Chapter 8 - Nicolai, the Bulgarian, Moses, the Jew and ... I reach a turning point
Updated: Feb 2
It was, I suppose, around 1968. I was growing up, and growing in confidence. I was aged 14, and I took up judo. We had a judo team at school, and training sessions three times a week. I was quite good, and I teamed up with a regular training partner, a Bulgarian boy named Nicolai Bonev. Nicolai was about two years older than me, but he was my classmate, because when he came to the Sudan, he took a lot longer to learn English and Arabic and catch up. He became one of my best friends. His father worked at the Bulgarian embassy. An ardent communist, his father had been an officer in the Bulgarian Border Guards, and, without speaking any other languages, had suddenly become a diplomat. I think that tells you a lot about his credentials. (Some years later, Carol, my first American controller, and I wondered about Nicolai's father. Exactly how he had become a diplomat and second secretary to the ambassador in Khartoum with his non-existent linguistic skills must be an interesting story. We speculated if he was their chief spy in Khartoum, since he didn't even speak Russian properly. He knew about ten words in English and five in Arabic. We were perplexed, to say the least.) Anyhow, through knowing Nicolai, I started to get to know a lot of expats from the Socialist countries, particularly Bulgarians, Czechs, Russians, and Yugoslavs. Perhaps through diplomatic connections, I can't remember, but we also discovered that at the American Club, US marines offered judo and martial arts training sessions every week. This was also just five minutes from our house, and before long Nicolai and I were spending most afternoons in judo training, usually at the American Club, and in the evenings afterwards we went to the cinema, or went out for some fun and games. Through the American Club we got to know a lot of the US embassy staff, and their teenage children, and I think it was around 15-16 when I started feeling that there had been a radical change: Gabor's life was no longer directed by his parents. Looking back, I think this process was kick-started by a pivotal incident, involving my father. In my first year in secondary school one of my best friends was a boy called Moses. He was actually a pretty ugly fellow, with curly red hair, but with a fantastic sense of humour. And he was Jewish, which was pretty unusual in Khartoum. I can't remember his nationality, only that his father was some sort of businessman. Well, we used to visit each other, and one day he met my father in the garden. It wasn't the first time Moses had been in our house, but he hadn't previously met my father, so I introduced them. I said, dad, this is Moses, my friend and classmate. My father looked at him for a second, and, of course hearing his name, it was obvious Moses was Jewish. And it just came straight out: “Get this Jew out of my house!” he barked. I was stunned. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, what is wrong with this boy? He was just a good guy. I didn't give a damn about his nationality or religion or whatever. It made no difference to me. But when it sank in, I told him: OK, but if he's going, I'm going too. He came to play with me, I'm going out then, see you father, and we just left. As we moved off, my father called after me: then don't come back if you are going out with him! I said, OK, I won't. And that night I slept at Nicolai's house. Which, in turn, created another big problem. Because of course, the next day my father wanted to know where I'd spent the night. So I told him. “Who is this Nicolai? Is he Russian?” he demanded. “No, he's a Bulgarian. He's also my classmate,” I said. “You're making friends with Jews and communists!” he fumed. OK, I could understand he hated the communists and communist Jews back home, but I couldn't understand how he could reflect this loathing to those boys who I had met thousands of miles away in Africa. Boys who had nothing to do with Hungary but who just happened to be my friends and classmates. These events had a profound effect on me. It was when I started thinking independently about notions of right and wrong, and why. I decided that from then on I would no longer accept what my parents said, and take this as reality. Henceforth, I was going to form my own opinion on things. I wanted to have proof of something being good, or wrong, or bad, because what my father says and thinks was one thing, and what was objective might be another. From then on, whenever my father started talking about Jews and Israelis, whenever I could hear his anti-Semitic feelings coming to the fore, I would say OK, that's your opinion, but don't try to convince me about this stupidity. And then, funnily enough, he usually stopped. It was like he realised he was doing something wrong, and I'd tweaked his conscience. I think my mother helped too: she persuaded him that it would be better if he refrained from such rants. Certainly he never commented on my friends in the same way again. I also started seeing there was a difference between communists and 'communists'. I mean, Nicolai, for example. He was my best friend, I knew his mentality as if it were my own. I knew what he was thinking, and I realised that though he's from a communist country, he was not a communist. I knew Nicolai did not agree with his father, and we both knew that we didn't like life back in our respective homelands. I don't know, but I think such political analysis as this was pretty advanced for young teenagers in the west, because it simply wouldn't have occurred to most kids there to compare systems, at least not in such depth. Why should they? It was outside their experience. But for us, for Nicolai and me in Khartoum, we lived the differences, we experienced the gulf, in our daily lives. And it made us think. Really hard.