Sooner or later, bureaucracy bows to reality. Here is an example, from Sudan 30 years ago.
At ease in his fan-cooled office in Khartoum, the Sudanese official had a document of about a dozen pages to show me. He slid it across. What did I think of it?
Not my place
Luckily, for my Arabic is non-existent, it was in English translation: a piece of legislation for the creation of a new national library. Without thinking, I drew out a pen and clicked it. As my hand descended towards the text, the official squawked in alarm.
“You can’t change that,” he hissed, “that’s a presidential decree!”
The president was Nimeiri, who had imposed Sharia law and who imprisoned and even executed people who spoke up against him in the mosques. Vexed, I put the pen down but then picked it up again.
“Tell you what,” I said, “this translation is very good, very clear but – how can I put this? – the English could be tweaked here and there…with your permission, of course”. He nodded reluctantly. I leafed quickly through the text, to a paragraph proclaiming that the entire cost of the new library would be paid for by foreign aid. Deleting this confident assertion, and substituting a phrase or two such as “contributions from foreign aid sources will be welcome…”, I handed it back.
He smiled. They would get some money. Honour was satisfied. Shortly after, Nimeiri was deposed in a coup. The unneeded facility was never built. We gave our money to other, worthy causes.
It was not the first or last time I was asked to ‘improve’ a piece of national legislation. I have in my time drafted ministerial replies to parliamentary questions in two countries, but I like to think of that day in Khartoum as one of the first markers in my career as a wordsmith, much of which has been anonymous, but very satisfying.