Abdalla al-Gittay, a self-made intellectual of the working class, was arrested this Monday by the security authorities in Atbara, once the thriving centre of Sudan railways. I came to know Atbara's local star in 2008, at a time when the country breathed a sense of freedom thanks to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Abdalla and his fellows introduced me to the surviving grand veterans of the Railway Workers Union, elderly chaps battling age, multiple chronic diseases and amnesia but still able to chuckle. Abdalla and his comrades took me and a group of friends on a tour in the rundown railway capital, a ghost of itself, feeding me a steady stream of stories and anecdotes as we passed by its decrepit monuments: the wall of the Atbara marketplace mosque where the trade union leader al-Shafie Ahmed al-Sheikh, executed by Jaafar Nimayri in the aftermath of the 1971 aborted communist coup, stood to address the workers in a bygone age; the house where Sabila, a town celebrity who donated money and gold to the workers union during the heroic thirty three days strike of 1948, used to live; Atbara's workshops and the colonial offices of the railway administration, kindly deserted by the government to become a walk-through museum free of charge.
Abdalla's sense of humour had no bounds, quite like his sense of duty. He had a passion for poetry, and could recite at ease lengthy stretches of his favourite works. Conversation with him was a mix of literary criticism, political satire and Atbara anecdotes. "I just love communism," he told me as he sipped his tea before adding, "no wonder it collapsed, how could anything survive such love." Abdalla's communism was a Atbara brew more than anything else, a tale of working class emancipation in an African colony that he passionately expanded through the collection of stories from surviving witnesses of the 'golden' age of Shafie and Sabila. It was almost surreal sitting with Gittay and his comrades through the Atabara night to discuss in earnest the fatal flaws of Soviet socialism and how they could be averted in the twenty first century with the help of araki served in the small transparent tea glasses so adored in Sudan. As the sips gave way to generous gulps, Abdalla's mind drifted to poetry and he delivered a perfectly rhymed parody of the same classic he had recited hours earlier.
Abdalla's bicycle stands now idle in his humble Atbara home, longing for its comrade in silence, his friends miss him as I do, his frail body delivered to torturers who have neither appreciation for his person nor comprehension of his passions. As thick blood soaks his single jellabiya, sand-yellow rather white from repeated washing with Atabara's muddy tap water when available, Abdalla is probably worrying how is he ever going to get rid of such stubborn stains. A comrade like Abdalla does not stain his jellabiya, come what may!