Edward Tweedly

Have you read Herodotus?
In March 1980 I was in Khartoum, Sudan. I had traveled to Egypt to see you-know-what. While there I decided to go and visit my former London flat-mate, who was now working for the British Council in Khartoum. He wasn't there, but I ended up staying with his neighbours, the Campbells:

The Campbells were generous people who looked after me in Khartoum. They took me down one afternoon to the Sudan Club, haunt of British expatriates since 1902, just after Khartoum was relieved by Kitchener.

Unfortunately they couldn't sign me in as their guest that day, because it was Family Afternoon: only members and their families. Mrs Campbell noted that bachelor members were allowed to sign in a guest that day, in lieu of a family; so she went off to find a single man. She found one, but his normal sense of cameraderie among the British in a far-off land was overruled by the fact that he didn't know me. He wouldn't sign me in if we hadn't been introduced: and the Campbells couldn't introduce me, because he hadn't been introduced to them. The resourceful Mrs Campbell solved this: she hunted down the Club's oldest member, who had been in Khartoum so long that he knew everyone. Sure enough, he knew the unmarried gentleman who had the power to sign me in; so he introduced the Campbells to him, they introduced me to him, and he signed me in!

The telephone service in Khartoum had been out of action for three weeks, but one day the Campbells' phone let out one long ring. Bill blinked once in surprise, and then answered in careful but fluent Arabic. Then he replaced the handset. "It was a wrong number," he said.

Bill's linguistic abilities were stunning even by the standards of the people you meet while travelling. When he did his National Service in the British Army, he was delighted to be sent to Suez. While the other guys spent their leave in Port Said, he went into Cairo and read hieroglyphics. In one conversation in his house, he spoke of ancient writers who mentioned the Nile, and said, "Have you read Herodotus?" No, I said, I had always meant to. "There's a nice passage," he said. "Just let me go and get it." He went off to search among his books, but came back shortly leafing through a small leather-bound volume, but frowning slightly. "I'm afraid I can't find the translation," he said. "Do you read Greek?" No, I confessed: so he proceeded to read the passage in fluent English, out of this volume of Herodotus written in ancient Greek!

That would have been impressive even in Oxford; but in Khartoum it was astounding.

The Sudan had its own stories. See my other tale, of battling the bureaucracy in Sudan.

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