Chapter 7 - We no longer whispered in our own home
So here I was, an 11-year old schoolboy, going on 12, living in a middle-class suburb of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Home was a secure, European bubble surrounded by an exotic, colourful, chattery African chaos. The two societies co-existed and rubbed against each other, but rarely met in the real meaning of the word. Of course, I only came to this conclusion later. Things were uneventful at the beginning, although I suppose my contrary nature was tested pretty quickly when I was told I would have to learn English and Arabic. I said: "Me? Never! If anyone wants to speak to me, I'm sorry, they're going to have to learn Hungarian, because I'm not going to learn any other Goddamn language!" Ha ha! Such stubbornness lasted about a month or so, until I realised, of course, this wasn't going to work. It meant in the first two-three years, I went to school, and had private lessons in English and Arabic to help me catch up. In theory there were several schools to choose from, but most were state schools where they taught in Arabic, with English merely as a subject with a few classes a week. The cream of the crop was Comboni College, which taught in English, and with just Islam, Arabic literature and grammar in Arabic. The choice was obvious. Named after its founder, an Italian missionary, the school had a British curriculum and an excellent reputation, so pretty much all the foreigners, along with the elite of Sudanese society sent their children there. The annual fees reflected its status. At the time, my father earned 420 Sudanese pounds a month as head of department – about three times the average for a Sudanese professor – and it cost him about two months' salary a year to keep me well educated. In my freetime, I rode my bicycle up and down the street in front of the house, and if I went out with my parents, we would go to the German Club. In Sudan, at least in those days, if you wanted to go out, you went to clubs, and my parents preferred the German Club: it was near our house, and had a nice big, clean swimming pool. But one thing for sure changed in Khartoum: the atmosphere at home was immediately different. My parents breathed anew, their mannerisms and demeanour changed. You could tell they felt free to speak, to do things, to go places, without the constant fretting and suspicion that permeated life in Budapest. There were about five or six other Hungarian families working at the university. We would visit each other, and as I remember not one of these families ever said anything good about socialism, nor anything about the regime back home.
On the contrary, it became clear they all felt living back in Hungary was the worst thing next to prison: everyone was happy to have escaped the place. We no longer whispered in our own home. Hungary, and it's Socialist Workers' Party, were almost a distant, forgotten dream. Almost, but not quite. I soon learned that the Hungarian embassy acted as a kind of shadow state, lurking in the background. There was also a family of two doctors just too close to the embassy. When they were around, the atmosphere changed: everyone was more guarded, more furtive. And then there were the Hungarian diplomats. They had a bloody cheek: once or twice a year, they would just come to visit us. No invitation! They just popped in to see how the Rimners were doing, sat down in the living room, and started asking everyone questions, including children. How was everyone feeling? How do we keep in touch with relatives back home? When do we plan to go home next? Take Ferenc, the first secretary. He was a total stranger, yet he would be in our house asking us to attend events. “Why don't you come to the April 4 celebration party at the embassy?” (April 4, you remember, was the the anniversary of the 'liberation' of Hungary in 1945 by the Red Army.) We usually found an excuse to avoid that, and others. But we were most definitely expected to attend the embassy's 'Szilveszter celebrations' on New Year's Eve. That meant 40-45 Hungarians, the entire Magyar community in Sudan - down to the smallest child - in attendance. Dull? You bet. Everybody would be standing with their glasses, pretending to be happy, waiting for midnight. On the hour, you drank your half glass of champagne, only to be forced to listen to a 90-minute speech from the ambassador. It was like a Party meeting: he sat down and began reading a text which was obviously written in Budapest and sent out to all embassies. It had the spontaneity of a funeral service.
If anyone needed a reminder of how lucky they were to be away from Hungary, the embassy's New Year 'party' was as good – or as bad – as it got. Little wonder that, of the Hungarian families I knew in Khartoum, only two returned to Hungary – and that included us, and that was because of me! The rest defected, to the US, Sweden, Canada, anywhere but the paprika paradise. Slowly but surely, I began to realise for myself that these embassy people were different: they were here to control us. And I also began to better understand my father's fears and loathing of the regime.