The Tusk Blog

I Start at the Number Two by Salma Omer

I Start at the Number Two.

“Why are you speaking in English? We’re in Sudan – speak Arabic.”

-    Everyone who just doesn’t get it.

 

In my mother’s favourite James Baldwin novel, Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin writes that ‘perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition’. Perhaps he’s right.

The question I used to ask myself, constantly, was this: if I’m a foreigner in one country and a khawajia in another – where was home? It was the small things that used to get under my skin. Things like not willing to die for either one of my homes, not knowing the national anthems of either, knowing the lineage of my ‘adoptive home’ and only knowing a couple of the 20th century president of my ‘ancestral home’. Adoptive or ancestral, my list of grievances and feeling of otherness felt endless. Adoptive and ancestral, even on my best days, my homes could still catch me off guard and chew me up, digesting segments of the temporary comfort I had built for myself.

But I’ve come to know this – I’ve grown up in a society that likes you to choose, and to limit your choice to the dull and lonely number 1. I was being forced to pick one country, get one mortgage on it by investing one income from the one profession I’d enter into – because human beings only have one interest – and so on, continuing on the road of singulars in the hopes of forcing oneness into a woman of dual nationality. To borrow one of the funniest cusses from my motherland:

"قوموا بولوا"

I start at the number two. Sudan and the UK. I start at the number two and keep going. Nothing should limit me; numbers are infinite, no?

 

Realistically...geographically...I cannot be at home in Sudan and the UK equally. But ‘home’ doesn’t confine itself solely to geography. In the more poignant and articulate words of Dr Maya Angelou, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself”. So I try. 

 

*

The smell of Sudan grabs me in a headlock of feels.

Landing in Khartoum after a long stretch away, I

breathe in, breathe out

the familiar smell, carried gently by the warm air.

It is maternal comfort. 

My motherland.

Like the needle of a record player, abruptly being pulled away from its dark disc,

I halt at the top of the stairs,

simultaneously breathing it all in and wriggling out of the headlock

before a passenger behind me pushes me down the stairs.

You know that smell, right?

 

There is no smell like it and there is no place like this.

Drained,

Stretched out,

Flattened, 

Winded.

When I feel like my life’s colours have been reduced to black and white,

I travel to Sudan.

I travel home for life, for colour.

I smell my home from the top of the stairs,

and admire the gold that the sun adorns it with.

The longing to return never really goes away,

does it?

‘Longing’ doesn’t even cut it.

Growing up in another country has left my mouth full of another language,

yet it still doesn’t have the word I’m looking for. 

I need to borrow from the Welsh;

Hiraeth: a mix of longing, nostalgia and yearning for the homeland.

 

Hiraeth for the past.

A past where we used to sit in circles,

closing in on cardamom tea and politics, 

and immersing ourselves in history.

Those days were colour and the nights were rich.

 

Hiraeth for our mothers,

kandaka

who speak of the past with a sadness in their eyes,

looking at old photographs with a stillness in their demeanour.

 

Hiraeth for our fathers,

The fathers of home, the fathers of the opposition.

Fathers who fought across borders, longing to return to the

familiar smell, carried gently by warm air.

 

But what does my hiraeth mean when

my mouth is full of English, useless in Sudan,

and arabic, broken and spoken in an accent?

It means everything.

For all the foreign years I lived

For all the otherness I felt

and the lands I held together with bloodied fingers,

it means everything to me.

*

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Realistically...geographically...I cannot be at home in Sudan and the UK equally. But ‘home’ doesn’t confine itself solely to geography; it’s wherever I am. I carry it with me. To quote Dr Maya Angelou just one more time, “the ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”. The questions may never end, but the most important thing is that I’ve stopped questioning myself. My home stretches 3,067 miles across two continents. I speak arabic in the UK and English in Sudan because I carry my home with me, always. 

 

This is my irrevocable condition. 

 

Salma Omer is a Sudanese-British writer and specialist in international humanitarian law & international criminal law. She is a contributing writer for Elite Daily and blogger.

Read more of her work at sweetstorage.wordpress.com.