Zamaan, alnas kanat tayba w mutsam7a [back when people were nice and well-intentioned]
Zamaan, albalad kanat nadeefa w naasa nudaaf [back when the country was clean and so were its people]
Zamaan, zaman alSudan bay khayru... [back when Sudan was good]
These phrases are part of every diaspora kid’s repertoire. You grow up hearing your parents talking about ayam zaman, the good ol’ days, when everything was rosy and people were good and there was a miniscule unit of currency called the tarraada that could buy you a surprisingly large number of items. These phrases were your historical background, your gateway to understanding your parents, your ticket ‘home’.
I was breast, bottle, and spoon-fed these phrases, and they grew along with me into a very specific and sturdy image of Sudan. Sadly, this was not the Sudan I got to experience, and it took me quite a while to realize that. For years, I tried to “make it work”. I desperately sifted through the rough in the hopes of catching even the tiniest glimmer of familiarity, something that fit my frame of reference. It didn’t have to be much, just something. I became my parents, referencing a “simpler time”, “alzaman aljameel” [the beautiful days], that glorious past that I had no business reminiscing about because I wasn’t even alive to see it.
AlSudan 7ilu bay nasu [the people are what make Sudan good]
In 2008, my parents and I visited a young Sudanese couple while we were living in Shanghai. The family was getting ready to go to Sudan for a visit, and my mother says, “Oh, you must be excited!” The look on the woman’s face was anything but. She began to give us a laundry list of reasons why, for lack of a better term, Sudan and its people were the worst. My mother sat beside me, mouth slightly open, shocked at the young woman’s candid pessimism. I won’t lie, I was thoroughly amused, tantalized by this less than glowing perspective. On the cab ride home, my mother expressed her displeasure at the young woman speaking so negatively about going ‘home’, “I mean, Sudan isn’t the best place, but how could she say that! About her family!” I ventured into dangerous territory, responding, “Maybe she had a really good reason to say those things. How do you know her family isn’t actually really horrible?”. The rest of the way home was spent in silence.
Later that year, we moved back to Sudan, and I like to think of that period as the Re-Education of My Parents. We quickly discovered how close to reality that young woman’s depiction was. Since, my mother has brought her up several times, “Ana zalamtaha [I was unfair to her]. How can people change so quickly? So completely?” I felt bad for my parents, who had obviously experienced a reality so different from this, and were now at a complete loss. Their memory laden dream of returning to that life is what kept them afloat in their decades of ghurba [abroad] was dessimated. Even as they witnessed the deterioration of the country over the years, they held fast and fastened all their hopes on their belief in the goodness of people, that goodness that is less quality and more basic characteristic of the Sudanese. To see that memory give way to a much uglier reality must be hard to bear.
Did you ever believe those stories I used to tell you about Sudan?
The heartbreaking question my mother asked me, in the unmistakeable tone of resignation, as we took a walk through the neighborhood. “It’s not that I didn’t believe it, I just couldn’t imagine” – the short version of my true feelings. I grew up believing every word they said about Sudan, tallying and cataloging, building an idea that I then converted into fact and stored to be brandished when it was time to ‘go home’. But the past and the present did not match, did not sync, did not even compute. So my imagined Sudan turned to dust, leaving the cold void of invalidity. This whole time, I was just living vicariously through my parents’ past lives. That is a sad and painful realization.
If I had known things would change so drastically, I would have lived every moment to the absolute fullest.
My mother’s melancholic wish, and my current struggle. I am trying, so hard, to make the best of what I have. I am trying to see the good in people. I am trying to see the good in Sudan. I am trying to see and bring out the good in myself. But it’s hard. It’s hard because I can’t stop hearing those stories, which they continue to tell, now as a way to stay afloat (and sane) in the murky waters of modern-day Sudan. It’s hard because others don’t see the good in Sudan, and don’t try to, forcing you to fend off their pessimism as well as your own. It’s hard because even when you highlight the good, it seems hollow, superficial, cliche. Worse yet, it just doesn’t seem real. There’s so much bad that the good doesn’t even seem real.
That is a sad and painful realization.