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.

Back to the Desert

The last time I smelt rain following a storm of dust was five years ago when a whirlwind of sand passed through Khartoum. There is something sweet and comforting in the smell, a small section of yourself you never realised was there beats faster. It is the same kind of remembrance that greets me whenever I carve open pink grapefruit, hurled back to childhood breakfast with my grandmother at her Northampton table.

I’m going back now, running to a country I left in 2010 to learn a language I failed to grasp fully when there.

*

Three weeks ago I turned 23. I feel exceptionally young in some ways, like I’m on the cusp of proper adulthood and soon everything will start to get very serious and so I’m trying to stave off what I envision to be a boring normality. Of course this is ridiculous, normality is by its nature completely fine, but I seem to conceive of it as something a little bit gauche. Adventure, a lot of the time, is only what people think they want.

Anyway I’m 23 and asking a whole lot of questions about where I am in my life, where I want to be in my life and – most importantly – who I am and who I want to say I am. And these are questions I have come to the conclusion that I can’t answer without going back, no matter how briefly, to a place that I will forever find etched into myself. So this is why I find myself, 23 and (just under) three weeks old in Khartoum, Sudan.

Even if I haven’t quite grappled through my complex thoughts about considering myself Sudanese I want to feel closer to it. And everyone here thinks I’m utterly mad; perhaps because I am, perhaps because it is a little strange and offensive to be a white girl trying to find herself and her future path in Africa, but so far it feels right.

For example; things I have remembered this week include aleela means today, bariid means cold, and that bey is with. Things that I have learnt this week include that haguul laek is I’m going to tell you something and agguul laek haiga is a more informal way of saying the same thing, and that masoora which means tap or, alternatively, a person that always says they are going to do something then they don’t do it, must come from the Arabic maa meaning water. I had never twigged because in Sudan water is moya.

I have also learnt that I am masoora*

So far my productive holiday has been spent reconnecting with old friends and family, frustrating them with my incessant new curiosity for the language that I never displayed before. The air feels more attuned to my nature – people like to talk about the quirks of Sudanese Arabic and everyone wants to educate the foreigner (up to a point). Still I have yet to test out willingness to grapple with more ridiculous parts of my discussion tendencies, and whereas before I would have certainly said that Khartoum was home, now I can see just how much I have been altered by the past five years in London.

Home it seems, isn’t just a bout of nostalgia, but where you can feel comfortable in your skin. It’s not fixed to a particular language or a set group of people, but the sense of disease abandoning your body. I haven’t quite got there yet, not with London nor Khartoum.

For now though, the desert is enough.

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*A friend told me this because I turned up at their house at the later end of a time frame I gave. I live in hope that it was a circumstantial description rather than an accurate portrait of my character.