This piece has taken me a very long time to write. Not because I didn’t know what to write – though that always has a hand in it – but because I wasn’t sure which version of myself would be present when I finally started. Writing about home, speaking about it, thinking about it, even visualizing it, has always been difficult for me. To ease the internal tension sprouting from this lifelong identity crisis, I’ve resorted to thinking of home as wherever my parents currently live. But now, considering my dad’s pending retirement, I’m having difficulty coming to terms with how my two versions of home may soon coalesce into one permanent but unstable residence. The home where my parents live may soon become, after nearly 35 years abroad, the one where my parents are from. But recently, more and more, that concept scares me. No one wants their loved ones to be unsafe, but what if they choose, by their own volition, to return to that unsafety? Can you stop them? Or can you simply embrace them with your love and prayers, and depend on Allah for their protection?
What if they’re already in the midst of that unsafety? Not my parents, thank Allah – they’re often between Qatar and Kenya – I fear most for my extended family, many of whom are trapped in the thoughtless clashes of two warring egos, in the capital and across other major cities in Sudan. Every time Mama calls and it doesn’t go through, my breathing becomes a little more shallow, my chest constricts with the possibility that it might never connect, or if it does, that we’d have to prepare to hear the worst.
But my people, though I love them in every shape and form, we are often catastrophists – we dramatize our lives, which explains why from our roots have come notable authors of compelling poetry, sensational literature, and impassioned musical compositions. While these thoughts usually put my mind at ease, for over a month now since April 15, 2023, there’s been no need for dramatization. The most violent creative could never envision the violence that would break out, without warning, without mercy, without ease, and with no end in sight. My grandmother finds herself stranded in the countryside, fully capable but entirely without the funds to travel back to her hometown of Port Sudan. My uncle quarantines himself and his wife in their home, stranded in Al-Azhari, an area of Khartoum that sees constant clashes between both sides of the conflict. My namesake aunt goes quiet over the phone as we hear gunshots echoing across the line. Whether it’s from the next street or the next neighborhood over, we do not know – if we can hear it, it’s enough to tell us she isn’t as safe as she could be. And what of her son Sanad, my young cousin, how will these sounds root themselves in his subconscious – as the sounds of war or, we hope, of something less tragic?
But still, their calls are punctuated by praise and gratitude – for safety, provisions, shelter, and Allah. Though the men on the streets clash as if they serve no Higher Being, as if they are fearful of no retribution, our families locked indoors know Allah alone will protect them, as He always has.
“Calling Sudan” is a phrase I grew up with. It was always a good general answer to the question my parents so often received when we were children, “Who are you calling?”, “I’m calling Sudan”. I have only started to ponder upon this phrase, questioning why it was normal to use a term that, in practicality, made no sense at all. How can one call a whole country? Why don’t we ever say we’re calling family? This feels far more impersonal.
Or maybe it’s the most personal, sentimental exhibition of care we can give – when we call family, we call home, we call a country, a society, and a community that we come from. When we “Call Sudan” we do not simply check up on the individual, we ask about their spouse, their kids, their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, neighbors and corner-shop owners. We call our People – a nation’s collective that would thrive in ease but remain resilient and faithful through trials.
The tough skin our ancestral land has formed against the throes of British colonialism carries my people through the trials of the modern world, where some will hate their own enough to draw innocent blood. But only sometimes. And certainly not when I’m calling Khalti Zainab, my youngest maternal aunt, closer in age to my oldest brother than she is to my mother. Calling her is calling my favorite city, Port Sudan, and talking to my favorite dukan (corner store) owner, Ali, and listening to my favorite Imam’s voice, Imam Yusuf, over the Masjid loudspeaker at Taraweh. And calling my maternal grandmother, the last living grandparent on either side of my immediate family, is calling my country, hearing her duaas which are sent up to Allah and rained down upon my people. The kindness and warmth of Sudanese people is testament to the strength of my grandmother’s prayers.
I didn’t know what version of myself would write this, but I’m proud of the version that did it anyway. Despite the hurt and confusion, she used her presence to make my people present.
وَلَا تَهِنُوا۟ وَلَا تَحْزَنُوا۟ وَأَنتُمُ ٱلْأَعْلَوْنَ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ ١٣٩
So do not weaken and do not grieve, and you will be superior if you are [true] believers.
إِن يَمْسَسْكُمْ قَرْحٌۭ فَقَدْ مَسَّ ٱلْقَوْمَ قَرْحٌۭ مِّثْلُهُۥ ۚ وَتِلْكَ ٱلْأَيَّامُ نُدَاوِلُهَا بَيْنَ ٱلنَّاسِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَيَتَّخِذَ مِنكُمْ شُهَدَآءَ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ ١٤٠
If a wound should touch you – there has already touched the [opposing] people a wound similar to it. And these days [of varying conditions] We alternate among the people so that Allāh may make evident those who believe and [may] take to Himself from among you martyrs – and Allāh does not like the wrongdoers –
وَلِيُمَحِّصَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَيَمْحَقَ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ ١٤١
And that Allāh may purify the believers [through trials] and destroy the disbelievers.
أَمْ حَسِبْتُمْ أَن تَدْخُلُوا۟ ٱلْجَنَّةَ وَلَمَّا يَعْلَمِ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ جَـٰهَدُوا۟ مِنكُمْ وَيَعْلَمَ ٱلصَّـٰبِرِينَ ١٤٢
Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while Allāh has not yet made evident those of you who fight in His cause and made evident those who are steadfast?
وَلَقَدْ كُنتُمْ تَمَنَّوْنَ ٱلْمَوْتَ مِن قَبْلِ أَن تَلْقَوْهُ فَقَدْ رَأَيْتُمُوهُ وَأَنتُمْ تَنظُرُونَ ١٤٣
And you had certainly wished for death [i.e., martyrdom] before you encountered it, and you have [now] seen it [before you] while you were looking on.
Iman A. Ismail