A young Sudanese poet has learned that her blog of English-language short stories and poems has the power to transform. Among those who follow her literary work – and many of her readers are Sudanese in the diaspora – she is called the Nubian Queen.
But the Sudan she writes about at NubianQ is new to her.
Najla Salih grew up far from Sudan but hearing the stories her parents told her about her homeland, she fell in love with it. It was from her mother and father that she learned of golden age Sudan, when the country was filled with what she calls “pure states of mind and transparent hearts.”
They were people she thought of as “the type that would go and do their masters and their PhD in England and the States, but would still come back to Sudan to work so that they can better their country”.
After 17 years and a college education in the United States, Salih returned to Sudan last year and discovered a different Sudan, not just the romantic place she knew from summer vacations.
“Whether it’s what you hear on the news or what your parents tell you or what other Sudanese people in the community tell you, usually it’s negative,” Salih says. “So you become so disillusioned by this over-glorified past of older generations.
“Sometimes it leaves you looking at everything as just not good enough: whatever happens in Sudan, that is. So I owed it not only to my parents but also to myself to see Sudan through my own eyes.”
For a year now, the 27-year-old returnee has been traveling and looking at contemporary Sudan. It has enchanted her with all of its complexity.
Salih’s ravaged country
She is subtle in her writing, but she has seen the real Sudan. Here is how on her blog she views her role: “Here to satisfy your hope in better days no matter how ravaged, how unraveled, how hopeless….”
Sudan’s social and political problems need home-grown solutions, she says. Solutions different from those she imagined before coming home.
Watch and listen to Salih read her poetry on TED talk
“I thought I had it figured out basically,” she says. “I come with my background, with my western education and my work ethics and my professionalism …
“For me - at this point and for the past year - I have just basically been observing. I have just been taking in everything that I possibly can and trying to understand”
As a writer, she has learned to use her craft in subtle ways, addressing the societal challenges that face her country with imagery and humor.
“When you want to address an issue… and it may be difficult to talk about. You can’t go about it in a confrontational way.
“If you do that, you’re going to have the other person be on defensive. They won’t bother to listen. They will just ignore you or they will get offended.”
She takes a humorous approach to take the edge off. “It’s a very dry humor. It draws their attention and makes them listen. Then, when they listen and they see the absurdness of it and the wrongness in it, then they take it more easily.”
A reformer’s definition of beauty
Salih says women in Sudan are discouraged from speaking out against gender biases in a predominantly patriarchal, or male-oriented, society.
“They put this idea in girls’ heads that this is something that is very unattractive. It’s not attractive to speak your mind. It’s not attractive to want to talk about what’s going on in Sudan.”
Women in Sudan are expected to only talk about petty things, she says. “What’s happening socially, who wore that, and who did this and who divorced who and who is dating who. It’s just very shallow things.”
Under social pressure, Salih noticed that girls try to conform to social standards of success and beauty. Some are forced to undertake what she calls “detrimental” practices to make themselves appear attractive.
“The fairer you are, the more attractive you’re considered,” Salih says. “The long thick luxurious hair and the curvaceous body.
“They use the whitening cream, and there are shots that you can take. It’s detrimental to their health. And it’s all so that they can conform to the society. So that they can get married and have that wedding.”
The need to conform to traditional Sudan’s sense of physical beauty is a prominent theme on her blog.
“I try to empower. I try to make girls and women feel proud, to feel comfortable in their own skin and - most importantly - to have their own standards.
“It’s alright to have your own standard of beauty and to stand by it and stick to it without feeling guilty or pressured to do other things.”
Salih has learned about the real Sudan, the rich culture and history of the countryside. She says the travel was transformative and she suggests that others do the same. Whether they have lived their entire lives in Sudan or are just visiting, she challenges her readers to travel and learn.
“Not just to stay in Khartoum or whatever city you happen to be in. Just explore Sudan because there is so much.”
The writer has discovered a rich and complex culture, not the idealized version her parents remembered. She wants to make her life in the country she has discovered.
“The more you see, the more you realize that Sudan is worth giving something,” says Salih. In the end, she says, “Sudan is worth it.”