k. eltinaé

I have this running joke with friends that I tell time and know what day of the week it is by staring at my indoor laundry hanger. I count pairs of socks to know if it's Tuesday or Thursday. Watch garments slowly disappearing like memories that over the years I have trapped in a scarf or a shirt or spritz of perfume. I tell them that this fragile and sturdy apparatus that folds up against a wall or behind a door, that carries the weight and water of my memories, standing for hours on end patiently for the sun to smile through my balcony reminds me of the collective reality of immigrants everywhere surviving in exile and abroad.

How does one answer the surprise or shock of a stranger you address in their mother tongue? How, even your knowledge, degrees and accomplishments can never level the playing ground. Who is your mother in their imagination? What does your home look like? Is it a continent or a country or a hut somewhere you walked barefoot and arrived here from? I am only thirty-five and cannot keep count of how many times I have been asked earnestly if I speak African, in casual conversation even Academic settings. Some days I walk into the world and I am heavy with a longing that smells like burning trash in an empty lot on the outskirts of Khartoum, other days I am a leaf trembling on the sidewalk flirting with the traffic of invisibility, with so many stories of survival in a system built for us to stand until we are towed away like noiseless statues clutter nobody will miss. 

As we were leaving my Uncle Rasheed’s home one night, I waved goodbye winking at him while making a gesture with my hands, which I knew would remind him to bring out the remaining popsicles he bought for us whenever we visited. In the driveway my father started the car, as we begged him to wait while he ran back inside to get them. My mother scolded Rasheed for troubling himself and spoiling us when he returned. He smiled at our excited faces as he passed them out, ruffling my hair and chuckling at my mischief.

When we got home my father sat us down in a row on the sofa. He started one of his stories about supernatural djinns who lived in trees at night. I let out a few sighs of boredom as he continued while unravelling his turban making sure to fold it in a way that wouldn’t leave creases, so he could use it again.

That night he told us about a Shepherd from the East of Sudan, who wandered with his flock of sheep to the West, across the plains and mountains until he reached a city called Ad-Damazin. There he met a man at a small lake, where he had paused to bathe himself from the sand and dust of his journey. 

This man saw that the Shepherd was exhausted from his trip and offered him lodging for the night. Together they walked to the neighboring village, as the man introduced him as a visitor to cousins and neighbors and finally his wife and daughter. They slaughtered a lamb, preparing an amazing feast and at night his daughter, dressed in a silk nightgown, brought out the sweet hibiscus tea and dessert. The shepherd was humbled and overwhelmed by their generosity, he kept drinking the sweet date liquor and sipping at the tea, as the daughter poured the rich liquid steadily into his cup without lowering her gaze from him.

The next morning the shepherd returned from the mosque, in a merry mood and donated his flock of sheep to the village. During breakfast he asked for the daughter’s hand in marriage and that afternoon they were wed. Some said the daughter boiled a root, known as the ‘love root’, which would enchant whoever drank from and brewed it. As the men went to the mosque to perform the civil ceremony, the daughter fashioned a small leather pouch and sewed inside it the damp roots she had used in the tea the previous night. For the following twenty years, the planting and harvesting seasons marked his life. He began working alongside his father in law and during that time bore four children with his wife and became a respected member of their community.

Thirty years later, his wife was diagnosed with an incurable disease. On her deathbed she begged her daughter to bury her with the leather pouch, which she hid in a decorative gourd. When she died the following morning, the daughter was so overcome by grief she remembered the pouch only after the car had left to the cemetery.

Wrapping herself in one of her mother’s large headscarves, she ran down the dirt roads of their village, clutching the delicate leather pouch in her palm. She arrived too late, and collapsed at a distance, so the men would not scold her. Her father and other men began leaving the burial site when a neighbor spotted her and motioned to her father. Her father knelt on the floor, offering her his arm to lean against, bewildered by her sobbing face. Her words spluttered like water from a broken pipe and made no sense to him. She handed him the delicate leather pouch, its crumbled casing dissolved the dried roots into dust at their feet. Suddenly her father began yelling in a terrified manner, freeing himself from her, calling out for his sheep, completely disoriented by his daughter’s face, which had become unrecognizable to him.

Some claimed the shepherd lost his mind when his wife died, to protect the honor of his family, but those who were there to witness the spell, as it was broken, told the story of the crazy shepherd who wandered the rest of his days inside the cemetery tending and grazing his imaginary flock of sheep.

My siblings looked up in marvel at my father’s face as he shrugged his shoulders solemnly. I asked him if Uncle Rasheed owned any sheep, which annoyed him. I heard my mother laughing in their bedroom as he sent us off to bed. i

Whenever I am traveling at an airport I experience a panicked sensation, which I cannot define. It is like an illusion my mind plays on itself convincing me that I have left behind something vital, something so monumental, that it justifies fleeing the airport, my flight, and all concrete future plans and returning to nothing.

The logical part of my mind reminds me that I have no keys, that I have already parted with the rooms and smells of the apartment or house. That I have said goodbye to the local people I have shared terraces and queued with at the supermarket. That I have traced each of the jagged concrete steps leading into my home with my bare feet, at least once, and memorized the tiles and rooftops of the neighboring buildings. I walk into the tunnel leading to the plane humming jazz standards to silence my protesting brain.

We would arrive at the airport four hours early on family vacations. In fact we almost always arrived before the airline staff did. My father -with his heavy cartons packaged, tied and labeled with plastic ropes showcasing his deliberate handwriting, full name and address- chatted people up, who appeared with lighter baggage, to see if he could convince them to take on a few of his kilo bearing boxes. My mother scanned the empty seating area, selecting a spot to park her set of modest black suitcases. Squinting her eyes like a gambler at the horse races, awaiting our boarding gate announcement.

I always have a vision of my mother whenever I board airplanes, with her manicured index finger in the air dividing and calculating under her breath, where our seats would be, based on the first few numbers she caught sight of, as we dragged our tired bodies behind her in a disheartened parade.

My mother had a vendetta against air stewardesses. She watched them giggle and joke between themselves with their painted smiles and false monotone voices. When they passed at the mealtime, pausing at each row, my mother made it a point to almost always ask for an impossible fruit juice flavor.

Papaya? Watermelon? Kiwi? she asked, looking on in contempt as the air stewardess shrugged her shoulders, admitting that the juice-world she lived in consisted only of apples and oranges.
Twenty years later, I am living in France slowly learning the routes to the Arabic stores near the neighborhood where I lived in Strasbourg. I almost always pretended to be a non-Arab speaking in French with the cashier. It was only once when my father called that I spoke in Arabic and gave myself away.
Are you Kuwaiti? he asked as he punched up the tahini, and couscous packages. I entertained the idea for a moment but decided it would be too difficult an accent to pull off.
Although I had lived in The Arabian Gulf I decided I would confuse him and end the conversation. I’m Nubian I answered.
He paused, repeating slowly Nubian?
You know the region between Egypt and Sudan. He shook his shoulders and asked me what our currency was called. I awkwardly explained that I had no real connections to my Arabic origins and had lived abroad my entire life .
There is a Sudanese man, who lives here, quite a few of them in fact, but the one I know is the Imam of the Mosque. He buys his groceries here. Leave me your number. Perhaps you can practice your Arabic with him so at least you don’t forget that—
I thought about leaving a fake number but imagined the scene afterwards if I returned and jotted down my phone number deciding I simply wouldn’t answer any random numbers. Of course I forgot and received a phone call the following night from an Adil, who had lived in Strasbourg for fifteen years. He insisted he was quite busy which humored me, as he explained his schedule mentioning the five prayer times at the Mosque, at least fourteen times. We finally decided to meet near a tramway station called Homme de Fer, in the heart of the city.

There I discovered a café, Europ’ Café, which became one of my favorite places in the city, I sat on that terrace and understood what it might have been like to live in the tower of Babel. Except this tower was ornamented by different Arab races each with their distinct accents. I was mesmerized by the Moroccan accents, which melted with the Syrian accents. Lebanese accents bickered with Jordanian accents, as faint Egyptian expressions of joy and anger seasoned the air.

I felt for a moment sitting on that heated terrace that I had slipped into an alternate universe distanced from any and everything related to Alsace, temporarily cured of nostalgia not for those distinct countries but for the blaring of the Lebanese chefs from my mother’s cooking programs. The froth of my cappuccino was perfect and I savored the cinnamon vapor and the scent of the croissant amande waiting to be devoured. As I took my first bite basking in the bliss of its rich flavor I was interrupted by the beady eyes and small figure of a man parking his bicycle with a nasal voice.
You should have waited, this is an overpriced café I know others. He introduced himself as he stared down at my pants and messenger bag, sizing me up.
I watched as he stripped away the layers of his winter jackets shrinking in size like the pit of an olive as the flesh was torn away. I told him superficial things about myself, about my experience teaching at the University of Khartoum. His face lit up as he listened to my crazy stories about Sudan. After a few sips he mentioned,
I haven’t ever seen you at the mosque. You know there is a huge Sudanese community here. I will organize for you to meet them all.
I confessed that I was looking for French friends more than Sudanese ones, to practice my French with. At this he chuckled at me, We all speak French.
I wrapped my croissant in a napkin and shoved it in my coat pocket. He insisted on paying for my cappuccino and decided to show me where the mosque was, and where he lived.
A few streets down he led me into an alley past a few charming houses and pointed up at what from the street appeared to be an attic. That’s my house and that’s the buzzer you ring. I am usually home if I am not at the Mosque. I stood outside what from the outside appeared to be an ordinary building with neat rows of moist plastic slippers in the entrance like captured fish on the bay of a port.

As we walked back to Homme de Fer he told me about his family, the siblings he had left behind, and a few selective anecdotes about his life, which he believed were worth writing about. I listened humored by his descriptions until he paused in front of a Perfumery. Have you been here before?
We walked inside and I tagged behind observing the bored expression of the shop assistant.
He stopped in front of the women’s section. He pulled out a few tester strips and began spraying different nozzles,
My wife would love these, he mumbled to himself. I didn’t know which perfume he was referring to since he kept no order as he sprayed and by then the scents had all overlapped. He walked to the men’s section.
You will love this one he said pointing the cologne straight at my jacket. It was a strong musky scent, something you could smell on your grandfather or uncle when you were a child. One of the lights turned off and we scurried out of the store before the rest followed. Out on the street he cupped both his hands together inhaling and said. I will head back to the mosque now; it was a pleasure meeting you.
We parted with promises to meet again soon.
On the tram I watched an old woman beside me pinch her nose at the strong smell of my coat. She stood up and moved seats, staring at me for the rest of the trip like I was a skunk, or a criminal with a hygiene complex.
Three weeks passed without news from him. I continued my lazy life confined to Esplanada, the university neighborhood where my residence was, buying groceries, books and attending literature classes. One evening as I was about to go get some laundry done, my phone rang. It was Adil. He invited me to come over for a gathering he had organized at his house. I offered excuses at first but he insisted that he had finally managed to gather everyone at his house and that it wasn’t an occasion to miss. He sounded more relaxed on the phone and quite eager so I decided to ignore the pile of laundry and got dressed and took the tram to Homme de Fer.

I made a point to pass by the café and listened to snippets of a few conversations, which added a spring in my foot as I navigated by memory to his house. I found the buzzer and rang once. The front door unlatched and I could hear the voices of a group of people from upstairs as I began to head up the staircase. I was interrupted by Adil’s voice.

Here is the key! From above floated down an old sock, inside it was the key to a second door at the head of the staircase. I walked up until I was greeted by voices and handshakes, smiling friendly men with glassy eyes sipping on what appeared to be coca cola. As I inched closer into the apartment, I realized the sheer number of people inside the small place; a hand motioned for me to enter from inside the dim lit room. It was Adil. He pushed one of the seated guests off of the couch, motioning for me to sit down. I felt awkward as the guest insisted I took his place.
I greeted Adil, watching as he inhaled a massive joint between his fingers. In a corner of the room three boys huddled watching some music video, making comments and slapping each other’s backs.
I listened as he began telling me stories about different things he owned, which hung on the walls or were placed on the dusty shelves of his attic home. He told me about how he had fled Sudan, on a boat, living in different eastern European cities working as a builder, then as an electrician, a jack of all trades who sometimes slept on rooftops of houses he was restoring, on construction sites where drunk teenagers came to urinate after a festive night out.
The smell of the acrid urine, the passionate love affairs he had with different women were so vivid I began to feel I was slipping into his story as he continued recounting his search for a place to settle. Every few minutes, crowds of guests entered the room interrupting him, excusing themselves, eyes bloodshot, promising me that we would have future opportunities to meet and get to know each other.
I wasn’t sure if it was the effect of the hashish that enveloped me, but each of the guests bid farewell referring to Adil by a different name. A few even referred to him as ‘omda’, which is the Arabic word for the mayor. He sensed my confusion, when they had left, explaining by placing five telephones on the small coffee table.

In this city, I am Adil, Amin, Ahmed, Yousif and Abdullah. I go by different names in different neighborhoods. I sell hashish and it is the way of the trade you see, but my given name is Adil.

I smiled at his sophisticated explanation
— And what about omda? —I asked curious about this sixth alter ego.
—Some of the boys refer to me as omda, because I am the oldest Sudanese here in the city, and also because with the money I have earned each month over the past fifteen years, I built the first apartment building in my village, which is named after me. —
—Under which name? — I joked, as he let out a whooping laugh,
—The building of Adil Babiker Abdullah. —

The cold air hit me as I said goodbye at the foot of his door. I missed the last tram and had to walk home.. I walked home fascinated by his personality. I had been so quick to judge him as a religious parrot and was completely stunned by the night’s events, which unveiled the layers of his public and private façades.

Go on, I insist. We are soaking up sun on a terrace, overlooking the Alhambra, her arms bent outwardly as she stretches like a wishbone, hijab fluttering hiding a side of her face.

My first love was Pakastani, a Muslim boy at my junior high school who was blind. I'll never forget the sound his textbooks made one afternoon when his backpack zipper gave way between classes. The crashing followed by an ocean of laughter as he clutched his walking stick as if steading himself in the cruel flooding of it, his backpack gaping in shock as I picked his books off of the floor. I thought everything about him was perfect, his burgundy polo shirt, and the way he smiled when I said mashallah after he recited from memory my favorite surah from the Quran.

    It only lasted a week. I was walking with him to his first class when he surprised me by leaning in so close his lips almost brushed my skin, the moisture of his breath filled me with a warm glow, as my mind debated if what was happening counted as a kiss.
"Is it true," he asked hesitatingly, "are you black?" "Of course" I told him repeating that I was Somali, but that I was muslim just like him. He replied sternly that we couldn't have a future together.

But wait whaat? why did that even matter? I mean wasn't he brown too? our friend tries to rationalize across the table as our gazes lock: it always matters.
I stop by a bakery, and ask for a chocolate elephant ear, known in Spain as a Palmera de Chocolate, a frail puff pastry delight, I privately nicknamed Europe.

—The vanilla one is cheaper— she mentions before punching up the receipt. I watch her wrap it neatly in wax paper supposing I will settle down after dinner and enjoy it with someone. I wait until I am outside, back on the sidewalk and reach for it ripping away the plastic bag. I take apart the packaging biting and chewing chunks off cramming my mouth with pieces I have not

—I’ll have another one, please, — I ask returning this time sounding more urgent.

—Aren’t they wonderful? — she says kindly after she has taken the bill from my hand

—They remind me of my life since I arrived here, — I say dropping noticeable crumbs on the stool opposite her. She fidgets with the braided keychain of the cashier as I head back out onto the street.

Symbol Divider created and used with permission by Hatim Eujayl.
Themes: Premonitions of Bodies, Wounds of Ruptures

Methods: Documenting the Mundane, Fragments

[i]  For another story of Black childhood, see: ONKS: SUCH EMOTION by Bothan A. Botan

k. eltinaé is a Sudanese poet of Nubian descent, raised internationally as a third culture kid. His work has been translated into Arabic, Greek, Farsi and Spanish and has appeared in World Literature Today, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Many Muslim Worlds (Penguin), The African American Review, About Place Journal, Muftah, among others. He is the first place poetry winner of Muftah’s Creative Writing Competition At Home in the World, the winner of The 2019 Beverly Prize for International Literature (Eyewear Publishing) for his debut collection The Moral Judgement of Butterflies (Black Spring Press, London) and is also the winner of the Memorial Reza Abdoh Poetry Prize 2021 from Tofu Ink Press and the co-winner of the 2019 Dignity Not Detention Prize from Poetry International. He is also the author of a children's book, which explores Nubian identity and language titled Sisters of the Water forthcoming from Taras Press, London in 2022. He currently resides in Granada, Spain.

︎ @k.eltinae
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