Friday, November 13, 2015

Don't Tell Me How to Grieve: On grief and loss

Don't tell me how to grieve. You do not understand my loss; you do not feel my pain.

Don't tell me how to grieve.

The loss of a child is unimaginable, the loss of a parent shakes your very existence. He was a baby, they may say. He is in heaven, they soothe. He was of me, you silently reply. He is connected to my soul.

A year or two. A day or two. Maybe younger than the ages you know or define. A butterfly in my womb; he was still, my child. Your parents, they say. Saw you grow, shared your joy. My parents, you say, have been with me all the way. I don't know life without them, I don't understand how to be. In their absence... I am not me. Of course there were fights, slammed doors, angry nights. But there were many, many hugs. Shared meals, shared tears. No success is complete, no triumph crowned without your mother's happy tears and your father standing proud.

Don't tell me not to mourn, don't tell me, life goes on. You don't know my pain, you can't feel my loss.

A grandparent sitting silently, in the corner of the room. His soul, soothes mine, in ways I can't define. Many times we complain, she's too demanding, or he's in pain. And then, one day, their silent presence is deafeningly loud. 

You're left to wonder about the relatives you'll never know and those old stories, Do you think they were true? That random cousin that visited once, What's the relation? You ask. That village they lived in, Where is it now? No one knows or no one cares, they are gone and that is that. 

Don't tell me how to grieve, as I lose my history.
Don't tell me how to grieve a future that will not be. 
I know you mean well, or maybe not. 
Right now, I don't care for I have loss and I have lost.

I've lost comfort or I've lost dreams. I have lost a part of me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Only In Sudan: A Quest for Injera

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

I repeated this to myself over and over while I waited for the stranger to call another stranger to give me directions to a strange place. Not very smart, I know, but I still like to consider Khartoum a relatively safe place where one can go a little off script and come back with a story to tell. So here it is.

Hankering for some tibs firfir and having duly purchased the exotic sounding chili pepper from the Ethiopian church street vendors, all I needed to be on my way to an authentic Ethiopian meal was the injera.

I asked a few people where I could find it and eventually, the answers downsized from the ambiguous “Anywhere” to “Ethiopian places” to a slightly more convenient “Eldeim”. I was given vague directions which I thought I could navigate, having a finite area to work with that did not involve straying too far from my usual route.

I looked up the first location (Souq Eldeim, last left on Street 15 extension) and saw no sign of a market, bustling or otherwise (my bad for not checking Google Maps before I left the office). I then went to the second location (second left turn after El Ghaali Gas Station “right on the road”) and saw nothing. No restaurant, no shop, no nothing. I continued down my usual route and stopped at a place with a sign written in Amharic. Good a place to start as any, I figured. 

Trying to park off the road without disturbing the people waiting in the street for a ride while avoiding scratching my car on the rickshaw that had been flagged down simultaneously by two women was an #OnlyInSudan moment. Moving on, we politely smiled and tried to avoid squashing each other in a me-get-out-of-half-open-door, woman-not-getting-in-rickshaw-without-agreeing-to-price and other-woman-just-wants-out-of-heat-will-pay-rickshaw-anything and normal traffic dance.

We negotiated our way around each other, and I came face to face with “This is all I’m paying” lady. Thinking I had to start somewhere, I asked if she knew where I could find injera and I pointed at the Amharic sign, asking if they sold any. That’s a restaurant? It’s a beauty salon, she said.

“You want injera? Start your car, I’ll take you to a place!” she declared, barely waving away the rickshaw driver who had already welcomed his next fare, the more accommodating shade-seeking lady.

“I’m a fortune teller” she said, “I read coffee and water and other things”.

Bloody hell, I can’t roll my eyes while driving and I don’t know how this is supposed to go. What are the follow-up questions to fortune teller, I wondered.

“You want injera on a Wednesday, that means you have a zaar” and said something about boxes or containers.

“I honestly don’t have any idea what you are talking about.” First of all, I really didn’t (and still don’t) and second of all, I wanted to change the subject – witchcraft, sorcery and possession are really not my forte.

She got the hint and told me that she was looking for a job and was going to give me her phone number. She’d told me her name as soon as she got in the car and directly asked for mine. However tempting it was to say any made up name I could think of, she *had* told me her name – fair’s fair – so I told her mine. This resulted in her punctuating all her sentences with a resounding “Tagreed!” as I cringed with the familiarity of it all.

Names are powerful. We all know that (my buddy even wrote this blogpost on the subject). I remember watching Beauty and the Beast, back in the day and Gabriel never said the name of the child because to give someone your name is to give them power over you. (Yes, I was actually thinking all this in the car, before saying my name out loud). But I gave her my name because in my mind, lying would be worse (I’m pedantic like that).

So, we got to a place after a failed fishing attempt (“I know someone with heart trouble and we need medicine” “Go to the Salam Center – they’re free” which she dismissed with a simple, “Ah!”) before she got out to call the friend that she had come to visit who was going to lead me to the injera place. This is when my litany started.

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

She called her friend and they asked me to stay inside the house while they got the injera for me. Remember? That’s what I set out to buy. Even I had slightly forgotten at that point. I told them that I just needed the directions. Come on in, they insisted, have a cup of coffee. I really need to get back to my kids (bless their hearts for all the alibis and excuses they have given me over the years). It’s really close by, they insisted. Then I can drive there fast and head home, I replied.
They conceded the round.

I got the directions and guess what? The injera lady literally lives on my street! So I went inside her house (wondering for half a second if that was a smart idea), waited amongst a couple of sleeping cats while she poured, folded and bagged the goodies and I went on my merry way.

Lunch was delicious. Alhamdulillah.

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

Yes, she was very helpful. Yes, she got me where I wanted to go. I guess my problem is that I prefer sorcery and possession, or any mention of either, in books and movies. Water? Boxes? Zaar? Kindly maintain a safe distance. Thanks for everything!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ode to Addis: Taggy & Co. Visit Abyssinia

Taggy & Co. Visit Abyssinia: These are my impressions of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which I visited with my family for a few days around August 2014.

The good life is good but the simple life is amazing. 

On vacation, I usually seek basic necessities peppered with creature comforts and a splurge or two. So when I walked into the simple "villa" in Addis, I was a little skeptical.
The metal doors clanged loudly, most of the lights weren't working and the faucets did not respond to a simple command (you had one job). The landlord assured us that the water would be back by lunchtime (like it had gone on an errand) and the "groundskeeper" lady would replace the light bulbs and see to our needs.

Little did we know that in 3 days, we were talking about negotiating purchase of this bungalow that hit our family in all the right places.

The boys were fascinated by the small porch and rocky yard. We asked them to stay away from the overgrown garden but that didn't stop us from gazing at it lovingly, resting our eyes from the harshness of dry Khartoum.

The day we left home, the rains had started in Khartoum, so although it wasn't dry per se, nature remained conspicuously absent. The purpose of this trip to Addis was to reconnect with nature. Not camping or hiking reconnect but tree, grass and the occasional mountain reconnect.

We wanted our family to experience something different from the vicious cycle that was long work days followed by collapsing in our concrete box of an apartment. I wanted the boys to know that life as they know it, is not the definition of life. They needed to understand and appreciate different cultures, different worlds. I hoped that they could see a rainbow.

I am always surprised and offended how visitors and tourists look down on countries they are visiting.
"The food is not edible". Such arrogance! 
A more accurate phrase would be "I was not able to appreciate their cuisine" "It was too spicy for my palate" or something similar. The failing is yours, I assure you. Don't blame the vanilla if you prefer the chocolate.
You don't go to another country to be snide; you go as a guest, behave yourself accordingly. 
I noted how the place smelled different than what I was accustomed to; I assumed we smelled different to them too. Any public transportation system anywhere in the world will confirm that every nation has a particular "scent" so I wouldn't be too smug, my fellow tourist; you smell too.

Then we come to the effortless beauty of Ethiopia. The grace, the languid movement that does not hide the energy within. It's like watching a resting panther. The people move slowly and gracefully but you feel they can start running or break into dance in a heartbeat. 

I would have been more intimidated by the gorgeous physiques that surrounded me, had I believed they were in any way attainable. Seeing as I am not delusional, I absorbed the beauty like any appreciative star gazer.

The faces that surrounded me spoke to me of the heart of Africa, the kingdoms of Abyssinia. Regal, natural and effortless. My husband remarked at the absence of bleached complexions. I replied that they were comfortable within themselves, which is how I would describe the Ethiopia I saw. Unpretentious. Unassuming. Confident. 
They did not need pomp and circumstance so they did not seek it.

Our groundskeeper would leave early in the morning, wearing a crisp white shirt over her tight jeans. A black leather jacket and knit beret for warmth, carrying a compact umbrella for protection against the flash showers and she was ready to go. Her simple "look" will never be achieved by fashionista wannabes the world over.

One of the many tragedies of Sudan is nothing is effortless. Some Sudanese strive for Western culture, others dream of oil riches and the associated trappings and an attitude of discontentment is pervasive.

I absorbed this natural culture, this practical land. The beat up cars spoke to me of a pride not to be found in the shiny modern cars of Khartoum and their crippling installments. The glorious crowns of natural hair reflected a freedom that my flat iron will never give me.

I came across a few unnatural blondes and contrived curls but in my newfound theory these were an attempt to compensate for paunches and love handles. They were still breathtakingly beautiful. Men and women that were not beautiful in a "traditional sense" were still full of grace.

Inexplicably, the beauty and confidence that surrounded me, made me feel beautiful and confident. Like my subconscious had decided that I was looking in reflections. One would assume I would feel inadequate and secure but walking those streets, I too became an African queen.

Oh, Addis. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? What hidden treasure had we stumbled upon? Why were people seeking Atlantis or El Dorado? Addis was home to raw gems that shone in their natural habitat, in a cloudy backdrop of mist and rolling green mountains.

I cannot ignore the beggars that filled the streets. Their hard faces, dull eyes, clothes caked in mud. Their grace was well hidden, buried beneath their hard life and rags. Several were obviously organized, working in tandem. Life in Khartoum taught me what signs to look for when it comes to beggar gangs.

We saw one European man tackle a thief and pry his mobile phone out of the youth's hands. We held our children closer but that scene was probably being replicated in the gentleman's hometown so we did not feel overly threatened.

I felt that we had stumbled upon a magical land that was quaint without being genteel. It reminded me of Zanzibar, which my parents and I had called our second home for a few years.

I know I was looking through tourist goggles, I know the reality of their lives forces them to seek their livelihoods abroad, like us Sudanese and I know that I could never comprehend the challenges they face at a glance. But I wanted to see beauty and peace and serenity and joy and Addis Ababa gave me all that and then some. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you, honor and cherish you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sudan: Murder & Heartache and a forgotten hashtag

I wrote this in April 2014, after the murder of Ali Abaker Musa but it was never published. The recent death of Sumaya Bushra and other victims of the authorities brought this to mind - and I inserted some updates in asterisked parenthesis. The sadness is still relevant even if the news is old. His last Facebook post is dated a year ago tomorrow. May God have mercy on his soul.

#DarfurIsBurning. The ominous hashtag began to appear in my twitter feed in March 2014. English and Arabic posts that grew increasingly alarming.
Observers believe that the source of the conflict comes down to a dispute over resource allocation, in gold rich Darfur. Reports of skirmishes between government forces and pro-government militias surfaced in 2013 and the ongoing conflict is considered an extension of last year’s violence, with no clear end in sight (*The conflict is still raging in 2015 - with still no end in sight).
According to Human Rights Watch and Darfur observers, the “Rapid Support Forces”, the new and improved “Janjaweed” government-backed militia had renewed attacks with warring factions resulting in burnt villages and destruction of infrastructure. This tactic insures that residents will have nothing to return to, leading to the displacement of over 270,000 people since the beginning of 2014 (source OCHA Sudan). Many of them have taken shelter outside the UN Camp in Saraf Omra.

Every day, I was bombarded with news and images of the forgotten conflict. With every word I read and photograph I saw, my heartache would grow. 

During this time our household battled various infections, including measles and mumps – and the sadness around me grew. Every visit to the hospital was a reminder of no healthcare for hundreds of thousands of my countrymen. Every meal on the table reminded me of outstretched hands crowding for “aid”. “Aid” and “relief” are words that imply something supplemental. The people of Darfur had fled with what they could carry. They were not lined up for “relief”; they were lined up for sustenance that could see them through another day.

One photograph composed exclusively of women moved me deeply. The look in their eyes spoke to me of a silent desperation. I doubted these women would even partake of what they were to receive; they would probably rush with their pickings to feed their families. I chided myself that I could not independently verify the date or location of the picture but this image is seared into my brain.

Western media generally refers to Darfur in the past tense. The premise that if George Clooney wasn’t talking about it, it wasn’t really happening. Alas, similar to the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner, the death and destruction that the world heard of in 2003 continues, and the numbers of displaced increases .
The resignation of UNAMID spokesperson, Aicha El Basri, in protest of the UN silence on Darfur confirmed what activists have been saying for years. The UN has failed the people of Darfur.

Dr. Asaad Ali Hassan, political activist, Facebook page portraying Bashir destroying Darfur after tearing South Sudan away.

On March 11th, 2014, University of Khartoum students organized a seminar to raise awareness of the situation of Darfur. In an all too familiar scenario repeated when political rhetoric did not meet the approval of the powers that be, University gates were opened to receive riot police and armed pro-government militia. Ali Abaker Musa, a Third Year Economics student was fatally shot in the process.

Photo from Ali Abakar Facebook page

His death sent out shockwaves, the epicenter his friends and family, outwards towards his fellow colleagues, on to the heart of every parent that sends a child to university not knowing if they will come back alive.

His death reaffirmed the harsh reality that human life was expendable and voices of dissent would be silenced. Last September, we saw images of school students lying in their own blood, reportedly shot dead by pro-government forces, in their school uniforms. Less than a year later, here we are again.

I read of his death late at night and was filled with despair. I grieved as I looked at the graphic images Sudanese social media do not shy away from posting.
On the morning of March 12th 2014, I found my friend crying in the morning. I did not have to ask why. It was clear that we had to go to Ali’s funeral procession. We were carrying too much pain to put on a brave face and carry on living. We wanted to be amongst people who could share the burden so we headed to the Al Sahafa Cemetery.

A plainclothesman approached us as we waited for the funeral procession to arrive. I waved him away as if I had mistaken him for a vendor or beggar. He understood the ruse, as any Sudanese citizen can smell a pro-government henchman a mile away, but he chose to walk away and observe us silently.

We learned that the burial was delayed, as authorities had cordoned off the morgue and reportedly instructed the victim’s family to move the burial site to El Sahafa Cemetery. A location not easy to reach but quite easy for them to monitor.

Another cause of delay was a confrontation between his family and friends and the authorities. The former insisting that Ali would not be hastily sent off in an ambulance, as per official instruction, without the masses that had gathered to accompany him to his final resting place. 

When the envoy carrying Ali Abakar’s body arrived, the funeral procession was heartwarming as tears flowed as freely as prayers mixed with defiant chants (“The death of a student is the death of a nation!” “Freedom, peace and justice; Revolution is the people’s choice!”).

Fellow students spoke lovingly of their fallen comrade, assuring the crowds that Ali knew that he might die so that his people should live. They told us of his dreams of a peaceful and prosperous, united Sudan – that would never be achieved without sacrifice.

In an unprecedented gesture, University professors had come to the funeral, in a clear statement that this time, they would not stand idly by as their students were killed.

Ali Abaker Musa was in his early twenties and had his whole life ahead of him. His death was not the first political discussion gone deadly. This time, what is different is that University of Khartoum students and staff organized protests demanding an investigation into his death and bringing the perpetrator to justice. They also called for a campus free of weapons and armed militia. These demonstrations and demand gave us hope, however unlikely, that the death of Ali Abaker will be the last (*It wasn't).

We share pain in suffering – but we also draw strength from each other. No one is na├»ve enough to believe that the on again off again protests in Sudan will bring about radical change in government policy. This is glaringly obvious as Government rhetoric of political freedoms seems to be synchronized with arbitrary arrests. However, as one by one, people rise to demand their rights, one by one the bricks of the citadel will fall and the dream for a better Sudan, with freedom, peace and justice will become a reality.

On April 21st, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Khartoum decreed that the University’s “Jihadi Units” be disbanded. One small step on the road to a better Sudan and perhaps, one life – or more – saved. (*This never happened and they still exist, in one form or another, in all public universities to this day. Feb. 2015)

Meet the pro-government student militias. They call themselves "Jihadi Units" although they only attack fellow students and anyone that gets in their way. No jihad about it.

This photo from Dr. Ismat Mahmoud Ahmed Facebook page – portrays armed students – not necessarily from these latest incidents – but representative of the norm.

Dr. Asaad Ali Hassan Facebook page captioning this photograph as portraying Pro-Government students.