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Be inspired every day with Living North
sunset over Nile, Dreamstime
January 2018
Reading time 20

From working in a sesame oil factory at six years old to heading up an agency at the United Nations and latterly settling in Durham, Kamil Idris tells Tom Nicholson his incredible life story

‘When I was a child, for me the most important challenge was the art of survival,’ says Kamil Idris. Then he pauses. ‘Survival.’

Kamil’s memories of a childhood spent pinballing from tragedy to trial and back again are still lucid and vivid. He’s had quite a life, dragging himself from the depths of poverty to become a scholar and statesman with a role with the United Nations and a crack at the Sudanese presidential race in 2010, as his memoir My Nile Odyssey details. 

‘Odyssey’ is exactly the word for it. It’s frequently literally incredible. The book’s sleeve drops a few hints that this is something more than your average life story: it’s peppered with commendations from the likes of Imam El-Sadiq El-Mahdi, the former Prime Minister of Sudan, and the thanks section at the back includes shout-outs to Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Benazir Bhutto and King Abdullah of Jordan. 

‘To put things together it was not easy,’ says Kamil over the phone from Genev’a. He rolls sentences around in his mouth before placing each word carefully, deliberately. ‘I just wanted to say the truth. It was very hard. It was very difficult. My childhood was not easy at all. But that gave me a stamina.’

To say his upbringing was ‘not easy’ is an understatement. He was born in Omdurman, a fishing village in Sudan where the White and Blue Nile rivers meet, and across the water from the capital, Khartoum. His father was a kind and charitable man who was forever trying to tune the family wireless into the BBC World Service. He had just retired from a high-powered role on the Sudanese railway when he died in 1960. Kamil was six years old.

At that point, Kamil says, ‘all his work disappeared in a fraction of a second’. The family had relied on him financially, and once a secret stash of gold had been exhausted, they needed money. Kamil became a child labourer as well as studying, first in an oil factory where he squeezed sesame seeds into a piping machine, and later in paper, chemical and toothpaste factories. Shifts were long, rights flimsy and safety procedures non-existent. At around the same time, Kamil’s sister died during childbirth and a friend drowned while swimming in the Nile. 

‘All my life was full of risks, but always it is the state of mind. It is here. It is in the mind,’ Kamil explains. ‘If you are determined and you know you can pass, be rescued from fire, then you will make it. But the minute you think, oh, it is dangerous, fire is dangerous, I’m going to be killed…’

The risks and insecurity which surrounded his family were one thing, but worse was to come. When he was 13, Kamil tried to travel the 1,600 kilometres from his home to Cairo railway station, where he’d heard there was good work going. Having hopped off the apparently stricken ferry he was on for a nap, he woke to find the ferry gone, and himself stranded on a jetty in the middle of nowhere. In desperation, he scrambled on to a huge rock in the middle of the river, only to find that he was suddenly surrounded by crocodiles. Then he remembered that his passport and food were on the ferry, which was steaming out of sight. He prayed to Allah for help, then fell asleep.

He was woken by a bright light shining in his face. He heard voices shouting.
‘It’s a djinn!’ said one.

‘It can’t be a djinn, it’s too small,’ said the other.

‘It’s a djinn, a real one,’ said the first voice again. ‘Be careful.’

Four fishermen lowered over Kamil, the machetes on their belts glinting in the moonlight. They were convinced he was a ghost, a supernatural shapeshifter – and they thought he could lead them to treasure lost on two boats which had recently sunk. Judging that he could easily talk himself into trouble, Kamil stayed quiet.

‘If I’d said, “You are stupid; I’m not a djinn and there is no treasure,” if I’d started lecturing them, they’d have killed me,’ he says. ‘One of them was ready to behead me. He kept telling his colleagues, “We don’t have time, just finish the guy! He’s a djinn!” But I said look, I can be of use to you. And at that point the extremist, the most dangerous, started to flip: “How can we use him?”’

‘The train abruptly started up again. Though he sprinted to catch it, it was soon retreating into the distance. It was 10am, and the temperature was already over 40 degrees centigrade. He could be dead within 24 hours’

He managed to scramble away in another boat, but that wasn’t the end of his adventures. Having apparently not learned his lesson about getting off transport which has mysteriously stopped, he hopped off the roof of a train which had ground to a halt in the desert en route to Cairo and looked for water. Before he could find any, the train abruptly started up again. Though he sprinted to catch it, it was soon retreating into the distance. It was 10am, and the temperature was already over 40 degrees centigrade. He could be dead within 24 hours.

The only thing he could think to do was to walk along the track and hope that the train had stopped again. He walked for an hour but became delirious in the sun and sought shelter under a tree. He drifted to sleep. When he woke, the sky was darkening. He was still alone on the vast plains. The jackals, hyenas and wolves would come soon.

Then he saw a light. Walking toward it, he realised it was a campfire. He’d stumbled across a Bedouin camp, and they took him in like a long-lost son. Six days later, they made it to the next station on the railway line and sent Kamil on his way to Cairo.

‘I was not scared. I could easily have said, I will not drink this milk; it could be poisoned or it is infected. No, I go ahead: I drink, I live with them, I adapted myself as if I am a member of that community. In the middle of the desert!’ says Kamil. ‘And at night you just sleep outside and you have a clear sky, the stars and the moon, and two or three boys they just play the role of guard. And they’re happy people. Later on I met multi-millionaires who are very unhappy.’

These episodes made a big impression on Kamil and his values. ‘Humility is very important. And detachment,’ he says. ‘Because happiness is already the peace of mind, it is a relative term. Today you are happy, tomorrow you are unhappy. So the moment in which you are happy, also be detached from that, because if you are completely taken by that the more you are disappointed.’ 

That circumspection was worn into Kamil’s outlook early on by the constantly shifting sands which he and his family found themselves in, though at the same time he cultivated an inner steeliness and faith in himself. It does take a fair bit of self-possession to quote yourself in a chapter’s epigram as Kamil occasionally does, placing his thoughts alongside WB Yeats, Winston Churchill and Francis Bacon.

That said, the graft of his childhood and the lessons he took from each encounter (even the pirates who wanted to kill him taught him that ‘dialogue is very important, communication is very important’) helped him to drag himself out of the difficulties of his youth. In short – in very, very short, as Kamil’s life is so dense with incident that we’re going to have to skip vast chunks of it here – he got to university in Ohio to study philosophy and, much more grafting later, became Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation at the United Nations.

Though he was now surrounded by diplomatic heavyweights – Kamil met Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, Yasser Arafat and dozens besides – two meetings stand out. There was the time he met the ‘impressive’ Fidel Castro, who made assiduous notes of their conversation; the other story starts with the phrase, ‘my friend, Nelson Mandela’, which, as openings to anecdotes go, is fairly good.

Kamil was visiting Mandela at his house in Johannesburg, when the South African president asked for a private audience. The two men went into a separate room, where Mandela raised the back of his shirt to show Kamil the bare skin of his back. It was covered in burns and scars. ‘Kamil,’ said Mandela, ‘do you know who contributed most to this?’ Kamil shook his head. Mandela showed him a picture and pointed out a face.

‘It was his personal security guard,’ says Kamil. ‘This was the man who tortured him in jail, and at the time that he was talking to me he was his personal confidant. Like his son. He said, “This is my son now.” Can you imagine this? This is the true meaning of tolerance. He was a great man.’ 

How much did his family know about his story before he put the book together? ‘They didn’t know all the details,’ Kamil says. ‘When the book was put together, and they read it, they were amazed.’ Some of his children cried when they read it. After such a staggering life – we’ve not even touched on the road trip from Beirut to London he undertook at 14, when a family took him in and helped him see the capital, or the fact that he intends to run for President of Sudan again in 2020 – you’d think that moving to the North East would be something of a downgrade, but after moving to Durham when two of his six children began studying medical degrees at the university there, Kamil has completely fallen in love with the region.
‘We love the North East. It’s a great place. I always tell people that for us this is paradise,’ he says. ‘I think out of everywhere in the world, the North East honestly has a special flavour.’ He praises the ‘great values’ our region cleaves closely to: ‘Tolerance; charity; help; understanding’. ‘And the laughter,’ he says. ‘When people laugh, you can feel that it comes from the bottom of the heart, genuinely. The North East is very original. People shouldn’t lose sight of that.’

Though he’s swapped the Nile for the Wear, Kamil still thinks about the river he grew up next to. ‘This is my friend, where during my most difficult days I learned how to swim,’ he says. ‘The symbol of life, where I went and had my contemplations about everything, my philosophy, the meaning of life and many things. So for me, the Nile and life, they’re two faces of the same coin. This is why, whenever I see a running river, I always stop and reflect.’

My Nile Odyssey by Kamil Idris is published by UK Book Publishing, RRP £25

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