New Short Fiction: Ibrahim Ishag’s ‘A Dinner with Mr. MacNeil’

By Ibrahim Ishag

Translated by Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour 

They prepare for the feast methodically, while still leaving countless possibilities and hiccups to chance. Today, the sons of al-Kabashi, with the blessing of Allah, have become people of wisdom, wealth, vision, and passion. Months ago, Osman, Masued, Hazim, Abdel Ghaffar, and Abu Zaid traveled with Qassem wad Sarur to visit his father in Shendi: Asim Wad Sarur wad Aljwab. They told him about how much Omer, Abdel Gader, Hamad, Hamdan, Hassan and their families wanted to see him before it was too late. According to their later accounts, Asim cried and let them cry, too. 

By Sudanese artist Muttaz Abdulmagid

For now, the al-Kabashi fortune was enough to pay to host guests anywhere hospitality might be required—Shendi, Umbadah, Nyala, Tandalti, or al-Dakah. Masued, Hazim, and Saeed could handle the transportation, while the Effendis—Osman, Abu Zaid, and Abdel Ghaffar—took care of other arrangements. 

Meanwhile, Emad and al-Mighdad saw to the chores around the camps. On their way to pick up Qassem wad Sarur after his first visit to Kafa, a group of them came to see me in Tandalti. Qassem was fascinated by his grandmother’s tales of her father, el-Shamah Bint Jaad el-Sayeed Al Jali, who was killed in the Kafa uprising in the year of our Mahdi’s rebellion[1].

I told Abdel Hafiz al-Katkawi, my deputy, that I wanted to host a traditional dinner. Abdel Hafiz stood by me at public events. I needed the dinner to be so spectacular that the people of Tandalti would talk about it for decades to come. I couldn’t just rely on women or amateurs to prepare it. 

“What should I do, Abdel Hafiz?” I asked.

Our conversation continued nonstop for the week before the guests arrived; this was enough time for Abdel Hafiz to find a first-rate chef in the restaurants of Tandalti. On Sunday, he parked his pickup at my door right after our maghrib prayers. Save for the choice of a cook, our plans were finished, so I was relaxing. My peace was broken when Abdel Hafiz demanded I go with him, so I climbed into the passenger side of his truck, and we drove off. 

The Hilat al-Souqor neighborhood is a lovely place, located between the Bulc,[2] Bloc,[3] and Awalad Arief neighborhoods. To enter, Abdel Hafiz had to check in. Uncle Haider was sitting in the yard, but he rose to greet us. Uncle Haider, a Halfawi tribesman with mango coloring like his grandfather, had worked at Sultan Terab’s Grand Palace in Shuba. His strong rope bed had a metal frame; the bed made his back as straight as a ruler. I thought it must have had wood beneath it, but the ropes quivered when he stood to shake hands. I wished I could buy a strong rope bed like this one. Uncle Haider’s grip was strong. He looked barely older than his seventy-three years, and he had completely straight teeth. Fiten taught me to follow the example of my elders and take gared[4] powder before going to sleep—cavities are our enemy! Uncle Haider moved with ease. You would think he was only sixty or seventy. His neck was smooth and unwrinkled, and his youthful shoulders gave shape to his body, making it look strong and hefty. I muttered, “Oh, Allah blesses. Allah blesses…” 

The radio was tuned to the BBC in London, a voice droning on about shocking attacks around the world by crazy people upset at pro-European idiots. Abdel Hafiz politely introduced us and we sat down. When Uncle Haider started to turn the radio down to a low roar, Abdel Hafiz stopped him, using the broadcast as a conversation starter. “Listen Uncle Haider,” he said, “it’s the end times! They’re saying Islam is backward. Although no one will admit it, like it or not the world has collapsed!” 

Uncle Haider shook his head and murmured, “I was in Tripoli when jet fighters bombed us. No one called them backward. Why now?”

We discussed the matter at length and drank hibiscus until Abdel Hafiz got to the point. Uncle Haider also wasted no time. A practical as well as a striking man, he asked for only five hundred pounds and said he’d be ready on Tuesday afternoon. Abdel Hafiz promised to pick him up on Tuesday and bring him to our house. With all that settled, we asked for permission to leave. As we passed the wadi, we prayed isha at a mosque in the Makrakah area. By the time we arrived at Tumbasi, I realized that Abel Hafiz had ignored my wishes. I tried demanding a different cook but it was a waste of words. 

As usual, Hajjah Zeinab cooked a soft aseeda porridge of damriga dura, submerged in roasted mullah ruab, butter, and kawal sauces[5]. Abdel Hafiz, his father, Uncle Jazim, and I all had dinner. My mind returned to the women of Tandalti, who cook wonderfully. Uncle Jazim would mock them. 

I said, “Uncle Jazim? We discovered that Hajjah Amona and the women make a delicious sauce of grasshoppers, so why do you recommend Haider as a chef instead?” 

Abdel Hafiz interrupted: “By the way, Father was their sergeant in 1954 when Uncle Haider was the umbashi[6]. Father, if you don’t mind, tell him the story of the clover.” 

I hadn’t expected this, although I was certainly willing to listen to what Uncle Jazim had to say. Abdel Hafiz smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. Two years had passed since the people of Tandalti had risen up, incited by their sons from al-Azhar. They tore up the British flag and set it on fire. Uncle Jazim tried to impress on me a sense of their outrage. There were fourteen British men—the Governor and his Deputy of the Province, two judges, physicians, prison officers, and six commissioners. Their eyes betrayed their extreme vigilance as they listened intently for any shouting. Only the northern Dangla and Halfaween people were allowed to serve them food and drink or prepare their clothing. Umbashi Haider served Commissioner MacNeil. Poor MacNeil didn’t know that Haider’s grandfather had been buried there almost two hundred years ago. 

Laughter in his eyes, Uncle Jazim explained that they stayed up late in the middle cottage, Number 6, where MacNeil had lived. Uncle Haider would later say they carried the night to him. Saturday night gave them an excuse to sleep in before giving thanks at Sunday morning prayers. That night, Haider had trouble sleeping because of a cramping in his guts. It was after midnight when Mr. MacNeil showed up at the kitchen door, drunk and ranting. 

“Umbashi Haider?! It’s only forty-five minutes until mealtime! You need to serve gurassahand mulukhiya to the whole team. Am I clear? Otherwise, I’ll fire you tomorrow! Those are your orders, Umbashi Haider. Get moving!” 

Well guys, when Haider gets angry, he just stays silent and works. Within ten minutes, he baked the gurassah. Then he sauteed salted onions and butter on a cast-iron griddle. He grabbed plenty of meat and soup from the refrigerator and set them by the burner. Turning down the flames, he took a basket and sickle down from the back door. Then he strode down the steep hill toward the thick brush of the wadi near Tandalti. He didn’t have any light, so he quickly sank right into the mud. Let them eat thorns, those pig eaters, he thought! With his sickle, he hacked at the pasture and filled his basket with vegetation. As luck would have it, his movements disturbed the guard dogs to the south, and they started barking madly. Dogs, dogs, the only thing left to be afraid of is dogs, Haider told himself. 

Back in his kitchen, he used his knives to pull off leaves. Then he prepared spices, lit the fire under the pot, and waited. Uncle Jazim laughed as he told the story. The British ate dinner and then wandered off. As they slept, pigs raced with dogs across the clover fields in the bitter winter night. The windows of the cottage weren’t locked, and mosquitos pushed their way in. Uncle Haider locked the windows and wrapped the mosquito net around himself. 

When he told me about pig eaters eating pig food, I asked him, “What if they find out?” 

Shaking his shoulders scornfully, he said, “Orders, orders are orders, Jazim.” 

In the winter, Fridays were mostly dedicated to chasing wolves through the valley between the al-Sirjnat and al-Marafeen mountains. I remember the name of the British man who traveled with Mr. Moor in Kutum: Mr. Tisiger. He brought greyhounds from Jabal Gurãn and distributed them as gifts for judges, the commissioner, and his deputy, the prison director, and the commander of the police. The greyhounds were as fast as the wind. Sitting with their front legs fully stretched out, they were at least three meters long. 

The jailers and prisoners at the Khair Khanga[7] stables cared for their horses, saddling them by 4 a.m. each Friday morning. The Director would pick up the hunters in a black Chevrolet. At Khair Khanga, Sergeant-Major Belal still earned money on the side preparing grease lamps and picking out speedy young prisoners to join the hunt. Each prisoner held a dog leash. The British soldiers rode over the four foothills with the dogs and prisoners, quickly reaching Jabal Marafeen via the Sag al-Na’m route. Other prisoners held their lamps high so they could see into the caves. At the top of the mountain, the screaming was deafening. The wretched wolf leapt over the rocks, trying to get away. The prisoners attacked it from all directions, and the wolf staggered from side to side until it made it down to the valley. Then the horsemen and dogs set upon it. People who knew the British soldiers said they did the same thing to the poor foxes in their home country. 

Unfortunately, they took Haider along as chef for their picnic. He set up his tools under a faraway tree and then lit the coals in the fire pit. Suddenly, an idea flashed through his mind. He had a piece of gazelle meat in his bag. Mr. MacNeil had given it to him the week before, to use for special occasions, and he had kept it in the refrigerator. The carcass of the slaughtered young wolf had been thrown behind the kitir and laut trees, but the hummingbirds and crows had yet to prey on it. Haider took his knives and snuck behind the trees to kneel over the wolf. Quickly he cut open its chest, peeling the tender parts and dumping big hunks of the delicious meat into the bag. Then he folded the wolf’s coat over its remains and covered it with thorns. He strewed sand over all traces of blood. These dog lovers, these pig eaters, Haider muttered to himself. I was overwhelmed by fear of what might happen next. Under the shadows of the hijlij tree, the men and their prisoners devoured the meal, washing it down with cold beer. The dogs ate the leftovers. The men then drove off. Haider sliced the gazelle meat into jerky and gave it to the poor Um Brekah al-Bandaloya, whose home was at the far end of the Hilat al-Souqor neighborhood. 

At noon, Abdel Hafez drove me to our home in Hilat al-Wahya. I said, “Be careful Abdel Hafez! Your Uncle Haider might serve a dinner of boas, eagles, or monkeys. Allah save us!”

Abdel Hafez laughed and sought refuge in God. Then he asked if I thought he couldn’t tell the difference between the people of Tandalti and the British. 

On Monday, my wife and I organized our supplies. Abdel Hafez, his father, and Uncle Haider came to visit in the evening. Uncle Haider’s presence terrified me. He asked my wife for different kinds of spices, jerky meat, butter, vinegar, raisins, and almonds—he left nothing out. The feast will be unique, I told myself. I asked Haider to stay for dinner. Kabashiyat women are very skilled at cooking kisrah enriched with fresh unclarified butter. As we washed our hands, Uncle Jazim surprised us by saying, “My son, Babikir wad Kabashi, such adventures were too numerous to count; only God knows the number. Even Haider can’t remember everything he did, but believe me, he was completely infatuated with those women.” 

Uncle Haider silently bent over his cooking as if he didn’t care what we said. Uncle Jazir went on talking to us. The company usually brought in six blond daughters of the British empire every six months in each area where the British were posted. They called it the British Overseas Services. The girls would stay a couple of weeks for soirees, and to sing, dance, and sleep with the British men. On the last night, one of the girls lingered with Mr. MacNeil while Haider served cognac, roasted peanuts, beans, and sliced meat. 

In Mr. MacNeil’s ignorance, he thought Haider couldn’t understand their conversation or the stories he told the British girl. Haider wasn’t surprised or angry at what he heard, just annoyed by a sensation like muffler smoke filling his chest, which made him explode in a coughing fit. Even though I was his close friend, he didn’t tell me what Mr. MacNeil said to the British girl. Eventually, the girls left and we took it easy. 

On an afternoon during the third week, Mr. MacNeil got ready for a final squash match. He complained about a stain on his red shoes and blamed Haider for not sufficiently cleaning or polishing them. Haider insisted he’d done a good job, and Mr. MacNeil disagreed. The argument erupted into a brawl when Mr. MacNeil flung the shoes at Haider’s head. Muscles straining, they wrestled, a shoe stuffed between their heads and Mr. MacNeil clutching Haider’s long fingers in his fist. Mr. MacNeil left Haider with the shoes and stomped off, mumbling threats on the way out. I’m not sure whether he cursed anybody or not. In any case, Haider admitted to the following exchange:

 “By God,” Haider said, “those shoes are clean enough to eat!” 

“What do you mean, Umbashi? What are you trying to say?” 

Haider didn’t answer and stepped into the kitchen. A British soldier threatened him with a squash bat and shouted, “What are you saying? What’s going on?” 

As you well know, soldiers are disciplined for not obeying their superiors, but when Haider makes up his mind, he won’t budge. On Saturday at noon, Haider soaked the red shoes in boiling water for almost six hours. Then he tore them apart at the folds and minced the remains. He stayed up late mixing the minced shoes with spices, pickles, and butter. Mr. MacNeil ate the kufta for dinner and polished it off with a bottle of sherry. Then he fell asleep around 1 am. 

At 5 am, Haider heard MacNeil rummaging through his closet, but he didn’t try to escape. Instead, he went to his room and dressed up in his full Umbashi uniform. Then he went out the back door. Haider then stood in the morning line-up at the front of the police station. We wondered whether Mr. MacNeil had dismissed him and why. At 7 am, a hubbub broke out in Colonel Edward’s office. 

Restrained by Lieutenant Matthew, MacNeil was disarmed of his pistol. Then they locked him up in the extension to the left of Colonel Edward’s office. From where we stood in line, he looked pale and distressed. He seemed to be unaware that he was beating himself with his fist. We didn’t know what would happen to him. Later, when he was in custody, we could hear the revolting sound of his retching. No commander dismissed us until 8 am, when Lieutenant Matthew came out and the line snapped to attention. Lieutenant Matthew called Umbashi Haider to the front of the line, where he crossed his hands and was put in cuffs. Lieutenant Matthew ordered me to put Haider in solitary confinement at Khair Khanga. 

A military court was brought into session on Monday morning. The proceedings of this court were strictly classified for a year, until the British left. I came to court dragging Haider before the judge, his hands and feet shackled as if he were a murderer. Two meters away, blocked by a metal grid, sat Mr. MacNeil. His eyes were full of rage as Lieutenant Matthew read the indictment, but Haider didn’t lower his head. He stared at the judge with unblinking eyes. 

The judge said, “Why would a soldier treat his superior this way, Umbashi Haider?”

With a powerful voice, Haider said, “Sir, why does an officer beat a soldier with a shoe?”

“What did you do to make him beat you?” 

“I told him his shoes were clean enough to eat.”

“Does anyone eat their own shoes, Umbashi Haider?!”

“Yes, Sir. Furthermore, he might even ask to eat a human being!”

“Are you a Muslim, Umbashi Haider? A Muslim would never be a cannibal!” 

“But Sir, why did Mr. MacNeil eat Mr. Ohanon for dinner?!”

“You bloody fool!! Are you crazy, Umbashi Haider?”

“No Sir, I’m not. But a British man who eats British meat becomes a bloody fool. I heard Mr. MacNeil tell the British girl about how he ate Mr. Ohanon.” 

“Oh, Lord! Are you drunk or on drugs?” 

“No Sir. You can ask Mr. MacNeil.”

“Mr. MacNeil! Please explain now!” 

Commissioner MacNeil stood, trembling and sweating. Then he wiped his face with his handkerchief six times. Speaking English, he tried his best to explain the situation to the court, but he hid some important details. “During the last World War, a demon of a barber set up shop in the Soho area or someplace like that. He made an agreement with another devilish person to connect his barbershop to a butcher shop in the basement. As a client entered, a curtain descended. When foam was slathered over and under the client’s jaw, the razor suddenly slashed his throat! The barber then pulled a lever and the client dropped into the butcher shop below, the barber chair springing back into position.” 

Tears poured from Mr. MacNeil’s eyes, and he blew his nose in a handkerchief. Then he said, “Times were hard, and the butcher shop sold delicious sausages. We didn’t discover until later that we’d eaten Mr. Ohanon! After three months, reports of missing people started to appear. Scotland Yard figured out what was going on by watching the barber shop entrances.” 

I had never believed this story, but as the night’s conversation went on, my fear of Uncle Haider doubled. Uncle Jazim shook off his robes as we stood up. At the door, I grabbed his hand, and he turned to me. 

“What happened then, Uncle Jazim?” I asked. 

“Mr. MacNeil resigned that Tuesday and left Tandalti for home. Haider was stripped of his Umbashi rank and sentenced to four years in solitary confinement. Less than one year after the British left, the national Commander at Khair Khanga released Uncle Haider and restored his pension.”

I bid them farewell. They rode together in the pickup, driving down the yard and going south. Tomorrow, Tuesday, the sons of al-Kabashi and guests from all over Tandalti will arrive. I wonder what Uncle Haider is going to feed us, oh, Allah.

*

Ibrahim Ishaq (1948-2021) was a prominent Sudanese novelist, short story writer and scholar, born in the village of Wadaa in the Governorate of East Darfur State in western Sudan. He received his education in El Fasher and Omdurman, graduating from the Higher Teachers Institute in 1969. Ibrahim Ishaq published short stories in the local Sudanese newspapers. He participated on the jury for a several literary prizes in Sudan, such as the Al-Tayeb Salih Prize for creative writing, organized annually by the Abdul Karim Mirghani Cultural Center. He was also on the jury for the Al-Tayeb Salih International Prize. Ibrahim Ishag chaired the Sudanese Writers Union in 2009.

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.


[1] Between 1881and 1899, Muhammed Ahmad, the self-declared Mahdi (Guided One) of Islam declared jihad and raised an army. Then he led a successful uprising against Ottoman-Egyptian occupation. 

[2] A Turkish compound of military personal residences

[3] An English compound of military personal residences

[4] Powdered fruit from the Acacia Nilotica tree, commonly known as the Gum Arabic or Baobab tree

[5] Aseeda is a Sudanese wheat porridge. Dura, a Sudanese staple, is cooked maise and millet served as a stew or with vegetables. Mullah ruab is dry okra with yoghurt stew. Kawal is another kind of Sudanese stew sauce.

[6] A Turkish term for a Lance Corporal

[7] During the time of the Sultanate of Darfur, Khair Khanga was a place in El Fashier used as a warehouse and jail by the British troops.

mlynxqualey

Leave a Reply