When I left Sudan for Saudi Arabia, I was ten. On the day of departure, a small thing happened, the significance of which would only become apparent after many years of living in Jeddah.
That afternoon in 1985, I was sitting on the back of a lorry stationed next to a market in our refugee camp. We were about to leave this remote part of Sudan for good. My mother, who had been working as a servant for a princess in Jeddah for the previous seven years, and had left my siblings and I with our grandmother, had returned to take all of us back with her to Saudi Arabia.
I was leaning against the side of the lorry, motionless, gazing at this place I had come to love, with all its beauty and ugliness, for the last time: taking in the colour of the sand, watching the eagles flying between the sun-kissed thatched huts in the way they always did at this time of the day. My heart vacillated between contrasting emotions: happiness at leaving with my mother, and sadness at leaving my friends and this place where I had learnt to speak silence, my mother tongue. A place that gave me those evenings when, after we had swept the floor and quenched the thirst of the hot ground with cool water, I would sit on my stool and look at the things around me, at people, at faces, at the tree next to our hut, at the insects lurking in and out of darkness, and at the sky.
I heard a bang on the side of the lorry and then my name was called. ‘Sulaiman. Sulaiman.’
I stood up and peered down. It was the girl who lived a few huts away from ours, who I could never say a word to. Everyone talked about how beautiful she was, and maybe this had made my shyness worse. I never thought she had noticed my presence, but now she’d come to say goodbye, and she’d brought a gift for me, a red balloon and a Sudanese pound note. I said thank you and looked at her in silence. As the lorry sped away, she stood still, her thick curly black hair blowing in the wind.
The camp behind her faded, but she grew more prominent in my mind, and, later, in my memory.
Her name was Hayat.
And Hayat’s greatest gift to me would only be realised in the other continent. Because as the lorry journeyed on, as we crossed a river on a wooden boat, as we took one bus to Kassala city and another to Khartoum, as the Saudi plane soared up into the sky over the Red Sea, I hadn’t yet realised that the country I was travelling to was a place where crushes and flirtations were punishable crimes, that I would be growing up in a world of men, removed from the company of the girls who had been my best friends in the camp, that Hayat would be the closest to a person I could call a sweetheart in the many years that followed, and that black beauty, of the kind I grew up surrounded with, wouldn’t only be looked down upon but actively denigrated by Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam.
The plane landed and Jeddah’s airport lounge breathed a cold air that took my breath away. My heart palpitated with the humming sound of the air-conditioners, as my siblings and my mother and I queued at passport control. For the first time in my life I felt like part of a family. All of us were here in one place. Nothing was going to mar this. Not even the Saudi police officer who, as he checked my passport, made a joke about how the night outside matched the colour of my skin. My mother laughed. Seeing the joy in this sound, I joined in. Looking back, I note how tightly I held her hand, as if I was hoping that the officer’s presumption was true, that my night-coloured skin would shield this moment with its impregnable depth of blackness, so that the sun could take its time to rise. But the morning arrived, and my mother broke my heart when she told me that she would not be living with us at the apartment she had rented for the family. She wasn’t only a servant for the princess – she was a live-in servant.
Silence. Zigni wot. Injera. Laughter. Music. Sadness always in between. And in the evening, we watched wrestling on our new TV, and Superfly Snuka, whose high-flying leap off the ring’s top rope reminded me of our camp’s eagles, immediately became my favourite wrestler.
But another heartbreak followed soon after, when school started and I discovered that my blackness was, supposedly, the result of God’s wrath. I found this out when my Saudi teacher, in answer to why Africans were black, said to the class, ‘Because they are the descendants of Ham, cursed by Noah, the prophet of God.’
While some of the Arab students in my classroom smiled and others laughed, as if basking in the validation of God, I went back home that day in tears. I couldn’t sleep for days. I had already been repeatedly called ‘abd, the Arabic word for ‘slave’. But this shook me in a different way. I had loved God so much that back in Sudan I’d even ask my grandmother to take me to the mosque for the first prayer of the day, before dawn, so I could join our Sufi imam in chanting glory. The two of us, accompanied by our oil lamp, would negotiate the pitch-dark valley to get to the worship place. But now I learned that this same God had turned me and my people to a darker shade than the Arabs in an act of rage.
For the following weeks and months, I scoured the newspapers, and the available books in this country of censorship, looking for something that would disprove our teacher’s explanation of my blackness. Nothing. Most of what I found were passages uplifting the Arab race over others, which, to my young mind, justified the rampant abuse of black and South Asian foreign workers in the kingdom I witnessed routinely.
How else to explain that these violations went on in a Kingdom awash in wealth – wealth the Saudis claimed was a blessing of an all-seeing God? The story I’d heard of an Eritrean woman who was punished for accidentally burning a princess’s dress by having her own skin burnt with the same iron? Or the family members who were repeatedly beaten up by their employers? How about my relatives who had been deported back to a war zone in Eritrea without a thought for their safety?
It was because of all these abuses that my family instructed us to never look a Saudi in the eye. The adults around me feared for their lives. I had no one to turn to.
In this closed country we were not part of the global black conversation led by intellectuals like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who sought to shore up the battered confidence of black people. I had to rely on innate human intellect – found in the depth of humans in the same way water is deposited in the belly of the earth – and which was so prevalent in the camp among women who couldn’t read or write. That ability to observe and make conclusions. So I observed the habits of Saudi people closely, and found that they liked a black beauty spot on a face as much as black kohl around a woman’s eyes. Black could be beautiful, but only in small doses.
To possess too much blackness in the way my body did overwhelmed. My teacher’s words wouldn’t leave me: I was a walking curse in this Arab land.
Since nothing created in vengeance is beautiful, I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror. I began to search for beauty outside myself. I roamed the streets of Jeddah in the evenings, moving across it as if the city was a human body, and I was looking for its heart.
The Red Sea, which separated us from Africa, the sea rolling on and off the coastline, became my place of solace. I would sit on a rock, not far from King Fahd’s fountain, and stare at the dark water. Recalling how my breath rose with the waves, how my worries slid away with the retreating water, makes me think of the sea as a poem that listens more than it tells. A poem doesn’t have to be spoken or written, it can be felt in silence too. I learned this on these late, solitary nights by the water.
And among these dark surroundings my imagination flourished. How accurate Emily Dickinson was when she wrote, ‘A wounded deer leaps highest.’ I travelled back in time to Sudan, a land where my blackness was neither eulogized nor disparaged. The spark that guided me through the corridor of the night to my past world was Hayat, and the red balloon she held out to me. Everything about her seemed fresh in my mind. Her face had never changed. It was as if she stood still in a time where tomorrow was like yesterday, and the wind of passion grew in the heat of absence.
Thirty-three years on, I can still recall every feature of her face in detail: the shape of her nose, the depth of her calm gaze, the way her eyebrows arched, her hair so thick as if each strand wove fragments of her rich and multi-layered story in the camp. It was more than her beautiful face that made me keep thinking of Hayat. Everything I was told about my blackness in Saudi Arabia diminished when I was in her presence. Her confidence, even in memory, was infectious. It was as if she was a black hole sucking me away from this society. I was reborn as I lingered in that moment.
To a young mind, longing has the power of shrinking distance, rendering the passage of time irrelevant. It was as if I was back on my stool in the camp, where I knew how to have some pleasures – among woes, cares and troubles – listening to the monotony of life around me, the donkeys braying, the chicken clucking, the cries, the laughter of people like me, people who loved, suffered, gave birth and died. It was this symphony with complex human notes, composed by ordinary people, that endeared me to our refugee camp. I didn’t need reassurances from thinkers or writers to feel beautiful. I just needed to see me. To see the poem in my pores.
And it took years, but it eventually happened when I encountered an instance of black beauty in Jeddah. My grandmother had asked me to go and buy injera from an Eritrean family who had taken the Saudi teachings to heart. A middle-aged woman opened the door and behind her I saw a girl dashing out of view. The next time I was sent to buy injera, I was told the mother wasn’t there and that her daughter would give me the habesha bread. When I buzzed the door, the veiled girl opened it, but she kept her body behind the frame. She only stretched out her hand, which held a white bag. Her slender, black fingers moved me deeply. I stared at this hand dangling in the air in the same way I did at Hayat’s face, in silence.
Her hand had the same effect of seeing the sea in someone’s eyes and falling in love instantly. As I remember this moment, I recall what Fernando Pessoa said about love, that ‘we never love anyone. What we love is the idea we have of someone. It’s our own concept – our own selves – that we love.’
I went home, put the bag in the kitchen and retreated to my bed.
After weeks of thinking about the girl’s hand – how quickly I had taken in its dark complexion, memorized its shape as I memorized my school texts, the small scars on her knuckles, the voyage of veins on her pores as if her hand was a city on which life itself journeyed – sentiment burst out of me in the same way King Fahd’s fountain jets water out of the Red Sea, and I composed my first poem.
I never wrote that poem down. That’s because the feelings this hand evoked in me could not be written. They had no place in a country that censored all feelings and all ideas of love, in a country that taught me to dismiss my blackness as a curse. And to this day, this poem about the black hand, a mirror I finally dared to look into without flinching, is safely tucked deep inside my mind next to many other poems – and next to Hayat’s imposing face, which has survived time, Arab supremacy, repeated exile and age.
Image © Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center