Redefining the 3amma*

*3amma: father’s sister.aunt-karen-in-the-rocking-chair-1883

I have a niece.

I know, it’s crazy. I shouldn’t be trusted around kids, mostly because I’m more afraid of them than they are of me, and that might be a problem if something happens that requires me to, you know, handle them.

When she was a (smaller) baby, I talked to her like an adult. She would stare at me, mouth ever so slightly open, with a quizzical look in her eyes that could only be interpreted as, “di mala di?” (what’s wrong with her). I didn’t know how to act, didn’t feel the need (or know how) to pinch cheeks and tickle and smother with hugs and kisses. I felt stupid using baby talk (“Oh you’re so cutesy wootsy! Yes you are! Oh yes you are!”), and was convinced that her smile was one of derision and mocking rather than amusement.

But still, I felt a strange connection. I dreamt about her constantly; dreams where she would have conversations with me (despite the fact that she’s only 2), where she felt close to me, where she wanted me to teach her things, where I was anxious to teach her things. These dreams always ended with the corners of the room stretching, separating us, pulling us farther and farther apart from each other. Each time, I would wake up out of breath, heart palpitating and muscles sore.

At first I thought it was my biological clock deciding it wanted to finally tell time, and that my brain was just projecting the last baby face I saw. But a few frantic nights of thinking (“Oh God, I’m not ready to want kids! Please spare me!”), and a few not-so-frantic conversations with my sis-in-law later, I’ve figured out that it all boils down to the 3amma Factor.

I have always been closer to my mother’s side of the family. My childhood was spent hanging out with my khalus’ (maternal uncles) kids. After we left Sudan, summer vacations were spent at my khaltus’ (maternal aunts) houses. I know more of them, I feel more connected to them, and I interact more with them. This isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with my father’s side, or some family beef that prevented us from getting to know them, but for some reason the opportunity never arose. Maybe it was because they lived outside Khartoum. Maybe it was because we came with our mother for vacations and stayed at her family’s house. Maybe it was just the fact that kids are closer to their mothers, and this closeness transferred to extended family. Whatever the reason, I found myself as an adult almost completely ignorant of my father’s side of the family.

For the longest time, I couldn’t really say for sure how many siblings he had. I knew my 3ammas and 3ammus’ names, but I couldn’t really differentiate between his cousins. I didn’t know their kids very well. Tragically, I didn’t feel comfortable with them. I treated them with the same formality one would a stranger. I dreaded going for visits, and being quizzed on who was who. A curdled mixture of embarrassment and annoyance bubbled to the surface when I was told to get ready to go visit one 3amma or another.

Fortunately for me, this situation seems to be quite common. Conversations with friends and family have proven that there is a clear imbalance in the level of relation to the mother versus the father’s side of the family. As a result, attitudes change on both sides. People get colder, more distant, less inclined to give advice or get involved for fear of offending. In my case, my 3ammas treat me like a guest. They smile politely when I’m around, never correct me or impart any of their wisdom upon me. It’s not their place. In the same way, I do my most basic duties as a niece, and refrain from getting involved, particularly in their children’s lives – because really, I haven’t earned that place, either.

And therein lies the reason for my niece-related anxiety dreams. Subconsciously, I’m afraid to be relegated to the typical 3amma spot in the corner of some very dusty heart-shelf that gets no light and is covered with a big black sheet. More importantly, I don’t want to be that kind of 3amma.

I still haven’t figured out why I feel so strongly about this issue, why I care so much to be such an integral part of her life. Is it a biological urge to be attached to my niece? Or is it that I somehow want to absolve myself of the guilt I feel about my subpar relationship with my 3ammas, to convince myself that it is part of some cosmic conspiracy, and through no fault of my own?

Whatever it is, I feel the need to redefine the 3amma role. I want my niece to feel a connection with me as deep and as important as any other member of her family. I want her to grow to see in me someone who she can turn to without hesitation, without embarrassment or awkwardness, without restraint.

I don’t want to be her “father’s sister”. I want to be her aunt.

4 thoughts on “Redefining the 3amma*

  1. The same sceraio gose with me & I’m 90% sure most of the current generation of youth feel the same. When we moved back Sudan 10 years ago we lived for some months among my father’s family & candidly I wasn’t comfortable or even feel secure sharing my life with them so I used to be secretive all the time maybe because my father’s family were famous for being stern and tough people as you hear in “J3lyyen”‘s stories. However, From personal perspective I believe that the way our parents raise us up defines to what extent our relationship with our relatives might soar and thrive smoothly and openly. Not forgetting the nature of those realtive as well particularly if they are those kind of people who it’s so easy to break ice with.

  2. I should probably clarify that this is the perspective of someone who only spends several months at a time with these relatives, but I wanted to add my two cents. I agree with you, Riyad, that our parents define, to some extent, our relationship with our relatives. In my case, I am closer to my father and therefore know his siblings and relatives much better than I knew my mother’s side of the family. I only began to learn more about my mother’s family after I became an adult. There are other factors associated with this relationship, but my closeness to my dad is part of it.

    What is also interesting is that I interact with my relatives the way I do with my parents. When dealing with my father’s family, I interact with them the way I do my father, respectful and joking. Since my mom is the one with whom I am more comfortable to chat with, I do the same with her siblings. And this transfers to my 3ammas, khalas, khalus and 3mus. So part of the 3amma factor is how the child interacts with their dad.

  3. Firstly, I really enjoy your posts and I like your writing style, very eloquent and honest. I particularly enjoyed reading this post and I have a couple of thoughts about it that I would like to share.

    Personally, when I was growing up, I only knew the arabic words amma/ammu for aunt/uncle. Admittedly, my grasp of the language was (and still is) somewhat limited. Only later did I discover the other word for uncle, khalu. Perhaps this is because my mother is English, and I never had any khalus/khalas; on her side they were just aunties and uncles. I currently have two nieces and a nephew (amma) with another niece on the way (khalu). I would like to think that I would be the same uncle Adam to all of them.

    As the other comments have said, it really depends on personal familial circumstance as to whether you are closer to your maternal or paternal aunts and uncles. Perhaps, as you comment, there is (was?) a general trend in Sudan. But maybe that was a generational thing. You know, applicable to us as nieces/nephews but not going forwards as we become aunts/uncles. I appreciate the way that you are trying to be a better aunt, and you analyse your relationship with your own aunts to learn from the past. This can only be a good thing.

    However, being of the next generation, and having grown up partly in America, do you not feel that you would be more of an aunt than a distant amma? Let me explain. Our parents have tended to have smaller families, and so we find that (perhaps) we are closer to our siblings than they might have been. And then there is the Western notion of not differentiating between maternal and paternal aunts. You said yourself in your concluding comment that you want to be her aunt. Good luck in being the best amma you can be, and teaching your niece all those things that she can only learn from her aunt.

    • Hey Adam, thanks for your comment. You know, I took some time to think about what you wrote – you make a great point in that with “our type” of upbringing, it is more likely that we think of ourselves as aunts/uncles versus the more specific khal(a)/3amm(a). My wish is for it to be this way, but to be honest my internal jury is still out. I guess I worry that despite my effort that these (intrinsic) values that we have will seep into the relationship and affect it somehow. I don’t know. Human relationships are complicated!

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