February 29, 2012

Sudan: On being Different.

Let’s do an exercise for a minute. In the early 2000s, hundreds of Sudanese refugees, mostly boys, were shipped to the US. There have been books written and documentaries made about this. Imagine what it’s like to be thrown into another culture where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, and – most of all – look completely different. How would that feel? To not know how to flush a toilet? To not know that you don’t haggle in stores? To have people stare at you all the time, not only because you look different but because you have no idea what constitutes normalcy in this culture?

I’ll say first that it’s a very different situation for me, as I am here on a work visa with a British expedition and not a refugee. I don’t have quandaries over whether or not I can afford food and medicine, and I know that in a few days I’ll return to the familiarity of my home culture. But the questions still hold. When we first arrived and walked down the street, people stared at us. There are other white people (and Chinese) in Khartoum, but as three girls in Western dress walking down the street, stopping for tea, taking photos of strange new vegetables, and trying to buy groceries, we got a lot of looks. People wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing here, how long we were staying, and do we like the country. One man in a store actually recognized us: he had been on our flight from Cairo. People in the north, to my eyes, look very much like Egyptians with much darker skin, although there are some people, like Omda, who look more central African (and his friends make fun of him for this, calling him a monkey (!!!)). According to Ruth, the northerners don’t think of themselves as “black” (though that’s what box they’d tick on an admission application if they were American) – it’s the southerners who are black. I bet this is data for a whole book, and I really don’t know enough to write about it with confidence. Men wear white galabiyas (or slacks and an Oxford shirt in the cities) and women wear colorful tobes (sort of like a sari? rhymes with robe) with another outfit underneath. It seems more like cultural tradition than religious edict to cover their hair, which is worn in small braids or a twist. The other day some children  came up behind me in the National Museum and touched my hair (the reverse of white people not knowing how to react to African-American natural hair).

The Sudanese word for foreigner is “hawaja”. As I understand it, it has less negative connotations than the Japanese gaijin, and can generally be used in a positive way. Hawaja refers to anyone who doesn’t look Sudanese/Arabic, so it’s used for Asians and South Asians and I assume some Africans as well. In Dongola, there are significantly fewer white people, so we got stared at more often. One man leaned out of a moto-rickshaw and took photos of us with his cell phone. Which is where it started to get strange, as in my culture it’s rude to take pictures of people you don’t know, at least in an obvious way. So it was a little shocking in Sudan. When we drove through small streets in the Land Rover, children would often run up yelling “Hawaja! Hawaja!” Sometimes adults waved at us and yelled it too. Mostly, though, they’d just wave hello. Yesterday, sitting in the car in the Omdurman market near Khartoum, people would come up to the window, look in, and walk away. Today a taxi driver said, “Hawaja! Taxi!” I’m used to it now, but it was strange to have my “foreigner” status pointed out all the time (not that I didn’t realize it – I never blended in. I hardly speak the language and wear pants).

It’s important to note that when people approach us, it’s not in a creepy way. I never feel threatened here.* It’s true that the men take more liberties with Western women than with Sudanese women, but this seems to amount to coming up to us and asking where we’re from, what are our names. And then they go away. (We’ve been told it’s more appropriate to ask directions etc from women so as not to seem provocative. As much as this irks my feminist self, I’m part of a team and don’t want to endanger myself or others just to make a point.) We often have conversations with random women on the street. People want to shake our hands, say hello, and ask if we are enjoying Sudan. They tell us to tell everyone how great it is here, how nice the people are, and it’s really true. Although I feel more different here than in other places where I look odd, here I receive the most positive reactions to being different (the other options, which I haven’t experienced here, being suspicion and saccharine smiles, as in Jordan.)

In Kasura and on the site, I stopped feeling different very quickly. Our workmen were a group of lovely men, all very friendly. They made us feel very much at home despite the language barrier (although I have learned a bunch and can actually convey concepts now!) I think a lot of that is that we were stuck in the same terrible situation – trying to dig holes in extreme wind, only to find them filled up with sand the next morning. We also had some bonding time with the ladies of the village, involving them dressing us up like Egyptian soap opera actors. It’s surprisingly easy to get to know people here despite only a small vocabulary, especially when they are actually such wonderful people. (Note that the excessive makeup was entirely their idea!!!) Ruth had some great henna done as well, except that what they call henna here is actually black hair dye.

As I hope you noticed, I am now back in Khartoum and have only one more “sleep” until the plane. I am so overjoyed to be using a Western toilet and not having to avoid eating foul at every step. I had an amazing shwarma at the same place we went on the first day, and got hibiscus tea from the side of the street. I am, however, very much looking forward to wearing different clothes (the same T-shirt for three months: it’s very soft now) and having thoroughly clean feet. Our flight is at 4:30 am tomorrow; I arrive in London at noon after a layover in Cairo. I then have an extended (18-hour) layover in London, which is enough time to go into town and buy some hard cheese, which I’ve also been missing. Home again, home again, Friday evening!

*Sarah was propositioned by an important man in the village (who wasn’t one of the workers). We all had to protect her by declining invitations to his house. It was a really skeezy situation.

[SH note: I have strong feelings about voluntourism, which is always in the news and NOT what we were doing here, but I can say that I dearly hope anyone who “goes to build houses in Africa” has a similar experience of feeling out of place. It was really helpful for me to have this experience to gain some idea of what it feels like to be in the minority, to be stared at, to be underestimated. It doesn’t begin to cover the immigrant/POC experience of being denied privileges, but it’s a small step towards understanding and supporting friends and colleagues who are different in any way. What I didn’t note in this post is that I couldn’t share with my Sudanese colleagues that I’m Jewish and queer, which wasn’t terribly distressing at the time, but did cause an emotional conflict because I felt like I had to suppress parts of my identity in order to get our work done safely.]

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