Taking Candy from the Sheikh: Some Useless Regrets from my Last Conversation

with Turabi
Three years ago, Hasan Turabi, known affectionately by his followers and ironically by
his enemies as The Sheikh, offered me some candy. I glanced up to see him holding out
the bowl, eyes modestly downcast, and bowing elegantly in his white Sudanese robes, his
beard white, trimmed and pointed. Charming. There was something absurdly Faustian
about that scene in a living room in Khartoum. I hesitated. Then, I reached out a hand and
took some candy.
I was there to interview him for my Ph.D. dissertation, and there was something
frightening about the notion. Not fear that he would be frightening, but fear that he would
not. “He is extremely,” my uncle had told me, darkly, when he heard I was going,
“Convincing.” And then, “You had better be careful.” I knew that one already. Islamism
in the Sudan could be blamed on no one if not on young Sudanese men, studying serious
things in British universities, visiting the house of Hasan Turabi. And so I prepared my
defenses as best I could and arrived at his house. I walked past security guards into a
quiet house, with a living room full of row after row of foldable metal chairs, with no one
sitting in them, every single one facing an empty stage, and into a small private room to
begin one of many conversations over the next few days. The conversation that day was
to continue through the morning, past noon, into the afternoon and end shortly before
sunset. After the candy, he set the bowl down and sat, for almost a full minute, without
looking at me, looking down at his hands, quietly. I had asked a friend of mine once who
had joined the Brotherhood while still a child how it had happened. Well, he had said,
remembering, he used to go to this place, and there was this old man. Every time he went,
he would give him a piece of candy. He was very nice. “A great guy, beautiful,
respectable, kind. And he teaches you some Quran and some hadith and he gives you
some candy, all of which are things that are all very nice… all, in and of themselves, very
positive things I am sure you would agree… Who, in their right minds, does not like any
of these things?” He kept going to see him and then, one day, he found he was part of the
Brotherhood.
I sucked on the candy, and watched the old man warily. He seemed shy, painfully so, and
had the look of someone standing backstage before the curtains were drawn, but as he
began to speak about politics a curious thing began to happen. I had never cared for him
as a speaker, even though he was known to be a good one, when I had watched him on
television. He had a honeyed, almost saccharine manner, about him. He laughed too
often, and too placatingly. In person he was contagiously, almost boyishly, excited about
politics. Oh dear, I thought, as soon as he began to speak. Democracy, not as a
mechanism, but as a real, living and direct practice. The right and the responsibility
which people have to decide their own fate. The freedom of the market. How little
government should interfere in the best of worlds, and how necessarily, at times, in ours.
Freedom and equality. The law. Its limitations. Islam. Of course. Oh for God’s sake, I ask

electrocution. In any case. And sometimes that’s a kind of mercy. for some reason. poverty. or it may have been before that. and an air heavy with regret. it being Sudan. the more charming he became. in Rousseau. and. one worn.myself. mesmerised by all this. Now. as the taste of candy lingered on my tongue. the words only seem to insult the people who suffered them. both liberal democracy and Islam. and their practiced patience as the General prepared himself for the audience. the young soldier across the room from him somewhere between a subordinate and a son. Remembering the interview. in Korba. used. and the manners of a European. I found out. their requests to see the General. One way or another I found that I had come to regret taking that candy and all I had left as I read the history was the bitterness that comes over the tongue after something excessively sweet is taken. genocide. There are words for that kind of thing. Men cried in that room I think. Not that there was a difference. The story of the next two decades has been told too many times. humiliation. all this was a pleasure to hear and experience and. that Turabi found the necessity of the free market economy and minimal government both in Adam Smith. I tasted it in my mouth. There was a kind of weight to their waiting at the door. or later when I returned home to the history books. Equality and freedom of association sprang at us sometimes from the pages of Locke. quietly reading secondhand books written by long dead Englishmen. injustice. like all acts that words do not encompass. and it had covered the books in the few hours I had left them on the table. these were times when I always seemed to find myself on the far side of the curtain that separated that old living room with its view high above Cairo. how the hell is someone supposed to come to a fight armed against. and the generosity of a desert Arab. murder. from the rest of the house. and almost always there was a parting that showed the General at his armchair somewhere between a witness and a judge. Though my grandfather and I rarely required a space between us. the taste of dust. or after. the effects of these particular things had reached even that small. There was rarely anything too formal about them but you could always tell them from other men. from Madina. I don’t remember when the taste of candy disappeared from my mouth. Turabi had seized total power over the country by military coup. The more we talked. the concern with manners of an Azhari scholar. But the curtain was old too. They came in a steady stream. at the door. It may have been when I stepped out of his house. partial drawing of a veil. rape. soldierly. A particular type of man often arrived at that apartment. War. as I walked in the harsh Sudanese sun and the dust. But . I feel guilt. He had all the natural egalitarianism of a modern European academic. where I myself had found them many times. sometimes. The sovereignty of the popular will was found in the Prophetic history before arriving. but sometimes all words can do is to draw a veil over the reality of a thing. maybe. In June of 1989. behind Cinema Normandy and the kiosk that still sells. the generosity of an Azhari. at one and the same time. and where my grandfather had finally settled to spend his last days. to only see the effects of things through the gentle. and. middle class apartment. Or perhaps it was the egalitarian of an Arab. and in Surat al-Nisa’. and. desperately. copy after copy after copy of Great Expectations. without explanation.

the softness of the lights through the thick curtains. furrows. disorderly and frenzied and cruel. But in our subsequent meetings. after we were done with the Ph. whom I let in. I heard myself asking him. naked and helpless. that he would act in the interests of the country. You would find that they had stolen. Even as his whole demeanor changed completely from the man who had offered me the candy to something less charming. And he told me sad stories. he said. And then I turned away. muscular and ravaged and undone by deep wounds.” And that seemed to him to be the root of his regrets. The night before the coup. serene with his dignity gathered around him. we never really thought about what would happen after we got it. like someone conveying a revelation.D. So many others. although it was a cruel thing to ask. sadness and generosity that can only be given by a man of command who both regrets and does not regret that he no longer has the power to give anything except the fullness of his attention.” He was talking about the military. the man standing very tall. If a man could regret taking it. eyes looking past his regal aquiline Arab nose. looking at him with the gravity. with its dark Sudanese flesh. too. I found myself wondering. they brought him to me and he put his hand in mine and took an oath. But an army officer cannot accept that. Later. and shakes his head. “We were focused so much on taking power. his back. Sadiq al-Mahdi. “We never changed our selves. and then we would see. black Sudanese coffee. more certain and more sad. “But once someone has power. “People you had known for a long time. Because do not forget that there were enemies. Everything changed people. America would not allow them the opportunity to come democratically to a position of governance. People you had put in certain positions precisely because you knew that they had no interest in money. “they refuse to be told what to do.” He makes a helpless gesture with his hand. I found that I asked it of him without judgment. and the questions. we told them it was time. for example. I noticed more and more as the conversation went on. then perhaps another man could regret offering candy. And that was the tableau. He stood there for a while.what I will always remember is that one man. he said. that the slow hum of the air conditioner. the rows and rows of empty seats outside were all hypnotic with regret. and how. and then everything could be made right. and as we were served bitter. chin up. Never even laid eyes on him. People can decide for themselves now. we have put in place the right conditions. Power first. and had recorded it on the unforgiving device between us. then. about power. with nothing between him and the world. Power. and brother-in-law. My grandfather. and. as I walked by on the way to the kitchen I saw through the parting in the curtain. baring himself to my grandfather.” . or taken bribes or favored one thing over another because of the money.” he told me. “What went wrong?” I remember that he never hesitated. It seemed important to take it.” He went on: “After a while. he says. “I didn’t even know Bashir. his shirt stripped off. less shy. Their fellow Sudanese plotted against them. had never had any interest in money. who had made his own mistakes. Never. after I had asked him formally and objectively what he had done. and why. These things change people. Not just power either.” And that was that. Have these civilians order me about. His most implacable enemy.

still bewildered. Not just about Turabi. You know how Egyptians are. because I had all sorts of clever theories. I told them. In any case.” and here he gave me a wistful. not because they were not true. About my father. I both believed him and didn’t believe him. to change the people and events he had begun. But it didn’t.” he said. but because they were too apparently true. only don’t steal.” The regrets recalled things more and more distant. When I asked him.none of these people had ever accused him of caring about money.” Even his own brothers would not listen anymore. childish regret is enough to make anyone understand things they would otherwise only have read in books. all this money. I expected him to tell me. “When you have influence people think you control every little thing. Also. Name a place. I knew. and if you need more we can give it to you. and who knows. “I told him. maybe he did also. “was to play football after school. The regret itself was the thing. “You know. and here. cannot possibly happen in a place like Egypt.” he said. we will take you wherever you want to go. He answered me with his own clever theories. But they only said. that these were not in fact the roots of the problem at all. “They never listen. in such a manner that I wonder now how it’s possible that I did not have a premonition of his death. take this. not his covetous Islamist partners and later rivals.” He paused. “I went to Cairo right after Mubarak was gone to speak to the Brothers. and on the other the strict and traditional education at the hands of his father that had filled his after school hours and his vacations.not his self-righteous liberal critics. “We tried to change things. and then he said. don’t take it yet. after extending him his guarantee of safety. We hoped that would stop them from stealing. We offered people money. but about his enemies. he told me. “Greed. It was all the more painful to see because no one. here is your official salary. It was too little. as the conversation went on. We said to them. What I really wanted. just don’t steal. here.” There was something painful about the simplicity of the realization. and about the . drew farther and farther away from his own moment of power and towards his childhood. cruelly. came too late. like a sweet taste in the mouth. I felt him draw away as if in pain. take this. about the effects of the tensions between the strict and modern education he received at the British Gordon Memorial College on the one hand. it seemed that we had never really been doing anything but making an incongruous collection of the memories of one man’s minor regrets. “But you don’t. and everything else. It filled the room slowly and completely.” He shook his head.” He said quietly. about why he had betrayed Carlos the Jackal to the French authorities. But he just wouldn’t listen. Don’t make the mistakes we did. that this was simply the nature of politics. “I said to him please. shy and childlike smile. everything is too uncertain. I didn’t really care about the content of these regrets. and perhaps for the wrong reasons.The helplessness. as he had told me repeatedly over the past days. It began with what still seemed to be political questions. not even my father who carried after all these years the bitterness of an ex-Communist whose whole revolution had been hijacked and aborted by this one man nor the General who had in his own way left because of the coup. Instead. and we will arrange it. came next. I never wanted to be made different from my friends this way.” And that one tiny. I asked him. the things that happen in a place like Sudan. and. even when in power.

finite and dangerous moment. perhaps of blame. But he sent his son to be one of them. being dismissed as a sad remnant of some old way of life by children his son’s age who understood nothing. How difficult to be at home. I should have told him about that man. awlad saakit. but only because it passed. I told him. near the end. . the future leaders of the country.General. just immature children.” He looked at me. One for God and one for Adam Smith. and the other for Karl Marx. though it took over three hundred pages to elaborate. but only for one single. to his regret. One for the English boarding school. while hearing his regrets. and hubris. He looked at me coolly. How difficult to know that you are not being educated. I should have been kinder to him. But your grandfather insisted. state as a man of deep Arab and Islamic roots. Either way. more honest. but groomed. “Your grandfather. and because through what came after it I find that now I know that we are not so different him and I and also that I want nothing for him but mercy. To serve a foreign. Ibrahim thinks that the experience of these contradictions is a cause of the whole bloody recent history of the country. The old man. perhaps of something else. and for the first time since we had spoken there was a distance. they’re all dead now. and not asked him that question about Carlos. more courageous. British. My own defense against the sheikh held. the erudite Sudanese academic and former Communist Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim wrote once. it’s a painful thing it seems to me. It must have been difficult. To see learning that he must have considered alien and disturbingly superficial take the children of his generation. My father hated the idea. Turabi and the old General. and governments foreign or otherwise that some of them started or supported or fought. and God only knows going back how far. for Turabi to have seen his father the venerable scholar valued by the community. and revolutions. meaning the General’s grandfather “was my father’s teacher. “Who are your people?” Turabi asked me. Some things I know I should have done differently. probably. that Turabi. who has a reputation for learning and wisdom called the elite graduates of the College. their fathers and grandfathers and all the young men and women who because of the civil wars. my father. I don’t regret having taken in the first place. scarred and helpless in our living room. One thing I don’t regret. One for your family at the farm picking cotton in the sun and the dust. It frightened him. some candy from the sheikh. half-naked. the sheikh and the shari’a judge. and one for home. my grandfather and everyone else had known all along. “He is the one who made my father take that job as a judge. How difficult it is to live two lives. I wonder if there is a difference between a man seeing himself at a distance like this. just children.” he said. I should have been tougher on him.” In any case. I realized something. That all of us were implicated in these regrets.