Searching For the Words to Describe Myself

·11 min read
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm


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I am at a New Year’s party in Abu Dhabi with my cousins, and I feel beautiful, my eyelids painted gold, our hair perfumed and loose. A group of men are eyeing us, and I think, Of course they are. And then a note of Arabic in the air, and then that ugly slur, abeed, which translates to “slave” but is effectively Arabic for the N-word. “The abeed are here,” one man grins to the other, pointing at us.

As a poet, I tell myself that language is my great obsession. But I think what I mean is that precision is my great obsession. I feel most powerful when I can say exactly what I mean, when I can reach for meaning and find the exact words with which to make it. I’ve built worlds for myself this way. But the one place it has always eluded me has been in talking about my own identity, in trying to name it. The larger terms I know: I am Black. I am also from the Arabic-speaking world, but I do not identify, racially, as Arab. I’m still trying to find language to harness the intersection—maybe Arabized African, Arabophone African, something to hold the fact that I am an Arabic speaker, with an identity shaped by this Arabic, but a race independent of it. But these terms do not satisfy me. They do not light up the part of my brain that brightens when I hit the exact word I need to describe something. These terms land on me with a dull thud, a cruel almost.

In terms of origin, my people are Sudanese, but there is no precision to be found in identifying myself in terms of country—the nation-state is the great imprecision of our world. What is less precise than a border? Than a made-up country? Those barriers are fluid, and have been. They are drawn and erased, blurred with the back of a pencil. Sudan was one nation and became two nations, two Sudans, and before it was Sudan, it was many other things by many other names. So that doesn’t help me here either, because there are probably as many disparate Sudanese identities as there are individual Sudanese people. So I am not here to ponder the greater question of how to classify Sudanese people. I am not here to tell you what to call your Sudanese friend or coworker or classmate or whomever. I am trying to find something to call myself.

The name Sudan comes from the Arabic bilad al-sudan,or “land of the Blacks.” The Arabophone person—likely an Arab, which is an identifier I am using here separately from Arabophone, which I use to mean a person of any race who is also a speaker of Arabic—sorry, I could go on a billion tangents here, because there are so many moving parts. Anyway. The Arabophone person who named the country of my origins, in naming it, othered it, racialized its people as not his people. Black people, named by an Arabophone tongue. Sudan, plural of aswad: “black.” Because “Arabness” is in itself so difficult to define as an ethnic or racial identity, there has always been a tension for me around finding community with other Arabophone people, while always being aware—often made aware—of the relative Blackness of my body in those spaces. Shared language, shared elements of culture, shared pang when an Oum Kalthoum song pours from a set of speakers. I find myself often in these communities, among other Arabophone people, but never of them. I am an Arabophone Black person, but I am not Arab—and I think Arab is so often used as shorthand for Arabophone, which creates a conflation between the two identities. Because of the great trauma of the project of Arabization in Sudan, the actual measurable human cost, even in situations where I might be able to pass for Arab, I can’t do it. Won’t.

And even when I think I might be passing, I’m usually not. Here’s a scene that has repeated itself throughout my life: I am in a taxi, or a bodega, or a pizza shop, and I catch a brief note of Arabic in the air. Before the rest of the story can catch up with me, I am struck by a sense of familiarity, of kinship, and find myself reaching out, finding the source of that Arabic and greeting them with my own. Sometimes the person responds in kind, and we have a sweet interaction. But the moment that stays with me is not that moment. It is the moment when I see the surprise register on the speaker’s face, taking in my body and believing it to be in dissonance with the language coming from my mouth. Sometimes they will frame this surprise as what is maybe meant to be a compliment—“Who taught you to speak Arabic like that?” Who taught me, as in who gifted the language to me, because the Blackness of my body signals to this person that the language cannot be mine.

Or sometimes, I immediately identify myself as Sudanese, and experience firsthand the way Sudan and Sudanese people are perceived in the Arab imagination. It’s the same ugly stereotypes that you’d recognize in Western anti-Black racism. “So it’s true that Sudanese people are lazy!” I hear a Saudi girl giggle, almost flirtatiously, to my brother at a party. Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama said during an interview that he believes Sudanese women to be the ugliest in the world. And every Ramadan, on the soap operas out of Egypt, there always seems to be a character in blackface speaking broken Arabic who is meant to be Sudanese. And usually that is the extent of the joke—that they are Sudanese, Black mouths unsuited to the Arabic language, intruders in the space.

The terms we have for race are flimsily constructed to begin with, but I am not here to make the case for dissolving them altogether. I am asking, of language, of myself, to go back in and build more words, more specific ones to accompany the looser ones we already have. The language of Blackness gives me a name for who my people are, the larger global collective I am part of: who I celebrate with, who I seek out in every room, who I mourn with. My question is not about who I belong to, but about my specific name within this collective. I do what I can to identify myself primarily by this belonging, rather than the shared experiences of violence, but my clearest examples for the intersecting identity that is being of Sudanese origin in the United States are the stories of Ahmed Mohamed and Yassin Mohamed (no relation, to my knowledge). You might recognize Ahmed Mohamed’s name from the “clock incident” that catapulted his name and face into the national news conversation in 2015: a 14-year-old boy arrested for bringing a homemade clock to his school in Irving, Texas. Because of his Muslimness and the way his identity was read in that space as being from the Arabic-speaking world, the clock was suspected to be a bomb. Five years later, Yassin Mohamed, a Sudanese-American man experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by a police officer in Atlanta after Yassin threw rocks at the officer, who could have subdued him in a range of other nonlethal ways. In this case, Yassin was read as so many other Black men in such encounters with police have been: imagined to be so dangerous, so physically overpowering, that police officers respond with lethal force despite the many nonlethal alternatives at their disposal. The intersection of my identities also contains the intersecting dangers of anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and Islamophobia (though not all Sudanese people are or identify as Muslim). In searching for a name, I want to name that feeling, too, the one where I line up my hurts and take inventory of the things that keep me in danger until this country I live in, country I was born in, is no longer anti-Black, xenophobic, or Islamophobic. My language. My religion. My Black hand pressed to my Black mouth to keep the tears in.

It is particularly important for me to articulate this now, because I now have a novel for young people. The main character, Nima, is a hyphenated American whose origins are a country not named in the book, but which I base on Sudan. The book’s cover art is a photograph of the Sudanese-Somali ceramicist Dina Nur Satti, a Black woman. But when I hear most people talk about the book, I do not hear them say Black. I hear, “Arab,” “Middle Eastern,” “Brown,” that sort of thing, and the imprecision breaks my heart. For myself, sure, but also for Nima, my protagonist, who spends the whole book trying to figure out what to call herself and where to locate herself, who literally has to fight for her name to become her name.

Nima and I are not Arab, even though we do come from the Arabic-speaking world. We are not Afro-Arabs or Black Arabs, which are terms I sometimes hear used, and whose users I envy for their neatness. But they don’t fit me, because they position Arabness as the identity and Africanness or Blackness as its modifier. They don’t light up that part of my brain, the naming part. Nima and I are Black people with origins in the Arabic-speaking world. We are Arabic-speaking Black people, Arabophone Black people. But my hunger for precision, my ravenous inner dictionary, wants a single term, one word that gives me something to call myself. No matter how hard I work to care for this language, it fails me in that regard, because all the words we have been given to use as identifiers are by design imprecise, a blanket that drapes loosely rather than the perfectly tailored garment I am craving. And because of the very specific intersection I exist in, even that blanket loosens—forgive this chaotic metaphor, but if it’s a blanket for most people, by the time we get to Sudanese identity, it becomes, at best, some sort of tarp. It covers a loose collection of people but does not account for the individual. And look, some Sudanese people do identify as Arab, and I am not here to invalidate that, but neither does their identity as Arab invalidate my identity as non-Arab. Some Sudanese people do not identify as Black, and my identity as Black does not invalidate their choice. What I mean is that we are impossible to make into a monolith, which is perhaps the exact reason that keeps us so hard to pin down into a name.

Blackness is so expansive and holds so many identities within its expanse, and one of those identities is mine, and is my Nima’s. So when she is talked about and the word Arabis used, but the word Black is not, she is erased, and I am returned to that great namelessness, of watching everyone around me get a name except me. Nima is not an autobiographical character, but she contains my intersections, and when she is named as Arab, when she is not named as Black, I feel her being taken away from me. This is the cruelty of my intersection: My work, in the absence of my body, is often read as the work of an Arab person. My body an intruder in the space. I want to carve a space in the language that can hold both of us, fully and exactly. I want to talk about myself precisely. And until I can dig up or make up a term, a single-word name, I will take up space with the loose collection of words I have for now.

Nima and I are Arabophone Black girls, speakers of a sticky English inflected with Arabic, Black girls living in the United States with origins in the Arabic-speaking African country of Sudan. Whatever that makes us, at least now that I’ve written her down, I’ve populated that identity with one more, even if that brings the population up to only two. I believe there are many more of us, but I want room for them to speak for themselves, rather than have me speak imprecisely for them. I think somewhere in the cacophony of all our voices speaking, calling to each other and calling ourselves, it’ll be there—that term, that word, our name.

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