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.
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.
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.
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).
Seek out and accept interesting opportunities more, regardless of whether they are professional, personal, or just general fun.
Practice and improve my Arabic.
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.
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!
Six ago I remember going on a class trip to an orphanage. In the middle of group-play with the children a young boy was singled out by a nurse. She said that he was HIV+, and suddenly a wealth of blank space opened up around him as people rapidly moved away. He sat in the middle, dejected, playing alone with his ball.
I always reflect on that moment each year on this day. In 1988 the World Health Organisation declared December 1st to be World AIDS Day. Perhaps more than anything World AIDS Day highlights the fact that stigma kills; too many people are not tested, or do not get access to medication because of fear of engaging openly about HIV. In some countries this stigma manifests in false conspiracies about those with HIV as being either promiscuous, sex workers, or drug users who therefore “deserve it”. In others governments deny there is even such a disease within the borders of their nation.
For some HIV remains stuck as a Western 80s Gay horror, or a impoverished African nightmare, but really it is just a virus that can impact anyone. Advances in medication mean that with the right treatment many doctors declare it more manageable than diabetes, but still the language we use to describe it betrays a harsh moral judgement – “Are you clean?”
Six years ago I instinctively moved away from the boy and then spent the rest of the day guilty playing with him, allowing him to sip from my water bottle. Other students were horrified, but they lacked an awareness about how the virus worked outside of “knowing” that it was a death sentence. Even with my education the stigma meant I too remained hesitant and stiff with him, wondering what I would feel if he somehow infected me.
There are approximately 36.9 million people in the world living with HIV. Harm reduction measures are often labelled as encouraging “risk-taking” behaviour – PrEP medication is not widely accessible, needle-exchanges are frequently shoot down, and safer sex measures necessitate that people are actually educated about safer sex in the first place.
Stigma is most of the hurdles. The tools are already here.
Yesterday I stayed up all night waiting for news from friends. What happened in Paris is almost incomprehensible – large scale rapid and sporadic attacks, bombs, and then a hostage and siege situation. I send my thoughts and my love through a screen and feel so helpless.
Time has shifted how terrorism operates, now designed in the West to generate maximum hysteria and misinformation. I spoke about it briefly on Twitter. The attack was similar to the Mumbai Model where terrorists pulsed through the city creating a situation that is hard (perhaps one might even say almost impossible) for police to initially manage. Essentially it is guerilla warfare transposed to a Western urban policing situation where the cops are mainly trained to deal with local small-scale beats and large crowd control focused on protests. Hitting a huge variety of locations sporadically makes it complicated to capture gunmen at the beginning as policing is more designed for follow-up checks rather that interventions. This ensures dominance of the 24 news cycle, social media, and the theatre of watching an ever increasing death toll. After such an attack the number of gunmen vary wildly with different reports, and a general panic sets in for days as people worry about loose gunmen, second stages, and copy-cat attacks.
I spent last night staying away from most feeds, restricting myself to prevent feeling more tight and sick than I already was. Each new piece of information confirmed was a new bit of horror. Last night I furiously debating my fears over what different parties claims of responsibility might mean with regards to the MENA region. I spoke with people who said Friday the 13th was chosen for its symbolism, others that the important thing was it was the date for the France vs. Germany match, prompting speculation that Germany is “next” and that the plan was even designed to kill on a much larger scale but that parts failed. This is part of the play, to make it the topic for days and weeks as we worry about how our lives will slowly change, even those of us who are not in France.
In the coming days there will likely be “reprisal” attacks against those suspected of being Muslim and/or migrants. We have a duty to speak out about them too, on top of mourning the dead like we are now. The attackers – regardless of which group claims ultimate responsibility – want to drive this wedge further down, and to bait far right groups. And it will work, it always does. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks my mother begged me to promise that if someone approached me in the street I would speak Spanish and then run away.
They don’t just use bombs these days – they use our minds against us too. Terrorism tries to make us hate just as much as it tries to make us scared. This must be resisted most of all.