“I asked the architects if there were a museum or gallery where I might see Sudanese artifacts and explained, ‘I tailor my designs to reflect the culture of each country in which I work: fabrics, carpets and furniture reflect the patterns I see in traditional objects. I also would be grateful if you would introduce me to Sudanese artists for the artwork to be used in the hotel.’ One of the architects was about to respond when the contractor burst out with, ‘They have no culture!’”—Helen Noakes
By Helen Noakes
Editor’s Note: This column follows on from Khartoum: A Recollection, Part 1.
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Hubris)—November 2023—The elevator took its time descending from an upper floor. When its doors slid open, they revealed three passengers, standing against the back wall.
Tall, heavy-weight-wrestler large, they were dressed all in black: T-shirts, trousers, running shoes, and baggy hoodies, the hoods pulled low over their foreheads. Their dark eyes scanned me suspiciously. I thought of sentinels for some reason, entered, and politely bade them, “Good morning.” Expecting no response, I got none.
When we lurched to a stop at the lobby, I swiftly made my way towards the café, and hearing the elevator group following me, reasoned that I was being foolish in feeling uneasy in their presence. They were just guests, nothing more, and it was time for breakfast, after all.
The general manager waved me over to a table, and we proceeded to discuss business over breakfast. Having had a series of injections and a course of malaria tablets in preparation for my trip in Athens, I was careful not to tempt fate and ordered only food and drink that was cooked.
“I know that you were summoned to deal with the cabana project, but we need to upgrade this café, the lobby bar, and the lobby as well. Would you please make an assessment and send us a comprehensive budget analysis?” the general manager asked.
The group from the elevator sat at a table a distance away from ours but would level searching glances in my direction on occasion, which prompted me to finally ask the manager if he knew who these men were.
He made a wry little smile. “They’re Muammar Gaddafi’s bodyguards. He’s at the presidential palace. And they’re women, by the way.” Reacting to my shocked expression, the general manager laughed and escorted me to the lobby to show me the way to his offices. We were to meet with the contractor and architects to discuss the cabanas within two hours.
“I’ll leave you to it,” the manager said, and left.
I spent about an hour preparing a preliminary assessment, and while I was making notes about the lobby and lobby bar, a Sudanese gentleman holding a rolled-up set of plans approached me. “Mrs. Noakes, I’m the manager of the engineering department.” We shook hands. “I have copies of the lobby and café for you.”
“Thank you.” I took the roll. “I’ll look them over, and hope to have a meeting with you, the GM, and the housekeeping manager before I go. I’ll have questions.”
He beamed down at me. “That would be very nice.”
Noticing that my cheap little BIC pen was almost out of ink, I went up to my room to retrieve another and to set up a workspace on the dining table. Using a glass from the minibar, I deposited a box of pens into it, rolled out the plans, and began preparing notes and preliminary specifications. After a little while, I responded to a soft knock at my room door and opened it to find Joseph standing with a stack of towels.
“I got towels for you, Sir,” he said. “I go to bathroom to put in?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied and returned to work.
Joseph soon came back into the living room and stopped near the table. I looked up to see him gazing at the glassful of pens.
“I’m sorry, Joseph, I need to use the glass for them.”
“So many pens!” he exclaimed in awe.
“Yes. I always lose pens, you see.” I chuckled.
“Yes, Sir,” he replied walking towards the door, repeating, “So many pens.”
The manager’s secretary, a friendly mixed-race young woman with a Russian first name, cheerfully led me to a small conference room where the men I was to meet had just assembled.
The British contractor, compact, fair-haired, and slightly sunburned, greeted me with cool courtesy.
The two architects, Sudanese brothers, wore beautiful white jellabiyas, white turbans, and held ceremonial flails, which I was awestruck to realize were identical to the nekhakha held in some depictions of Egyptian pharaohs. My degree in art history kicked in and I recalled that the pharaoh’s crook and flail (heka and nekhakha) were symbols of authority. The shepherd’s crook represented kingship and the nekhakha, the fertility of the land. Some officials and people of power were also permitted to carry this symbol in pharaonic times.
Who were these architects? I wondered. What role did they play in Sudanese society? It seemed that they were dressed formally, and I was glad that I had been careful to dress in a manner respectful of their culture. My shoulders were covered with short sleeves; my skirt covered my knees.
They greeted me politely, in perfect English.
We addressed the issues that had arisen during construction, and considered some necessary changes to the layout, and I was asked to take a good look at the problems with the prototype furnishings in the model cabana, which we were to inspect after this meeting. I asked the architects if there were a museum or gallery where I might see Sudanese artifacts and explained, “I tailor my designs to reflect the culture of each country in which I work: fabrics, carpets and furniture mirror the patterns I see in traditional objects. I also would be grateful if you would introduce me to Sudanese artists for the artwork to be used in the hotel.”
One of the architects was about to respond when the contractor burst out with, “They have no culture!”
My shock quickly evolved into anger. “Every nation has a culture. Sudan’s dates back to the pharaonic times and beyond.” It was an effort for me to maintain an even tone. I turned to the architects whose expressions were amused.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Noakes, but we have no access to a museum. Our times have been difficult,” one of the architects said.
“Of course,” I replied. “I apologize, I hadn’t considered . . .” I didn’t know how to continue, didn’t know if they would be offended if I brought up the civil war and the ensuing suffering.
“Not to worry, please,” one of them replied. “There are craftspeople who sell their wares at the Omdurman Souk. Their work is traditional.”
“That would be marvelous. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, is it possible to arrange that?” I asked the manager.
“Yes, but someone must accompany you,” he said.
“My wife and I will,” the contractor piped in.
“To the cabanas, then,” the GM said. As we were walking through the lobby, he walked next to me. “Mrs. Noakes, the heat is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, I should wager. Your reaction when we return to this air-conditioned building may be unexpected as well. Please stay close to me. I may need to catch you.”
(To be continued.)
Author’s note: Because I have been unable to contact the people who appear in this memoir for their permission, I have avoided using real names. Joseph is not the housekeeper’s real name.