Sudan embarrasses me, if I let it

The teddy bear kerfuffle doesn't reflect on me as a Sudanese American.

Last Friday I was walking to a restaurant with two friends when one of them turned to me and said, "Did you hear about those people in Sudan who want to kill that schoolteacher? I saw it on TV, and I immediately thought of you."

Being of Sudanese descent (my father immigrated to the US in the early 1970s), I tend to follow news bites from Sudan; thus I was all too familiar with the recent events. Just that afternoon, running on a treadmill, I had seen television footage of the protesters in Khartoum calling for Gillian Gibbons's execution for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Mohammed."

Like most images of third-world protest, the screaming and sword-waving masses struck me as wild and disorganized. I couldn't believe that people – regardless of their political or religious identities – would become so crazed over something as trivial as a stuffed animal. What nut jobs! What lunatics! What an embarrassment to themselves and their country!

Then I remembered that I was one of them. By blood and heritage, the rioting Sudanese in humid Khartoum and the sweating middle-class yuppie on his treadmill were inextricably linked.

Of course, I didn't explain this mixture of embarrassment and anger to my friend. Instead, I laughed and replied that it was a ridiculous situation, that the protesters were crazy for getting so offended over a teddy bear.

Underneath these words, I think, was an example of the occasional shame and insecurity that come from being an American with familial ties to a country that creates notorious news items. No doubt the children of immigrants from places like Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan understand what I mean.

Growing up, I yearned to be like every other cookie-cutter white kid on the block. By birth and cultural upbringing I was an American like everyone else, yet my Sudanese heritage (so different from the more prevalent Italian, Hispanic, or Asian heritage of my peers) was an exotic beast from which I constantly distanced myself. With its non-Western cultural traditions, its impoverished landscape, and its guttural Arabic tongue, my background was something to be tucked into a box and haphazardly hidden in the storage room of my subconscious.

Only in recent years, as I've made my way in the world, have I begun to embrace my Sudanese heritage and allowed my mind to digest the important role it has played in my personal development over the last three years.

I'm not talking about a conversion to Islam or a decision to live in the land of my fathers; I still live the life of a spoiled iPod-listening young adult and don't know a lick of Arabic.

I'm talking about understanding how to embrace aspects of myself that I might find shameful or that I fear others would find indigestible – how to constructively cope with insecurities, whether cultural, religious, sexual, or political. I've learned that it's possible to be critical about aspects of one's community without necessarily feeling like a traitor – that I can frown upon certain aspects of my country of origin while still affirming, even celebrating, its imprint on my identity.

Though acknowledging unpleasant or disagreeable aspects of my ethnic group, I recognize them as just a meager part of a complex whole; in questioning or calling attention to these aspects, I maintain my autonomy.

There are times, however, when my existential epiphany becomes hard to live by. Case in point being this recent debacle in Khartoum (one that Ms. Gibbons could easily have avoided by not fanning the flames of fundamentalist ignorance from the start). And that was just another in the long list of news horror stories associated with the northern Sudan of my father and my grandfather.

My friend's comment last Friday reminded me that when my friends hear or read about events in Sudan, they think not just of Sudan. They think of me.

It's an unfair association, but one I have come to terms with. Just as the diverse experiences of my 25 years of life make me a poor representative of the Sudanese (and perhaps even Sudanese Americans), so, too, do negative news reports about Sudan make a poor representative of me.

Zak M. Salih lives in Arlington, Va.

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