I left Sudan in 1987 – I was 23 years old and the idea of writing was the furthest thing from my mind. I was a Statistics graduate and literature had not been one of my subjects. I read fiction for pleasure, freely and without guidance or recommendation, moving through fulfilling, secret worlds that left me with no urge to write.
The move changed all that. It made me pause and reflect. I was awed by the sharp contrast between Khartoum and London, compelled to comment on the differences in weather and colours; on Islam compared to a secular Christian democracy. Like many of our generation, my husband and I were not sure whether we would return or remain as immigrants in the UK – or move on to a third location. This uncertainty created in me a sense of dislocation. There was homesickness to deal with; cultural confusion and the awkwardness of being Arab in the Europe of the 1990s; the vulnerability of being a practising Muslim and wearing hijab. It was a situation charged with conflict and tension – an atmosphere conducive to writing fiction.
In 2006, I travelled back to Khartoum after seventeen years of absence. I walked down the steps of the aeroplane and waited with the other passengers for the bus to the terminal. It was sunset but the familiar flat landscape was clear, and the sky more spacious than anywhere else, cloudless with a bottom layer of sandy yellow, then blue and darker blue. The low buildings, the dust in the air, the slowness with which everyone moved: this was the start of everything I had missed.
What did I want after being away for so long? Forgiveness or a heroine’s return. Evidence to justify my reasons for leaving? Or incentives to launch an abrupt U-turn, a moving-back-home to pick up where I had left off? Years ago I had nonchalantly swung my baby son on my hip, boarded a British Airways plane and enrolled him at the LSE nursery. So confident was I of returning after my degree, that I had washed his last nappy and hung it to dry in the bathroom, ready to be used again. After seventeen years the cotton was stiff and beige with dust. It almost crunched in my hands. Time to dust off his baby toys and give them away: his tub, his plastic bib; but I kept the congratulations cards with their blue design and the signatures of my old friends.
They said, ‘We know what you look like now, we’ve seen your photo in the papers!’ They laughed with surprise at my three books. ‘Oh you were always the dreamy type. But seriously, Leila, you must get yourself a job!’ They disapproved of the image of me sitting at home. They remembered the only girl in the Statistics Honours class, the one who had annoyed the boys by getting grades higher than them. It was a disappointment that I had let my degree lie fallow, and an embarrassment that all I wanted to do was write.
So I sought out new friends. I met a woman who sold her gold bangles to self-publish her first novel. I met a publisher who despite sanctions and restrictions was keeping his business afloat and despite political repression was keeping himself out of prison. In a reading event at the University of Khartoum, I signed a pirate copy of my collection of stories. It had been blown up to the size of a coffee-table book! Then I signed a stained, worn-out copy of The Translator, dog-eared and with notes on the margins. It had been passed around and poured over. Everything in Sudan was scarce and everything had value.
I found the city changed in predictable but interesting ways. More built-up areas, more congestion, a higher visibility of women in public. Social life seemed to have moved indoors because of the widespread use of air conditioners. My wedding in 1985 had been in my parent’s garden with a tent for the men pitched on the road, now large halls were booked and couples didn’t have to wait for the cooler months in order to get married. People no longer slept on their verandas or received guests on their porch. Khartoum was hotter, everyone explained, with more mosquitoes and flies; less privacy because of the higher buildings next door. The Sudanese were changing their habits. But that particular beauty I had ached for while I was away was still there, still potent, still able to stir me. The same smells of sweat and sandalwood; a dust storm surging through eucalyptus trees. At twilight I looked across the Nile and saw the ferry dock at the island of Tuti. Sky, river, green fields, men in white jellabas, women in coloured tobes and it was like a painting. I had been right to cry over this, I was right to miss this.
Photograph © Mattnic