These short summer days I medicate the anxious pre-semester blues in my own peculiar ways. I have been compiling a list of questions to ask my aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends whenever and if ever Allah grants me an opportunity to visit Sudan once again. I wonder about the words and phrases I have learned in Arabic after all these years and if they can stretch wide enough to let me ask them in my own voice and not have to trim off the feeling for the sake of communication.
It is hard to be vulnerable in another language, yet the very act of speaking in front of people who are fluent in the tongue you are trying to harness is one of the most emotionally nudifiying things I have ever done. You sound stupid simply breathing through the flimsy and heavily curated accent you try on, seeming dressed in a culture too big for you; to any observer, you are drowning in it, underwater, unintelligible, unintelligent. Love makes people do crazy things. Crack their teeth on sharp words choke on heavy letters that scrape in their mouth. Love is the length of it all as long and endless as it may seem in the hard times, and as fleeting and stunted as it feels in the best of times.
I once listened to a lecture by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf where he spoke about an advertisement he had watched about a man who fell in love with a French woman, and the lengths the lover went to learn the language of his beloved in case he was to ever speak with her. Shaykh Hamza probed the audience to reflect on our love for God, and what lengths we will go to learn the language He chose to communicate with us, the Holy Quran.
Sometimes, I think my heart is on the verge of explosion and burst itself into a thousand poems for the love I have for my family. One look into my sisters’ faces, one car ride with my mother, a walk with my father, a nighttime conversation in my grandparents’ room– it’s always been the little things.
My father’s stepmother came to visit last summer and I never wanted her to leave. My grandmother took a part of me with her I handed it to her, folded it up and tucked it into the suitcases she lugged across two oceans and a whole Africa to see my face and smell my hair and hold my fathers’ hand at the kitchen table. You place trust in a mother like that, trust even though you feel shame and shyness and fear that you are not recognizable to someone as regal and beautiful and Sudanese as she is. But I trust her with that tender piece of young womanhood I stamped and sent off, and I hope she passed it out to my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and all the people I love but cannot name nor recognize in a photo. I bubble over with something chilling and warm and painful whenever I think about the half of my family I haven’t been able to hold in my arms in nearly a decade.
My uncles don’t know that I cry when I think about their faces every now and again. I rehearse the first conversation I want to have with my aunt when I will arrive over and over when I am driving home from a doctor’s appointment and the road leaves me wishing I could drive all the way to Khartoum.
The questions are many, some simple and others incredibly complicated. I want to know about births and deaths and nicknames and love stories and hairstyles and henna hands and the recipes of a century. I know about the Sudanese recitation of Quran echoing from a mosque on a street, I want to know who of my own is buried underneath the hot ground I caress with my feet. I want to sit by my grandmother’s side and write down every story she lets past her lips and record every prayer she makes and gasp and gasp and gasp and try and swallow the whole of a culture of millions and let it melt through me.
It is passionate and vibrant, the feelings I have for people who may not even know my face. I do not know their favorite colors or funny stories except for childhood tales my father retells once or twice a year. We don’t really know each other, but I love my family with all my heart.
I think about the ways I want to gather up the sounds of my family, pile on as much as my hands and hard drives can carry when we expend ourselves to the very maximum. What lengths for lineage I would leap in a heartbeat! Memorize the laughter, the inflections, the accents, the words they speak in a dialect that is crisp and yet silky in my ear. There are few things as beautiful to my ears as Sudanese Arabic, shuffling its way across the tongues of women who smell like heaven. Everything flows effortlessly from my father’s people and the place they proudly represent: the drape of the toub, the bright and blooming karkade that tinkers in glasses, the cold water of the Nile, the long tresses of a laughing girl who flounce her way past me in the masjid foyer.
I am the daughter of them all, the niece, the cousin, the neighbors’ child, the village heir. My heart slips out of me and gently floats its way over to the hot Sudanese air and swells up with the longing that I think is so strong it could cause an earthquake if I let go of it.
This summer I am studying Arabic for an exam I will take at the start of the semester. The pages of my textbook seem to mock me and I wipe tears from my eyes hoping they don’t cause the type to bleed out over the pages I need to hold onto for dear life. I make another diagram of the verb forms, practice my voweling and try for the love of my family, my lineage, my own distant self, left back a generation and lost somewhere in a continental motherland, to memorize a course’s worth of vocabulary words.
Now and again, a question bobs to the surface of the ocean of thoughts I hold in my head. It is beautiful and important and perhaps to some strange and obvious but it is neither to me. I hit enter and add it to the list. I think about what words I already know in its translation and rehearse them on my tongue. They taste gritty and unbalanced as they trip their way through my mouth and escape sloppy and not at all graceful.
Love is a verb my father says. It requires effort, action, practice. Practice makes perfect I tell myself. Practice makes permanent.
Photo Credits: Maryam Brown, Photo of Founders Hall at Zaytuna College Upper Campus, Berekeley, California. Taken during the Rihla Program 2018 (www.deenintensive.com)