Translated by Adil Babikir
The force commissioned to deal with the matter is made of sixty-six soldiers, and an army of skilled and semi-skilled carpenters who were assembled by force from Nyala, Kaas, and Zalingei. It is more than enough for stamping out the revolt of the “false prophet,” as described by the field commanders and some politicians who are fond of coining the catchy nicknames. The “false prophet” is leading an unarmed force of fifteen men and a woman. Last Friday, he brought back to life forty dead persons and transformed a single feather into a fully-fledged beautiful crow, and when he ordered it to fly, it did.
The mission leader is a man endowed with an enviably boundless imagination. He is cool-headed and has an amazing determination to kill. He needs to finish up his mission as quickly as possible, now that it has become a hot topic on Facebook, Twitter, and treacherous portals such as “Al Rakuba,” “Sudan for All,” and others. The United Nations, which tends to poke its nose into every matter within or beyond its mandate, is now considering, in consultation with some member states, dispatching a special envoy to have a closer look into the matter of the strange Darfurian Prophet, as the Western media dub him. On the other hand, the groups that have vowed allegiance to him before even knowing much detail about his message are now gathering from all parts of the world to join a huge parade to Darfur. The force leader will need to preempt all these moves by killing him. But he wants to kill him in style. He wants to give him an end that befits his bold claim that he is the true Messiah—not an imitator, an advocate, or a disciple; not the Anti-Christ or the Awaited Mahdi, or even Barambajil.1 He says he is the Messiah in flesh and blood, so he deserves a crucifixion that would make all prophethood aspirants— and there are plenty of them these days—think a thousand times before making their claims public.
Carpenters and semi-carpenters are busy making sixteen crosses out of freshly chopped sunut (acacia) branches—solid and heavy, still carrying some thorns. They choose the most humid branches, irrigated to the roots by underground water. Around these, they place heavy supports from heavier trunks and dig into them thick stainless steel rods with sharp ends. Every now and then they are reminded that they themselves might end up being crucified on these crosses of their own making if these are found to be poorly fabricated. So, the carpenters and semi-carpenters keep working hard day and night—they have only thirty hours to finish the job.
The soldiers, on the other hand, are far from alert. What threat would they expect from a man who is unarmed and who is said to be even willing to bless his murderers? Therefore, they busy themselves with playing cards and arguing over who invented the Kalashnikov.
The belligerent sixty-six soldiers have fought in all parts of the Sudan, in the South, the East, and the West, and might fight in other parts of the beloved country. Their advantage, therefore, is that they are specialized in quelling the revolts of their own people, like mother cats that can find courage to eat their own kittens but will flee upon hearing the barking of the neighbor’s dog. The sixty-six soldiers are heavily armed: two tanks, two personnel carriers, and two Land Cruiser trucks fitted with Dushka heavy machine guns. With colored turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, they look like the Tawareq warriors. It would be a miscalculation to consider them as a unified body, for they differ from each other in almost everything: upbringing, home, weapon handling, approach to life, perception of war, motives behind fighting, their families, girlfriends, their willingness to sacrifice their lives. Some have sons and daughters; others are single, caring for no one but their own selves. The sixty-six soldiers are, in fact, sixty-six different human beings. This fact can only be discovered by someone who comes close to them, listens to their heartbeats, and feels the flow of the blood in their veins; one who can jab his fingers in their pockets and feel the viscosity of their poverty and destitution. The sixty-six soldiers are ready to carry out orders instantly.
Ibrahim Khadir is not the team leader who has the final say on the man’s fate. Nor is it part of his mission to convince the man and lead him back to the right path. His mandate is to understand the man’s claim and compile a full report using preset guidelines— that is all. It is not among the guiding questions whether or not the man is a prophet. He wishes he could pose this question, but, unfortunately, they believe that there are no more prophets to come since the last messenger in Islam was Prophet Mohammad—may the blessings of Allah be on him—and in Christianity was the Mes- siah Jesus Christ. The Buddhists, Sufis, and other sects strongly believe that each brain is a prophet, which leaves the door wide open to invariably everyone. Those who commissioned him never thought for a moment that the man could be a true prophet—or the Messiah: the son of man, as he describes himself.
The soldiers are playing cards and drinking mareesa, a local beer they brew from bread fragments, with the help of the scorching sun. They are sixty-six soldiers under a regiment that came to Darfur from Eastern Sudan, hence the name: the Eastern Regi- ment. Their emblem is the dagger. When you see it, you feel it penetrating through your body to give your frightened heart one fatal kiss. They are not exclusively from the Beja tribe; actually there are no Beja amongst them except for only five elements who had no thick hair, and carried none of the facial scars of their an- cestors who had lived before the Kingdom of Kush. I mean the three horizontal lines representing God, which at the time meant the elephant, being the biggest creature. The other two lines rep- resent the earth and the sky. The Eastern Regiment is composed of elements from all parts of the old modern Sudan, who share three things: they are brave, obedient, and they are playing cards at the moment.
The carpenters and semi-carpenters, on the other hand, are extremely exhausted and frustrated. Even the extra hundred workers who were called in to help them did little to ease the burden and boredom of the long tedious job. The extra workers are tree cutters, wood processors, pin locators, hammerers of the cruel steel pins, and makers of food and drinks who adamantly refrain from making illicit drinks such as mareesa—they don’t have the expertise anyway. They can’t figure out why the team leader wants to have these crosses. Wouldn’t it be easier and time-saving to shoot that infidel to death? Bullets are scaring and have a terrifying sound, but they will spare them the trouble of going through the complicated process of making these awful, heavy crosses. They are semi-illiterate, and haven’t heard of Joseph the carpenter. The imam at the Friday sermon told them that the figure depicted on the cross that Christians wear on their necks is not of Jesus son of Mary, but rather of a man who looked like him. Allah, he told them, had lifted the Messiah to the heavens and sent down that poor man whom the Jews crucified, having mistaken him for the Messiah. Why is this military man adamant on crucifying them when the Messiah had not been crucified? Why should they be victimized?
The sixty-six soldiers are not in favor of war, which is no hobby to any of them. They are all from decent families that value life and respect neighbors and friends and observe prayers, at the church, at the mosque, or at any of God’s plentiful places, and are aware that the Lord bans killing human souls. The one who issues the orders is the one who will be held accountable for all war crimes. They will fire only if they are so ordered, and the real perpetrator in this case will be the field commander who alone has the authority to issue orders. This means their conscience will be dead; numb and cool like clay mixed with stagnant water. So they go home, after each battle, free of any feeling of guilt for the innocent people they have killed only hours earlier.
The field commanders, for their part, put the blame on more senior commanders, who are idling around in the capital, enjoying scented coffee at Ozone Café, and Bavaria beer along the Nile bank. Those, in turn, believe the true killer is the one who initiated the war, in reference to the politician: the kind-hearted creature who every night lullabies his children to a peaceful sleep and who, every now and then, placates his troublesome wife with an ounce of pure gold. The shrewd politician would go on the microphone yelling: the instigators of these wars are America and Israel—and as of late, they added to the list the Government of South Sudan.
The carpenters and semi-carpenters are making the crosses in one fixed size that fits all, males and females. They have no prior knowledge of how to make them and have never seen images of crucified people. They were provided with detailed specifications: length, thickness, and strength of wood, number and type of nails. In addition to making the crosses, they were told that they were going to hammer the nails into the bodies of the crucified. No one is more skilled than a carpenter when it comes to hammering in nails. And they’d better do the nailing; otherwise, they will have nails hammered into their own foreheads, palms, and some long and thick nails in the middle of their chests.
The man and his followers are sitting in a place that no one—even the soldiers, the cross-making carpenters, or even Ibrahim Khidir himself—knows much about. It’s the site of an ancient village that was burnt and wiped out a couple of years ago: a fertile deep valley surrounded on the south and west by a rectangular mountain range. Adjacent to the western mountain is a little spring, which is one of the reasons why the Janjaweed had moved to this place and eliminated the local inhabitants. Later they brought in hundreds of camels to graze in this area. Now there is no sign of the Janjaweed and their families. The man eliminated them with one phrase: Go back home. They took their camels, children, and women and headed back to Niger, leaving behind some camel dung and hair scattered here and there. The smell of their herd urine hung in the air for several days before it disappeared or perhaps joined them. A few meters away from the spring, there are caves, big and small, which are all that remained from the dwelling of the ancient state of Dajo, which dates back several centuries before Christ. On the walls of these caves are drawings depicting tiny details of their daily lives. The man and his followers spend a long time inside. No one knows what they do, but they come out each Friday morning to sit in the shade of a big rakuba, a wood and thatch structure set amongst the trees encircling the spring. At the particular place and time, they will find our soldiers waiting for them, the thick crosses yearning for their infidel lean bodies and longing for an eternal hug with them.
When the carpenters and semi-carpenters get tired and bored from tackling the red, solid bricks, they seek solace in the songs lingering in memories filled with sawdust, the hissing saws and the moaning and groaning of trees. To most of them, this miserable job may bring them enough money to pay for some urgent household needs that have been swinging in the ropes of fate, day after day, month after month. Needs that might be considered by some as trivial: footwear for the children, a new dress for a wife who has no possession except dreams, a small house or renovations to old huts, or a new pair of trousers for a grown-up child. Some of them are highly pessimistic; they believe that any money earned from this cross-making business is surely haram—religiously forbidden. Just as in the case of alcoholic beverages, which are haram to distill because they are haram to drink, making crosses is haram because the purpose behind making them is definitely haram. Yet here they are, committing acts prohibited by the Creator, and unless Allah opts otherwise, they will be admitted to Hellfire on Judgement Day on account of these crosses they are now fabricating. They are working hard, while their minds are raving with these misgivings.
The sixty-six soldiers and the carpenters and semi-carpenters are not really interested in whether the man is claiming prophethood, godhood, or anything else. Nor are they particularly worried about the government’s intentions. He is not doing them any harm, and the government’s intentions are not really their business. In fact, none of these questions ever occurred to them. In other words, they have not acquired enough knowledge to articulate such questions. The questions of daily life have precluded all other questions. They are so entangled in the day-to-day questions they can’t think about other questions: about their choices as human beings, and how to have control over their own lives.
They will later overhear him say: “A jailor is a prisoner at his own accord. And the crossing is for us as well as for those who made it.”
Another saying: “The one who can’t articulate questions can’t be free.”
He is referring to questions that can set them free like the simber birds. But he never spoke about answers simply because they were variable, as they later came to know.
Last Friday, they came out of their dens and strolled toward what was once the village center. Standing beside a pile of earth studded with some stones, the man said in an ancient Darfurian language that they all, Arabs and Darfurians, understood: “Who can see through this pile of earth?”
“I can’t see anything,” said Merriam, the beautiful lady that later came to be known as the beloved Merriam, and who had been nicknamed Mary of Magdala by the insurgent militia leader Sharon, before she deserted him to join the man.
The other followers said that they couldn’t see anything either. He assured them that they could if they wanted to. They were eager to see but still couldn’t. He told them things he often said—about death and life and man’s infinite capabilities. At that moment, a soft wind blew, bringing forth a bird’s feather that landed on the shoulder of a follower who was standing close to the man, between him and the Beloved Merriam. He took hold of the feather. It was blackish grey, looked like a feather of a crow or a little simber.
“A feather is the bird,” he told them.
As they looked on, puzzled, he drew a figure of a crow on the ground and fitted the feather in its right place on the drawing. To their astonishment, the rest of the feathers grew beside the first one. Then the bill appeared, followed by the legs, the claw—and a fully-fledged crow stood before them.
Smiling, he asked, “Can anyone of you get this crow to fly?”
And Arab Bedouin called Hamid said, “I guess no one can.”
The man called out: “Fly.” The bird soared high, twisting and turning boastingly, showing off its wings and black feathers and croaking. Piercing through the clear sky, it headed eastward to an undisclosed destination until it finally disappeared from their radars.
“If any of you had said what I said to the crow, it would have flown. All that it needed was to hear the Word: FLY,” he said.
“If the feather knew the Word, it would have uttered it to itself, reassembled the fragments of the body to which it belonged. It would have recalled the blood and croak, and her soul would have flown and wouldn’t have waited for us.”
Many thought he meant to say that the Word has the same effect on inanimate objects as it had on living creatures.
“Get ready for the parade,” he ordered them. Although they were not aware what he meant by the parade, they started to get ready.
“The parade. The parade,” he shouted.
While the carpenters and semi-carpenters are busy making the heavy crosses, and the sixty-six soldiers are playing cards, the man is teaching the Word to believers and disbelievers alike, and preparing them for the parade, the timing of which remains unknown to them.
“Disbelief, my beloved souls, is a highly sophisticated degree of belief,” he had told them.
1 A renowned, local devout man.
Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin was born in Sudan in 1963. The author of numerous novels and collections of short stories, he won the prestigious Al Tayeb Salih award in 2009. “Fly” is the first chapter of his novel The Messiah of Darfur, and is reprinted with permission of the author and by arrangement with Éditions Zulma, Paris. The Messiah of Darfur was published in 2012 to immediate acclaim and instant censorship in Sudan. Baraka Sakin went into exile in Austria, where he lives now. The novel continues to circulate clandestinely in Sudan, together with the rest of Sakin’s extraordinary oeuvre, beloved of Sudanese readers.