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[Trigger Warning: Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia]
Let me tell you about Haneen and Channah, my aunts who are like mothers to me.
Haneen terrifies all men. She will stare up at you, mouth loud and unwavering, her lips a deep purple, her finger close to your nostrils, ready to enter if need be. She is laughter and freedom, thick Black upheaval with a hard-working heart. A Sudanese ambassador on an adventure to discover Europe, dancing through life on two bad knees. Allah the Most Merciful presents her with challenges and she overcomes. Give and you shall be given. I have witnessed luck cross her path too many times not to believe that everything happens for a reason. She declares, then does.
“I let his shirts fly from the window like poetry”, Haneen tells me as she breaks cinnamon sticks and lets them simmer in her silver teapot. Thirty-three years after leaving Sudan she’s still a Tea Lady, gracefully infusing her gossip with cardamom, ginger and mint. “If it was Bakhur I wouldn’t mind, but he smokes something different.” Between tea ceremony, odes to discarding men, and spicy words of wisdom (“Men are dogs”), we make Legemat every Saturday in her narrow London kitchen. Our ritual goes as follows: we play an old recording of the BET Awards, (usually 2013), discuss lactose and gluten intolerance, (I give up on explaining lactose and gluten intolerance), we mix cow’s milk, wheat flour and cinnamon to make Legemat dough. While she stirs ancestral anecdotes into the Shai, I form little dough balls and drop them into hot oil. It’s our tradition to make food while she teaches me Black womanhood. Her version of it involves no sacrifices, no romantic fantasies, no false promises. Haneen is loud and round. She believes in fighting, so much so that by the time she taught me how to win wars, I had become a pacifist.
Channah is quiet and linear. Childless and unmarried. Happily in love with a non-Jew for decades. Her self-made earrings dangle just above her breasts; heavy pearls elongate her ear lobes. Even when right next to you, she keeps her distance. A guard to herself at all times. Channah admires from afar. Her eyes glinting, their gold dancing with playful sarcasm. She will not tell you this levity was nurtured for decades to combat Holocaust trauma. Her atelier in Munich doubles as a therapy room, a white and beige world with big windows and countless books on women painters and Jewish art. She has never left it for longer than four weeks at a time, still, she refuses to be called German. On the wall hangs a painting of me wearing a pink toub in Sudan. One of the many testaments to her inconspicuous longing for worlds she is afraid to access, ‘oriental’ worlds and colours which she only experiences through my eyes. Like her dry humour, Channah’s quiet voice might be mistaken for mockery. She whispers her truths, not caring whether you catch them or not. In her presence, I feel like art. Like I am a real life painting in brown and gold, the kind that tells of third generation trauma and abstract identity politics. There is no stirring and no music. The echoes of our words carry weight that can become unbearable.
“So now that you kicked him out, how will you manage the rent?”
“God is great,” Haneen answers. “He offended my Turkish friends, so how could I live with him? Bloody racist bastard, he is.”
Haneen takes people in to share her rent and kicks them out when they don’t respect her rules. “He likes you, too. Always gets excited when you come over.” She grins and shakes her big butt to Janelle Monae singing That’s Just The Way You Make Me Feel. Then she stops and says “Haram. She’s beautiful, but she’s going to hell.”
“Didn’t you join last year’s pride march?”, I respond, rolling my eyes.
“Ai, but still it’s unnatural.”
I dump the dough into the pot and leave the room. Haneen does not play when it comes to racism, but she is fooled by heteropatriarchy. I try to remember that she used to welcome queer Muslims into her beauty salons when no one else would, but it doesn’t undo my frustration. Fuming on the red sofa covered with animal print pillows, I feel her frowning at me from the kitchen, stirring remorse into Black tea, contemplating how to avoid apologies and ungodly kindness. She wiggles into the bedroom, finds golden hair extensions, braids them onto my stony head. We sit in silence and my Baba, her brother, amused and exasperated by our interactions, photographs the scene.
Channah paints a version of Baba’s photo in her atelier. I had showed it to her when I told her about my last visit to London. As a silent spectator, she participates in my non-German life through her canvases. In her painting, my face looks serious and bony. I never like looking at myself through her eyes, but to like and be liked is not her concern. She uses paint brushes to inspect the world around her like a psychologist, never too personally, but definitely with utmost dedication to understanding her subjects. Haneen mends what she considers wrong by making it prettier; Channah faces things and people as they are. Hers is no beautiful process, but it is always elegant. Perspective over beauty.
“Of course she’s wrong for being homophobic”, Channah says. “But she’s Muslim. And she did kick out that Turkish guy.”
“He wasn’t Turkish, he was discriminating against her Turkish friend.”
Silence sits between us as I watch her mix the confident colours of Haneen’s sofa. Channah understands that sexuality and gender are complex, but she’s misled by divisive media binaries. Us vs. Them. “Them” being all those Eastern Anti-Semites (Muslims). We don’t mention that she regularly tutors an Arab girl who came to Germany as a refugee. When I decided to study Arabic and move to Egypt, she had looked at me in disbelief and told me to study psychology in Israel instead. She even tried to hook me up with some-son-of-some-friends. “It’s not difficult to be with an orthodox, just don’t mix cream with meat at home.” Whenever I tell her that there are Jews in Egypt, she shrugs. Why indulge in complexities when Israel is next door? “You would like Tel Aviv. It’s young and open minded. No need to be religious there.”
The doorbell rings. Haneen’s Moroccan friend Nafisa wants to collect her Legemat.
“Keif habibty?”, she screams as she hugs me too long. “Are you fasting this Ramadan?”
I shake my head no.
“So you haven’t decided on your religion yet?”
She hands me leaflets about Women in Islam. “You can choose any religion, really. Just don’t become a Jew.”
The doorbell rings again. Oblivious to my anger, Nafisa leaves the room to welcome some-son-of-some-friends from Dubai. The aunties invite him for Iftar whenever they can. “If you marry a Gulf Arab, you will never have to work. What else could you want?” A rhetorical question. As I escape to the kitchen pretending to prepare tea and Legemat for the Anti-Semite and the Potential Husband, Haneen sits down next to me with a theatric groan. “I married for love and adventure and where did it get me? To this bloody England. I work like a dog. Why work like a dog when you could have a maid folding your underwear?” I scribble her underwear quote into my notebook with a grin. “If you ever write about me, I will sue you and no one will read it.” She sighs, gets up and fills a pretty box with Legemat. “This is for your aunt Channah. Say Ramadan Kareem.”
Forgiveness is a virtue that both my aunts struggle with, but I nurture it through them. I archive the ways that they have been, so I can remember the ways that we can become. Channah’s family paintings and Haneen’s ancestral stories provide me with maps towards myself and beyond. A Black Muslim who gets spat on in the streets and a German Jew who receives death threats by mail. Given the bad eye and passing it on at times. Their displacement and trauma are both my family’s burden and our strength: our source of jokes and wisdom. From Haneen and Channah I learned that beauty and excellence are sacred, and that leaning into my creativity will lift and nourish me. I experience them in me when I draw, dance and debate. I also experience their hypocrisy in the stereotypes and privileges I hold. Still, they raised my voice and taught me how to decorate it with laughter. Underneath Channah’s sober silence and Haneen’s provocative loud, they know what it means to lose blood, so they hold onto me. My curly hair isn’t theirs, but I am of them. Beautiful, not flawless. Guilty of crime, harm and black magic.