The President is sitting in the garden of the palace
surrounded by his extended family - wife,
cousins, nieces, several uncles
by marriage, and a personal bodyguard
in American fatigues carrying
Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
The lawns are green and well cut
with bougainvillea along the borders.
In the centre of the lawn is a large tree,
a Cedar of Lebanon, which provides shade
and respite from the sun. It is famously known,
and featured on stamps, as 'The President's Tree'.
Apart from the soldiers and servants, I
am the only man in the palace garden
without a tie. It is five o'clock
in the afternoon and still very hot.
I am waiting to be asked to present myself
officially to the President under the tree.
Two hours ago it seemed perfectly
reasonable to wear my light grey
tropical suit, open at the neck,
spotless, almost new and certainly
well-pressed. That was,
as it turned out, an error of judgement.
Although not desperately serious
(no socks would have been suicidal),
my offence is an affront to the President
and to the occasion, and cannot therefore
go unpunished. 'Tieless in Gaza',
I mutter, sweating under the hot sun.
The visitors - all except me,
that is - have now been presented
to the President, and are standing around chatting
in the shade of the President's Tree.
I can hear the President explaining: 'Psalms....
104, you know....Cedars of Libanus.'
I have met the President several times
already. He knows me as the newly appointed
Advisor for Fine Arts and Museums -
'on loan from London' is his way
of putting it; but I have not yet been
formally presented at a President's reception.
Tea is being served in the deep
cool shade of the tree (milk
or lemon, Madam?), there are thinly-cut
cucumber sandwiches. And suddenly
I am noticed, ushered in from the heat
to the presence of His Excellency.
He smiles apologies - he hadn't realised
I was there as a guest. 'You are so familiar -
like an Old Master, already known
before encountered.' I am the ancien
régime discredited. 'Please mention
my Degas to the French Ambassador', he says.
The guests assume I am one of the household,
an intimate in casual dress, just in
from the hills, perhaps. The family, extended
under the Cedar tree, believes
I am an esoteric freak. In London
I am registered as Technical Assistance.
I mingle with the guests, but clearly
am not accepted as one of them (no tie
must, after all, mean something).
'This tree', I am asked by a couple -
handsome, pleasantly seductive - 'surely
it was here long before Independence?'
They are English, holding on to a memory
of Empire and fair play. The invitation
is clear: recognition, complicity, guile,
and a sporting option on betrayal.
Let's just, their faces smile, at least
agree on history and the true facts.
I am, I suppose, a guardian of history
and the true facts. 'Ah yes', I reply,
'but you see, the President has given trees status,
it’s our new conservation policy’ -
the best I can do, tieless in Africa,
at the end of a long century.
© 2007 Brian Hughes