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Personal Writing

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.

Categories
Personal Writing Resolutions

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.

 

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Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

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

Categories
Personal Writing

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

Categories
Personal Writing Travel

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.

Categories
Personal Writing Resolutions

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.

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Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

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!

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Media Analysis Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

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.

Categories
Personal Writing

The Internet Made Me Lose My Attention Span… But Not Really

I have a confession. I only read a book a week these days; six years ago I used to consume a book a day for pleasure, excluding the reading I was assigned by other people.

It’s all changed because of the internet.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

*

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that what I do for fun has changed. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things from an early age. Information is a valuable commodity and I liked (and still like) wowing people with small, insignificant facts or engaging in lengthy conversations about this or that particular writer. No book was safe – for a short time I had virtually memorised all the flow charts in our battered, home copy of a family medical textbook. I would curl up on my bed inventing fictional ailments to test if I could remember what symptoms I could say yes to without ending at a red box telling me to immediately call the emergency services. I don’t do that any more. Instead I’m on the internet jumping from article to video to forum to obscure Wikipedia page.

There have been so many scare articles over the time in which I’ve shifted away from books. Beware, they all shriek, the internet is destroying the concentration span of your children! Soon all that will be left of modern culture will be a few tweets! Everything else will be too taxing on their underused minds! And we do buy that argument because a lot of us notice how we rarely read all the way to the end of the page, and how we prefer doodles and snappy lines to long reels of text.

I’m not one of those pessimists that say the internet is destroying people. After all, I had a free reign on my internet usage at university but could still sit through hundreds of pages of reading when it came down to it. Realistically those of us in the world that can read and have the opportunity to will be able to cope with a book if we were made to read one. Like riding a bike, the skill never truly drifts away from us. It is our satisfaction that can and has shifted.

Once upon a time I sat entranced for hours with a good paperback. Now I’ll stop every 10/15 minutes or so to write down an interesting train of thought  – something to look up later or write down. I used to be ashamed of this trend as I thought it meant I had become flighty and would rapidly become less intelligent. In fact, like most people who age, I’ve learnt more, but not only that – I’ve learnt proportionally more each year. Modern technology means that we’ve become used to the idea of always learning, always striving for ways to put information into practice. If I want to learn about something I no longer need be a passive recipient; when I am presented with a news item I can look up background information if I want to developed a deeper and more nuanced position, or find the definition of every single word I’m even just 1% unsure about. Because accessing information on technology takes very little time and is incredibly easy, the threshold of what is acceptable ignorance is lower. Consequently it becomes harder to calmly sit through something knowing that you’re missing part of the larger picture.

Books are now refocused as a nice past-time, a way of slowing everything down with a level of focus akin to meditation. They are not the main source of knowledge. We can learn faster along with learning more perspectives on the internet.

Elon Musk, who will likely be remember as the visionary of our time, said in a discussion with Khan Academy “the more you can gamify the process of learning, the better”. The classical methods of learning are now just old.

The internet is affecting us all and we should be fascinated with the possibilities this means for the future.

Categories
Personal Writing Travel

Catching a Rickshaw in the World’s Largest Waiting Room

I hope Ahmed does not understand the meaning of “FUCK”.

We are threading through the city on three wheels, crammed into a vehicle which – like all Khartoum back-seats I have been in – has too low a ceiling to fit my height and so I am hunched over trying not to be flung out the doorless side. Somehow my de-pigmented knuckles, white from vitiligo, are even whiter gripping the thin black bar that separates me from Ahmed the Rickshaw Driver. After a week back in the country I am finally confident enough to practice my atrocious Arabic with someone and now I risked his lasting impression to be one of a foul-mouth foreigner.

Ahmed either does not hear my yell or chooses to politely ignore it, instead wanting to know which of the local football teams I supported; Hilal or Merrikh? Fumbling for words I tell him that I don’t know which one is the right one. His furious head shaking tells me this is definitely the wrong answer.

I stare out at the empty side. Khartoum still feels so unfamiliar even as the sights match those of my childhood – a city covered in dust and streets blooming with multi-coloured plastic bags.

He shakes his head again.

I don’t understand how you can come back to Khartoum and not pick a football team

*

When I say ‘rickshaw’ to someone back in London they think of the pushcarts, pedalled by disinterested young men who cluster in the city centre, cigarettes hanging from lips as they yell to drunken tourists. And then I have to explain that yes, those definitely fall under the dictionary definition of rickshaw, but in Sudan rickshaws (or rasksha as my Arabic practice has taught me) are not glorified bikes, but rather small motorised tin cans. Usually black, and sometimes pasted with Disney cartoon characters and random English words – items signifying a certain coolness motivated by the belief that this will win more fares – they buzz through Khartoum, piercing across traffic. For just a few pounds you too can risk safety for a quick journey.

Although it is not as cheap as when I stopped living here five years ago. Sanctions in the country have led to inflation; a journey previously costing a single US dollar now costs about seven. When I last visited there was the inevitable rush of development that affects a city after a peace agreement, then the global recession and US/EU sanctions hit. Now the rush still goes on, but it is slower and hidden, no longer reflected in new, shiny soaring buildings. Price increases mean the first instance I am required to travel down the road I take the mature approach of not wanting to “waste my money” and 10 minutes later all exposed areas of my skin are the same shade as Jessica Rabbit’s lips.

It better perhaps to frame the transport as not so much a very expensive bike ride but rather a very cheap Arabic lesson.

*

IgoStreetSixtyNowNearMosque?I ask.

The rickshaw has spluttered up alongside me. Inside is a man about my age, a slight red tinge under his black skin suggesting that he too was suffering from the last of the summer heat. His eyebrows raise themselves at my accent – regularly described as sounding Japanese for reasons I still have yet to figure out – and, after glancing down at my colourful Western clothes, he opts for gesturing with his head that I should hop in.

I foolishly undermine the authority I want my garbled Arabic to carry by asking how much it will cost.

It is a universal rule in a barter economy that you do not ask for the price if you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner. The second rule is if the rickshaw driver quotes you an acceptable price and you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner it is definitely not anywhere near an acceptable price.

Ten” he says, gesturing again.

No! SevenDollarsFinished”

He laughs. No sale.

He is a generous man and anything less would basically be paying me to travel.

Unfortunately I know the third rule. The third rule is that when you are dealing with a rickshaw driver in Sudan and you are a bit Sudanese you may get some success by telling them this.

NoSevenOnly – SudaneseFather!”

He laughs again, though this time he nods his head and we are off, dashing through crossing lights. We pass by the ladies who sit on the edges of empty spaces selling tea and packed restaurants selling too-expensive meat, him eloquently discussing his education and football and the idyllic vision of London he’s seen in films, I replying in my faltering grammar-less speech to the questions I understand.

Khartoum has been described as the world’s largest waiting room – there is a languid atmosphere and meetings start and end late, much to the frustration of foreign workers. But it is homey too, full of people who will fold you gently into their lives and rickshaw drivers who praise every piece of your broken Arabic as if it were great poetry.

The mosque looms near and eventually we reach the point where I can handle over the crumpled note and stumble into the air-conditioned coolness of the living room.

Remember” he says gravely as I slide out of the rickshaw, “you support Hilal now.”