"Fils d'ailleurs", a funny and candid story about life after a big move

SON FROM ELSEWHERE A memory in pieces By Elamine Abdelmahmoud 268 pages. $17. Ballantines Books. As an immigrant child in Kingston, o...


SON FROM ELSEWHERE
A memory in pieces
By Elamine Abdelmahmoud
268 pages. $17. Ballantines Books.

As an immigrant child in Kingston, one of Canada’s whitest cities, Elamin Abdelmahmoud learned fairly quickly that he was black. At first it was news to him: he had spent the first 12 years of his life in Sudan identifying as Arab – as he thought about his identity.

“In my corner of Kingston, the only place I saw Blackness was in the world of hip-hop,” Abdelmahmoud writes in “Son of Elsewhere,” his dynamic collection of essays, or what he calls “a memory in pieces”. But growing up in a conservative Sudanese family, he felt utterly bewildered by Sisqo’s “Thong Song” and Ja Rule’s music videos. He paid close attention to how the Kingstonians around him spoke. “I listened to the rock radio station, because 1) they sounded like the people I was trying to emulate and 2) absolutely no Ja Rule.”

This book is full of confessions like these: funny and candid, delivered in such a generous spirit that almost any reader (even the most devoted Ja Rule fan) is bound to be won over by the story of Abdelmahmoud to try to figure out who he was. In Sudan, his identity was obvious. Her father owned a publishing house in the capital Khartoum, and until the authoritarian government shut it down, the family had a certain social status; they live within earshot of four mosques whose calls to prayer structure the rhythm of their days.

Immigration has changed all that. “Once I arrived, my parents wanted to delicately balance acknowledging our existence in Canada and limiting my exposure to real Canadians,” he writes. Life in a new country brought with it discomforts but also possibilities. Abdelmahmoud began writing professional wrestling fanfiction online, which “gave me permission to write and write and write until I was understood”. Television wrestling extravaganzas offered him an excuse to hang out with his new friends in real life: crack bodies on screen, it was as if no one in the room, not even me, had to think about the fact that I was an immigrant.

Editor for BuzzFeed, Abdelmahmoud knows his cultural references, but he wears them lightly. A Roland Barthes quote slips effortlessly and unassumingly into thoughts of crushes and TV show “The OC” Abdelmahmoud recalls the night in the summer of 1998 when then-President Bill Clinton – brandishing what turned out to be dubious counterterrorism intelligence — bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, decimating Sudan’s supply of malaria drugs: “Cruise missiles aimed at a new source of dignity. Even Frantz Fanon would think that was a bit too much on the nose.

Part of what Abdelmahmoud does in this book is to make room – for joy and discovery, but also for angst and ambivalence. It weaves together some thoughts on Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih’s “The Season of Migration to the North”, which was published in 1966 and has become a touchstone of Arabic literature. The novel tells how being colonized creates the feeling of moving between different worlds without ever feeling at home in any of them. Salih was ultimately celebrated but also flattened, “transformed into the singular image of an author representing Africa”, writes Abdelmahmoud. “Be famousbut in the celebration to be reduced to an understandable identity, stripped of its scope, was a profound irony.

But scope can also present challenges. A tether that’s too tight can leave you feeling suffocated, while not tethering can leave you unmoored. Abdelmahmoud refers to ostinato in music – the repeated pattern that acts as “a guardrail for your emotional experience in every bar of the song”. In Khartoum, his ostinato was the sound of adhān, or the Muslim call to prayer. In Canada, as well as in this book, his unlikely ostinato is Highway 401, the huge thoroughfare that greeted him upon his arrival at Toronto’s Pearson Airport—”when my emotions were high and my confusion was great.” — and drove him to Kingston, a few hours to the east.

The 401 was his “first friend”. He remembers being amazed by its size and speed, a ribbon of asphalt in the landscape, “a geography of grace and chaos”. The 401 took him to visit Niagara Falls and see his first play. The 401 allowed him to travel between worlds – or, to put it another way, to sneak behind his parents’ backs. While living at home while in college, he began dating a woman named Emily, despite his parents’ disapproval. (Whether they objected because she was white or non-Muslim is something Abdelmahmoud does not say entirely clearly.) hundreds of miles away. “I got home in time for dinner, and my parents never suspected a thing.”

Abdelmahmoud and Emily eventually married; her father refused to meet her, let alone attend the wedding. It seems cruel – and perhaps for some people in Abdelmahmoud’s position, unforgivable. But part of growing up is understanding better where your parents came from, with all of their limitations. Abdelmahmoud begins to realize that the restrictions placed on him are not the sum total of who his parents are, although his younger self naturally resents that.

When her father finally apologized two years later, their reconciliation took place at a Wendy’s next to the 401. The freeway is too big to hold a single metaphor; it’s like the “elsewhere” of the title of this vibrant book – neither here nor there, but the “fragile compromise” where these two places meet.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Fils d'ailleurs", a funny and candid story about life after a big move
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