“Still I found myself glancing at the paintings and then looking at them. “The Potato Eaters.” “The Cornfield with a Lark.” “The Ploughed Field at Auvers.” “The Pear Tree.” Within two minutes—and for the first time in three weeks—I was calm, reassured. Reality had been confirmed.”
John Berger, “The Production of the World,” The Sense of Sight
The first time I read that essay, I was in my 20s. I didn’t know it then, but Berger’s words about how in a moment of profound existential dread, looking at van Gogh’s paintings had helped him find his place in the world again, would resonate for the rest of my life. I too have found solace in art in countless moments in my life, but more than that, Berger’s words have guided me and comforted me when life felt like it had stopped making sense. They tell me that the emotions we experience when confronted with art are real and worth thinking about and living for.
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.
It’s December in the Pacific North West, and I fall asleep to the sound of the rain outside my open window. I breathe in the cool air while my body is warm and protected under the heavy covers. I drift off, and as I move through the sleep cycles and go into the dreaming phase, I fly south across the continent, glide above the Caribbean Sea, and as I reach land, sight the shores of Lake Maracaibo. I move further inland, flying above skyscrapers and darkened arid landscapes until I find myself in my childhood home again.
I have spent twenty-seven winters away from Maracaibo, but at night, lodged deep in my brain, the hippocampus and amygdala are quietly composing dreams that seem to draw from my earliest, most fundamental memories. Given that the hippocampus is the area of the brain that creates memories and the amygdala the place that processes emotions, it seems appropriate that I’m dreaming of the house where I grew up until I was 15.
The house was a large family home in a quiet neighbourhood called “Las Lomas.” The house was brand-new when my parents bought it–they had come of age in the 1970s and, as did most young Venezuelans of their generation, benefited from the extraordinary economic boom the country experienced in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to a historic increase of oil prices. It was a time of abundance and limitless possibilities. New neighbourhoods sprung all over the city, the infant trees, and pristine sidewalks an indication of their newness.
Our house was a generous one-floor, three bedrooms, two bathrooms home. Following the Venezuelan custom, my mom named the house “Agua Blanca”–white water. “Agua Blanca” had a spacious dining room opposite a square, generous kitchen. It had a long, rectangular-shaped formal living room which we used to call “la sala verde” (the green living room), so nicknamed due to the heavy green sofa and chairs my parents had installed there. The front of the house faced a row of similar, newly built houses, each unique enough to break the uniformity of the street. A beautiful lawn, adorned by shrubs and perennials, separated the house from the metal fence and the front sidewalk.
In my dreams, the order of events changes. Invariably, however, the dreams take place at night. Many times, I am in my childhood bedroom looking out the window at the empty, quiet street. I feel the fear of the outside slowly building inside my body. A change of setting. Now I’m in the sala verde, nervously locking the wooded living room door that faces the front garden and the darkened street. At this point, the fear of somebody getting in the house before I manage to lock the door is almost overwhelming.
The fear of being outside at night is one of my earliest memories. I remember hearing the story of how our neighbor, a boy called Junior, had his new bicycle stolen at gunpoint when he went out for a ride. This resulted in our mom and aunt only letting us ride our bicycles on the stretch of sidewalk right in front of the house, back and forth, back and forth as they kept an eye on us from the chairs on the porch.
Like most Venezuelan homes at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, our house had a tall metal fence extending along the front to protect us from intruders and robbers. Ours was white and in the latest fashion: the bars were thin with little spikes in the ends to further discourage anybody from trying to climb it. We had two gates: one large double gate that opened to the outside in the uncovered garage area and another door-size one in the area in front of the porch.
For added protection, my parents bought a thick chain and lock to close the garage gate; its normal locking mechanism was not enough to dissuade somebody from opening it and entering the garage area to steal the car. I remember coming home after dark, from either my grandma’s house or some family outing, and sitting nervously in the car as my mom, my oldest sister, or some other grown-up got out of the car to open the lock and chain so we could enter the uncovered garage. My dad, on the driver’s seat, would stay in the car to quickly drive the car in as soon as the gate was open.
I remember later on being old enough to have to get out of the car and open the gates myself. These moments come back to my dreams frequently. I am either opening the lock from the outside for my mom or dad to drive the car in or nervously closing the lock from the inside after they have driven in and parked the car.
There used to be a secondary school at the end of our street — Colegio Don Simón Rodríguez —, and I see the dark building out of the corner of my eyes to the right. In other dreams, to my horror, I suddenly realize I’m outside of the house looking in, wondering what I’m doing on the sidewalk after dark.
I had my first dream of being outside of my house at night when I was nine or ten. In the dream, I saw myself walking over the polished granite pathway that led to the small metal gate. The street was empty and quiet, the only light coming from the tall streetlamp at the end of the block. In unexplained dream logic, I make my way to a big, city-size empty lot that was just around the corner from our house to the left.
When I arrive, I see a school bus parked in the middle of it. In the distance, I immediately spot a group of young men approaching the bus from the other side of the field. I get on the bus and climb on the roof. The men get closer and as they reach the bus, I jump up towards the night sky, much higher than I could ever jump in real life. The dream ends with me floating down back to the bus in slow motion, my heart booming in my ears from the adrenaline and the fear.
I share the story of my long-time recurrent dreams with my parents and my siblings on our group chat. My entire immediate family–my parents, my siblings, and their spouses and their kids–no longer live in Venezuela. I ask them about their memories of danger while they were still living there. Was it as bad as my dreams make it seem? The answer is mixed.
My mom explains that our house was broken into at least five times. Most of the break-ins happened during the day when we were on a Sunday outing or a short trip. We would come home and find the house in disarray, my parents’ bedroom, a sacred space we were not allowed to enter without permission, clearly violated by the thieves: the mattress partially off the bed, every drawer and closet door open, papers and random objects scattered on the floor. Another time we arrived to find our next-door neighbor pointing a gun at the intruder and a bunch of valuables such as a VHS player and other electronics piled up on a couch.
My dad bristles uncomfortably at the memories; these break-ins were considered an almost normal occurrence at the time, contactless, anonymous crimes that did not end up in violence. He also has the perspective of having lived through much more dangerous times. That’s because starting in the early 2000s through the present day, common crime increased to almost unimaginable levels in Venezuela, in addition to being compounded by the political violence brought about by the dictatorship of Hugo Chávez and then by his even more cruel and authoritarian successor, Nicolás Maduro.
This violence, combined with a catastrophic government-made economic collapse, haunts every corner of Venezuelan civil society today, making it one of the most dangerous countries to live in and visit in Latin America and the world. And as impunity and crime continued to grow for decades, a whole generation of Venezuelan kids grew up never knowing how it feels to move around their cities on foot at night. Grownups have also forgotten that feeling: On one of his first visits to Canada in 2008, my dad asked to walk everywhere at night; he too had lost that privilege long ago.
The truth is, I was never the kind of immigrant to wish I could go back home. I left Venezuela out of my desire, fulfilling a destiny I always knew would come. I loved Maracaibo, but I also couldn’t wait to leave it. Venezuelan society in the 1980s and 1990s was darkly constrictive and conservative, and while I had an extremely happy childhood there, I knew I would never be a happy adult in Venezuela. I refused to live in a country where you were always afraid, not only fearful for your physical safety, but for daring to dream and being yourself. When I first moved to Canada, the pain was in the separation from my family, not in my missing my life in Venezuela.
Still, the heart of an immigrant is complicated. No matter what we do, we carry within us in our tongue and our skin the imprint of the places where we were born. And so I carry within me the Maracaibo sunsets I witnessed with my youngest sister from our bedroom window. I carry within me the tropical flavors of my childhood and youth. A palate exposed to the still fresh, hand-ground corn of the morning mandocas, a sort of sweet and salty deep-fried beignet, can never forget that it has tasted it. A nose that has smelled the Lake Maracaibo breeze announcing the thunderstorm always remembers it.
And while I live the life of a Canadian woman in waking life, at night, my dreams — and my fears — betray the dormant Venezuelan girl in me. I am 46 years old, but in reality, I am a 19-year-old Venezuelan and a 27-year-old Canadian, a mere youngster in either world. So instead of settling into the peace of middle age, I nurture guilt born of the contradiction: Here I am living a fully integrated and happy North American, English-speaking, safe life, while the place where I was born, the place to which I owe my language, my heritage, my cultural imaginary, burns to ashes and languishes into the darkest shadow of what it could have been.
Morning coffee in Venezuela is ritualistic. In my memory, the scent of fresh coffee permeates the still dark kitchen just before sunrise. The quiet conversation between my parents, between my mom and my grandmother, or between uncles and aunts when they were visiting, often revolved around the dreams of the night before. Sitting with their cups close to their faces, they would try to conjure the last remnants of the dream world, before the images and words vanished in the bright morning light, and they would hold on to this non-entirely logical, more magical version of the world for another little while.
I wake up from my dreams of home and try to conjure them in the same way before I can no longer seize them. Laying in bed between wakefulness and sleep, I try to hold on to the fragile magic, to the fragile stage between the past of my dreams and the present of my adult bedroom. And for the briefest of moments, I become whole, as the pieces of me that are Venezuelan and the pieces of me that are Canadian reconcile briefly in a way that I can understand them.
My last visit to Venezuela was in 2004 and as my entire immediate family no longer lives there, I haven’t had to negotiate between the risk of visiting the country with my need to see and support my family members. Still, at least once a month, and sometimes what it feels like once a week, I am there in my dreams. Sometimes I am still a child, but many times I am an adult moving around my childhood home cooking, cleaning, and locking the doors in fear.
Through these dreams, these places are still very much alive in my memory; I have been there, I was there last week, I saw my parents’ room, I cooked in my parents’ kitchen, and I slept in my childhood bed again. What a strange feeling to still know these places so intimately. And given the fragility of memory, of how difficult it is to accurately remember events and places, I am grateful for these dreams that take me home again and again, like a primal umbilical cord that was never cut, like a magical time machine working freely inside of me.
Home is Canada. Home is the woods and the scent of spring rain on the flower beds. Home is my parents, home is my husband and son; my siblings. But home is also the dreams of my childhood in Maracaibo, the memories–and fears–etched deep within the groves of my brain, the cells of my skin, the particles of my soul.
The simultaneity of suffering and peace is one of the cruelest realities of the living condition. How, at the exact same time, somewhere in the same planet, some are going about their daily lives in safety and some are enduring unspeakable horrors. It has always been so, but modernity and its ability for instantaneous communications makes it so much more palpable and cruel.
Sitting in my office in downtown Vancouver, an Excel sheet open in front of me, I daydream: “A fluffy sponge cake. Three layers. Rosewater buttercream. Soak the cake in lemon syrup. Fresh rose petals to decorate. A sprinkle of gold powder on top of the cake to finish.”
For a few minutes, I escape the reality of my job as a researcher and enter a baking fantasy, one of my secret internal worlds. That world, that compartment of my personality, is as much part of me as my name, my hair colour, or the sound of my voice. «Cogito ergo sum», wrote Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” I “bake, therefore I am.” Baking is synonymous with my name and my name is synonymous with baking. We are one.
Sooner or later, our bodies betray us. I said that once in this blog, as the opening line of my post on Michael Haneke’s devastating masterpiece Amour. I still believe that sentence to be true. What I now understand as well is, sooner or later, our minds betray us too.
Today is day seven or ten (I’m not counting), since I stopped taking my depression medication. The reason is vanity. I am convinced that the weight I’ve gained in the last few is due to the medication I started taking five years ago in 2016.
A late 2020 meme or trope has been circulating. It takes issue with people who are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and to welcome 2021. The criticism is that people are placing their hope on a new year as if the pandemic will magically disappear as soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.
Dear reader, I want to ask you, how are you sleeping?
Are you tossing and turning all night long, your mind running over and over the same thoughts? “A statue of a 17 century slave trader was toppled and thrown to the sea.” “The city of Minneapolis has announced it will disband its police force.” “Is this change?? It feels like change.” “My son, his skin is the lightest of browns! How do I start to teach him about the privilege of his skin?”
On and on and on and on for the last two weeks, this is my mind at night. I am a non-black person of colour. My skin is light brown and my hair wavy. I am the product of mestizaje, the mixing of white Spanish Europeans, the native peoples of el Zulia, and black slaves, that took place during the birth of Venezuela. For years I have tried to understand how racism and discrimination based on skin colour and cultural background played a role in my life as an immigrant in Canada. This is not the subject of this reflection.
It’s been a month since the lockdown started in our part of the world. The signs in Canada are that we are making progress in some parts of the country, while others have not seen the worst of their outbreak yet.
It’s a picture that it’s reflected at the personal, individual level as well. Everybody is at a different place in their processing of the pandemic, and it’s important to respect where everybody is at any specific time. That’s why social media can feel even more tonally fragmented than usual, the bakers sharing photos of their goods, the writers and musicians rightfully depressed over the outlook of their industries, the working at home parents discovering the hardships and joys of spending every minute of waking life with their kids, the outrage at the handling of the crisis by some leaders (you know who I’m referring to).