to summon a show of righteous outrage.

"It has been hours! We were properly credentialed! Arrest us or let us go free!" we demanded into the void of Sudanese officialdom. Usher seemed mildly annoyed. He agreed to take us to his boss.

We crossed the city to a third location -- my colleagues and me in our yellow taxi, a couple military trucks escorting us. At some point, the taxi driver pulled over and reprimanded Usher. "I told him to remember that we are human beings!" our driver said.

So in the sixth hour, we convoyed over to a cafeteria for chicken shwarma sandwiches. Then we rolled down the wide, palmy streets to the third building -- high windows, no sign -- and on to our final destination, a small, unmarked house.

It was in a residential neighborhood across from an eyeglass shop and around the corner from Ozone, an outdoor cafe for Sudanese yuppies and expats who sip cappuccinos under a fine mist spray.

We went in the house. The guard behind the desk offered us cherry soda, and went back to watching TV -- the nightly news, then Law and Order, and a commercial for the show Prison Break.

We went outside, and the sun was going down. Soon a guy we'd not seen before walked out and over to us. He apologized for the inconvenience, and in a dully mysterious, lackluster manner befitting the day, told us we could go.

<       2

© 2008 The Washington Post Company