In Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s new memoir, the personal and the political intertwine to create a rich portrait of an immigrant childhood in Canada.Read more: Son of Elsewhere: A memoir about finding home
The night of the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory was a dark but breezy one. There was a power outage, and in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Khartoum, Sudan, a young boy was getting ready to go to bed when a fiery light illuminated the night sky.
It was August 20, 1998, and the explosion was a missile attack as part of Operation Infinite Reach, launched by the Clinton administration against suspected al-Qaeda cells. That night, the bombing destroyed the plant, a modern, one-year-old factory that up to that point had been the main producer of an anti-malaria medication many Sudanese depended on.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud, the young boy who witnessed the operation take place just around the corner from his house, grew up to become a respected journalist and broadcaster in Canada. In a new book, Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, Abdelmahmoud looks back into his childhood and youth in Sudan and Canada to come to terms with the intricate ties between history, tradition, and identity.
Written as a series of interconnected essays, Son of Elsewhere is a poetic, deep, and at times very funny, memoir about growing up between countries and cultures and the long journey a young boy must follow toward self-acceptance.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. At age 12, he moved with his mother to Kingston, Ontario, where his father had settled five years earlier and worked to reunite the family.
Upon his arrival in Canada, Abdelmahmoud went through an initial shock. While in Sudan his identity has been one as a Muslim and an Arab, in Canada, as his older, cool cousin informs him, he will be seen as “Black.” Abdelmahmoud, an accomplished cultural critic today, then provides a fascinating exploration of what “becoming Black” in Canada means.
In Sudan being Black meant being part of the less economically powerful, “several shades darker” South Sudanese population (Abdelmahmoud’s family is mixed Arab and African, as most Northern Sudanese are). In Canada, it meant listening to hip hop and following the cultural clues of artists such as Dr. Dre or Ja Rule. However, hard as he tried, the young Abdelmahmoud could not embrace the culture of hip hop and the version of Blackness it offered, so he spent many years trying to be as far away from that identity as possible.
“In my corner of Kingston,” he writes, “the only place I saw Blackness was in the world of hip hop. And everything about my life in Sudan (religion, private school, wealth—pick one!) told me to run away from that world. So that’s what I did.”
Years later, when asked to write his nicknames on his school yearbook, he proudly listed “Oreo” (Black on the outside, White on the inside) and “Stan,” two names that he felt put him in closer proximity to “whiteness.” Abdelmahmoud dives into this existential inner conflict with honesty and humour, but also backs up his personal experience with illuminating passages about colonialism and racism and how the legacy of these two concepts impacted his search for identity.
Son of Sudan
Before moving to Canada, Abdelmahmoud’s father owned a publishing company in Sudan. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged between the north and the south of the country from 1983 to 2005, he received threats for distributing the official publication of the opposition government, a dark incident a very young Elamin witnessed as he watched TV with his dad one night.
Similar to this telling anecdote, Abdelmahmoud uses many personal experiences and memories as entry points for painting a rich picture of the Sudan he grew up in during the late 1980s and 90s, immersing the reader in the sounds, smells, and political and historical realities of the North African country.
“Adhans were the ostinato of my daily rhythm,” he explains when recollecting his hometown’s many calls to prayers. “The adhan for the Maghrib prayers at sunset meant it was time to come home from playing outside. The adhan for the Isha’ prayers meant there was half an hour before I had to go to bed. You could hear the adhan in every room of the house.”
These sections on Sudanese culture, politics, and history are some of the most fascinating of the book, giving us an insight into a country we seldom hear about in Canadian mainstream news or as part of political or cultural conversations.
The memoir also pays loving tribute to the small, but tight-knit Sudanese community that welcomed Elamin and his family after their arrival. Soon, the local Kingston mosque became a refuge, where the Sudanese, but also a diverse Muslim community welcomed him as one of their own: “[The mosque] was where I met kids with names that were hard to pronounce, like mine,” he explains.
Escaping through pop culture
Despite Abdelmahmoud’s efforts to close the divide between his emerging Canadian identity and the expectation of his more traditional parents, he never quite managed to do it growing up.
As the journalist explains, at the same time he was struggling to find his place in the cultural and racial landscape of Canada, he was fighting a silent battle with his parents who, in an effort to preserve their Sudanese culture, severely restricted their child’s steps towards embracing more liberal, “Canadian” values.
A scene when a 15-year-old Abdelmahmoud is allowed to attend a metal band concert only under the condition that his mother accompany him is a hilarious but poignant illustration of the difficult dance many immigrant children must go through to bridge their parents and their own experience of a new culture.
Abdelmahmoud is the host of Pop Chat and the co-host of Party Lines, two CBC podcasts covering pop culture and politics. Though highly knowledgeable of both subjects, it’s Abdelmahmoud’s love of pop culture that permeates the majority of the essays. Music, TV, and wrestling are all used as prisms through which he reflects on his experience of growing up as an immigrant. Moving constantly through internal and external signifiers of belonging and identity, he finally finds “Elsewhere,” a place uniquely his own.
“I am interested in the constant calculus of how much of yourself to allot to each homeland, and how you navigate the anguish that comes with giving one of them less. This is Elsewhere,” he writes at the beginning of his book. And as Abdelmahmoud describes it, this “elsewhere” is a beautiful place to be.
Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, was published on May 17, 2022, by Penguin Random House Canada.