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Concierge By Day, Consul By Night

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Until yesterday, Eilat hotel cleaner Bith Thiyang was just another of the 8,000 Sudanese refugees working illegally in Israel. But with the declaration of South Sudan’s independence, the temporary government has appointed him ambassador to Israel. Switching from his morning concierge uniform to an official-looking spanking suit and tie in the afternoon for his first week on the job, Thiyang says a partnership between Israel and South Sudan is natural. “Israel is our best friend in the world.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Red Sea sparkles on our left while the red mountains of Edom glisten to our right, yet the heat threatens to melt us. The border between Egypt and Israel is closer than ever, but there aren’t too many tourists outside today. Who would be outdoors when it seems that Gehinnom has come to the earth to pay a visit?

We emerge from the air conditioned car, but Bith Thiyang — soon-to-be Israel’s ambassador of embryotic South Sudan — doesn’t mind the heat at all. Emerging from behind a wagon stacked with hotel towels and linens, he jumps out to greet us, decked out in a tailored suit and garish necktie. Thiyang has no problem with hot weather. “When you come to South Sudan,” he whispers in broken English, his tone muted in his effort to adopt a diplomatic air in light of his new position, “you will see what true Gehinnom is. Compared to the heat in our country, this is like the Swiss Alps.”

I examine his charcoal-black skin. Not a drop of perspiration appears on his face. “Come with me,” he says, leading us to a hilltop where he points to a spot on the border between Egypt and Israel deep in the surrounding mountains. “There is that is where I was captured by the IDF when I crossed the border. I was imprisoned in an Israeli jail, but that is also where my freedom began, the freedom that was made complete last week when my president announced our independence. Now we have a state, and no one can tell us what to do.”

The story of our hero, Bith Thiyang, may be the tragic tale of all the South Sudanese refugees in the State of Israel. It is the story of a hotel room attendant who was transformed overnight into an ambassador and diplomat.

At the Nof Eilot Hotel where he works, none of the upscale guests in the elegant lobby is aware of Bith Thiyang’s diplomatic position as he pours them coffee and brings them cake and milkshakes. A tall, thin man whose coal-black countenance is broken only by a shining pair of white teeth, during the morning Bith Thiyang wears a black suit, a white shirt, and a tie bearing the hotels’ logo. To them, he’s simply a waiter; little to they realize that later in the afternoon, he will shed his uniform for a suit and tie and make his way to the office in the nearby refugee village, where he has served as the informal consul to the emerging breakaway country of South Sudan for the last few months.

 In the meantime, however, it appears that Thiyang’s new position is not getting to his head. “Until I begin receiving a paycheck from my country’s foreign ministry, I have no other way to support myself,” he says. So he continues to bustle diligently between the tiny tables and luxurious armchairs scattered across the crimson-carpeted, air conditioned lobby. Later in the evening, he will take out the vacuum cleaner and give the hotel carpets a thorough cleaning. 

Later, we sit with Bith Thiyang in his headquarters in the Sudanese refugee village that Israel established in the vicinity of Kibbutz Eilot. Although there isn’t even a simple office computer on the table, a massive photograph of the new president is already proudly displayed on one of the walls. 

Thiyang doesn’t know how many more days, or weeks, he’ll be staying in the refugee village. He hopes that if Israel normalizes relations with newly-independent South Sudan, he’ll be able to submit his resignation to the hotel management, thank them for the pleasant relationship they have enjoyed, pack his bags and move to Jerusalem, where he hopes to open the South Sudanese embassy. 

“Jerusalem?” I ask him, “Not Tel Aviv? All of the embassies are in Tel Aviv. Don’t you know the political implications of that?”

The new almost-ambassador certainly knows, and his first declaration in his new position is far from being diplomatic. “What I am telling you now is the official position of my new government. Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the eternal capital of Israel. No one can decide other than what G-d himself wrote in the Bible, which we all believe in. Eretz Yisrael in its entirety is the land of the Jews. This is their only land, and they must live here. If you dare to divide it,” he warns in broken English but in a clear tone, “G-d will punish you. In my opinion and in the opinion of my government — and it’s clear to me that every Sudanese Christian, including the president himself, feels this way — the Jewish nation itself has no right to divide its G-d-given inheritance. The Jews are not permitted to abrogate the word of G-d.”

Israel was one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan as an independent state — despite its own intensive international campaign to block the planned recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN in September. South Sudan, Israel has explained, declared its independence following negotiations and mutual agreements after a bloody civil war between southern African Christians and northern Arab Muslims. According to Ha’aretz, the Foreign Ministry appointed a special coordinator to deal with the move several months ago, and has been exchanging secret messages with the government of South Sudan for a long time.

There’s not much in the way of furnishings in the new consul’s exceedingly modest office, save for a pair of South Sudanese and Israeli flags, portraits of the new president Salva Klir Mayardit and former rebel leader John Garang, and a sparsely-filled bookshelf with religious books in English and Arabic — a Jewish Bible, a New Testament and a Koran.

And all around him, packed into the room, sit dozens of happy Sudanese. Now they have a country. In the street, you would never have noticed them; you might even have feared them. They are simply other Sudanese refugees who crossed the border and were caught. But in Bith Thiyang’s office, they are jubilant Sudanese citizens who have finally been blessed with independence.

The air in the room is pleasantly cool, although outside the heat continues to blaze, and refugees who don’t have work are milling around between the pathetic row huts that house them. They have been living here since they were freed from the Israeli prisons where they were incarcerated after crossing the border between Egypt and Israel. If Sudanese asylum seekers manage to get over the Egyptian side of the border without being held up, abused and shot, they are picked up by the Israeli authorities and treated in accordance with the UN Commission for Refugees. They are taken to an IDF holding area and then processed by the Immigration Authority. If they prove they are Sudanese refugees (as the country falls under an international war zone), they are released and given temporary visas. Until now, Israel has had no diplomatic ties with Sudan which is considered an enemy state, and so has not expelled asylum-seekers back to their country. Now, many of the South Sudanese who smuggled themselves into Israel to escape the war zone want to go back home.

“The other day, the entire camp sang and danced,” Thiyang relates. “We went out dancing and clapping and we rejoiced until we had no strength left. We have gained self-respect. Now that the North Sudanese no longer intimidate us, many of us will return home to rebuild our state, exactly as the Jews returned here to rebuild this land.”


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