What Does a Nice Jewish Boy Do in Khartoum in the Middle of the Night, and What Does Leonard Cohen Have to Do with It?
We were headed back to Tel-Aviv, after completing our 10-day assignment in Somalia, where we covered the raging famine and the bloody civil war across this Horn of Africa country, and the U.S. military setting boots on the ground in Mogadishu. A total of about 15-hour flights with layovers in Nairobi and London, and we could see our families we left behind 10 days ago. My colleague Amikam and I were onboard the British Airways night flight that was fully booked that night. Amikam, the trusted soundman who I have traveled across the world with, sat in the back of the plane, while I opted for a front-row aisle seat. This wasn’t significant when we departed, but it became critical a couple of hours later.
Seated next to me, were two women, a mother and daughter, I figured, before I sank into my comfortable seat and closed my eyes.
The process of ‘decompression’ on board a home-bound flight after an assignment always filled me with a certain elation excitement. I had a “coming back home ritual”: wearing an NBC T-shirt, like a patriotic, proud soldiers wearing his best uniform, taking out the book I brought for the trip, which I never read, and finally, order a glass of red wine.
As I sat back and reflected on the intense moments we’d left behind, adrenaline still rushing in my veins.I relived some of those moments experienced just a couple of days earlier in Somalia. Images, sounds and smells which would be burnt in my memory forever. Thoughts and fears I felt that night in the port of Mogadishu when the U.S. Marines stormed the docks from the sea and threatened to shoot if we moved. The indelible memories of people who had lost not only their dignity but also their homes, their possessions, and most tragically, their beloved family members, those we met in the make-shift tents in the refugee camps across this bleeding country, and mostly the children who were my own girls’ age, undernourished, weak, and had hoped for only a hot meal and a drink of water just to get by another day, to survive another night.
The sights, smells, and voices replayed in my memory like scenes from a movie on the large screen.
Another memorable moment, another such scene was the impromptu celebration and very special 40th birthday party my comrades – my crew – turned-family-like had prepared for me back in Mogadishu, at Ibrahim’s safe house where we stayed.
The Boeing’s engines roared to life, as we began our journey, gradually picked up speed and took off ascending into the night sky. Africa’s nighttime landscape, with its sparse lights, unfolded below as Nairobi quietly drifted to sleep. It was time to focus on the flight home.
The in-flight entertainment options were limited. Only two movies none was interesting: “The Crying Field” and “Home Alone”. I struck up a brief conversation with my next seat passenger, The younger woman seated next to me in the middle-row seat.
“I am Stephanie” she introduced herself. “And this is my mom, Barbara, and we are heading back home to Philadelphia after a week-long safari in Kenya“.
“Cool, I am Hanani, working for NBC-News home-bound with my colleague who is sitting in the back, after a ten-day stint in Mogadishu, covering the landing of the U.S. troops on the Somali coast.”
I opened my “never-ending” book, turned on the reading light, and waited for the crew to serve dinner.
Dinner was fine. I started to feel the accumulated fatigue taking over me. I took a shot of digestive at the end of the meal, Fernet-Branca, looked to my next seat neighbor – Stephanie, and asked her: “Would you wake me up before we land in London?”
She smiled back at me – “Good night, sweet dreams…“
As the adrenaline faded, mixed with the alcohol and the quick airline dinner, I fell asleep within minutes.
My sleep was brief, as I was startled by the captain’s unusual announcement that we would be landing in about an hour, not in London but diverting to Khartoum, due to a medical emergency on the plane. This wasn’t a dream, turned out that a passenger on board had suffered a massive heart attack, and we needed to make this emergency landing to provide lifesaving medical treatment at the closest hospital.
Sudan, a country with a complex history, especially for Amikam and myself, two Israeli citizens. Sudan was an Arab Moslem state which never recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist, and committed as most of the Moslem world those years, to annihilate the Jewish entity and wipe it off the earth.
My heart was racing and palms sweaty. I couldn’t help but recall the story of July 1976 Paris to Tel-Aviv flight, hijacked by Palestinian & European terrorists, forced to land in Uganda.
I left my seat and walked to the back of the plane to speak with my Israeli colleague, who was still napping. I woke him up and explained to him the situation – I told him to stay put, if someone asks for your passport – say you don’t know where it was. I will inform the cockpit about both of us – just in case.
I was back to being the producer on this developing dramatic situation. As I promised Amikam, I explained to the cabin’s purser, the potentially dangerous situation of two Israeli citizens unexpectedly landing in enemy territory. All I could do at this point was hope for the best.
My anxiety about landing in Khartoum grew, as I sat back in my seat. I shared my concern with Stephanie sitting to my right. I was nervous about my Israeli passport as well as my outfit; My NBC shirt, had “Tel Aviv Bureau” written on it which felt less like a shield and more like a target.
Stephanie was quick to respond, and reached into her bag to pulled out a colorful shirt she had bought as a souvenir for her boyfriend, for me to wear. Next, I gave her my Israeli passport which just earlier I thought to flush down the toilet, and she shoved it into her backpack under the seat in front of her. And finally, I switched seats with Stephanie and her mom and moved to the window seat, covered my head with a blanket, and pretended to be asleep. I embraced my seat as the plane touched down in Khartoum. Stephanie acted her part, posing as my partner held my hand. The tension in the cabin was palpable as we taxied down the runway. The dimly lit Khartoum airport appeared eerie and unfamiliar in the dead of night. We waited anxiously, hoping that no Sudanese officer would board the plane and scrutinize our Israeli passports.
In those intense moments, our new friendship felt more intimate and comforting as my life dependent on her.
I noticed a military jeep and a red-crescent ambulance approaching the plane as a tractor towed a flight of mobile stairs to connect to the front door of the plane.
Minutes later, 4 medics came up rushing towards the Boeing’s rear galley, where the passenger was lying on the carpet, I noticed the 3 military personnel standing by the stairs as if they were debating coming up or not.
After 10 more minutes that felt like 60, the stretcher carrying the ailing passenger was carefully taken off the plane. Stephanie whispered words of reassurance, and I couldn’t help but feel grateful for her presence. The captain’s announcement came as a relief, confirming that we would soon be taking off. However, London would not be our destination tonight… We were bound for Larnaca, Cyprus, due to flight regulations and the unplanned detour we took.
“We are expected to land in Larnaca in three hours and 10 minutes” the captain announced over the PA system.
I told Stephanie, “The last time I saw the sun break at dawn, I was lying on the port’s dock in Mogadishu, afraid to move my hand or a leg, not to get kicked or shot at by a U.S. Marine.”
“I promise you, this sunrise in Larnaca we would watch together!” she said with a smile.
Stephanie retrieved my Israeli passport from her backpack and took out her Sony Walkman asking me if I wanted to listen with her to some tunes. I promised to return the borrowed souvenir shirt as soon as we landed. She handed me one of the two earplugs and pressed “play“.
Now, so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began.” “To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again… sang Leonard Cohen with the chorus in our ears.
When the captain turned on the “fasten your seat belt” sign as the Boeing started taxing on the tarmac on its way to the takeoff position – I wrapped myself in a blanket and closed my eyes. So long, Stephanie, “your eyes are soft with sorrow…” “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”, I thought to myself, listening to another one of Cohen’s soulful tunes.
At about 5:00 a.m. our flight terminated at Larnaca International Airport. My colleague, Amikam, and I boarded one of the buses that were waiting outside the terminal to take us to the resort for a short refresher, a shower, and breakfast, before continuing the trip and finally reaching London.
Stephanie and her mother were nowhere to be found. I wandered to the high ground lawn overlooking the Mediterranean where I watched the sunrise – by myself. The tranquility and serenity of that moment provided a stark contrast to the turbulence I had experienced tonight between Nairobi and Larnaca.
Leonard Cohen’s music replayed softly in my head.“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir I have tried in my own way to be free. Like a worm on a hook, Like a knight from some old-fashioned book…”
And the souvenir shirt that was meant to be for Stephanie’s boyfriend… Well, it was left in my hotel room in Cyprus. And there might be a boyfriend in Philly with an NBC Tel-Aviv T-shirt that has seen better days.
PREVIOUS CHAPTERS OF MY “REPORTING FROM SOMALIA” DIARY: