The first five stories of 2018 are all from a trip the bearded stranger made to Kassala in Sudan. Different characters tell their stories as they meet the stranger in different environments: a school, a courthouse, a coach, a dinner, a bedouin encampment.
My cousin’s nephew brought the bearded stranger round for breakfast before we left. He was so thin: we fattened him up a bit with some fresh bread, dipped in a communal dish of ful (beans) and salad covered in a layer of oil and cheese. We then drove out of Kassala to the village where I am the Sheikh, or traditional leader. It's close to the Eritrean border. When we arrived in his hut the fat police sergeant was eating noisily. He looked guilty when he saw me, pushed aside the bowl of meat and saluted ingratiatingly. He had clearly not prepared for our half-day in the village so we drank his tea while he rushed out and started shouting to others to get things ready. I noticed that the door to the magazine was not shut let alone locked.
Eventually, in a large hut which had been cleared for the court session, we were ready. My cousin’s nephew sat at his desk, off at the side. His job was taking notes: both the minutes of the cases and the decisions, as well as the money for any fines we collected. As the Sheikh of the village I sat on a raised platform, and alongside me were two advisers who lived locally and were respected.
The sergeant brought the accused and the plaintiffs in one by one. He pushed and shoved them, and clipped one hard around the ear when he didn’t stand quickly enough. We dealt with each of their cases. There were several disputes about land: ‘he has stolen a bit of my field’, ‘his animals ate my vegetables’. My advisers helped with those and I was very abusive to one man they told me was a serial complainant and liar. A juvenile assault brought a 25 piastre fine for the young man, and an attempted rape was sufficiently well-proved to mean the man was taken to Kassala for imprisonment pending a trial.
The day when someone brings the sergeant in front of me for smuggling and abuse of office will be a good day. No-one can be so fat out here on a policeman’s wages.