The topic has been brewing in my mind for quite some time, mainly because not a week goes by that I am not challenged by someone – be it relative or random person on the internet – on whether I qualify to speak on or claim Sudaneseness. The reasons for this seem to boil down to the following: I grew up abroad, I write and communicate (online) mostly in English, and (as of recently) I don’t currently reside in Sudan.
I am a child of the diaspora. I was born on ‘foreign’ soil and spent the majority of my life outside Sudan. This, unsurprisingly, exposes me to a lot of scrutiny and essentially strips me of my right to be Sudanese, leaving the question of my identity for other, more qualified parties to determine.
Note: my parents, despite being “pure” Sudanese and having raised me, are not qualified either, apparently.
I will be honest, having to prove myself “Sudanese enough” for the masses on a daily basis is exhausting, mostly because nothing I do is proof enough: not my DNA or upbringing, not my ability to speak the language of my people (or are they?), not my cultural knowledge or the (apparently fake) bond that I feel to Sudan despite the fact that I am repeatedly told to “know my place” and mind my non-Sudanese business. If you sense any bitterness in this paragraph, it’s because there is. My mouth is coated in a bitter film that gets thicker depending on the number of “inti al3arrafik shinu” microagressions that I encounter in a day.
But as much as I want to vent and write in excruciating detail about all the bitterness I carry, this isn’t what I came here to do. I came to ask you to ponder this with me: how do we determine who gets to be Sudanese?
I’m not here to offer any answers, not only because any answer I might offer will be shut down by the Identity Police (see “inti al3arrafik shinu” above), but also because any answer I would offer is based on my brand of Sudaneseness, which has been shaped by my upbringing (which, in turn, was shaped by my parents’ upbringing) and my collection of experiences.
For example, I call people “yal3asha bel laban” when I’m being sarcastic [comparable to the more widely known “yal faali7/yal naaji7“]. This I learned from my father, who calls me that when he’s being sarcastic, and he got it from his mother, who used it in the same fashion. The “real” (born and raised) Sudanese people with which I’ve used this term were all confused by it, and those that weren’t had gleaned its meaning only from context.
The first reaction of many of these people is to find fault with the speaker (i.e. me) – “you heard it wrong”, “you made it up”. Understandable, considering my second class status (last bitter comment, I swear). But what does that say about my father, who grew up in a village in Alshimaliya? Or his mother, who in her entire lifetime only traveled as far as Khartoum?
And therein lies my point.
While it is arguable that there are characteristics common to all Sudanese (we like to claim sarcasm and wit our national traits), who decides what those characteristics are? And does that mean that anyone who falls outside of this list should be immediately pushed out from under the Sudani umbrella? Is that fair to say considering how diverse we are as a people – a diversity, might I add, that we are eager to flaunt when the vibe is right and the advantage ripe for the taking?
In the age of social media, we are more than ever connected – across neighborhoods, continents and generations. The world has become a smaller place, but so has Sudan. So small, in fact, that it has now become synonymous with Khartoum. We see it in the casual conversations that we have, “mafi mawdou3 fil Sudan ghair alakil“. We see it in the way we casually replace the part for the whole, “Anyone know where I can get a MacBook charger in #Sudan? #AskSudaniTwitter”. We see it everywhere.
But this, admittedly, isn’t a byproduct of social media; it predates it. It is the longstanding battle between al3aasima [the capital] and al2aqaaleem [the regions]. This chasm has less to do with increased connectivity and “globalization”, and more to do with access, opportunity and status. In a country where everything, from education to health to travel is centralized in the capital, it’s no wonder we have learned to do away with the rest of the nation. We have internalized it, and it has permeated our minds so that it affects how we value and evaluate everything, including identity. Are you really Sudanese if you’ve never been to Nile Street with your cousins on a Friday night after cruising all afternoon, and before going to Bahri to eat bosh at that dukkan that’s all the rage right now but no one knew about last week?
Where does that leave the other 95% of the population?
(This, of course, isn’t to say that everyone in Khartoum has access, opportunity and status. Let’s not be naive or obtuse, either.)
Looking at Sudaneseness through the lens of Khartoum excludes an absurd number of people, not just within Sudan’s borders, but also abroad. We are quick to dismiss the diaspora as murky, watered down versions of Sudaneseness, tainted by the ways of <insert continent they’re on>. We conveniently ignore the fact that the diaspora was created by “real” Sudanis who grew up in different villages and towns across Sudan (not just Khartoum), and left their birth village, town and country for a variety of reasons, many of which beyond their control or volition. In almost 2018, with all the information we know about our country’s past and present, we still insist on treating the diaspora like traitors, aliens (it literally says that on the card: Alien From Sudanese Origin), parasites that sprouted from nothingness and are hellbent on diluting our “purity” with their fraudulent claims on “our” identity.
But really, the question we should be asking ourselves most is: who are we to deny someone’s right to this identity? And more importantly, what purpose does it serve?
In my experience, being told I’m “not Sudanese [enough]” usually happens when I’ve critiqued some aspect of our society or brought up any “taboo” topic pertaining to it (we hate to be told about ourselves), and has the intended effect of both discrediting me and shaming me into shutting up. It does neither.
What it does, however, is succeed in isolating anyone searching for inclusion or the warmth of a community. It further isolates those of us whom our government has already done an amazing job of excluding from the fold, for whatever arbitrary reason like tribe or heritage or religion – reasons that we have coopted as a society. It isolates those of us who were born across the world but were fed the Sudanese identity in our mother’s milk, who had it physically and mentally beaten into us, who were raised to claim nothing else but it because, and I quote, “No one else will understand and accept you like your people”.
And it isolates us from each other. As someone put it, “it’s a range”, and we forgo the fun of exchanging thoughts, customs and idiosyncrasies because we’re all too caught up in showing how much more “authentic” we are than the next person. We work so hard to beat down any deviation in us that we’re missing out on having a diverse and colorful Sudani experience (until it’s time to profit from it).