A Cinderella

Hi, my name is Cinderella and I am here to confess that I never actually lived happily ever after.

“When God made this land, he sat back, looked down and laughed.”
– My father

My father chose my name. I always hated it. Whenever my grandmother mocked my culinary skills and told me I am not woman enough because I don’t have a proper woman’s name,  whenever one of my teachers pulled me over and asked “why would your father give you an infidel godless name?”, whenever my father called me to bring him the prayer mat, whenever I heard it, I felt the dissonance. It reminded me of the men from the other side of the river trying to dance to the rhythms of my land, it didn’t fit, it didn’t belong and it didn’t ring the way it was supposed to ring, as if the name didn’t know how to handle this heat, the dust storms or the ugliness, as if it belonged somewhere else.

But I am not here to complain about my name, I am here to tell you my story. And my story starts before I was named, it starts when I was born on the wrong side of the river, the jinxed side that God laughed at when he made. My father was a traveler – well, he never had the money nor the proper identity to actually travel. But in his mind, he was a traveler. He always longed for that other side of the river where – according to him – beauty exists and policemen smile. From that other part of the world, he found my name “Cinderella”. As a child, I never figured out who she was exactly, I imagined her as one of those busty soap opera actresses we get on the pirated satellite TV of my aunt or maybe a policewoman from the other side of the river, the side where police officers smile and some of them are women.

My father died. One of these diseases that only exist in our part of the river, it didn’t really matter. I cried to his memory, I laughed to his memory and I danced – in rhythm – to his memory. Then life went on. In this land, sadness exists in abundance, but no drama.

He left me with my stepmother and her two daughters. I know you expect me to say that they hated me, or I hated them, that they tortured me, put me in this dark wet room with the ugly bony cat, I know you prefer the simple truths, black and white, rich and poor, evil and good, but in this land, people kill in the day and share food at night, they have the most beautiful smiles and the most awful wrath, everything is a shade of gray. That is why I did not hate my stepmother and she did not hate me, I did not love her and she did not love me either, but she was still happy – in her own way – when the rich prince came and the shoe he brought fit my foot.

“Everyone has the right to leave the bitterness behind.”
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It was that time of the year. Rich men who found their way to the other side of the river came back window shopping for their future brides, but this was no ordinary man. He was the prince of the town, the man every mother wished for her daughters. And my stepmother was no exception, she took her daughters every day to his house, showing and advertising their talents and assets. So did all the women of the town.

“He had his sheila in dozens”, I heard them whisper. He had a dozen of each item for his future bride, a dozen of dresses, a dozen of shoes, rings, necklaces, everything, waiting to be his gift of marriage for his bride to be. I wish if I met him – like my father’s Cinderella – in a ball in his palace, but in this part of town, wishes are rarely granted, palaces are not reached and balls are broken away by policemen who don’t smile.

He went door to door looking for the girl of his dreams, the one that fits his shoes and dresses. He picked me to the surprise and shock of my stepmother, step sisters and the whole town. “It’s your breasts not your brains. These perverts love fat ones like you”, my stepmother whispered in my ear then smiled to the guests as she took my hand to the guest room where our families were waiting to bless the wedding to be.

I was happy. Happy that I am leaving, that I will get to cross to the other side of the river and become a princess. Happy to leave the bitterness behind me.

If this story was in a different land, then maybe it would end up here and we would live happily ever after. But it is not in a different land. My prince charming never married me, he left the same way he came, meaningless and vain, but with another wife with a bigger chest. As it is the case with such incidents in my town – which are very common in this season of the year – everyone had a theory about the event. My stepmother sympathized with me which I bitterly hated, not because I despise pity, but because I knew she was defending herself and her own honour from the whispers of the town. She was defending her reputation, defending the fact that we belong, even if we named our children with foreign names from a land where women go to balls to meet their prince charming, where brides don’t necessarily have to be virgins and some of them can actually choose their way. She was fighting the jinx of my name and my father again.

I no longer wanted to stay. My room felt smaller and uglier. The smell of fish from the river was nauseating. The soap opera actresses were flat and unanimated, and all the fake sympathy of the world was not going to be enough to forget the bitterness.

I had to cross the river.

“Haboob: a violent and oppressive wind blowing in summer in Sudan and elsewhere, bringing sand from the desert.”

Every day, I sat by the riverbank. I looked at the other side, it’s close yet very far. I wasn’t the only one looking, if there is anything that unites us in this part of the land, it is that we all wanted to leave, we all don’t belong regardless of our names. Not everyone has the heart to cross the river though, it takes courage, determination and above all, a healthy amount of bitterness.

Many of those who cross the river do come back. They complain about how cold it is on the other side, they complain how – despite the smiling policewomen – people actually didn’t smile that much and some get scared when you smile needlessly at them. I couldn’t comprehend the concept of a needless smile but I was still determined to leave.

So when my fairy godmother appeared in my room that night, when she noticed the sadness in my eyes, I could only think of one wish to ask from her. She warned me that the jinx does not stop on crossing to the other side, it will follow you and drag you back, it will make you long to the rallying cries of the bus boys in a dusty haboob day, long to of the tangled streets of the town, to the dirty children rejected by humanity, even to the screams of the ugly policemen shouting for no reason. She warned me before granting my wish and my papers that “the jinx will not be broken”.

But it did not matter anymore. I had to cross the river, I had to go to where my father baptized me, where he chose I should belong.

I did not say goodbye. I left before midnight before my godmother’s spell was broken. And here I am on the way to my boat, the boat that will take me to the lands of my dreams where I will leave all the bitterness behind. Here I am queuing with the lucky few who have magical godmothers to save them, I am ready to cross the river. The policeman looked at my documents, my sunburnt face that no spell can hide the fact that it belongs to this town. He looked at me, smiled, then asked: “Why a godless name?”

A wait

He was sitting there scared. Despite the fake sense of self-confidence his sunglasses gave, he was completely terrified. He was grateful for the glasses and wondered why he hated them – and the people who wore them – before. They were perfect for him, they hid his panic from the staring eyes of the people in the room. The wait was going to be long, he sensed it and he needed all the help to preserve his cool attitude that day. He could not ruin it.

Andrea helped him choose his clothes that day, she has a good taste, he thought. He knew that she loved him, but he also knew that there was no way he could reciprocate that love. He had to be focused and this whole adventure he was about to embark on, required a great deal of devotion, mental toughness and concentration. Love is a distraction and he – more than anyone – knew the dangers of a distraction. He needed to focus, it was not the time to think about Andrea or any other person, he just needed to play it all in his head in these coming minutes before he was called into the other room, he waited for that day for so long, and now that he had his opportunity, he was not going to ruin it, not for Andrea, not for anyone.

But it was so hard to concentrate. He could still smell her seductive perfume as she came closer to him tying his tie. He could still feel her slender body almost touching his, but not quite. What a tease. He did want to kiss her. He didn’t though, not because he was afraid of starting a new chapter in a hopeless story, but because – in his mind – that was all a training, a test for his toughness and focus. If he could manage the seduction of a woman like Andrea, then nothing on earth could break him down, nothing on the other side of that door could threaten his chances.

He looked down at the bag he had with him. Does anyone realise it’s actually empty? It seemed to fit him, Andrea didn’t approve but he felt like he needed a bag that day. It nicely complemented his glasses and the tie, the whole look he had for that important day. And like the sunglasses that hid the doubts in his eyes, the bag made him walk more confidently, as if it balanced his steps that would otherwise be inclined towards the left and he can not be seen as a leftist, not today at least. He smiled at the thought, it was a clever one and he definitely needed some of that intelligence in the other room. But more importantly of course, he needed the self-assured look, the toughness and a slight inclination to the right. He smiled again.

He started thinking about the uncomfortable chair. It must be a test, he thought, a way for them to test his resilience. He wanted to move to the sofa in front, it must be more comfortable, but he can’t show any sign of being hesitant. That’s the only thing they wouldn’t tolerate. He wished if Andrea was there with him right now then dismissed the thought quickly and cursed that seductive perfume.

There was no sound coming from the other room and none coming from the big window facing him. Absolute silence. He started humming some jazz tunes in his head, to entertain himself and ease the pressure. He looked at his watch and he could swear the clock went backwards. That jazz tune was his favourite, the first time he listened to it was with …. Damn … Focus, now, focus.

He started thinking about the other room, he wished if he came earlier to get done with this whole matter. Nothing in life is worse than anticipation. He wondered what was behind the door? how many people? how come people go in and never return back? Do they have a backdoor? Are they wearing sunglasses too? He felt thirsty, and although he was told where he could get some water, he chose to wait. He was afraid that if he got up, then he wouldn’t be able to recollect the confident appearance he worked so hard on building.  He didn’t really need the water. Resilience, remember, resilience, he told himself. And anyhow, few more minutes and the wait would be over. Maybe just kill the minutes thinking about that perfume..


He then saw the cord in front of him. It must have been there since he sat down, but he didn’t notice it for some reason. He started rolling the heel of his shoe on the cord, then got his other foot underneath it. He wondered whether he could make a knot around his leg using only his other foot. He started playing with the cord, pushing it with one foot against the other leg. Just a simple knot, he thought, it would be much easier if he could take off those uncomfortable shoes he had today. He kept trying, after all it was a better training for his resilience than letting his mind wander about Andrea and her perfume. He kept trying until he finally managed to get the wire around his leg, and then skilfully getting its tip between his other leg and the other side of the cord to form a knot. Then he used the chair leg to get a grip and assist him with making the knot tighter. And he did it. But then he realised that his two legs were tied, somehow. He didn’t quite understand how he got himself into that situation, knots were not his strongest suite admittedly. He could use his hands to get out of the problem, but now it was a matter of pride, it was no longer a game and he had to do it using only his feet. These were the rules after all. He started shaking his two legs and rubbing them in different directions to ease the knot and have some room for manipulating the cord but the more he shook his legs, the tighter the knot got. He wasn’t about to give up or resign though, resilience is what he’s known for, and more importantly, what would the men in the other room think if he couldn’t get himself out of a simple problem like that. As he was getting more and more consumed by his cord dilemma, the door was finally open and a gentleman called his name, once, twice, thrice … He finally looked up with exasperation, slowly took off his glasses and said: Can’t you see I am busy now?

The dancing cannibal

Grab life by the horns and dance your way through it. This line is how he convinced me to meet him, I was reluctant at the beginning, it was one thing to chat with him in the cosiness and security of a virtual world, and another to meet him in the real one. I asked him if he’s going to cut me into pieces and eat me for dinner; he said, only after the third date. And here I am, telling you my story, torn into pieces in his bed, lying by his side and feeling life in my veins for the first time.

Our deal was clear. He wanted to eat me. He told me how he ate the women he loved, that this the highest form of passion and union that anyone can ask for. He mentioned that he still has the heart of his last lover, and that he eats small parts of it every now and then to reignite their love. He doesn’t call himself a cannibal, it’s a crude word, he says, it has a judgmental tone to a civilized act of selfless passion, an act that only the purest of us will experience.

His charm is not the type that you stumble on from the first glance. He is tall, muscular and dark, probably had his good days look-wise, but age put his stamp on him, a beer belly, unflattering wrinkles and an unmistakable roughness. He is not particularly talkative either, and besides the women he ate, he did not have many good stories to tell. He does talk lively though, and he has a fiery look that burns under the skin when he speaks. That fire is what made me go back for a second time, after all, I trusted that I would be safe until the third date, and I was somehow hoping that there is more to that fire.

It was on the second date, when we danced, that I let my guards down. He knew his salsa. It ran in his blood, he walked it, smelled it, lived it. Every movement had a meaning, our bodies did not touch, they connected, mellowed together in an act of complete surrender from my side and complete control from his. I haven’t been there before but I knew where I was heading. His wrinkles were beautiful all of a sudden, I strived for his roughness and his look didn’t just burn under my skin, it undressed my soul, left her vulnerable and intoxicated.

He told me from the beginning that he thrives for the ultimate dance, the one where bodies are sacrificed in the most unequivocal form of love, a form that elevates the soul, that disdains time, society and prejudices. A form that doesn’t die.  My charming cannibal salsero! I thought, any reluctance I had to follow him to the end was forgotten after that first dance. What he was offering me was not death, it was rebirth in a superior state, a state that I never knew it exists, until I danced with him and allowed our two souls to touch. I knew what I was heading to and I did not just accept it, I longed for it.

That night, he took me to his home. He gave me a taste of his last lover. A piece of her heart. It tastes like love, he said. It doesn’t, I wanted to reply, it tastes like envy.

Then I was in his bed, I almost reached and touched my soul but I wasn’t there yet. We both knew that that was not the ultimate dance, not even close. We both knew that on our next date, the third one, my body would cease to exist, and when I reach with my hands, I will be able to touch my soul, and that she would be rosy, beautiful, feminine and divine.

I yearned for that third date. It was the right thing to do; after all, bodies are temporary luxuries, they are meant to expire. It’s words, dances and souls that live forever. He was not taking my body, he was handing me my soul, he was handing me a reason to exist and never stop again.

And now it was the third date. I was trembling in excitement and anticipation. It didn’t matter what I wore or how I looked, this was not a journey to the materialistic. Our bodies were just means to achieve a higher destination, all we really needed was that soulful music that I can now feel tickling my veins. We danced as if it was our last dance. Then we danced again. We didn’t kiss because kisses are sad and sadness is out of tune with the journey we were about to take. Our bodies melted together, unified, ecstatic and certain. And as the blood started to become agitated in our perishable bodies, we started to see the climax at the end of a dark alley. I saw the light and I knew that he did as well. I reached for the pinnacle, our bodies behind us, our souls liberated, then I put my hands firmly around his neck, and I took him with me. He smiled, thanked me with his eyes, and happily handed me his body and soul.

Love in the time of malaria

Remember that morning when I woke up and stopped loving you? Remember how we made love the night before and that I kissed you goodnight and I told you that I love you. And I meant it. Then we slept, and something happened.

That night, I had a dream. I was a little boy clinging to the tip of my sick mother’s dress. My older brothers moved the bed outside in the backyard because it was one of those unbearable hot summer evenings. The branches of the trees looked colourless and didn’t move, as if some artist drew them in a hurry on that reddish sky background then ran away from the heat. The smell of a sandstorm was still hanging in the air, as usual. The whole scene was usual except that my mother wouldn’t tell me the story of beautiful Fatma before sleeping, and that my brothers were gathering on the side with a look on their eyes that I was too young to identify as sadness.

That night, you also had a dream. You were a dress, a beautiful dress with all the vibrant soulful African colours. And you were worn by this beautiful lady who immersed you and her children and everyone around with love. A love that defeated the sandstorms and the malaria. You liked being the dress, you liked how you could bend the rules to make your lady look feminine and seductive. You liked how you got so hot under the cruel sun and how that got the blood boiling in your veins, how it made you feel free.

But dreams are tricky. Especially children’s dreams. My mother kept telling us beautiful Fatma’s story, the girl who had a dream, chased it and fulfilled it. For most of us though, dreams are just scribblings on the margin of a life, not important and often better ignored. But no one tells us, so we waste years chasing those childhood dreams, until we realise that beautiful Fatma is just fantasy, that moms do lie and that we – children of the malaria time – we don’t live for our dreams, we live despite of them.

In my dream, I was still clinging to my mother’s dress, and the malaria was making her sweat and shiver. I slept by her side, hoping I have another dream and that she has one, and in that magical moment where the paths of our dreams intertwine as they always do, in that moment, I would hug her and kiss her. Then I would smile one last time with my beautiful innocent eyes before they learn to become sad like my brothers’.

In your dream, you were still the dress around my mother’s body. And as the heat of her body went up, you started to agitate, you realised that this wasn’t the same heat from the sun, it didn’t give freedom, it suffocated it. You tried to let yourself free from her body, to abandon her, and when that magical moment happened and our dreams intertwined, I tried to  hold stronger to the tip of the dress, to you, I begged you not to abandon my mother, not to abandon me. But you already made your mind, you wanted your freedom and the malaria was too much to bear.

We then woke up at the same moment, struggling for breath. I was happy to find you by my side, to find out it was just a dream, I kissed you and I think we made love again. Then we slept.

This time when I slept, I had more dreams but my mother was no longer there, my brothers were far away and I was a man. There were beautiful fields, beautiful women and even some butterflies, you know, just normal boring dream … stuff .

This time when you slept, well.. you probably had dreams too. But they were yours, they didn’t cross paths with mine because we were no longer children, we were grownups, and grownups’ dreams do not cross paths and people don’t magically transform into dresses.

We were back to normal.

Still, when we woke up, something changed and I stopped loving you, and you stopped loving me.

* * * * *

Remember that morning when I woke up and stopped loving you? Remember how we both dreamt that we made love the night before, how we both dreamt that we kissed goodnight and said that we love each other. And we meant it. Then we woke up, and we realised that love was still forbidden in the time and land of malaria. Remember?

Sudanese in Cuba: intro

I was lucky to spend one month (from 31st of December 2013 to 30th of January 2014) traveling through the beautiful island of Cuba from the very East to the very West. It was an amazing experience by many levels and I have decided to write about it for several reasons, first of all and most importantly, because I want to look back at these diaries and remember every single detail of that experience, I want to remember my feelings, the people I met and the places I saw for as much as possible. Second, I have many friends from back home who admire and love Cuba (for no specific reason, just as I did) and I want to share these diaries with them in the hope that they will also have such an opportunity one day. Third, most – if not all – you can read about Cuba is from a very western point of view, I don’t claim my point of view is any wiser or more accurate but I hope and I think that it is different.

These will be very personal diaries, mostly portraits of people I met during this trip, it is not a travel guide (there are plenty of those online). As I said, it’s mostly for my personal satisfaction and amusement, but in writing them down, maybe one or two of you will also find them interesting to read.

My Cuban diaries

Cuba diaries: Last day

30th of January 2014

Woke up at 8, only 3 hours of sleep, went walking around with Sam to Vedado to give my final goodbye to Che and Camilo in plaza de la revolución. Then walked through the malecon towards Centro Habana. I love Cuba. Back in the hostel, I called Reinier who said he will come soon, took a shower, chitchatted with Juan the good-hearted dueño de la casa. Reinier came, it’s amazing how you can make a good friend in a place so far in a matter of few days. Human connections are weird.

I said goodbye to everyone, even Ipek who was mad at me for the past few days. I didn’t feel much, just a feeling of emptiness, no sadness (the first time I felt sad is now writing these words in the airport waiting for my flight). I went down with Rey, hugged him goodbye promising that we will meet again. One of few promises that I have no doubt I will keep.

Now am sitting at the airport, the feeling of emptiness is replaced with deep sadness and mixed thoughts. Thoughts that I really want to keep this “me” when I go back, this “me” though flourishes from being a foreigner, a stranger, it loves this challenge and lives for it. It is ironic that in my search for a home, I realized – some 30 years into my life – that my home, my comfort zone, is in being homeless.

I love Cuba. I love how it pushes your limit with its eccentricities, with its lack of logic, how it questions the rules of the world and does its thing in the way it likes regardless of what everyone thinks. Cuba is young, rebellious and beautiful in and out, and it is the least rigid land one can imagine, don’t let 60 years of apparent political stagnation fool you, the soul of salsa and rumba has no place for stagnation, a stagnant society would never be able to dance, laugh, do sports, arts, medicine and business in the way Cubans do.

A stagnant society is one where people lol on Facebook instead of laughing out Loud on the streets, and retweet about football instead of lively debating it in the middle of a Havana park. A stagnant society and system is one whose members waste the best years of their life chasing an elusive retirement house, be it in heaven .. or south of Spain.

Cuba though is young, rebellious and full of life.

to be continued

Cienfuegos 2 – Amet’s city

26th of January 2014
Cienfuegos, Cuba

I made it back to Cienfuegos again. I felt I needed to see the family from the Casa and my good friend Amet one last time before I leave. On the bus, it was unbelievable when I received a message from Amet asking where I was and if I will come to Cienfuegos again. He didn’t have a clue where I was but he sensed I might be somewhere around, he said.

I arrived in the early afternoon and headed directly from the bus station to the “Rastafari” gallery and over there I met Carlos who greeted me warmly introducing me as “our Sudanese friend”, we went looking for Amet at his home and on the malecon. Meanwhile he told me again about his project and how they finally secured a projector and it is now only about getting it from Norway to Cuba, he also told me how slow it was in the gallery, haven’t been able to sell anything all week. They depend totally on foreigners buying art and souvenirs to keep their gallery running. Carlos is one of those charismatic leaders types of figures, he has big dreams, very focused on his mission. He told me he stopped approaching tourists because they all assume he is just a “jinitero” and he doesn’t have energy nor does he feel the need to prove anything to anyone.

We finally found Amet, and we sat together on the malecon talking about all sort of stuff but mainly about women, his woman and mine and many more that passed by. I found out that on that other night in Trinidad, he wanted to spend the night at our Casa but the landlord refused. “He assumed I am just another black Cuban chasing tourists”. Amet offered me to spend the night at his place and I gladly accepted.

I – then – went to say goodbye to Yanetsy & WillianYanitsy and Willian, the owners of the Casa where I stayed the first time I came to Cienfuegos. When Willian saw me on the street, he came running after me from the other side and hugged me murmuring my name that is still proving difficult for him to pronounce. He went in and told Yanetsy that he has a surprise for her. She asked me whether I got her greetings for my birthday – which I didn’t – but she showed on her phone that she sent it and she didn’t forget about me. It feels like family with Yanetsy and Willian, and I am glad I came back to say goodbye to them. We spent a good hour or so and then I said goodbye promising I will come back again one day.

I went back to meet Amet at the malecon, he then took me to his place apologizing in advance about how messy his room was, which I said is expected from an artist. His room was cosy and beautiful in the same way all Cuba is, rough on the edges, messy but charming in its own special way. He has his graffiti wall where he scribbled everything from poems to Bob Marley lyrics to random names and phone numbers, then there is a PC with its internals out (like my old computer in Egypt), a big unassuming bed, a rusty fan and a clothes hanger. We talked all night about everything from the girl he loves, the girls I loved, Sudan, Cuba, arts, gods, religion, ambitions …

Amet has a true pure artist soul. Artists in poor countries like Sudan or Cuba are just a pure act of cruelty from the gods. He has a very open philosophy and look on life, he told me about how racist and judging Cuban girls are, even black girls, and how that the first time he was told he is beautiful, was by a French girl. “Only then did I discover my beauty”, he said.

Amet and me have many characteristics in common, a contradictory personality in many ways, on one side, extremely open, on the other side very shy. And both sides manifest themselves in extreme ways that people can easily miss the other side. “It is my constant battle to combat my shyness” says Amet, but anyone who sees him on the dance floor can easily miss this shyness, the same way that someone who sees me poking random strangers into random conversations in Cuba, can’t imagine me sitting in front of a computer coding for 9 hours without socializing with anyone. We have multiple faces like most people, but I could recognize his multiple faces because they were familiar to me. We are both tormented in different ways and for no apparent reasons, but as our common good friend Betty once said “it is better to be tormented than superficial”.

He told me the story of his muslim name and how his Christian mom chose it because he was born on the same day as prophet Mohamed. She considered it an omen. He then went away for some time and came back with a delicious dinner for me which I was very thankful for. When I asked why he is not eating, he went back and came with a plate for himself, half-way through finishing my plate, I noticed he wasn’t eating. He told me he doesn’t eat much, he also doesn’t eat meat as an effect of Rastafari religion, he is not a Rasta, but “takes from each religion and culture what makes sense for him”. Cubans have an impressive liberal view on religion, I will go specifically to Cuba one more time to explore it more.

We talked about his pakistani friends, and how he feels they look down at his culture and country, something I confirmed when I met them the next morning, opening up to me as a fellow muslim, they were full of contempt for this culture that doesn’t know about the afterlife. I always find that attitude very arrogant and border-line ignorant, I consider it similar to the western subtle arrogance  when looking to other cultures, maybe that’s why they will clash and fight until the last person standing. They are just too similar. Although in the case of the Pakistanis looking down at Cubans and their way of life, it felt even more ignorant and superficial than normal, because this Cuban culture has more tolerance, beauty and equality than any muslim society and that’s the core of Islam or any other religion.

Amet told me about his opportunity to go to Czech republic and how it could open new doors to him but he doesn’t want to stay there and can’t leave his mom, sister and friends behind… And I chose not to tell him that this is exactly what I said 6 years ago when I first came to Europe.