I really did want to help the bearded stranger and his friend because the policeman was just being bloody-minded – and I loved my home town. Suakin is mostly a ruin, on its little ellipitical island jutting into the sea, but it had once been rich and important: a key Ottoman, and then British port until Port Sudan was built down the coast.
‘Where can we stay?’ they had asked when they entered the police hut.
‘Show me your warqa,’ demanded the policeman. ‘No warqa, no Istirahat.’
They had travel permits from the Sudanese government but no warqa to allow them to stay at the Istirahat, the only rest-house in Suakin.
‘Don’t worry about the warqa’ I told them. ‘There’s a thousand ruined houses you can stay in. Go and have a good look round. You’ll see glorious coral-built houses with superb stucco decoration. They were once merchants’ palaces but are now close to rubble – often four stories with wooden window shutters and balconies, but no floors. Keep an eye out for the roof of the mosque: we built it using old railway track. Please please come back and tell me how you got on.’
They came back the next morning. They brought me a tin of fish and some memories of normal life!
‘ We slept in a house with a roof and lots of bats,’ they told me. ‘We bathed in the sea, had ful and tea for breakfast in the main square of the new town. We watched the lorries, donkeys and men being loaded with boxes, tobacco, plastic containers and other goods; we admired the swords, camel-sticks, whips and daggers in the market. Thanks so much for your recommendations.’
I saw them leave through the old town gate (‘Gordon’s Gate’) which is now so abandoned by city wall and town that it looks like it’s protecting nothing from nothing. I envied them their wandering, the everyday sights they had found so interesting - and even more I envied their departure through the gate. Any day soon the police van will be coming to transfer me from the cage in this police post to the more secure prison in Port Sudan.