Every other week Rushaa Hamid looks at groups and people grappling with a Sudanese identity outside of the mainstream, publicised one. This week she asks if you can be Sudanese if you think in a language other than Arabic.
These past weeks have been ones of reflection. I will move to another country soon, and each day I practice a little more Dutch and hope that I will shake off the clunky pronunciation imbued in each word. Language is always hard for me, but now – with recent family events spurring me to think about who I want to be – I power through the flaws in my accent. It is in this state that I stumble across a poem by the talented Safia Elhillo and a phrase of hers lodges itself in my mind; “daughters full of all the wrong language”.
That is me, Sudanese with limited Arabic.
Language is often the first sign of culture – it is the way that we articulate ourselves, how we learn to make people laugh or cry, the form in which stories are passed from one generation to another. For children of diaspora language becomes much more complex because it also speaks to a heritage that you may not feel a full part of. There can be both a longing and a resistance to a language that is of their parents, and the two selves those competing languages come to represent.
English is natural to me whilst Arabic is thick and unfamiliar on the tongue, and even attempting some garbled phrases throws me back into feeling like my Sudanese identity is not valid. I can say certain phrases as an unthinking response to stress or joy, but for anything more I have to refer to the beginners guide like every other foreigner, looking for words broken down to rough sounds in English letters. When I was young I resisted learning Arabic. I wanted the language which held promise and Sudan seemed to just be the place you wait to be somewhere else. I became part of that diaspora group with an ear for the words but no voice to reply to them in.
Can you be Sudanese if you think in another language? Rationally I know that Arabic is only one path to Sudaneseness. Before Arabic there were local languages; in my family they spoke Nubian only a few generations back, a language that is now carefully being revived from near death. To claim that only Arabic is essential for being Sudanese in the core is to ignore this part of our history, where language killed other languages in the service of mass communication.
Now that I am older I want to seize all the twitches of Sudanese Arabic. When people congratulate me for not sounding Sudanese as if that is something horrible to avoid I feel sad at that distance from my fellow citizens. I want to speak with the same lilt as my aunt and erase the gap between us where I can only speak to half myself. As I learn more Dutch I fall more into the diaspora longing for home. I want to one day be full of the right words and finally hear my histories the way they were written down.
Rushaa is a (sort of) Sudanese writer whose work appeared in The Independent, BuzzFeed and Dazed. She’s a SOAS University of London alumni and an active member of Al-Mustakbal.
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