On What it Means to be Sudani: An Introspection

I have often asked myself: What, exactly, does it mean to be from Sudan?

Being someone of Sudani heritage carries a certain weight, as with all questions of racial and ethnic identity. It is a matter of history and ancestry, a matter of continuing legacies.

We have reduced what it means to be from Sudan to cultural traditions that in and of themselves are superficial and do not come close to defining who we are as a nation. Traditions are there to augment history, to distinguish groups of people from one another.

Traditions are in no way representative of  who we are, of who our forefathers hoped we would become. We would do well to remember Sudan as it should be, a land rich in soil and resources, a land that Arab nations once looked to for inspiration as they made their initial efforts to modernize their states. A land of good, hard-working people, humble in their ways and kind-hearted to all.

We are a nation of poets, of stories and storytellers

Ours is a country with beautiful geography and unique regions, each with its own particular character. From mountainous Kassala in the east, with its thriving markets and expansive fruit gardens—to Madani, a city resting on the west bank of the Blue Nile. From the sesame fields of Gedaref to coastal Port Sudan, and in between the sand dunes of Dongola—there is a certain enchantment in what serves to make Sudan, Sudan.

We are a nation of poets, of stories and storytellers; our oral traditions have been carried on the tongues of our grandmothers, carefully memorized and whispered into the ears of newborns. Over the years, I have heard countless parables from my mother, who heard them from her mother—stories and lessons that have yet to be written and so carry a certain mythical element in their telling.

When I hear my mother recount them, I feel as though I am a part of an exclusive list, a select group of people chosen to preserve our oral traditions. Whether these stories are true is beside the point; it is the art of passing the story on that is splendid.

I have listened to my grandfathers tell stories in a way that only they could. Their voices were not particularly deep or loud, but when they spoke, you listened. Theirs was a storytelling that made you forget where you were. You felt as though you could be in the places they described, in a different time and far removed from the present.

They took their time in telling a tale, pausing in all the right places, watching in amusement as their audience leaned forward in anticipation of what was to come. Whenever I could, I listened to these stories. I grew up listening to them, and  I take pride in knowing that one day I may have the opportunity to be the storyteller for my own grandchildren. This is the essence of being sudani: family and storytelling. They are at the heart of our narrative.

I have listened to my grandfathers tell stories in a way that only they could. Theirs was a storytelling that made you forget where you were. You felt as though you could be in the places they described, in a different time and far removed from the present.

I fear that the people of Sudan have lost sight of this narrative. Survivors of a vicious and unforgiving political cycle, we have become numb, fearful of the future and yet unwilling to change it.

Though politics has worked against us from the beginning, we would do well to remember our strengths. The sudani people have always been recognized by their Arab neighbors as people who can be trusted, people with inexhaustible amounts of generosity and hospitality.

I ask you, then, if this is who we are, if it is in our blood to be kind to one another—then why can’t we extend this same generosity to our own land? Is the land of our fathers not deserving of our kindness, our most sincere acts of gratitude? Is Sudan not worthy of being saved?

While we cannot escape politics, we should not allow it to define where we go from here. What our country needs now is a revival, a reminder that it is more than just a victim of political strife.

I fear that the people of Sudan have lost sight of this narrative. Survivors of a vicious and unforgiving political cycle, we have become numb, fearful of the future and yet unwilling to change it.

The people of Sudan have allowed themselves to be browbeaten. They have allowed apathy to be their voice in the face of poverty, inflation and numerous other challenges. Indifference is a choice, and it is a choice that yields results perhaps more dangerous than oppression.

To do nothing means that we, as a people, have accepted things as they are, and therefore have no hope that our country can overcome whatever threats it may face. And the young voices that are hopeful, the voices that dare to speak up in a country filled with stoic silence—these voices rise up in confidence, ready to face adversity head-on, only to be shot down and quickly forgotten, and the silence settles once again.

Is the land of our fathers not deserving of our kindness, our most sincere acts of gratitude? Is Sudan not worthy of being saved?

I am a product of immigration, and therefore I do not know Sudan as I should. I did not grow up running across hot sands in front of my grandfather’s house. I was not sent to the corner store every morning to fetch fresh, piping hot bread. I do not know all the words to Tarbas and Mohamed Elamin, but I l still love my country.

This is testimony to the idea that being from a certain place is defined by our visceral, familial connection to it. It is not a matter of simple geography. I do not have to live in Sudan to know that I am from Sudan. I do not have to know Sudan firsthand to know that I love Sudan. I have always loved Sudan, just as I have always loved my mother.

Through her, I have known my country—our country—in her childhood stories. I have lived in El Obeid as my mother did; slept in cramped college dormitories in the heart of Khartoum, like my mother did; grew up on my grandfather’s lap and listened to his stories—just like my mother did.

I do not know Sudan that well, but through the stories I have come to know enough. Enough to love it unconditionally, enough to hurt when I see what we have let it become. I want to see my country as it once was, as it could be. I want our Sudan to rise from the ashes, I want to experience its rebirth. I want us each to have a hand in nurturing it—carefully, gently—so that one day I can hold my children—and their children—in my arms, and tell them of Sudan’s love story, not its tragic end.

 

 

“As I Stand Here, Reflecting”

If you think you know me

Let me assure you—

You do not

You only know the projection

Of a role I like to play—

Someone I created to be some version,

Of a girl who might have been me

You think you know me

But have you had intimate conversation

With my soul?

Have you peeked inside my mind,

And unfurled the tapestry

Of my secrets?

You claim to know me

But I don’t even know me

Every now and then I get to see her

In my dreams—the girl I might actually be

And she is beautiful

She doesn’t know my world,

And so she is free of its restraints

Her home is between one dream and the next

And she speaks to me only when I’m ready to listen

Unlike me, she is not an illusion

She is the manifestation of who I hope to become

While I am shards of glass,

Still learning to piece myself together

She is the mirror: whole and far from broken

I look at her and I see my potential

I’m a 24-Year-Old Woman and Today I Voted in My First General Election

Politics has never been my thing. In the past I would tell myself that my vote didn’t count for anything, that one vote wouldn’t really make a difference. I didn’t think that choosing not to vote made me any less American, any less patriotic. I told myself that I could love this country without casting my choice for president.

When President Obama was sworn into office in 2009, I found myself wishing that I could’ve voted then. It was a historic election, one that excited the nation, and I wanted to be part of it. But I wasn’t eligible to vote then, and I felt as though I had missed out on a great opportunity.

This year, we have another historic election, for entirely different reasons. This year, I didn’t need to think twice about whether or not I would be voting. I knew, as most of us did, that this was a pivotal moment in American history. I knew that this year, it was no longer just about politics. There was much more at stake than a Democratic or Republican victory, and I knew that I had a responsibility—not as an American citizen, but as a human being—to go to the ballot and exercise my democratic right to vote.

Even for those of us who don’t like to get involved in the messy political discussions that dominate dinner conversations at this time of the year—even we recognize that we are playing an active role in the writing of American history. One day ten, twenty years from now, our children will read about this election in their history books, and they’ll ask us what we did. Who we voted for. If we made a difference. Even though we know it’s not as easy as separating one candidate from the other, that politics is a whole lot of gray and not so much black and white—we still need to make a choice. Whatever that choice may be, it’s crucial that we each get ourselves to the ballot.

In this election, we’re voting for more than president of the United States of America. We are voting for freedom, for the very foundations of liberty that this great nation is built upon. We should not have to be in this position, but we are. Our freedoms are being threatened by someone who could be our next commander-in-chief, our lives threatened by someone who calls himself a leader. We are a democratic republic and yet this is our reality in 2016.

We have a candidate who is running for the highest office in the land, someone who could very well lead the free world, and he wants to take away our right to exercise basic rights. Our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, our freedom to enter this country as immigrants—all these things could be taken away from us. Is it not our duty, then, our burden, to make sure that we do something to prevent that from happening? Our lives will be affected. Our families. Our children. Who else will defend them if we don’t? Who else will fight a fight that is ours to see through?

Go out and vote. Vote Democrat. Vote Green Party. Write in your own suggestion and vote for your mother. But vote.

It’s no longer just a right. It’s an obligation.

Innocent

Do you remember her?

She used to dream so freely

Grasping for joy and comfort

In the spaces where there was no room

For hate

Remember?

She colored outside of the lines so well

And her ears heard nothing but melodies

Her eyes saw nothing but beautiful things

She used to believe that everyone was pure-hearted

And she could laugh and smile in her own way

Without second-guessing her appearance

Remember?

Remember when she sat on her mother’s lap

And thought the world was perfect,

Just the way it was?

She used to lie at night, unburdened

Her thoughts light, her mind at ease

Do you remember her, the little girl you used to be?

The world from my grandmother’s lap seemed brighter

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In the ebony of my eyes and the caramel of my skin,

My grandmother’s smile is pressed firm—

Her brown locks brush across my cheeks and she holds me tight,

Whispering untold secrets into my ears.

We share smiles that bridge time and make history—

I find myself folded into the depths and crevices of these smiles,

Wrapped up safe in 7aboba’s toob and her secrets.

She smells like fresh lemonade and white lilies and sandaliya, all at once.

She feels like home and sounds like comfort,

And looks so much like me.

Our eyes are shaped like almonds, but carry different stories:

Hers carry depth, having seen so much—

While mine have barely learned to recognize life.

But in our eyes there is a shared legacy,

And one day I will carry my son’s daughter,

Having seen as much as 7aboba did.

For now I am content to find comfort in her embrace,

In the familiar hands that hold me close,

Fingers stained with henna and just as strong as they are beautiful.

 

 

 

This is not a love story 

She tried to tell him 

Her heart was not made for loving 

But he laughed and loved her anyway

He reached deep into the spaces

Where her mind played tricks on her

And told her she deserved only her thoughts 

As company 

He came and pushed these thoughts aside 

And took residence in the crevices 

Between her fears and her selfish needs

She tried to tell him 

Her heart was not made for loving 

She tried to show him that inside she was

Empty.

With nothing to offer but the sad remains of something resembling affection 

She tried to tell him 

He didn’t listen, and loved her still 

Even when at times she seemed only a shell of herself,

Retreating into corners and hiding in the silence 

Even when she wished only to drive him away

So that he might find some other heart who knew to love, and love entirely 

Even then he waited patiently, indulging her silences 

And held her until she came to learn what holding meant 

She didn’t know how to explain it— that there was no room in her for love

Not since she’d forgotten how to love herself 

But he knew, and told her without saying much, what loving really was

It was caring for a wreck like her, who could never love as much 

She tried to tell him 

On Guns and Violence

I am in the hands of he who does not comprehend

Anything

His mind is not his own

The blame not his to carry

But the victims are still gone, and their grieving mothers

Need someone to blame

Who do they blame?

The fault is mine, of course

I am here, forgotten, discarded

Evidence

But I am so much more than proof

In my chamber I held one too many bullets

Branded with their names

Now they lie, motionless,

Bodies without souls—

One too many of them

How much longer before the next one?

Who will choose to stand behind me

Wielding power he does not possess,

Taking lives he has no right to take

I am not a shield for you

Do you not understand

With your history and your wars and your massacres

Do you still not understand?

With men among you who feed off my abilities,

Why do you allow your laws to be on the side of killers

I am not your friend

I will never be your friend

Arm yourselves with shame

Or have there not been enough deaths for you yet?

 

 

 

Veiled Truths

She was shrouded in many layers that defined her in a manner that suited others. Her name carried the weight of heavy, hyphenated labels that pretended to know her better than she knew herself. People looked at her and saw her as an outsider, forgetting that they themselves often did not belong. She didn’t know how to explain to them that she came from a place where the best of friends could suddenly turn against one another, once they were old enough to understand politics, a place where children died before they could understand the concept of death, their laughter interrupted with an act of ruthless precision.

She had been that child once. She remembered the Damascus of her childhood as one filled with high-spirited street vendors who winked at her whenever she went to the market with her father, the smell of roasted sunflower seeds always present in the thick, summer air. She remembered standing on the marble floors outside the Umayyad Mosque at night, watching her reflection stare back at her toothlessly as she held both her parents’ hands.

People wouldn’t believe her if she told them that she also felt afraid. She walked past them everyday and recognized the anger and caution in their eyes. Sometimes there was hatred; mostly, there was indifference. In her black veil, she had an advantage, and this is what unnerved them the most. They couldn’t see anything except her dark, unwavering eyes, so they said nothing. But their thoughts were anything but silent, and she heard them all. In the same way little children pointed and their parents whispered, she learned to decipher the unspoken word. She wondered if they could do the same, if they could hear her even when she hadn’t spoken. I know I don’t belong here, she thought, just in case they could. But I don’t belong there, either. Tell me, then, where should I go?

To Take a Stand

On the outside she is black. On the outside there is nothing separating her from Maya Angelou, from Langston Hughes, from Etta James and Al Green. Because of her skin color she is a part of long-standing traditions by default. She immediately inherits everything that stems from having African roots.

And there is something beautiful in this, because it means she can always belong. It means she can enjoy decades of black history and feel as though it strikes a cord with her, personally, simply because of the ebony complexion her ancestors passed down to her.

It also means she has a responsibility.

You see, being black on the outside is one thing. It is a superficial layer that says to the world, she’s just another black girl. She’s got natural, spiraling curls and a wide smile, equally wide hips, and a southern drawl. She likes her grits and cornmeal and chicken fried, and she loves God first, always. She bobs her head to the rhythms in her head and she’s a family girl: ain’t that something.

She learned about famous black people in school just like everyone else. About the musicians and the poets and the activists, and before them the abolitionists. She never felt any particularly strong connection to them before, when she was little. But they were black, and she was black. And that was enough.

There’s nothing wrong with being black on the outside. But if she’s going to be black, she needs to step outside of these things that, while true, can also trap her in her own skin. She needs to embrace her history– all of her history– and re-define herself  in a world where that history is rapidly repeating itself.

Suddenly it is as though it is 1965 again. She questions whether this is even  possible, if she can actually live in such a world as this– where human beings are gunned down first and the questions come later. She wonders how long it will be before the riots break out, before the batons come down and the people retaliate with rage.

Her story is not unique. There are girls like her everywhere. She wants to change this, even if it won’t have an impact, even if no one remembers her name and she doesn’t make it into some hall of fame. She doesn’t know yet what she can do, but she knows this:

She is not Eric Garner

She is not Michael Brown

She is not Tanisha Anderson or Tamir Rice

She is not Freddie Gray

But she is their sister, and her voice is her weapon.

She can post hashtags that proclaim whose lives matter, she can protest outside of police stations. She can brandish her pen and write her grievances across the sky– however she chooses to do it, she must take injustice head on.

She recalls men who spoke of dreams, and men who fell fighting for their freedom. Like everyone else, she has read about brave women on buses and brave women in the underground. And she will feel a responsibility to do her part, to stand with her people.

And in her journey to discovering who she is, she will finally come to realize what being black entails.