Liberal or conservative, government or opposition, defendant or claimant, clashes or peacetime. Such terms are the only terms I was familiar with prior to my work with Tangiers International as a field agent in Sudan. I hadn’t realized that there is a whole life that exists in between these terms. In fact, most life experiences lay between these terms.
Working as a field agent in Tangiers International over the past year has opened my eyes to see a country I called home, but wasn’t living in, to experience a culture I claimed as mine without knowing it, to speak in a language I referred to it as my mother tongue but not recognizing the other tongues using the same language.
Throughout the past year, I have travelled to several conflict areas in Sudan. On every trip I have received both hospitality and hostility, many times from the very same people.
My job description as an independent verifier and facilitator for insurance claims, situated me to play both roles, a representative for the defendant (client) as well as a sympathizer for the claimant (victim). In the beginning it was an uncomfortable position to be in, particularly when the case involved loss of life or permanent injuries, or when I had to deal with grieving family members mourning the loss of their loved ones or an injured victim whose life suddenly changed and was now struggling to start a new life with a disability.
However, it is an interesting job, to say the least. As it offers real life lessons that we don’t get in taught in schools or read about in books. Sometimes it seems like fictional stories or fairy tales, yet they are REAL. Other times they may seem like action movies or adventure exploration journeys, nevertheless with a real prospect of danger and risk. I recall one experience with “armed robbers” on the outskirts of the western province. The driver wanted to speed up and tried to flee when he saw them under a tree. I screamed at him and convinced him to stop the car and to pull over. “Your car is not faster that their bullets” I told him, so he pulled over. I managed to talk our way through this situation safely, in fact we were offered food and coffee and eventually continued our trip. And sure enough, we met them again on the way back but this time as new friends and dinner guests. That experience taught me that not all armed men are robbers. They didn’t attempt to rob us.
Every time my assignment took me to a new place, I did a preliminary mini research on the destination that was heading to. In most cases I would get a take caution and dangerous picture of what I could be expected there. “It is a black hole” some would say, others insisted you take a ration and food, and some insisted you should be well armed. Upon my arrival, many times I find a different picture, at least not the picture that my research portrayed.
Having said that, I wouldn’t claim it was an easy ride as we did experience some challenges and skintight situations in such areas. Being perceived and looked at as outsiders by the community we were dealing with could create an uneasy environment for cooperation which could hinder our investigations. Furthermore, the nature of conflict in the region has divided the communities into pro and anti, Arab and African, rebel and government to the point that you could easily be labeled as an “agent” or a “representative for a greedy foreign investor” who is capitalizing and profiting on the regional conflict.. Such perception is felt and noticeable mainly when the community either distances themselves from us or shows some hostility towards us. We usually break this when we start to explain who we are and what we do.
Among the other challenges we face is the variety of local customs and culture in each community. These range from the greetings to the food. But the most challenging is the business process itself. In these simple communities, routine business procedures can be seen as a sign of mistrust.
For instant, I recall a case which involved a settlement for a fatal accident which involved fidiah, a blood money transaction. And as a cautious agent who was travelling to a conflict zone known for armed robbery, I had arranged to transfer the funds to a local branch of a bank. The beneficiary had failed to provide his bank account in order to make the safe transfer of money when he signs the settlement, so I and my colleague decided that we would make the trip to the town and meet with the Elders Council, then we could take the beneficiary to the bank and make the payout there in the bank in the presence of the local judge and witnessed by the bank manager. That was the plan.
However, when we arrived to the town, later than expected due to a road closure, the Elder Council who had shown some initial hostility and signs of mistrusts, demanded to see the money (blood money). When I explained that there is a protocol in place that states that I should NOT carry the client’s cash and that I would only hand out the money inside the bank in the presence of the authorities, they took this as an insult to the council’s integrity. My colleague eventually negotiated a plan which he considered a minimum risk plan which involved me being escorted by two armed “non-uniform” men in a no-license-plate cruiser to the bank and withdraw the money and bring it back to the community Elders Council where they would sign the settlement. Of course, I had no intentions to carry out that plan either as it would still be risky, but at least I could go to the bank and have them verify that the amount is truly in the account. On the way to the bank I made my calls to the bank manager (whom I had communicated with several times before I started the trip) and explained to him the dilemma and asked him not to give me the money no matter what. Fortunately, he was very cooperative and verified to my escort that the money is in the account and explained it to them.
” Mr. Hafiz has initiated this transaction long time ago”, he said to the men as he pretended to start the withdrawal procedures. Then suddenly he told them, “There is not enough available cash in the bank and the safe is locked and it’s too late to reopen it”. So, we went back to the council and explained. Only when I went back was I told that the case file had been transferred to the state court which was located in the capital city of the state.
Again, my colleague negotiated an agreement that the head of the council and the beneficiary were welcomed to join us in our vehicles and head back to the city so we could finalize the case the next day. He also offered them accommodation in the city. And eventually that was what we had managed to do, settle the case successfully and safe. The interesting thing was, up to this date we maintained a very good relationship with members of the council and the community there. I even met them and shared a good time in my recent trip to the region. Another memorable incident was the fire fighters arrest. I was arrested by firefighters who were chasing one of our client’s vehicles. It started when I was in the street having a coffee and I noticed a fire truck chasing one of our client’s vehicles. So, I thought it would be good to capture some photos of the incident. I was swarmed by several state firefighters and forced into their fire truck and accused of being a spy and an agent for their enemies. Throughout the ride I tried to explain the situation but to no avail. I was taken to the fire station for a few hours after which I managed to get my phone back and make few calls. After eventually being released and after having lunch with them and few laughs, I realized I had lived through the experience of being accused of espionage and then treated as a patriot, all within a few hours from the same people. I would also like to admit that the firetruck ride gave me a chance to fulfill a childhood dream which was to ride in a fire truck.
Al Jazar: A Minimalist Approach
On Al Jazar Street in al Riyadh Khartoum, under a large white sign spelling out the word “Al Jazar” in big bold black-lined red letters, is a great little take out for a delicious kufta sandwich. As the namesake explicates, the enterprise is a byproduct…