In this essay, Shahinaz Sabeel, a young Sudanese woman who grew up between Sudan, Canada and Uganda, recounts her relationship with her grandfather, an unconventional man and important male figure in her life. Shahinaz narrates how her grandfather fought to maintain his Sudanese identity and remained true to his values at a time when Sudan’s social and cultural identities were disrupted by the rise of militant Islam.
My grandfather, Yassin, and I had an interesting relationship. Although I was not fortunate enough to spend more time with him since he passed away when I was a teenager, I remember him from my childhood as a vibrant man who expected the best for each and every member of his family, including me.
Yassin was the head of a large and loud household. Every morning, he would call me to fetch him his wooden cane before heading to the souk in downtown Khartoum. He used to sell a variety of dry goods, basically anything he could get his hands on in bulk, from cigarettes to bags of rice. To his great regret, he stopped working around his 80th birthday as his declining health forced him to retire. My grandfather was someone constantly on the move who hated to see people idle around him. Coming back from the souk, he would always bring something home for us, whether it was a bag of fresh oranges, chocolate, or sugar. He took his role as a breadwinner seriously even after his five children, including my mother, were all financially independent. My grandfather always made a point of providing for himself and deeply resented the idea that he might need to be looked after or cared for.
Yassin witnessed years of turmoil in Sudan’s recent history – from the early days of independence to the military regime of Jafaar Nimeiri and the steady rise of political Islam.
“While reflecting on his life, I realize that he had to fight hard to maintain his freedom in a country that was profoundly changing. He stood firm on his principles when repressive militant Islam permeated Sudanese society.”
I realise now how lonely he must have felt and truly appreciate his resilience and fighting spirit. My grandfather expressed his religiosity as a Sudanese man, proud of his heritage and culture. Looking back, I am amazed that a man with such a humble background, a farmer and later a bulk goods salesman who never left Sudan, acquired such an emancipated personality. My grandfather always refused to be co-opted or intimidated by anyone, especially religious militants. He made sure that his family experienced the same freedom.
True to his values, my grandfather allowed me to govern my own future by treating me not as an extension of himself but as an autonomous individual. Yassin was exceptional as a Sudanese man in that he did not impose his will and desires on others. He was a well-wishing spectator more than a commander and even at his most intrusive, he would only question my intent, not my abilities.
In a society that still harbours resentment towards the upward mobility of women, this was unusual behaviour, one that was greatly appreciated by the young me who wanted to be free to make childish mud castles, collect rocks, ride bikes, and read dinosaur books.
My grandfather was also, to some extent, a man of his time. Most Sudanese men from his generation seemed to be guided by a similar approach to tribal ethics. They magnified the idea of a communal haven in which freedom had nothing to do with individual liberties, but simply referred to one’s ability to help their people. Only a man who could provide not only for himself but also for those around him was considered truly free.
“My grandfather was one of these men who prided themselves on supporting their households and communities; men who treated all children as their own, and who raised boys to do the same.”
In today’s world where society’s values have shifted over the years, my grandfather’s views might seem idealistic at best. The rise of a more individualistic society, however, never discouraged my grandfather from what seemed to be his ultimate plight – to help, build, uplift and enfranchise his family, his community, and his friends.
However, I must admit that, in spite of his charisma and generosity, I resented my grandfather greatly as a child. At the time, I could not comprehend all the dynamics at play. I was like a fish out of water when coming to Sudan and could only observe with surprise how family members were interacting with each other. I could not understand why older members always went about giving orders and stating facts in such a rigid and dictatorial manor. Certainly, the young were loved, spoiled and admired but many were also burdened with the aspirations and expectations of extended family members. Older relatives often felt entitled to make life-changing decisions on your behalf without consulting you first. However, as I grew older, I had no choice but to accept the dramatic and loud way my relatives communicated their feelings. This was part of family tradition, I assumed!
While visiting and living in Sudan, I also came to realise that expectations were different for boys and girls.
“Sudan, while being a place in which men enjoy an almost limitless degree of freedom, is also a country where women seek the shadows for refuge from the male gaze. It is a place where unhealthy gender relations are cultivated and passed off as traditionalism.”
In this context, my grandfather was one of the only Sudanese men who interacted with me regularly without posing a threat to my personal freedom or stifling my character into an acceptable mold. He was critical but accepting of who I was, helping me to build self-confidence. Even when I felt that I was lagging behind my hard-working peers, his words and smile cheered me up. My grandfather always reminded me of the triviality of life and taught me that the best way to influence others is to lead by example. He saw no reason why one should force him or herself down a path that was not theirs to walk. For him, being free meant being true to yourself. This lesson, as well as many others Yassin taught me, still resonate with me today.
I particularly like to remember another story that happened during Eid. As with most Sudanese families, Eid was always a very important day in our household. My grandfather would go to the market, pick out a lamb healthy enough to feed our bursting household of nine, and shoved it into the backseat of my uncle’s car. I recall the first time I went with him to choose the lamb for slaughter. As a child, I was slightly scared by the idea of being involved in the choosing of the animal to be killed. I watched as my grandfather was going around inquisitively stroking the lambs and checking their teeth and fur. I noticed that he had an eye on a particularly plump one. He took my hand and placed it on the back of the lamb so that I could pet it and asked me if we should bring it home. I inspected the animal further and noticed it was a female. I do not know why but I suddenly began shouting and protesting, demanding that my grandfather find another lamb that was not a female. This story does not suggest in any way that females ought to be spared and males ought to be killed, but, as a I child, all I cared about was that this creature in front of me, as a female, possessed a fragment of my own essence. My grandfather, to my surprise, immediately agreed despite the teasing of my uncle who was laughing at me.
This story might seem trivial but is in fact revealing of relations in Sudanese society.
“The expression of complex emotional issues is disregarded at all levels of society, especially within familial contexts. Attempts by women to express their feelings and opinions are often met with ridicule and distaste.”
The reaction of my grandfather, who took my distress into account, was, in this context, unusual. His understanding and the fact that he regularly made me feel that my opinions were not subsidiary, surely contributed to building my confidence as a young girl. All I ever really wanted was to be heard and taken seriously.
When most people lose a loved one, they look back at the wonderful memories they may have shared with that person. When my grandfather died I could not help but think about his mistakes and what he could have done differently. My grandfather was by no means perfect. He was not perfect as a grandfather, father, or even as a man, but as a human being he was a rare gem in a sea of gravel. He was not particularly wealthy and did not leave us with a bank account full of money or a significant plot of land. Nevertheless, he managed, somehow, to gift all of us with the same resiliency and lust for life. He found his riches in his friends, in his family, in his attitude, in his adventures, and above all in an unapologetic acceptance of who he was at any given moment.
My grandfather vigorously battled any looming shame that thought to penetrate his soul. His attitude, almost narcissistic at times, was rendered necessary by the circumstances. One had to be self-centred to resist the forces that were plunging the country into militancy and isolation. His strength and courage are now guiding my life. My grandfather gave me the will to fight for myself and for my freedoms, and above all, taught me that there is no need to stifle the aspirations of others – self-fulfilment is already challenging enough. He was a man formed under pressure, and one of the very few to blossom in a country that tends to silence diversity. Thank you, grandpa, for fighting for your freedoms while giving us all the strength to seek our own. You will be missed.
Shahinaz Sabeel is a writer of poetry and short fiction. She currently resides in Canada where she is enrolled as a history and political science student at Brock University. Sabeel has been posting her works online since 2014 at: http://justasudanesepoet.blogspot.com.