December will mark four years since I moved back to Sudan.
Four years and I am no closer to understanding the Sudanese mindset than when I arrived. Four years and I am still perplexed, still unable to fit in, still unable to ‘mainstream’.
The usual struggles – making a living, the heat, the dirt, the verbal harassment – have all become (to a great extent) banal; it is what it is, and so I deal. I hustle to make money doing a thankless job that no one understands enough to value, making it incredibly difficult to get jobs in the first place. I pretend not to feel the searing pain of the sun burning holes into my skin. I embrace the dirt.
But one constant that I have failed to comprehend, failed to rationalize, failed to cure, is the people. In the four years since I have moved back to Sudan, I am no closer to understanding the Sudanese mindset than I was when I first arrived. I repeat this to highlight its criticality, and to bring attention to the fact that, after four years, I’m not sure if this is a Sudanese thing or a people thing.
I pride myself on being honest, forthcoming; a no-bullshit type person. I treat you well and I expect to be treated the same. My beliefs on friendship are clear: you’re my friend, and so I am completely there for you in any capacity I can. I am honest with you. I am happy for you when something good happens to you, I am sad for you when something bad happens to you. I tell you about yourself when you’re in the wrong – and I don’t hold back. I am not your mother, I don’t expect you to blindly follow me; you are entitled to choose the path that suits you most, and I respect and appreciate that. I am not your yes-man, I am your keeper, and I expect you to be the same for me.
Here, I have found that this works to my disadvantage. I am expected to stay quiet, to blindly agree, to applaud every decision you make even when it’s wrong. My friendship equals being a silent, smiling witness to your triumphs and tribulations, to feign ignorance and surprise when you are suddenly in crisis, while later I tell others how I saw it coming miles away. And this is somehow acceptable; wanted; required; practiced.
To the best of my ability, I try to be dependable. I understand the time and effort it takes to make things happen, especially here. So I try my very best, at everything. I hustle, bend over backwards, break my back to do my part and do it well. And though I might fail to make a deadline or three, I do apologize. It kills me to waste people’s time, to keep them waiting for something, to make a promise and then renege on it. So I apologize.
This is not applicable to everyone, apparently. Most times, I find that it is unacceptable for me to slip up, while it’s totally okay for others to keep me waiting, to leave me hanging, to break promise after promise to me and, when I fix another’s mess, this is taken as a sign that I will always be there to pick up the pieces – in fact – that I will always be there to put them together for someone else. To express outrage is not an option, it is moot, for the point is completely missed: “Almushkila shinu? What’s the big deal?”
I smile. I am polite to those I don’t know. I treat everyone the same. I am friendly, but not familiar. I don’t claim to be best friends with someone after knowing them for two days, and I don’t appreciate it when others claim to know me after a single meeting. I refuse to mask my feelings for the sake of facade. I won’t giggle, avert my gaze, or act disinterested with the opposite sex (friend, foe, or flirt) so that I may be deemed “intriguing”, “mysterious” or “feminine”. If you say something funny, I will throw my head back and laugh, loudly, as I normally would. If you address me, I will look you straight in the eye… okay, maybe not, because direct eye contact makes me uncomfortable, but I will look at your face. If I find you interesting, then I will show it. My interest is not exclusively romantic – sometimes, guys are just cool people. I don’t believe in “the chase”, and frankly, I was never one for running. If I like you, I like you. My feelings are not conditional on you sharing them. If you ask me, I will tell you. If I don’t tell you, it means I don’t like you. I am open to relationships; I am not defined by them. I am not desperate to get married; I don’t think I’m “rotting” or “expired” or “useless” because I don’t have suitors banging down my door. I do not believe in the hobby of collecting men, nor do I believe that it adds to my worth as a woman.
It turns out that something must be wrong with me. I have been in Sudan for four years and still don’t roll in a clique 16 deep, haven’t been proposed to “not once!”, haven’t been spotted out with a strapping young man who works for DALGroup, haven’t expressed a melting, molten need to be with a specific specimen of “acceptable Sudanese male”, haven’t sat on my prayer mat after mughrib and begged the heavens for a groom to whisk me away to Malaysia before my lady parts wither (in the next couple years) and I am no longer able to carry anyone’s progeny, haven’t even been recognized as the girl where “words end” (alkalam intaha), who stops “acceptable Sudanese males” in their tracks but no one knows her because she’s too intriguing and mysterious and feminine to let anyone figure her out, thus making her all the more attractive, but somehow still accessible because she averts her gaze but giggles while letting you chase her.
Nope, turns out I’m either too accessible or not accessible enough – never the right amount of access. I’m too clear in my intentions, but somehow that’s confusing because no one can figure me out (not in a good way). The fact that I state my opinion clearly and succinctly makes me too opinionated, but also cryptic. I’m “too honest”, and that’s not cool. The same people who complain about “the game” complain about the fact that I don’t play it. I am not ashamed of my age, though I should be. But it’s okay, because I don’t look it, but it’s not okay because I should be acting it and thus panicking at the fact that men will only find me attractive because I look ten years younger than my actual age, and that once they find out how old I really am, they’ll run for the hills and leave me a barren tree, but it doesn’t matter because my fruit was gross anyway because I’m so old.
All this to say that after four years, I have no idea what I’m expected to think or who I’m expected to be. Trying to bend to the whims of society has made me realize that no one is that malleable; you’re either made this way, or you’re not at all.
And I think I’m finally okay with that.