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.

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

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!

Catching a Rickshaw in the World’s Largest Waiting Room

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

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.” 

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.

____________________________________________________________
*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.

All the Poems I’ve Done

I like writing. I’m lucky enough that I can devote a fair amount of time to it. Mainly I write essays, scripts, and work on longer journalistic pieces, but I also write poetry. I joke this makes me pretentious, but then I also worry that it does actually make me pretentious because WHO DOES POETRY ANYMORE? Poetry is always too linked to years spent in school trying to make Keats mean something to me, but the fact that beauty is eternal and nature is beauty was the only thing that stood out, and I vastly prefer the chaos and harshness of cities.

Poetry is both quicker and slower than I thought it would be when I started. In terms of producing work it often flows out rapidly, in butchered and confusing first drafts that are trimmed and reshaped over weeks. The process to official publication though is quite slow – often it is specified that there will be months before a reply is given and you sit there doubting everything you’ve ever done.

So it is more than just nice to see a poem you’ve written in a independent print publication (Glitterwolf Issue 8: Identity) and it is more than just nice to see one in a fantastic online publication that specialises in producing a poem a day. And I sit and win May 2015 ‘Pick of the Month’ over at Ink, Sweat and Tears – the first they have done – and as part of that I now get to go to a Lunar Poetry workshop and I’ll worry a bit about feeling fraudulent whilst at the same time feeling incredibly acknowledged.

Poetry has slowly become for me a convoluted way of communicating my feelings. Whereas before I used to smash canvases with paint, now I train my fingers to stumble over computer keys (or if I feel like living up to my pretentious style then I drag out my typewriter). I fell into it in December, with the help of what we now jokingly term the ‘Really Small Poetry Society’ when I gated-crashed my friends Marie (@MarieaRoemer) and Adham (@AdhamSmart92) critiquing each others poems on Skype. Hesitantly I began exploring an area of literature I’d never done before and felt deeply lacking confidence in, and with their constant pushing began to see real improvements and sent off submissions.

Right now I’m sitting here trying to figure out an ending to a longer piece I have been working on for the week. In a few days I may find myself reading out loud some of the words I have put to paper. I still feel like I am joking around with this, that eventually it will all come down and I will be thinking Why did I even get myself into this in the first place? Why did I believe I was capable? But then I suppose that you have to try, because I’ve already spent a lot of time not trying and that didn’t do much.

Maybe this will all be a phase. I don’t think it will be, the way that I feel the muscles in my shoulders unclench as I try to put what I see into verbal form. There’s something in the process of learning how to write that seems to clarify parts of me to myself. Yet even if my desire to continue slips away I know that I am learning how to be more at ease of being proud of my creative work; I am glad that I have something to share, and that others see it as valuable to share too. That is the important thing – turning and saying I am a poet without offering caveats.

A Great Fear of the Future

I began writing this essay on the night of the UK 2015 General Election when the Exit Poll came in. I began to wonder where we go from here when everything seems so very gloomy, and it feels like my fate is to be a cliché millennial always wanting more than I deserve. I continued this on the same morning that a friend moved across an ocean and I tried not to cry about the fact that everything is changing very quickly. I am finishing it now as I prepare to move back in with my mother for a short while before I begin my own (altogether shorter) overseas adventure.

*

The UK General Election results show that the Conservatives slash and burn policies can not only maintain interest from the public, but even gather them more support. Or theoretically “more support” since the link between seats and votes is quite tenuous in our first-past-the-post system here. Still the Tories are doing well, and more concerning are the millions who voted for UKIP – a number which would surely be greater under a more representative voting system which did not encourage tactical votes. I have never had the opportunity to live under unrestrained Toryism and now I have triggered a sort of inherited fear. It is like a klaxon has been going off in my head since May 7th: BE WARNED, BAD TIDINGS AHEAD!

It’s a bit absurd since I personally won’t be too badly harmed; in a lot of ways the state was always made for people like me. Yes, I do have aspects and circumstances that can be held against me – my name for starters is not ideal – but overall I have access to a lot of privilege that will allow me to avoid some of the most devastating things that will be happening to our communities over the next five years.

Still we as humans get scared when we don’t have that certain security. It’s why, because I was fortunate enough to be able to, I marched on June 20th to #EndAusterityNow. Obviously it will take more than a march to change government policy, especially a majority government, but it was a way for me to plant my feet down and mark out publicly what I value. Part of the reason I have not joined a political party is that none so far close enough reflects what I treasure to speak for me, so I need to take that responsibility to speak myself.

It is now that we have to accept that a lot of personal decisions feed into the bigger political problem. Without active dissent a majority government is a lot more secure in pushing through proposals that damage us. And in a majority conservative government there is a danger that the entire political conversation will drag to the right, and with it more extreme positions seem less dramatic. If I don’t speak out about bigotry I see, aggressively in my day-to-day life, I let people get away with thinking that I don’t really care. So the personal is political.

Too often actions we want to take get watered down by fears of judgement. Start with the simple notion of shaving off body hair as a woman. Expand that into letting slightly offensive jokes slide because you know that the person isn’t bad.  Feel resentful when someone gets angry with you about something you’ve done that has hurt them. I am not immune to this – I bite my tongue on certain things to keep the peace. Months ago I would have said this allowed me to change things in a more subtle way, and though it has had some impact in some areas I’m starting to come to the view that subtly is a poor weapon against the things that I hate and fear. I need to see this dissociation for what it is – inherently harmful to others. Taking as much action as possible, more than I think I can get away with means that even when things are awful I can be happy with my conduct. This is not just about austerity, but about the whole way society conducts itself.

I am not suddenly going to stop being scared, both of possible retributions for speaking out over different things, and of the future that the country seems to be heading for, but I do have the option to decide which scares me more. Sometimes it will be the first, sometimes the latter. Sometimes I will be resistant to doing certain things because of criticism from those to the right of me, and sometimes it will be those from the left I am concerned with. In general though I am trying to move on from letting other people decide how loud I shout about a system that takes the most vulnerable and hurts them more.

We shape the world in the image of our actions. I want my world to care about those who don’t have all of the extra assurances that I do.

Vitiligo! Buzzfeed! Photodermatology!

So today a piece I’d been working on for a while finally showed its face online. I have had vitiligo, which is an auto-immune disease that results in large white patches developing on your skin. I have the kind where it keeps things fairly symmetrical and it is all over (yes, ALL OVER) my body. When you have such an obvious change to your skin you become a curiosity to people, even when you have the benefit of not being particularly dark in the first place like me. It’s rather personal, but I also think it’s rather good:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/rulo/vitiligo-and-me-how-i-found-peace-after-my-skin-betrayed-me#.oonlPMxQ1

As a side note, for some reason everyone’s first response to “I have a piece about vitiligo on Buzzfeed” is them turning to me and saying “like, with cat gifs?”. Sorry, unfortunately I must disappoint you – there are no cat gifs (or any other kind of gifs) in the piece, and I have no idea why you would think they would be there. If however you like looking at pretty things there are some fantastic illustrations accompanying the piece so you could just consider them as an alternative.