“A ride on the roof” by Sudanese writer Emad Blake

Chapter One of the novel shawarma,
Translated by John Peate

Emad Blake ALT
Emad Blake

I will tell you a tale, my son, and you’re going to like it very much. It’s the tale of your father’s lifelong struggle, of which you are the fruit. I will tell you everything when the time is right, and all I ask is that you listen well. I know you will, because nobody can tell you better than me what happened. That said, if this true tale were ever to be written down, there is no-one better than your aunt to do it, and she’ll do it just as faithfully and accurately as she has promised me she will. You’ll find out who exactly she is when the time is right, too, because she is not, strictly speaking, your aunt. After all, she is Turkish and you’re Sudanese. Even so, she’s still your aunt because she deserves to be.
Anyway, there was the boy – he being me – sitting on top of a railway carriage, gazing off into the distance, dreaming his faraway dreams as if, one day, he was going to be somebody important. One day, in spite of everything, the whole world would open its doors to him. He felt it to the very core of his being. Nothing else inspired him at that moment except gazing at the clouds racing past the train in the opposite direction, hanging up there in the sky, while he was squatted down there on the earth. Well, to be more precise, he was sitting on the roof of a railway carriage, dodging a fare he couldn’t afford. Where would a poor boy like him find ten guinay? Anyway, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, it seemed, because there were many like him, even old folks, doing the same thing, riding the train car roofs and paying nothing to the train company bosses.
“It’s the state that owns this train, my lad,” an elderly man sitting right in front of me said, the cold February wind blowing through his bones. He was better off than me, though, as he had a cotton scarf to wrap around his face. In fact, you could barely see his face because of it. Just two tiny eyes, a tinier nose, and the outline of two little cheeks. He lit a cheap Abu Nakhla cigarette and said nothing else for a while. You could see on the side of the packet a little palm tree – the Nakhla in question – with its four orangey fronds above. They were just like the ones my father used to smoke when he came home drunk in the middle of the night and set about my mother with his fists, loud enough to wake the whole neighbourhood.
The man sitting in front of me started speaking again:
“Travelling on the roof of the train is great fun, my lad. And, even better, it’s free. What’s your name, young man?”
I told him in a low voice. It seemed he couldn’t make out what I said, either because of the noise of the wind or the advanced age of his ears. He leaned the right one up close to me, trailing his cigarette smoke unintentionally into my face, and repeated his question. I told him again, yelling this time so he could hear. As much as I raised my voice, the chill winter wind rushed in to swallow my words whole and carry them off and away. I wondered where the wind took people’s words. How could the wind swallow up all the shrieking and guffawing of the passengers on the roof like that? Where did it take it?
There were dozens of us up there, along the full length of the train, as far as the eye could see, eating, laughing, gossiping, smoking, doing all kinds of things in our own little neighbourhood suspended between earth and sky. Once he’d learned my name, the old man turned around, evidently deciding to teach me a few things, as I strained to hear what he said: “The state’s money is halal, my boy, and this train was bought with the people’s money.” That set him off on a long monologue of no interest to me, and one I couldn’t understand anyway. His words were carried off by the ever-rising wind, but I made out words like “president”, “ministers”, “peasants”, and “merchants”. He talked about theft and corruption, and about confidence tricks, injustices, and dark conspiracies.
That last phrase reminded me of my father coming home late at night – when night was murkiest – with no electricity in our house, or almost anywhere else in the village. Back in those days, there was neither lamplight in the house, nor in the street. That is, except for in one house, which sat near the river in the gap between the broad bean and white bean fields on the one hand and the local government offices where my father worked as a driver on the other. It was a large, fancy, two-storey house and was the only one in the village lit up day and night. Lit up night and day it was, and, in the middle of the night, you could hear the sound of its generator rumbling as clearly as anything, when all else in the village was quiet. Well, quiet except for the shouting and screaming coming from our house after Dad came home and handed out his daily lesson, scaring us all out of our sleep.
Anyway, the old man kept rambling on, his voice ebbing and flowing on my ears while I shivered in the perishing cold. My trousers and thin shirt were all I had to keep the cold out. Nothing underneath. I really thought the old man might have been kind enough to lend me his scarf, like adults normally do for children, but he didn’t. Not an ounce of sympathy for me, except for in his words – those I could catch every now and then, anyway – about the strange disease that had struck the people of this country down, one he sometimes called envy, and, at other times, selfishness. He rounded his soliloquy off with: “It’s a lack of faith, my boy. A lack of true faith.”
He repeated himself. He testified to this astonishing revelation that had been bestowed on him. It all explained, for him, the misfortunes of the obscure idea he called “the people”, that both he and I were part of, from what I could gather from his wind-swallowed words.
I would have died of cold, if God had not been kind. A boy just like me came wandering along the carriage tops, serving passengers from his tea kettle and slipping their coins into his pocket. He had a large pocket sewn onto a dirty piece of cloth strapped to his shoulders by a coarse kind of belt. I knew that tea would take the edge off the cold. My mother would make it for us to warm our little bodies as we sat indoors in the winter holidays from early morning until dusk, or until Father got home for a hasty breakfast and to wreak havoc on us all at the same time.

My son, I hadn’t the money, like I said, to buy a ticket and travel inside the train. Unlike my hateful and domineering father, I liked to look after myself. As luck would have it, I found a tiny little coin I had forgotten about till then nestled deep in my pocket. It was enough to buy two cups of tea: one for me, and one for the old man. He thanked me very much, though I didn’t know if he had had any money himself and could have done the honours, rather than me. Anyway, he raised his hand high up to the sky and stammered out some words I didn’t quite hear, but guessed were a prayer to God for me. As he did so, his scarf slipped onto his shoulders a little, partly revealing his pure white head of hair, over which that you could clearly see lice crawling. He soon worked out I had spotted the little black creatures weaving in and out of his locks, and, staring back at me as he lit another cigarette, said: “It’s a home for them, my boy, and I won’t be the one to evict them.”
My own hair had been lice-ridden for two years at least, even though my mother used to sit my brothers and me out in the sun to wash our hair in paraffin, the best way to get rid of this scourge that the women in the neighbourhood had heard of. It was all a waste of time, though, and we always had to wait until the lice left of their own accord.
The train drew into a stopping station, prompting the roof passengers to jump down and scatter from the railway police who were looking for fare dodgers. I did the same. It required skills I had not acquired before, so I watched the others and copied what they did. The old man hurriedly lowered himself between two carriages with a skill that belied his age. He dangled himself into the narrow space between the coaches and squeezed himself through a window. I managed to do the same, and found myself in amongst a crush of men, women, and children. Beyond the crush I could detect the stink of bleach coming from the foul passenger toilets. I had to put up with that as best I could, until the carriages shunted together to a halt, allowing everyone to escape into the clean air at last.
I got out onto a station platform that looked much like every other one I’d seen. A century old, built when the British colonialists first came, dotted with little huts with pointed, corrugated roofs. The old man had been right next to me, but hadn’t followed me off. I was so hungry, but had no money left to get anything. There were men, women, and children selling fuul and ta’miya sandwiches, fried eggs, tea, and even juice despite the cold weather, though most sold hot water. The aroma of barbecuing meat came from a stall behind which a man sat throwing chunks of meat into a pan of hot oil. He was surrounded by the better-off passengers, drawn by the alluring smell hanging in the cold air. I had to make do with just the smell. The renewed bellow of the engine had me rushing to clamber back up again onto the carriage roof. I had lost sight of my aged companion for good, and never saw him again. I looked up and down the train for him, but the people were so huddled up together it was hard to make out any one individual, however hard I tried. I had no idea where he had gone, so I decided to forget all about him, but then remembered he had left a little knapsack with me. I still had it there in my hand, but how could I give it back to him, if I couldn’t find him? I would have to wait until we got to the next station. He was bound to look for me, like I him, so we would surely run into one another.
I thought about walking up and down the train carriage roofs looking for him, but the harrowing wind made it all too difficult. It was also too crowded up there, and I might fall if the train picked up speed beyond the lazy pace it had pulled out of the station at. Looking around, I saw some of my fellow rooftop passengers squatting asleep. I wondered how they could do such a thing. The carriage was easily narrow enough for them to fall from and die. I’d heard many stories of people falling off trains like that in the past. It was up to me to stay alert, then, until the journey – wherever it was taking me – came to an end.
I had decided to run away from home that unhappy evening when my father had come home early for a change, and began handing out his daily lesson. He hit my mother so hard she stumbled and fell to the ground and when my brothers and I tried to help her back up he turned on us. My father’s belt repeatedly lashed our backs – all of us: mine, my five brothers’ and nine sisters’. I was thirteen and my five brothers and three of my sisters were younger than me. My baby sister was not even one year old, and yet she had already had her share of beatings. Mother was always bearing children. No sooner did she give birth to one than she’d be carrying the next. Father wouldn’t give her a break. He would beat her in the evenings until he’d stand over her, wherever it was, not caring less about his children’s feelings. He was so far gone in drink he didn’t know what he was doing. And Mother could do nothing to stand up to his punishment. However drunk he was, he could always find enough physical strength to fight anyone in his path. It was so shameful for us to have a father like that. In the street, in school, down any local alleyway, everywhere, everyone knew we were the madman’s kids. You could tell our house from any other in the neighbourhood by the sobbing and bawling coming from it all through the night, and by the screaming and shouting at any other time of the day, for that matter.
The lord and master of the house’s behaviour rubbed off on the rest of us, in the fighting, the screaming matches, and the blind rage sparked by the slightest pretext. Having a knife on you was normal in our house. One or other of the boys would often be seen chasing one or other of his younger brothers or sisters with a knife. It was a daily event. It often ended up with one of us carted off to the hospital, probably bleeding profusely. Normal. Once my eldest brother stabbed one of his sisters in the backside. I was traumatised. I can see it now as if it were happening again right here before me, seeing again the dark blood pouring out of her.
I was pretty much the only exception to this culture of knife-waving, rowdy backwardness, as the neighbours used to say themselves to my face. The neighbours knew everything about our miserable household and its evil doings. Nothing was hidden from them. They were amazed I could emerge from this bizarre home a polite and respectable boy. I had no idea how I had done that either. I assumed it was simply that God had chosen for me to turn out like that. It was God who made me run away from my family hell and seek a life in another place too. That day I ran away, I left behind all my hopes and dreams I had once had for my family and for life in the village I’d spent the whole of my life till then in. The one thing it had given me, miraculously, was a great talent for learning, and I was always top of the class. For me to stand out with my intelligence this way, coming from the madly dysfunctional family I did, was indeed a miracle, as the teachers themselves would say to my face.
Nothing was hidden in that house. My father followed a regimented pattern. He’d leave early in the morning. Although he went to bed late, he was always an early riser, even if it meant him having only two hours’ sleep. He had amazing powers, but he applied them to low pursuits, that’s if he wasn’t threatening to kill my mother and the rest of us. The first thing he’d do every day was warm up the municipal car – an old Land Rover with a dust-coloured cabin on the back. Before setting off, he would feed a tube into the petrol tank, suck one end, spit a little out, and then watch the fuel seep slowly into his plastic jerry can. He used to sell half the vehicle’s fuel that way. Some man would come every morning dead on ten in the morning – never late – and take the petrol away in exchange for the few guinay he would give to my mother. She, of course, was not allowed to spend any of it, and had to turn it over to Father exactly as it was. If she’d spent even one guinay of it, she knew what her fate would be, but then, she was never spared a nightly beating anyway.
Father’s job was driver to the village mayor – the man with the two-storey house lit up with electric light day and night that I mentioned before. Father appeared loyal to him, kowtowing to him all the time. The mayor liked him in return, and gave my father the money he wasted on his own entertainment. He never once threatened him with the sack or a pay cut. I very often saw Dad bowing and scraping to the mayor in his office, or to the mayor’s wife in their home, while getting the vegetables, meat and bread ready for them in the morning. She was really shocked when she heard about father’s reputation in the village. She once asked me: “Is it true that he beats your mother?” I realized straight away that the question was an improper one, so I looked at her without answering, and she realized I wasn’t happy with her enquiry. Whatever happened in our house, it was our house, and our business, and that was my mother and my father she was talking about.
The day I ran away, my father had already decided to evict us all from the house anyway. He would often announce this when he came home drunk. We’d spend half the night in the street, or with a neighbour who had taken pity on us, and then go back home afterwards to life as normal. This time, though, he seemed serious. We’d spent more than half the night outside without hearing anything back. Mother didn’t come to take us in. Father didn’t call us from the darkness to come back in either. My mind started wandering into strange territory. I hated being in that place, in that house in particular. I told myself that I wasn’t going to stay any longer. I had to go and seek a new life elsewhere. I didn’t know where. I had no clear plan to speak of, but the main thing was to follow where my imagination led me.
A train was coming into the village station, less than half a mile away from us. That meant I could catch it. I was so full of joy when it set off, me sitting next to my friend, the old man, on the roof. The clanking together of the carriages gradually eased as the speed picked up. The only thing on my mind was to forget the past and head south for the capital. I’d find openings there that others had told me about before. I would be bound to find a job that would set me up. The main thing, though, was to get away from the pain of my daily life up to that point, and all the hatred and bile that went with it. I had to forget about school. What good was that to me now? Sooner or later, I would have left school anyway, for one reason or another. My brothers had been the same. If I had stayed, I would have reached the point where I couldn’t stand it any more. My elder brother was very much a case in point to me. He had done well in school like me. He’d earned himself an education, but one day lost patience with my father’s endless harassment and lost his way. He started pulling blades on people like the rest of us, turned into a drunk like his father, and did nothing afterwards but chase after the girls in the neighbourhood. I wasn’t going to go down that road. I promised myself that, and rode off on the roof of that train.
The idea of running away was not new to me. I had thought about it from time to time before. That house always felt alien to me. Whatever my father did was bad, and my mother did nothing about it. I knew she was constantly pained by it all, but there was nothing she could do but keep it to herself, as they say. She tried to live with the torment and keep her home together, though I don’t know what kind of a home it was to her. When she talked about home, I always thought she must mean somewhere else, not our house.
The train drew near a major station after quite a journey. Hundreds of miles. It’s all there deep in my memory to this day. It was a journey of destiny, one with as yet unknown consequences for a boy dreaming of a place far away from the hell he had lived in. The train had passed through dozens of stations, and along the way I learned how vast the country we live in is. It was the first time out of our village for me, and I discovered such diverse landscapes: desert stretching everywhere to the horizon, a river running alongside the rails, flowing against the train’s direction, disappearing at times, only to reappear later. Farms full of greenery; others parched and barren. Bedouins leading camels through areas of grassy abundance; little pyramids scattered around, their peaks crushed in as if they had fallen from some planet or other; little cars stuck in the sand, and men heaving on ropes trying to pull them out. This was my country, though I had seen only a part of it, not even a quarter of it, as I knew from my geography lessons. We were a million-square-mile nation of paupers. I’d heard there were even forests in the far south, and wondered if I would ever see them. My mind wandered in all directions, not knowing what my fate would be, what was going to happen to me.
We entered the capital – the big city. I could tell it was huge from the high-rises looming up at me from every direction, from the streets crammed with cars and people, and from the noise and the smoke rising up from everywhere. I realized straight away that life there was going to be totally different from my village in the north. The only grand building we had back there was the mayor’s. We had no paved streets. The air was cleaner there and you didn’t feel so suffocated. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone’s business. The big city was quite different. The people seemed like they were living through the Day of Judgement. They talked to themselves, and rushed everywhere: why I couldn’t work out. I watched it all from up on the train roof, comparing it all to the place of my birth. The biting wind dropped as we pulled into the station. It prompted me to quickly dive inside the carriage, fearing the police who had already started chasing after the stowaways on the roof. Some had jumped off and been arrested. I’d seen this happen so many times at previous stations, I made sure I escaped it.
The old man whom I had shadowed had rescued me at previous stations many times, but where was he now? I’d lost sight of him at the station before last, and wouldn’t have known we were coming into the big city if it hadn’t have been for the joyful chattering of the other passengers at the prospect. They were all jabbering away on the roof about what they were going to do, gathering their belongings and memories of the big city, preparing themselves for whatever lay ahead. How many of them, like me, had no idea what lay ahead? Looking around quickly, I couldn’t see anyone around my age. They were all much older. The youngest of them seemed to be at least ten. I reminded myself that the quicker I got off the carriage roof, the better the chances of escape. This was something I learned from the old man.
The minute I rested my left foot on the rubber covering the carriage coupling – dangling down amid the crush of all the other stowaways keen to get off and away – I felt a firm hand from below grab hold of me and drag me off like a stone on the end of a rope. I felt my body spin at least three times in the air before I hit the ground. Another man, not the one who had pulled me off the roof, planted the sole of a giant boot on my back to hold me down. I couldn’t see up any more as my face was crushed into the icy paving of the platform. Then, twisting my head with extreme difficulty, I could see out of the corner of my right eye the shape of the railway policeman who had mercilessly stomped on my back. It felt like I couldn’t breathe and I was in quite a state, thinking I was going to die.
It was an unhappy welcome to the city. I was pulled up and led to a little office, behind which was a heap of buckled steel. It was a poky little room, but I soon realized I was not on my own. There were dozens of others who had been arrested like me. That was reassuring, actually. At least I wouldn’t feel alone. What mattered to me was whether they were good-hearted, polite types like my old friend on the roof, even if they were fare dodgers. The other thing was, I felt so hungry that my stomach hurt. There was little hope of fixing that before the police interrogation was over, and there was a whole row of people in front of me. And then what would happen to me? God alone knew.
I was the only young boy among the fare dodgers. All the others were men. No women. It felt proud to think I’d become a man by committing my first ever crime. I heard one of my fellow offenders swearing and cursing, not caring about the two constables nearby, along with a first lieutenant, as you could tell from the badge on his shoulder. The man yelled: “Any son of Adam should be proud to be an outlaw in this country!”
The others were all silent, except for two who muttered their agreement with the man, though not in the hearing of the officer guarding those arrested. He had a whip in his hand and he started flaying those trying to stir up trouble. Things calmed down after the whippings were handed out. I hadn’t escaped a beating either. It took me instantly back to times my father would beat my mother, with each lash of the policeman’s whip on my shivering body. The policeman even looked indistinguishable from my father to me, as though they had been cast from the same mould. The same heavy brow, the same trimmed beard, the same flaccid paunch, bloated and undulating like the plains the train had passed through, a cigarette burning away in one hand, while the other hand delighted in administering the whip.
When I eventually came before the desk officer, he said to me:
“We’ll let you go if you pay for the ticket, and that’s me being kind because you’re so young.”
I replied: “But I don’t have any money on me.”
He looked at the old man’s knapsack, which I still had with me. I don’t know how I’d managed to hang onto it through all this pandemonium, but I had. He pointed at it: “What have you got there in your hand?”
“I don’t know.”
My reply surprised him, as I could tell from the rumpled expression on his broad face. He spun round off his chair, ripped the knapsack out of my hand, and emptied it out onto the table. There was an old Qur’an and some prayer beads made locally from the seeds of the lalob tree. It was a small string, though, not one of the long ones the dervishes wear for their night-time zhikr circles, when they work up their rapturous adoration for the chosen one.
Then a pile of banknotes fell out – a little surprise I wasn’t expecting. It looked like a lot, maybe one thousand guinay, given each note was worth ten, and there must have been a hundred of them. The officer slammed the palms of both hands down on the table, stunned to see such a huge amount of cash, though not as stunned as I was. That old man had been carrying all that money yet hadn’t coughed up for the price of a cup of tea, let alone food, for himself or for me, who he had watched shiver from cold and hunger all that time. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Anyway, the police officer soon interrupted my thoughts: “Is all this money yours?”
“No, sir, it isn’t mine.”
“Ah, so you stole it, then? Seems like we’ve got ourselves a thief here.”
He didn’t give me a chance to respond, but let loose a relentless volley of accusations and insults at me instead. This was nothing new to me. Our house back in the village lay near the police station, and I was quite used to seeing scuffles going on outside it between police and criminals there. It sometimes made me feel that both sides – the cops and the robbers – acted like criminals. This time, it was me in the criminal’s shoes, and not much in the way of a defence to offer, either. What could I do?
I tried to explain, to tell him the whole story about the old man on the roof of the train. No, no, really, there had been an old man, and I’d followed him, and then he’d given me this bag, and then I’d lost sight of him and he must have forgotten all about me. It didn’t wash with the policeman, though. He had me down for a thief trying to cover my tracks. I was barely allowed to speak in order to explain myself, anyway. I was still a young lad, not street-smart enough to stand on my own feet in the world of adults. I shut up in the end when it became obvious the officer wasn’t going to listen. He only had eyes for the money, anyway. I wasn’t so young as to not recognize that. “People will die for money, however they can get hold of it. All that matters to them is to get it,” as I heard my mother often say.
He took me out into another office through a small door in the narrow hallway I hadn’t noticed before. There was a higher-ranking officer there sitting behind a table with his head buried in a newspaper. He put it to one side when he heard what the officer had to say about me, the little train robber they had caught. He gazed at me a little while. He seemed well-mannered, unlike his colleague, but asked: “Where did you learn how to steal? Seems like you’ve come from a long way off.”
“I’m not a thief, sir. I swear to God I didn’t steal it. What happened was . . .”

Translated from the novel Shawarma,
published by Moment, London, 2014

First published in Banipal magazine 55 Spring 2016
For more information about the author go to
www.banipal.co.uk