Learning to be Uncomfortable with Silence

The luxury of choosing your level of visibility is a privilege. Groups not in power are forced into hypervisibility and hyperinvisibility. You are one of a teeming mass of people who are all viewed in the same two-dimensional way. Someone to be skipped over in terms of representation within prominent and powerful groups whilst focused on when the news reports look at the latest threats. Someone to be spoken about but never with.

It’s why more of us have started caring about fights that have been around for ages, looking fondly back on the past few decades with a romantic view when for a lot of people this is just more of the same. This is the crux, that now other people are being made permanently visible, not as individuals with complex histories but as targets. It’s not that ethnonationalism has come to Europe or the USA, but that more of the population are declaring their sentiments out loud instead of just with their actions. And that when you say it out loud you finally see they are after you as well.

I think that scares people. That we who have generally been fortunate enough to avoid many types of prejudice are now being made very aware of our complicity and our vulnerability as well. And a lot of people want to approach this as if only removing certain people or parties would cure the problem and then we can all pretend once again that nothing is really that bad.

It’s the same moment of realisation that I began to have after 9/11 and I was suddenly aware that the shape of my life in the West would be greatly influenced by my surname, regardless of who I was as a human being. I was visible in a way I didn’t want to be.

In my day-to-day life on the street I am still fortunate enough to be able to have the option of flitting between being seen and unseen as who I actually am (and not just limited to ethnic background). Yet I know it’s still there, underneath everything, waiting for the moment when I am revealed and waiting to see how that will then change things. That’s what scares me about some people – that they will never choose to see this truth that lies at the roots of our society, and instead bigotry is explained away as just a veneer for other frustrations that are supposedly actually economic or class-based in nature.

The past few decades weren’t perfect. They contain moments where we saw divisions, insecurities with identities, and just moved on as if life is static. Now we are in a position where we have to be grateful we still have the ability to be fighting fires.

***

I am always slow to speak. I try to measure my words and uncomplicate everything before I make a move and that in itself is a bad habit that has left me behind the starting gate well after a race is over too many times. Sometimes it is the fear of making a mistake, of misreading a look, or of claiming something that turns out to be only half-remembered. Hesitation in these cases is a false relief – in the moment I can pretend to be perfect in my argument or desires, but always at the expense of never being passionate enough.

I am working on teasing out these complexities, and over the past year I’ve spoken things I would have resisted before. As a reward I’ve had some pain but also the clarity that comes with pain. You forget that, staying out of the fray, about how pain can be positive, that it can be a sign that you’ve identified a problem and are now an inch closer to healing.

It is Audre Lorde herself who condenses this realisation that silence is the greater regret. That is the truth, that I have “betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.” That I have been hoping to one day produce something perfect and unquestionable and speak truth to power in a way that no-one will shame me for it.

What I am truly scared of is not the AfD gains, or the slow drift of Brexit, but that I still won’t quite have figured out how best to speak – both personally and in activist terms – without having that betrayal of a moment where I linger too long to collect my thoughts, where I smooth the terms so they are somehow “more acceptable” because it is always “more acceptable” to disguise what you really feel. That I will not be able to overcome the training I have had since childhood to be respectful and quiet and not jeopardise a simpler path to success as defined by a capitalist world.

My identity in many ways has been why I’ve stayed quiet for so long, even though I have many insightful and intelligent points to make. It’s made me vulnerable and through speaking I fear I unveil too much of it and my principles, and that they can be used in turn to attack me. I want to write honestly but each time I begin I find myself weighing up the impact on others and what cost their disappointment or shame might bring me.

Yet as Lorde says; “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

The M.A. thesis I wrote, for which I got 80%, looked at the complexities of identity for queer British Muslims after 9/11 and its shaping by the political-social context of Islamophobia. It was rewarding to explore and to help expand a new area of research. Years ago I would have resisted taking this up, torn about what others would say, but also torn about whether this was a safe option in terms of advancing my professional career. When you have the luxury of choosing your visibility you can become seduced by the ease of being indistinguishable from others.

What I’ve realised with this sweep of ethnonationalist visibility is that fundamentally identity can no longer be denied the importance that it has in the mainstream. The idea that niche communities are not worthy of proper study is a side effect of these insidiously oppressive systems that we’ve normalised. Rather they are essential to understand; to see how identity is shaped on every level is to actually see society for what it is. And to remove those silences and push those areas forcibly kept in the dark into the mainstream is to improve society through confronting the ugly side of it.

It is hard to pull away from the privilege of getting to stay hidden. Of having the ability to keep the peace by being quiet. And even when the issue is just a personal one, and the cost only my own personal regret I still know I will not improve overnight. Yet I can grow more, forgive myself when I falter, and strive to do what I can to pull other voices up too. Shame and fear don’t have to be guiding directions in my life more than whatever power I give to them.

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The Importance of Doctor Who

My youngest brothers’ first exposure to a queer character in television was through Doctor Who’s Captain Jack. When you are eight (or really any age) Captain Jack is the archetype of complete cool that you are always striving to achieve; witty, brave, ridiculously charming, and has a gun. So when you see that that character “dances with everyone” it tells you that there’s nothing weird or wrong about queerness. And when, a few days later, you go to school and find your friends using homophobic language as one brother did, you tell them to stop because you know that people should never be a target for hate.

That’s the impact that a great show can have.

The recent announcement that Doctor number 13 will be played by Jodie Whittaker has had predictable reactions. To some this is the worst case of pandering. To others it is about time. But in reality it is just another form of the Doctor, and in some ways that is the most significant part. Because removed from all the adult conversations, all children will see is the central character of a show they eagerly watch simply looking different yet again but still going on the same adventures with the same balance of coolness and nerdiness that we’ve all grown to love. It’s that normalcy that made Captain Jack so important, and it will be the same again when the Doctor leads an army, saves the world, or refers to her wife in the seasons to come.

Doctor Who teaches morals. It highlights that sometimes it is worth risking danger to you and those around you for a greater cause. It shows that even genius is not infallible and that we all have a part to play in improving our situations. It tells children that you must have hope that people as a whole can be good in the end, and that though there are bad things in the world it is important to love and protect one another as best you can.

The wider world is a cynical one. It’s one that makes us forget these rules in favour of a more utilitarian bend. Yet the idealism of Doctor Who is what draws us in, and what makes these inclusions so important because it reinforces the humanity of groups who haven’t historically fared so well. The recent companion of Bill, a gay, black woman who unabashedly has crushes and has to rebuff interested men helps with this normalisation. Adding a Doctor whose gender in our eyes has shifted builds up not only what women can do in society’s eyes, but makes conversations around gender dynamics and the idea of a binary easier to have too.

Having a pop culture locus to discuss and represent difference shouldn’t be a marvel, but something ordinary. I’m looking forward to the next series of Doctor Who to take us a little bit closer towards this future.

Reflections on my M.A.

Note: I found out in September 2017 that I graduated cum laude with a grade average of 8 (UK equivalent 1st class honours).

On the last day of June my M.A. thesis was handed in. The extra time that is suddenly available to me as I await final results means I have been able to have a period of reflection. In particular I have been looking back on the past year spent here in Maastricht, and how the Masters course I’ve been on (one that focuses on the intersections of politics and society) has helped to shape me into a better, more prepared person that I was before.

The question of why I chose to do a Masters in Politics, and on top of that why I chose to do a Masters abroad comes up a fair amount. There are a large variety of reasons behind both, but they end up boiling down to two simple concepts; 1) I enjoy it so wanted to do more of it, and 2) I think it is important to constantly expose yourself to new experiences in order to be challenged and grow.

Politics fundamentally is about how people relate to power, and is something that I have always loved to delve into. It’s quite funny how much I enjoy it considering that until university I hadn’t formally studied it, and only did so because I made a spur of the moment decision in my last years of high school to put that down in my university guidance session instead of what I had always assumed would be my final choice of either History or English Literature. Still I had helped set up and run the Model United Nations programme in Sudan so it couldn’t be said to be a complete surprise.

As for doing a Masters specifically, I am an academically inclined person so it made sense to build on my B.A. and expand my focus to the societies that I currently live in, rather than just looking to Africa and the Middle East. In particular niche topics are where I excel, and Masters gives you opportunities to tease out these areas far more whilst training you in effective research methods. Indeed research for my thesis has been very rewarding as I made the (slightly masochistic) choice to conduct in-depth qualitative interviews which was incredibly complicated and difficult work, especially the transcriptions, but also enabled me to discover new information that doesn’t really exist out in the academic sphere, rather than just interpreting something that may have been looked over a hundred times.

That being said just because I enjoy the mechanics does not mean I’m not deeply concerned with where we are heading as a planet collectively.

 

The second of the two responses though is something that is far less individualistic as an answer. In general I find that British people have a reputation internationally for rarely leaving the comfort zone of the UK – sometimes even building mini British neighbourhoods in foreign lands – and never properly immersing in other cultures or languages (something quite interesting to note considering the vast legacy of empire). Sometimes this is for reasons out of an individual’s control, but in my case there weren’t these limiting factors so it made sense to step outside the bubble.

Both immigration debates and those around Brexit tend to be framed in an ‘us against the world’ way which really encapsulates this tendency. Even those wanting more co-operation emphasise an idea of British exceptionalism and superiority, rather than just slight cultural difference. Saying that you should participate in the world because you can lead the world doesn’t separate enough from the attitude of empire, nor does it encourage trying to understand others since if you’re at the top of the heap what can they offer to teach you?

Even in my case, being aware enough to have not considered any UK universities for my Masters, I have found that my horizons initially were not as broad as they should have been. When I arrived I was constantly exposed to conversations which didn’t centre UK politics (or Sudanese politics for that matter) since it was generally not the most relevant thing to day-to-day life. This was especially exaggerated by having an international group of friends who also wanted to discuss their own country’s situations.

Had I stayed in the UK it would be highly unlikely that I would have learnt about the similarities and differences of Finland’s left-wing Greens and the right-wing nationalist Finns Party, or how asylum policy and integration are constructed in the Netherlands, or about the interplay of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik and Orbán (and also the interesting detail that their name is a pun meaning both the “better choice” and “most to the right”). All these give you far more insight into politics not only on an international level, but also a national one as you can see general trends and how certain movements have played out in other contexts. I’m a better analyst of politics because of it.

Reflecting on this past year has really reinforced those two initial reasons for leaving in the first place. I have produced an M.A. thesis I put months of hard work into and I am very proud of all of the extra effort I went to to bring in new primary sources in order to produce something I feel is reflective of my ability. I have branched out further, know more about other small nations I would not have studied on my own free time, and I also now have certifications in elementary Dutch.

The next step is one that I’m not sure 100% which direction it will take me in. Yet I know that I will build on this degree, continue to engage with these political issues throughout the coming years, and take the new knowledge I have discovered with me when I do so.

2017, Year in Preview

2016 was quite the year – it seemed everything was shifting and that the best bet was always on the most undesirable outcome (at least for some). These past few months I’ve wanted to write about Trump, far right revivals, Castro, Austria, South Korea, the ongoing farce of Brexit, but the idea of adding to the noise without adding anything new felt a bit pointless, especially with actual Masters coursework I was supposed to be getting on with.

2016 was the year of everyone finally seeing the cracks in the walls, and the mould all over the ceiling. These were things that were already bubbling away, but each of us had selective blindness to some of it. I feared Brexit, but my sinking feeling about Trump I dismissed as excessive anxiety, reasoned out of by the sheer confidence of others’ predictions.

We’re now two weeks in to 2017 and I’ve already managed to fall into a freezing pond and set myself on fire for the second time in my life. And like a bad metaphor for the media’s understanding of the threat of Trump it took me a while to realise I was on fire because I was so into the show I was watching (who says millennials are easily distracted?).

2017, at least on a personal level, seems set to beat 2016.

Putting aside the increasing sense of doom, I don’t want to write 2017 off in the same hysterical way a lot of others are, declaring everyone will die and calling for some sort of Obama dictatorship. Yes, things are going to get worse but if you look at 2016 you can also find some good things that point to the way forwards. Sudan is an example of where protest has adapted to circumstances – instead of going out on the streets, people stay at home, showing dissatisfaction without technically implicating themselves in any anti-government activity. On a smaller level just looking through my social media shows me the way that people can pull together to help those in need in the intervening time between now and a future fix for all our messed up political priorities. You can host healing parties and socials where those from marginalised communities can meet, you can offer vital services at a discount, you can even just be making witty, insightful commentary on the news of the day.

In 2016 I discovered I was wrong about a lot of things, right about others, and most significantly I need to be more confident. For the past two years I’ve written some vague post around the subject of ‘New Years Resolutions’, regardless of if I actually had any. 2015 was trying to push out of my comfort zone and starting this blog, 2016 was trying some more and practising my Arabic, and 2017 is going to being trying harder, not only for my personal life but of those around me too. Maybe this will come about in a post-Masters political job, maybe I’ll do something on the side, but the solidarity which I feel is an important part of my leftist politics needs to be more overt than it has been in the past.

2017 is going to be tough. It’s the year of right-wing power, and more specifically the rise of a right-wing that has no time or love for people like me. It’s a year where basic things are going to be presented as shameful or threatening, whether that’s birth control in the US, standing up for immigration in the UK, being a refugee across the whole of the globe (if your news has only been dominated by the European “crises”, look at the regional issues stemming out of Myanmar alone), and countless other identities, political stances, or just plain old personal decisions.

2017 is a year where those of us on the left are going to have to reject that shame, on both a personal and political level. And true, it’s not going to seem like there’s much progress but it’s the same with fixing a house; you have to just start somewhere and keep going until it’s either patched up or collapses.

 

The Other Sudanese! 500 Words! Identity!

Who I am has always been a tricky question for me. I think that in some ways a secure identity comes easier when you aren’t placed in situations where people feel the need to ask “Where are you from?” (the other day a woman wanted to know “what” I was as it was obvious I wasn’t a “thoroughbred”). As it stands I feel like I fluctuate between being Sudanese and being British, and it’s still something I’m figuring out.

Recently I started a fortnightly column over at 500 Words Magazine looking at this very question – who is Sudanese? Every week I’ll focus on different groups that don’t quite fit the mainstream idea of Sudaneseness; the next one up on Sunday 5th June is of particular interest as I’ll be looking at the Jewish Sudanese community which people are always surprised exists.

Read it here (with a bonus baby photo of me) and follow new additions here!

I’m also helping edit over at 500 Words so if you have any articles or pitches about either of the Sudans’ send me an email or message me on twitter!

Edit: You can now read the Jewish Sudanese article here

Hello Again!

I haven’t posted in a while.

This has been a keen calculation as much as it has been an accident of a very busy and emotional time in my life. I have wanted to wait for the push for more stability to die down so that I could properly reflect on where I wanted to focus my work. Of course, it is apparent that waiting for those times only really works when you can afford to separate yourself from the hectic situation you are in and so I got stuck in a circle of negative reinforcement.

In the intervening time huge changes to the political landscape have manifested. Across an ocean it becomes apparent that the Republican nominee for President will be either Trump or Cruz and both are riding a wave of huge resentment that has manifested into something that genuinely terrifies me. Over in the UK the EU referendum and the refugee crisis have trigged the outpouring a whole raft of similar views that some people have kindly articulated to me in person. I am not sure if these words were said as a warning to me to be one of the “good ones” or as a misguided compliment that they already thought I was. Alongside this Labour refuse to push forward a unified image of their party in order to better combat devastating measures that are being proposed and implemented in many different areas in our lives and I am worried about the future of the Left in general as it seems over and over again we never quite put up the best fight (myself included).

It appears that whilst I have been wringing my hands with existentialist and practical fears on a personal level, the world in general has grown more dangerous. I need to figure out where to stand on this, how boldly to go fight outside of just talking one-on-one with a stranger over a drink as to why their statement was offensive. I need to suss out which things are most pertinent to focus my time and mental energy on with regard to the “public me” and , most importantly, I need to decide what I am actually doing with myself in the long-term.

Hence the brief pause in output.

I am working on some things at the moment – more jovial items that I shall link to when they finally come out, but for now I will be aiming to focus here on longer and more explicitly political perspectives on events. Obviously I cannot (nor I think should) comment on everything however I will aim to post something at least once a month of substance.

In the meantime you can find me on Twitter

Khartoum, Berlin, and Change

I can’t say my life isn’t filled with lovely parts. I know fantastic people and I have fantastic opportunities to experience much of the strange stuff that this world offers. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I have people who can lend me a sofa in times of need and at the end of the day that gets me by.

A little less than 2 weeks ago I came back from Berlin. Before that I was in Khartoum for a few months working on my Arabic (which I can now report no longer has the Japanese accent it apparently mysteriously acquired). These two places are wonderfully different, but in them both there was a chance to do some reflecting on what it is I want out of life and out of myself. On that list is pursuing further study and to live in somewhere other than the UK during my 20s. I’m not sure when exactly these will happen but the machinations are already in progress so that it doesn’t just become another idle “one day”.

*

My trips were worthwhile. Khartoum was so huge and stretched out. Days there seemed to all merge into all the others making time quite a pointless formality. I got to hear interesting stories and met lots of new people who all greeted me the first time as if we were long-lost cousins. It’s those parts of Sudan that people always forget about when they leave it for too long. There are stories I feel it is almost wrong to try and share because only other Sudanese people would understand why they are quite so special. For too long I only saw Khartoum as a child, that seeing it as an adult has given it an far more nuanced shape that I can actually say I appreciate it.

Berlin, in contrast, was an organised cliché and when I stayed there the winds felt like ice shards. There people were also warm and welcoming, but in a more reserved manner than the Sudanese, and I appreciated the opportunity to just wander around the streets at night alone without getting hassled by drivers. Berlin feel like I had always been waiting for it.

Coming back to London after these two trips I’ve also had to acknowledge that though I always say I am somewhat tired of this city, it is so familiar and easy to be in. I get wanderlust very easily, yet London shelters me a lot from that temptation. All these fashionable essays writing about how London being too much made them have to leave miss the specialness of that “too much”. I enjoy being another face in the crowd because it means that each day you get to play a different role until you figure yourself out a bit better. Being in a city where everyone knows you and where you know everything traps you far more. London I can now recognise as my home and not just a wait station for a grand return or a new adventure.

So Khartoum, farewell.

Berlin, I’ll see you again.

London, I’m glad to be back for now.

Things I’m Going to Do Differently in 2016

At the beginning of 2015 I wrote a little bit about what I was hoping to do in the new year. It wasn’t grandiose – if anything the piece was a tad dejected. I expected a level of failure before I even tried.

My plan was to go boldly into something that I loved, and also treat myself as someone I loved. My path has been a little mixed as I’ve certainly not come to any financial security but at the same time I am becoming more and more confident in my writing. It feels a lot like I am the mythical ship Argonaut in that famous thought experience. Slowly I too replace parts of myself, editing my humour, or how I approach work, or the way I laugh or how my hair is carved until I am not sure what is left of my original self yet I am certain I am still me, just a little better each time. 

So I have figured that this upcoming year I can build on this by returning to actual cliché goal set-up, except without any set way of measuring progress (I do still want to feel like a rebel occasionally).

  1. Seek out and accept interesting opportunities more, regardless of whether they are professional, personal, or just general fun.
  2. Practice and improve my Arabic.
  3. Actually ask for help when I need it, and graciously accept charity as well.

I think that these things, whilst not being super measurable soothe my desire to actually work towards something without feeling trapped by it. Years ago I used to set up 10 to 40 different mini-plans and they would inevitably crumble. There were times when I felt that goals were counter-productive; too often in my desire to make a yearly list I wrote aims I would later change my mind about pursuing, but would try to power on anyway just so I would get that sweet cross-out. It turns out that using this tactic just makes you miserable.

Anyway I’m in Berlin at the moment so I already feel that I’m on the right track before the year even officially begins. Currently I’m toying with the idea of finally dying my hair for the first time ever (I’m thinking a white/silver blonde because I’ve always wanted to be more like Storm). I’m trying out the boldness and so far it works.

Who knows what happens next.

More Vitiligo! Dazed! Beauty!

If you personally knew me back in May then you would have probably heard my giggles about being approached for “Too Ugly For Love?” on the basis of my vitiligo essay over at Buzzfeed. I found it pretty funny at the time considering my essay they found me from discussed my resentment of people who assume that my skin makes me inherently ugly. Anyway I’ve finally written up some of my thoughts for Dazed on the ridiculous notions that we have about attraction and what makes someone appealing in the first place. Let it be your first read of the week!

More Lesbians! Consent! Violence!

Lesbian relationships in film often carry the burden of limited storytelling which focuses on coming out stories, pregnancy, affairs, and/or death. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy has none of these traits. Rather it is a universal story about love and the ways in which we can be undone by it, exploring the emotional violence that can be carried by a relationship. Most importantly, unlike another film that shall not be named, The Duke of Burgundy highlights this as a failure of communication, not as an evil of kink itself.

It’s no secret I have a great soft spot in my heart for The Duke of Burgundy – it’s a amazing film about people that features a queer couple who’s issues are not rooted in their queerness. As part of their Violent Women Week I’ve got a guest piece over at BitchFlicks looking at the emotional violence inflicted in the film. It has spoilers so I recommend you watch the film first, but you can check it out here.

People can sometimes find it weird that I see a lot of the negotiations in the film as cruel – after all no one said they didn’t want to do anything. The truth is that good partners try to look out for signs of upset – people are often socialised to subordinate their own personal feelings for those of others, and there are a whole host of reasons why someone may not be comfortable enough with a partner to articulate them. A simple example would be to think of all the things you’ve done that you would rather not for the benefit of your family; in my case it would be wearing a dress to my graduation. Not all of these are wrong or a sign of abuse, but they might make someone uncomfortable or always feel off, and the more intimate the situation the more we must look out for this. When we play by the rules that everything must be explicitly stated (otherwise it doesn’t count as a no) then we risk straying into territory where we can wilfully ignore what we sense in others in order to ensure we get our own way. Instead of checking for a happy yes, we just look for a clear no.

Yes people should be able to speak up, but in this world that is hard. We have a responsibility to make sure that the level of trust to speak is actually there in the first place.