Let me tell you the story of my own stuckness. It starts in Tel Aviv, which, in 1980 when I was there, was a dysenteric’s paradise: It had public restrooms on every other block—the limit of my range.
I’d been a year and a half overseas—first in Italy, then, in the fall of 1979, I dropped down to Africa, crossed the Sahara, navigating the sands by compass. I traveled east through the jungles and onto the savannas of Kenya and Tanzania. From those great plains, I headed north across the eastern Sahara traveling old camel routes on the backs of open trucks.
Africa at that time was a place where you could still have adventures; where the reach of modernity was tentative, where life was raw, disease ridden, almost always difficult, and sometimes violent.
One morning, in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan—where the Blue and White Nile meet, where the desert sands blow into the city and clog the streets like snow—I met a member of the local elite, Syd, who, in a fit of self-importance, invited me to lunch with the President, Gaafar Nimeiry. On the drive out to the president’s palace, Syd pointed to the big houses on lush green lawns, richly irrigated by Nile river water on the right side of the road and said, “Old regime.” He pointed at the new houses being built on brown arid sand on the other side of the road and said: “New regime.” Unspoken was the corruption and veniality that made both sides of the road possible.
At the presidential compound he went in first to clear with security—a second later he rushed out, voice pitched high in alarm.
“The guard posts are deserted. I think there’s been a coup.”
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