This Sudanese American Life

Hana in the 4th grade, Houston, TX
Hana Baba in the 4th grade, Houston, TX

Exploring faith, race, and Sudanese identities in Black History Month

By Guest Author Hana Baba

ACT 1: African Booty Scratcher

‘Why your mama got that thing on her head? Looks like a Pizza Hut tablecloth.’

I knew I wasn’t like the other Black girls because they made sure I knew. I looked like them, but my mama didn’t. My Strawberry Shortcake metal lunchbox carried the same bologna and cheese sandwich, but never ham. And most significantly, I didn’t talk like them. Something about me was ‘off’. When I was asked why I didn’t eat ham or why my mama ‘dressed like that’, I’d tell them what my parents told me to tell them. I’m from Africa, and eating pork is against my religion. The word ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ would have meant nothing to them. Then, I’d have go into a whole ‘nother explanation of what that was.

Then came the questions: ‘’So does your family live in a hut? Do you have monkeys for pets? Do you live in the jungle?’’ I wasn’t insulted. I think the kids were genuinely curious. They’d never met someone from Africa, and what they did know was jungles and monkeys and huts.

The insults came later. Now, many African immigrant kids will relate to the term ‘African booty scratcher.’ I was called one for the first time in the 3rd grade. I didn’t know what they meant, but I knew it was an insult, signifying I came from a backward, primitive place where people – scratch their booty? I still don’t understand that one. Nor did I understand this meanness from people who looked a lot like me. We had the same skin color, we had the same braids. I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand why that difference meant I’d be an outcast.

ACT 2: Kunafa and Sweet Potato Pie

On the weekends is when we engaged with our Muslim communities. Notice the use of the plural here. That’s because we didn’t have one Muslim community – there were two: the Arabs, and the ‘Brothers and Sisters’ – African Americans. My parents befriended both groups – but it always felt tricky. There was a camaraderie with African African Muslim friends. Brother Mustafa, Sister Wadiah. They called my parents ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. I could hear them discussing Alex Haley’s Roots, Malcolm X, or Muhammad Ali. But, my parents had to speak with them in English, not their mother tongue.

That’s where the Arabs came in. With them, language united us – they’d talk about Arab politics, poetry and literature over my mom’s famous baklava and basboosa.  But the lived experiences in America weren’t common, as with the ‘Brothers and Sisters.’  It felt like two worlds that never really mixed. I don’t recall them all together at our house, or during Muslim gatherings. It was always either or.

Sister Wadiah P. Jones tries on a Sudanese tobe, 1982 Credit: Wadiah P. Jones
Sister Wadiah P. Jones tries on a Sudanese tobe, 1982
Credit: Wadiah P. Jones

At the time, I didn’t realize it, but now I understand my parents were carefully and graciously navigating an untold rift between the two communities. And they were right smack dab in the middle of this complicated intersection – one often fraught with suspicion and racism; Arabs often wanting to ‘teach’ African Americans, and African Americans who felt looked down upon by the Arabs. A rift that, sadly, remains to this day. My parents felt a kinship with both groups. They were ‘safe’ to both groups. We lived in that safe zone.

In the middle of all this – in between the hot kunafas on one hand, and hot sweet potato pies on the other – who was I? WHAT was I? I’m Black. I’m Arabic-speaking. I’m American. But these three parts weren’t jibing together. As my mean school friends suspected, something WAS ‘off’.

My parents must have felt this confusion, because that’s when they decided we would be going to Sudan a LOT more frequently. That a Sudanese identity would blend all these parts of me, of my world. That knowing my family, my lineage, culture and experiencing the warm dirt, hot tea, and the smell of the Nile River – would show me who I am. That seeing my OWN Muslim community was important- the Sufis whirling at Hamad al-Neel, the Prophetic Madeeh sung by men and women, the Mawlid, the sound of the Azan in Sudanese intonation. Experiences through which my identity would be solidified and not ‘majah-jah’, which is a Sudanese word I have yet to find an English translation for. It’s a sense of being neither here nor there. That, my parents decided, would not be my fate.

ACT 3: Back to Africa

Hana Baba with her maternal grandmother, Amouna El-Salahi Credit: Hana Baba
Hana Baba with her maternal grandmother, Amouna El-Salahi
Credit: Hana Baba

The thing I most looked forward to when visiting Sudan was my grandmothers’ houses- these bustling centers of Sudanese life. My paternal grandmother’s house was nicknamed ‘al-mahatta al-wusta’ or ‘central station’ and for good reason – cousins, aunts and uncles coming in and out at varying times brought with them stories and laughter and news of the next wedding to get ready for. The conversation and food were delicious. I counted the days til we’d all meet on Friday, at my maternal grandmother’s house – to eat fresh Nile fish together on a big tray, with cool watermelon to follow for dessert.

Zainab and the Witch, from the book Tales from Sudan by Denys Johnson-Davies Illustration by Mahmoud Seif Al-Islam
Zainab and the Witch, from the book Tales from Sudan by Denys Johnson-Davies
Illustration by Mahmoud Seif Al-Islam

And then there was storytime. My maternal uncle Elbagir is the family storyteller, telling tales handed down generation after generation. These were folk stories with amazing characters:  Shakalota, a witch with only half a body who snatched your face off if you opened the door without asking ‘who is it?’, Fatima Al-Samha, the Beautiful, who the Ghoul wants to eat, the innocent zombie who didn’t know he was dead and wondered why people ran from him. There was horror and suspense and humor.  And the characters were as diverse as Sudan. Sali Faw Hamar  from the Fur Kingdom, Tajooj from the east. And there was always a little ditty in each story that we would memorize.

“Fatma ya Fatma,
Aftahi lay al-Bab ya Fatna
Ana Mohammad akhooki,
Ba3asheeki w baghadeeki
W basaaril layl akhaleeeki.”

“Fatma, oh Fatma,
Open the door Fatma,
I’m Muhammad your brother,
I bring you lunch and dinner,
Then leave you to work in the night.’

Spoiler alert: that is not Muhammad, it’s the Ghoul trying to trick Fatma into opening the door. I got to know Sudan through my uncle’s folk tales. I got to love Sudan through my uncle’s folk tales.

Click on the image to hear a clip from this story – told by Hana Baba.

But, as I mixed with others outside my family, I started to notice and feel something uncomfortably familiar. In casual conversation, people would talk about how someone’s daughter was ugly because she was too dark. Or, more formally, how this girl shouldn’t marry that guy because he has a ‘3irig’, meaning ‘impure lineage’. He was the wrong color. I was thoroughly confused. How can there be racism when we were all the same color? Coming from the US, we talked in school about race because of the multiracial nature of the US, but never did I imagine I’d have to deal with race in Sudan. Confused, I sought explanation from my parents, and learned about a concept that reigns to this day – tribalism. At that the top of the social tribal hierarchy are the ‘Arab’ tribes (lighter skinned, silkier hair, straighter noses), and as you move to the bottom it gets darker and curlier.

Now, I hadn’t been exposed to this because I lived in a bubble. My parents and their families didn’t subscribe to any of this. My father was the family patriarch and always pushed the Islamic ideals of racial equality, quoting the Prophet Muhammad who said ‘there is no difference between an Arab and non Arab except by taqwa (piety)’, and ‘people are as equal as the tooth of a comb’. And he walked the talk. He stood up to family members who objected to marriages because of tribe. My mom’s family were social justice activists. My uncle Elbagir would even change un-PC racist parts of old folk tales: a story called ‘The Seven Slaves’ was changed to ‘The Seven Brothers’.

Students at the Sudanese Association of Northern California’s school Credit: Hana Baba
Students at the Sudanese Association of Northern California’s school
Credit: Hana Baba

To this day, I don’t understand Sudanese tribalism. But, as I immerse my Sudanese American kids in the ‘good’ of our culture, shielding them from the ‘bad and the ugly’, I appreciate that I have a strong legacy to follow in my family and a wise supportive person in my husband. Like my parents, I’m able to navigate Arab, and Black communities, with one stark difference – we now have a sizeable Sudanese community in the US – a benefit my parents didn’t enjoy. We have peers going through the same exploration of identity, and raising kids not as Arab or Black only, but as Sudanese Americans. We have a Sudanese school where we teach Sudan history, geography, music – our kids feel a sense of community.

And with community, comes a stronger identity.

ACT 4: Radio mirror

Hana interviewing Ira Glass of This American LIfe for KALW Credit: Hana Baba
Hana interviewing Ira Glass of This American LIfe for KALW
Credit: Hana Baba

Working in radio also taught me who I am.

Let’s back up. My love of radio started when I was 10. I’d pretend to go sleep,  bring my radio in bed with me and go up and down the dial- the interviews, the features conversations – felt intimate. I didn’t get most of it, but It felt like a story. Later on, In Sudan, I’d spend hours at night trying to get the BBC or Monte Carlo on shortwave. Even the crackling sound of static in between stations was appealing. Radio spoke to me. I knew there was something for me there.

And so began my journey. After an international law degree, I worked at Radio Omdurman. In the US, I studied radio journalism, then worked at Arab and Muslim stations. Some fellowships and internships later, I started reporting for San Francisco’s KALW Public Radio in 2005. From week one, I could feel the impact this job would have on me, because the first story I was assigned was to explore the tensions between African Americans and African immigrants. Straight out the door.

My second story was on the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, and my third was about the Progressive Muslim movement – each of these speaking to a different part of me – Black, immigrant, Muslim. And this year, my African American radio-sista Leila Day and I are excited to be launching a new podcast on Black identity called The Stoop.

I started reporting on Sudanese people and culture. The identity I sought and found. From mental health to wedding traditions to female body image, even soda, radio has allowed me to explore my Sudanese identity, unpack it, and understand its complexities with that same excitement and engagement that my uncle’s stories brought me long ago. I learned about myself through my work.

I do believe radio can bring societal change. Whether it’s an Arab Muslim hearing a story about how an African American Muslim is hurt by their rhetoric, or a Black listener connecting to her Sudani neighbor through a story about music or food, or even a Trump supporter hearing how an immigration ban  may affect her kid’s Sudanese pediatrician – that intimate human connection moves us all in the right direction. And if more of us became journalists, we’d move faster.

And hopefully, in time, young Sudanese American girls like my daughters will never be asked what I was asked 30 years ago –  ‘why your mama got that thing on her head?’

Hana BabaHana Baba is a Sudanese American journalist who hosts and reports for the newsmagazine Crosscurrents at KALW Public Radio in San Francisco, and nationally for NPR and PRI on immigrant communities, religion, and culture. Follow her on Twitter, reach her by email, and find more of her work online.

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