The emotion of putting on my play, Looking for Europe, in this shrine of academic excellence.
Dubliners Bono and Bob Geldof in the first row. Students and faculty in attendance to witness the strange spectacle of a Frenchman explaining to them that Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are underappreciated founding fathers of Europe.
Perhaps even more intimidating, the busts of Joyce, Swift, and Bishop Berkeley lining the walls.
And, after performing for two hours, there, at the back of the hall in the space reserved for special guests, a silhouette I would recognize from a mile away, but so unexpected that I had not spotted him: my old friend Abakar.
We met in 2001, when he was a young pilot, a Chadian air force ace, and I was reporting on Africa’s forgotten wars. He had helped organize my visit to a famished enclave in the Nuba mountains of the Sudan that no reporter had visited for years.
We saw each other again six years later. He had become a special adviser to Chad’s president, Idriss Déby. I, together with Alexis Duclos of the Gamma photo agency, was working on another report, this time in the heart of Darfur. Abakar organized our nightly passage through the border village of Abéché into the areas where the massacres were being carried out.
After that, it was occasional notes and phone calls as I watched his rise over the years from young jet pilot to an important figure in European aeronautics. There was a meeting at the time of the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo; another, more recent, after I read that he had become an opponent of Déby. And now this moment, under the windows of the ancient Trinity College chapel, when I rediscover him in his essence: the gaunt face, the Bedouin pride unaltered by Western refinement, the same bearing of a sad and watchful desert lord that I had noticed in Commander Massoud as he sat in the last battered helicopter that carried him from Dushanbe to Taloqan. And that same air of seeming to resume a conversation interrupted only the day before.
“You’re surprised to see me here?” he began, in that deliberate but indifferently articulated voice that he had always had. “Since we haven’t managed to get together, I came where I knew I’d find you. It’s good, your story of Europe. I followed the whole thread. But you’re missing the most significant current event, the most promising as well as the most dangerous, even though, God knows, it concerns you …”
Noticing my quizzical air, he goes on: “Sudan, old friend! The incredible rebellion of the young Sudanese. Their alliance with the military leaders who are apologizing to the Darfuris. And that al-Bashir, who the whole world was betting on up to the last minute, but who I always said—didn’t I?—would crumble when the time came, like a giant with feet of clay. Can we talk about what this means? Somewhere else? In an hour?”
I know that Abakar Manany, who manages to keep his feet in his village north of N’Djamena and his head in geopolitical and business circles, is not often wrong about Africa.
I know how much several of the best Washington think tanks count on his analysis.
And I also know that this Chadian Arab and Muslim who is French in language, heart, and soul, is also a friend of the Jewish people who never fails to send his friends a message on Passover, Yom Kippur, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
So I hurry through my post-performance duties.
I call in sick to the little group that is expecting me for dinner.
And I go to a pub to meet the friend about whom I realize I know very little, but whose life has inspired immense loyalty in me. At the pub, he tells me three things of capital importance.
First, that the defeat of Sudan’s Islamist military dictatorship is, more than the Tunisian, Libyan, or ongoing Algerian events, the real beginning of a possible spring for the region’s people.
Second, that his country, Chad, where the two Africas meet, is, with its sick president abandoned by his praetorian guard and the country’s armed forces, the place where the democratic contagion might next appear—and where, if it does not, the social structure may be rocked.
And, third, that the entire sub-Saharan region is becoming the playing field of the powers I have labeled “the five kings.” Abakar tells me he has read my book The Empire and the Five Kings and that I missed something. If there is a place where Erdogan, the Arab Islamists, the Chinese of the New Silk Road, the Russians, and maybe even the Iranians can operate hand in hand right under the nose of the West, it is in sub-Saharan Africa …
I scrutinize my friend, with his name straight out of Flaubert and his air of a “sedentary wanderer” in the mold of Joseph Conrad.
I am aware that this thoughtful person dwelling within a man of action, this individual whose sleepless nights are spent poring over maps and prints of a dreamed Africa, may be seeing things the way he wishes to see them or as he would have them be.
But I also remember the friend whose counsel I was so slow to heed in 1994, when he would interrupt my meetings on Bosnia to call out, “What about Rwanda? You’ve got your eyes so set on Sarajevo that you can’t see what’s about to happen in Rwanda!”
Which is why I chose then and there, in the pub, to suspend for a moment my fixation on Europe in order to listen carefully to my old friend, to trust in what he has to say, and, as I am doing here, to pass it on.