By Gayathri Samarakoon, reporting from Qatar
“I am a man whose dreams have come true twice,” declares Akram, leaning back on a high-backed chair at the Golf Club.
It’s another sizzling hot Saturday in Qatar; a chilled beer sits on the table giving away golden hues as Akram roles out a cigarette to share his amazing story of warfare in Sudan, fleeing the army, new pastures in Qatar, a concert in Ethiopia, meeting with the Marleys and … loving an English lass!
“Let me tell it to you as it happened and then you will believe it,” Akram begins with customary Shakespearean gusto.
Akram and Emma’s story is a romance that has to be told at least once. Their story begins in two different parts of the world.
One amidst the green meadows of England in a place called Forrester Dean, a place otherwise referred to as the land between two rivers.
And the other, also called the land between two rivers but situated in Sudan along the great River Nile.
Akram came to Doha from Sudan 12 years ago in search of greener pastures.
Akram was the youngest of eight in the Abdalla family and grew up with the notion of following his father in to the civil service.
Therefore, after leaving school at the age of 20, he joined the military service to train as an Air Force technician and to fight in the religious conflict between the North and South Sudan.
However, it didn’t take long for Akram to realise that it was a futile conflict.
“You have to believe in a war to fight it and I didn’t think it was worthwhile fighting our own people in the South, just because they had Christian beliefs and weren’t Muslims. I mean, we were the same people
and it seems pointless to be fighting for religions,” Akram says earnestly.
“After one year in the army I watched the senior graduates who were sent to the South getting killed. They would send 10 pilots and only two would return. I couldn’t watch this any longer.”
So Akram left the army three times, but always to be brought back to the prison camp for retraining and then back to the Air Force base.
The final time Akram fled, he went home to the remote village in Wadmadani, which is in the outskirts and far from the capital, and stayed with his family for two months — putting his family at risk.
Then at this time his uncle, who had connections in the Defence Ministry, came forward to help him by appealing to the General to provide Akram with release papers so that he could be released from the forces prematurely.
Happy to be a free man, Akram had a new appreciation for things and wanted to get ahead in life.
Determined to do well, he joined the Aljazeera University in his home town to embark on a three-year diploma course in computer science.
And having worked in Sudan for one year and upon completion of the degree, Akram decided to join his sister in Qatar, where she lived with her husband and child.
“I came to Qatar to earn more money and help my family,” he said.
“My father had passed away when I was 12 years old and since then I had wanted to help my family in Sudan.
“I sent money to educate my sisters, living expenditure for my mother and to build our house. Our house is fully built now,” Akram says with pride.
Akram arrives in Qatar
“My sister picked me up from the airport and took me to her apartment and I looked for work while staying with her,” he said.
“Nothing happened at first but then after a couple of months, just when I was about to give up and return to Sudan, I got this job at the Ministry of Interior to work in the Human Resources Department as a computer technician. I have been there ever since.
“I lived with my sister for only a month before I moved in to my uncle’s flat, which is right behind his villa.
“The flat had an attached bathroom and its own little garden, so we would gather at my little verandah to enjoy the cool air in the evenings.
“My spot was the busiest on the weekends, because we would put up loudspeakers with bright lights and have huge parties where people could have drinks and dance til the morning.
“My cousin Dedee and I had some of our best times at this place in Doha.
“Things had been pretty good for me in Qatar but still it wasn’t home, where my nephews and nieces were growing up fast and my mother was getting older.
“By 2007 I had completed building my own house in the Gazeera, which means an island in my own language. Let me explain, now there is the White Nile and the Blue Nile forking out in two separate directions and my land is right in the middle. It is my oasis, my patch of green.”
Having had his fill of Qatar, on October 5 of 2007, Akram was packing to leave the place he’d called home for more than a decade when cupid struck.
“By the end of 2007 I had made up my mind to go to Sudan for good, to live in Gazeera. And on the 5th of October one of my friends needed a lift so I dropped him off and went to visit my good friend Ben,
who lived in the nearby compound, who in turn persuaded me to have a couple of drinks,” Akram recalls.
“First I refused, saying that I had been drinking the last few days and was way too tired.
“Anyhow, after a couple of drinks he wanted to go to another party, so I dropped him off there and turned to go, but my friend Ben was insistent that I come in for couple more beers.
“I was still very tired and not dressed for a party so I refused.
“But my friend was persisting so I thought I will hang around till he is all right and then leave.
“I grabbed a beer and sat on the steps next to the dance floor after chatting with a few people when I saw this girl go into the kitchen for a drink.
“As soon as I saw her my eyes were glued to her, next minute she seemed to be coming in my direction. She stopped beside me to say ‘hi’. And that was it! Voila, I was in love!
“I asked where she was from, which led to us talking about our respective backgrounds and just then they played my favorite song — one of Phil Collins’, so it seemed natural to dance to it.
“We danced for four songs straight, then sat by the poolside to talk into the early hours of the morning.
“When it was time to leave I knew that she was the one for me, so naturally I asked her to marry me and she took only a couple of minutes before saying ‘yes!’
“Then came the time to decide where we wanted to go for the night. We didn’t want to leave each other so we chose her place in Monmoora, where we have been ever since.
“We are flying to England next month to ask for her parents’ permission to get married.
“It’s the best thing that has happened to me. It was definitely a special moment that day — after the other special moment in my life when I met Bob Marley’s son Ziggy and wife Rita Marley at the 60th Anniversary in Ethiopia.”
Akram meets Ziggy and Rita Marley
Akram, a devout fan of Bob Marley, flew to Ethiopia for the 60th Anniversary where an enormous concert was to be held.
“Everything happened like in a dream,” he said.
“I and my cousin saw the concert being advertised on the web, then next minute we were buying tickets to go to the 60th Bob Marley Concert.
“You know, Bob Marley’s dream was to have his 50th anniversary in Ethiopia. Do you know why?
“Because then people would be attracted to the country and bring with them money and resources, also to create awareness of Ethiopia as a dynamic country … that man had such a great vision.
“And that’s what happened on the 60th anniversary in Ethiopia. We were there to see it. People came from all over, from US, UK, Uganda, Sudan, and India … they came from everywhere to sing, to dance and to forget about troubles.
“Everyone was a brother or a sister, it didn’t matter what colour or race, we came together as one.
“The atmosphere was just amazing. There were thousands of people who were Americans, Sudanese, Eritreans, from Dubai and we all just came together, singing and drinking and smoking hashish.
“It was near the main entrance that we saw Ziggy Marley and Rita Marley about to get into a car to go to the stage where the concert was being held.
“When I realised who they were, I went in to zombie-mode, then like it was the most natural thing to do, I walked up to Ziggy Marley and Rita Marley and said ‘can I take a photo with you’, and my cousin Deedee was dumbfounded at what I had done.
“Then Rita Marley, who looked a bit frazzled at that moment, looked at me and said ‘OK, a quick one’ just before she was going to greet the crowds.
“Ziggy Marley is just like his father in looks and smiled. He is a very friendly and unassuming person.
“It was so dreamlike that my cousin was holding the camera with his mouth wide open, and not clicking the button. So I had to shout twice: “Take it Deedee! Take it now!’,” Akram laughs at the second, dream-like moment in his life.
Emma grew up in Surrey, not too far from London, and belonged to what she described as an average English family of two, with her dad working in different jobs, the longest as a lorry driver.
Having led a very busy city life, Emma’s parents decided to trade Surry for a quieter country life in the West.
“My parents had grown tired of the rat-race in the city and thought they would prefer the quieter pace in the country,” she said.
So at the age of 13 Emma’s family moved to the country town called Royal Forrester Dean, where her parents took a lease on a little pub called Rose in Hand’.
“My parents first took out a pub on lease and ran it for a while and they enjoyed it so much that they decided to buy a nearby pub and began to run it on a full-time basis,” she said.
Pub life for Emma meant long hours behind the bar, serving clients from morning until night.
“The thing was, since my parents owned the place I pitched in whenever I could in the morning and at night — they were long hours,” she said.
“We would start at 10 til three, and back at seven until one in the morning.
“Working at a pub means serving to clients with a smile all the time and it goes on through out the day, so it becomes full-time thing.”
Life in Forrester Dean
Life in Forester Dean was quite enchanting for Emma and the family.
“I took to it easily, the lovely green countryside and the local people who spoke their own dialect,” she said.
“The story of the place goes like this: in the olden times the town was cut off from the rest of England due to its location. It’s located in the middle of two rivers and has tall trees surrounding it, creating a wall so the outside people couldn’t reach it, making it unique and isolated.
“This led to people developing their own heritage and dialect. So although they speak English it’s in a different dialect.
“When I met them for the first time they said something like this: ‘Ow biest old butt?’ and that meant ‘how are you?’ and also I heard people saying ‘there is a ship going on the streets’ and when I looked out there were sheep on the streets. So it was funny at first but then I got used to that dialect and now I speak it well.”
Life at the Forrester Dean was quiet for Emma and family, but Emma had her own dream of becoming a teacher and travelling.
“I had always wanted to become a teacher, so after about five years working in the pub, I applied to Cheltenham University to do a teacher course, and got through,” she said.
“It was hard work at first because I still had to work at the pub at night and study at university in the daytime, but I did it somehow,” says Emma, relaxing at the apartment in Monmoora.
Emma says that working at the pub was ‘crowd control’, because one had to be nice to people and mingle with them. She says it’s much the same in the classroom, where one has to control the crowd — but the kids are more willing to listen!
“I had ended my contract with the Cowen school and I thought I will do something completely different and checked out international options,” she said.
“First they offered Italy, Belgrade and then they offered Qatar. The school in Qatar seemed nice, the students were from all over the world and lodging was all right, so I thought of taking up the job in Qatar.
“After on month here I met Akram.
“The other teacher living in the apartment was Lauren, who took me to the party, saying that it’s a good way to meet new people.
“Akram turned up at this party and that’s where I met him. I am not romantic like Akram but we were attracted from the first minute we met and after one month I knew that I wanted to marry him.
“Culturally, although we come from two different parts of the world, there’s isn’t much of a difference. They are Arabic and come from a Muslim background and they are very modern in thinking and my parents don’t mind of things like that.
“Soon after we met he rushed me to the gold souk and asked me to choose a ring — I was still in my pajamas.” Emma laughs at the spontaneous moment.
“And at home he went on his knees and asked to marry me. I knew this is what I wanted after living with him for one month.”
Both of them say that they are not sure where they will eventually end up, with options in Africa, England and Qatar.
But for now they are living in Qatar — and are happy to make plans as they go along.