'Big Easy' Cuts No Ice in Sudan, Reporter Finds

Gwen Thompkins, who covers East Africa for NPR, describes recent trouble with authorities in Sudan. She realized that the worst part for her wasn't that they took her passport, but that they had never heard of her hometown: New Orleans.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Steve, you just mentioned schools in New Orleans. Well, it was the music of her hometown - New Orleans - that got NPR's Gwen Thompkins through a difficult moment recently.

Gwen covers East Africa, and she sent us a note about the day she got in trouble in Sudan.

GWEN THOMPKINS: It was one of those situations that begin with a misunderstanding and end when you have to hand over your passport to someone who doesn't want to give it back. This lasted about 20 hours, and although my teeth weren't chattering, I was definitely worried about what else the authorities might want. My notes? My computer? My minidisk recorder? I was treated with great courtesy.

It was a small town, about 500 miles outside Khartoum. And strangers don't come by that often. Sometimes I got the feeling that the office was filling up with people who wanted to get a glimpse of the stranger in town.

Periodically, a big kid would walk by wearing thick Nutty Professor glasses and a scowl. I think he was some sort of intelligence officer. He never warmed up to me. Then miraculously things looked as if they might swing my way. I saw my passport. I actually saw it. That's progress.

And later, when I was sitting in the office of a local security honcho, he asked me in halting English where I was born. I told him Louisiana. He looked confused. So I took out my spare notebook, drew a map of the United States and put a big X by the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Now, that seemed familiar to him. Then he asked me what city I was from and I thought, checkmate; nobody with a heart can hate my hometown. They write songs about my hometown. My hometown is a song. So I smiled, puffed up a little bit, and said with pride, New Orleans.

But then, horror of horrors, he looked completely mystified. I live in the home of jazz music, I said. You know jazz, don't you? He shook his head no. My heart began to pound. Do you know Louis Armstrong, I asked? He shook his head again. And then it hit me. For the first time ever, I am really in trouble.

Okay, they took my passport. But now they're trying to deny me my birthright. I honestly wondered if the man across from me had no soul. And then I wondered if that damn storm had erased more of the city than I thought. Maybe New Orleans was passing into obscurity, like Atlantis or Pompeii.

Our acquaintance ended when with a heavy heart a colonel gave me back my passport. I took it. But then my heart was heavy. That someone, even someone in Sudan, might not know or might not care to know New Orleans made this suddenly a mean old world. On the long road back to Khartoum, a road populated by camels and donkeys and a million sad secrets, a windstorm whipped up sand that hung like fog in the air. In Arabic, the people here call it habub, a phenomenon that makes it difficult to see straight or to see anything at all. I felt far from home, unmoored, dislocated, depressed.

The driver turned on the radio. And wouldn't you know it? Miraculously things began to sound like they might swing my way. Like manna from the delta, my best friend's voice came out loud and proud over the speaker.

(Soundbite of Louis Armstrong song)

THOMPKINS: Ain't life grand?

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

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