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101 Myths about the Sudanese Diaspora

This post goes out to the Sudanese diaspora of North America. Whatuuuup!

From the smallest misunderstandings to the most blatant and often insulting lies, “natives” have always speculated about the lives of their diaspora relatives, friends, acquaintances, and characters of hearsay. These, for many of us on the other side of the fence, range from hilarious to painful, but almost always are cause for us to rethink travel plans to the motherland.

As a ‘youth’, the prying, annoying and, well, dumbass questions these misconceptions prompted made me hate coming to Sudan. But I was young and unemancipated, so I had no choice, and thus endured summer after summer of aggravation and defensiveness.

Despite the fact that I now actually live in Sudan and am no longer a ‘youth’ (but still unemancipated), I have yet to shed the burden of these misconceptions. So I am writing this in an effort to relieve some of the pain.

It’s unfortunate that I have to spell this out, but the following (as pretty much everything on my site) is completely based on my *personal* experience. You might have had an awesome life where none of these problems arose and you were totally accepted by everyone and voted homecoming royalty and everyone reveled at how Sudanese you are, but shut up.

Anyhoo~ you will notice that this is list is, in fact, *not* 101 items long, so if you feel I missed any important myths, please feel free to add them in the comments section.

Let us begin!

Myth #1: We don’t speak Arabic

This seems to be the reigning misconception, and while true for many of my diaspora brothers and sisters, it is not true across the board. So it becomes really annoying when time after time you are faced with belllowed versions of “fihimteeni bagool fi shinu!” (do you understand what I’m saying!) or “bilai inti bititkallami 3arabi?” (oh wow, you speak Arabic?) , or my personal favorite, the yelling-while-talking-incredibly-slow-and-nodding-a lot method of communication. This, of course, is used even if you respond (*quietly*) in perfect Arabic throughout the entire exchange. In my experience, the better your Arabic, the slower and louder they become.

Myth #2: We haven’t been “domesticated”

Hai! Bita3rifi taghassili al3idda?!” (oh wow, you know how to wash dishes?) is one of the many questions that haunted me in my nightmares and made me cancel (or beg to cancel) many a summer vacation to Sudan. It’s not the assumption that we don’t do housework that is insulting so much as the genuine surprise that we would even be aware of the fact that dishes require washing. The “hai” (‘oh!’ or ‘wow!’) that escapes their lips whenever they see you at a kitchen sink is just baffling. Like really? Is it *that* surprising?

Add to that the irony that many local Sudanese families actually live a more ‘pampered’ lifestyle than their diaspora counterparts. As a middle class family in North America, you cannot afford the luxury (yeah, dude, that’s what it is) of house help. I know how to scrub toilets, mop floors, and yes, even wash dishes, better than a lot of the people I know (family or otherwise) who were born and raised in Sudan.

“Do you know how to wash dishes”?! Seriously, though?!

Myth #3: We are all rich

It’s widely known that each diaspora, on arrival to their adoptive home, is given a tree to plant in their backyard. This tree, although of the same variety worldwide, has the ability to bear fruit that is very specific to the region in which said diaspora has settled.

So if you are in the United States, your tree will produce Dollars. If you are in Canada, this same tree will produce Canadian Dollars. In the UAE, it will be Dirhams. And so on and so forth. Don’t forget to pick them, because if overbearing with fruit, they can hang low and their branches might break!

<insert laugh track>

Lame jokes aside, families back home seem to think (and with good reason) that anyone who has left the motherland for “greener pastures” will immediately come across these greener pastures. This, of course, leads to the assumption that within a year of being abroad, you will supposedly make bundles of easy money and be rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. These riches will, naturally, extend to your children, which will (also naturally) lead to the assumptions made in point #2.

In reality, even in so-called greener pastures, many families struggle to make ends meet. The burden of providing for a family in this new (and expensive) country while supporting an extended family in the old is backbreaking. Worse still is the guilt diaspora families feel when they are required to give a financial hand back home while they struggle to stay afloat themselves – as bad as I have it, how can I say no when they have it so much worse?

But do they? Let’s keep it real. Many an extended family has built quite a comfortable situation for themselves off the backs of their diaspora relatives. At best, we can guess that distance masks the reality on both sides, leaving room for misunderstanding. At worst, we can attribute this exploitative attitude to an “you owe me this” mindset – I (directly or indirectly) helped get you to where you are today, and it’s time you paid me back for my sacrifice. Never mind that most of those who are benefiting the most had little to nothing to do with the diaspora relative’s perceived success.

Myth #4: (for the ladies) We are morally corrupt jezebels

Well, what do you expect? Ma bit Amrika (you’re an ‘American girl’, after all). Your parents gave birth to you and then let you loose in the streets to do God knows what with God knows who. I mean, how can they control you, right? You live in America. They teach them how to be – <grimace> “freeee” – over there. You know what I mean, right?

Meanwhile, you visit on your summer break and are *shocked* at the amount of action (of each and every form) your extended family is engaging in, all carefully under wraps and undetectable to elder and societal eyes. But you’re an idiot, because you walk around with your heart on your 3/4 sleeve and your intentions on your face – and therein lies the crevice in which all the suspicions regarding your virtue fester, multiplying with every smile, every laugh, and every handshake.

When you finally realize what’s happening, your name has taken a beating, your parents are trying to figure out where they went wrong, and all you can manage to say is: But…. he’s my cousin!

Myth #5: We’re not ‘really Sudanese’

Beyond a myth, it is, in the minds of many (even diaspora), an irrefutable fact.

Every conversation, no matter what the topic, will loop around and come back to this point. You are not allowed to have a (differing or critical) opinion – especially a valid one – on anything pertinent to Sudan because you “don’t get it” and will never “truly understand”.

You are not allowed to have the right to a preference that is given to everyone else; it automatically reflects your diluted nature:

“I don’t eat kammooniya” (sheep intestine stew)
“Ay ma into 7anakeesh Amrika” (yeah, that’s because you’re a spoiled American girl).

Oh, okay then, I guess my village-raised mom and grandma are, too. Good to know.

Even if you disagree with someone on something that has nothing to do with culture, or nationalism, or even the country of Sudan, their ending argument will always be, “Intu ya nas Amrika” (you “Americans” – to be replaced depending on the diaspora region).

It doesn’t matter how perfect your Sudanese accent is, how much obscure Sudanese vocabulary you know, how many Sudanese foods you know how to cook to perfection or how much you love to chill in 3araagis when you’re at home, you’re never good enough. Never authentic enough. Never Sudanese enough.

And you never will be.

It goes without saying that a path of honest and unhindered communication needs to open up between these two groups of people for some mutual understanding to happen, for bonds to be mended, and for wounds to be healed. But really, this whole issue can be summarized in one succinct Jay Z lyric:

Can I live?

18 thoughts on “101 Myths about the Sudanese Diaspora

  1. Ooh, how about you are the (un)official emodiment of all-things-American. Especially that which is frowned upon. Everything from perceived ‘immoral’ American pop culture to hypocritical, inhumane U.S. foreign policy. Gawd, the foreign policy one is an all time favorite! Because I *personally* bombed Iraq and authorized the use of drones in Pakistan and am reeally working for the CIA.. *wink wink*

  2. Astonishing piece of writing.
    Agree with every word! as a kid i struggled with all of these myths, and time after time i tried to adapt with no use. I guess in the end we all reach the same conclusion to accept that whatever we do, we can never be Sudanese in their eyes.

    Excelsior diaspora!

  3. غايتو يا ناس امريكا …
    Very well written and considering that it’s your personal experience there isn’t much room to argue . 🙂

  4. This is fantastic! Keep writing! It’s good to hear this perspective…the point you made about people thinking you will never really know Sudan intrigued me. Having grown up outside my native US, I finally came to the conclusion that I will never really know any place–I can say “I think this is how this country is” but I just don’t have enough experience in any country to feel like I really know the culture without consulting someone who grew up in the country.

  5. Sometimes, people who haven’t travelled or haven’t travelled far have an inferiority complex. They feel you are for some reason superior because of whatever experience you had while abroad and the only thing where they can outdo you is in their ‘nativeness’.
    I get that attitude just for living in the capital.
    My aunt comes from the village for a particular family event (usually wedding related) and feels left out and incompetent. When the other women start to talk about ‘how hard work is’, ‘how involving school is’ (at whatever level), ‘how difficult business is these days’ (from those who are buying and/or selling at whatever level) or whatever the only thing she has going for herself is how domesticated she is. How efficient she is in the kitchen, how well she cooks obscure dishes who’s recipe’s most people have forgotten.

  6. Salaam,

    Just came across your blog recently via BGLH. You have some of the funniest and most insightful blog posts around. I definitely recognize some elements of my own experiences as a Somali raised in the West.

    Keep at it!

  7. You have perfectly put in words the things I’ve been trying to explain to my parents for years..

    Now I have an answer to why it makes me uncomfortable going to relatives’ houses (just the ones I never knew or associated with) or why it makes me uncomfortable going to Sudan at all. It’s not fun being treated as an outsider.

    • I’m so tardy replying to this. But yes, it’s difficult. Our native fam don’t realize the discomfort they put us through, or that it affects us more than just “poking fun”. It sucks. Explaining doesn’t really make it that much better, either, at least not in my experience.

  8. ugh, the struggle. i lived in the KSA and Bahrain for the most of my life, and when i go to the Sudan for the summer vacation annually, people assume I’ve automatically forgotten how to speak arabic or something. like it’s not my mother language as much as it’s theirs 100%. just because i can speak english fluently and a bit of french, they immediately assume that my brain space doesn’t hold much capacity for the arabic vocabulary and syntax.
    and now, because of that, english has become my go-to language. i only speak ina sudanese dialect when necessary, and people think that i’m only speaking in english to piss them off.
    what a double standardized nation.

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