Of Legends Unknown

Ibrahim El-Salahi is a world renowned artist who is virtually unknown in his own country. What a shame.

This week, I had the pleasure of attending a special event commemorating the launch of his autobiography, A Fistful of Sand. I wouldn’t have known about it had it not been for my mother, who was his student 40 years ago at the School of Fine Arts. Honestly, I had no interest in going, but the possibility of meeting her teacher and, more importantly, the possibility of finally observing my mother in her ‘element’ was too great to pass up.

The man we came to hear speak was preceded by a longwinded introduction, followed by a question and comment session (why!) where every question or comment was more longwinded and ludicrous than the previous. One man commented, “While we appreciate your contribution Mr. El-Salahi, I fail to see the importance or influence of art in society”. Really, guy?

After 40 minutes of comments and heckling of those comments (by my father), El-Salahi finally took to the podium. As the 82 year old artist made his way up, my mother suddenly leaned over, and in a tone raw with emotion, said, “this man is an innovator, a true artist, a treasure, and these people are asking him what art has done for society? These people don’t know him. These people don’t appreciate him.” I turned to my mother, and was surprised to see that her face was tense and her eyes were damp. El-Salahi’s soft tone drew me in, but I kept looking back at her, hoping that the tense look would fade with that commenter’s words. It never did.

Excited to witness as she reunited with her teacher after (literally) a lifetime, I stopped and made her wait with me by the door while everyone else filed out of the hall. “We should take a picture with him” “No, that won’t be necessary”, she replied. “What?! Why!?” My mother started to stutter, shuffled her feet, grabbed my arm and started to pull me away from the door. Just then, El-Salahi came out. “3ayni, he just came out”, I said, hoping to put her on the spot.

“No, khalas, look how many people there are, there’s no need to bother him. What if he doesn’t remember me?”
“The man is 80 years old, who cares! Mom, this is your teacher! You were excited to come here! When are you going to get this opportunity again? Why don’t you want to say hi to him?”
“I haven’t done anything, I haven’t accomplished anything. He taught me things…. He taught me things I never used. I don’t deserve to take a picture with him.”

I choked. I choked up. Tears welled in my eyes before my mind could even process why. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out, and watched as my mother walked away. The past few days, I had been anxious to see my mother transform back into the artist, the college student; to see her re-enter a world she left behind almost forty years ago. I tried to curtail my expectations, not expecting that I would even have any. In reality, I found myself in a situation that was so far from my expectation that it rendered me motionless.

Eventually, I unfroze and went to catch up to her. She was talking to El-Salahi’s sister, whose daughter was my mother’s college classmate and roommate.

She called me over and introduced me, “this is my daughter”, as I shook the lady’s hand. “You look just like your mother, very pretty. Your mother was so pretty when she was your age” she turned to my mother, “so, where are you working these days?”

“Ana ma ba3mal fi 7aja – ga3da sakit – ma ba3mal fi 7aja”
I’m not doing anything. I’m not working. I’m not doing anything.

“Aah, taking it easy. That’s good.”

I blinked, and projected on my eyelids was a vision of my mother folding like a lawn chair. For the second time that night, I opened my mouth to speak and nothing came out. But my head was screaming: she is not “not doing anything”, she is an ambassador’s wife who successfully made a home for herself and her family in 5 different countries. She is a mother who juggled raising 3 children across 3 continents without taking one day of leave. She carried the burden of a sick child for 24 years all while managing her own illness. She is anything but taking it easy!

I watched as my father casually stood to take a picture with the artist. No words can describe the guilt I felt at that moment, and the guilt I feel at this one. Much like Ibrahim El-Salahi’s contribution to art, my mother’s contribution to life and to the people around her is underplayed, underrated, and undervalued.

Today’s society views housewives and stay-at-home mothers as lazy, expendable women who “took the easy way out”, who weren’t motivated, ambitious, or (worst of all) intelligent enough to pursue a professional career. Meanwhile, I think of all the mothers in Sudan (and across the world) who gave up their goals to take care of families, who spent their lives putting other people first, and with time came to believe the misconceptions about them. I think of all those mothers who raised children to adulthood and sent them off into the world. I think of these women who are left with the bitter after-taste of a life of hard work that isn’t acknowledged by the same world they helped populate and raise.

I think of my mother, who sacrificed her art, her dreams, her self – for us.

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