I have always wanted my son, Zaki, to be a computer engineer, rocket scientist or brain surgeon.
But he didn't want to.
Last month (after an M.A. in English Literature form
) he became a journalist and an opinion-writer. In one month he wrote opinions in "The Philadelphia Enquirer," "The Houston Chronicle," and "The Baltimore Sun.” (His goal: columnist in "The Washington Post").
This is a piece about
he wrote last Sunday in "The St. Petersburg Times,"
I thought I would like to share with you my mixed feelings about my son becoming a journalist – and share with you an opinion he published.
Mohammad Ali Salih, “Asharq Alawsat,”
I Might Be A "Lost Boy" Too!
, my father is from the "bad guys" part of
. Does that make me guilty? I sure feel that way.
ZAK M. SALIH
SPECIAL TO "THE
November 5, 2006
Nearly 20 years ago, a civil war fought between the primarily Muslim Arab north and the Christian and Animist black south drove thousands of boys from their villages in southern
. Most no more than 6 or 7 years old, they fled to
to escape death or induction into slavery and the northern army. They walked 1,000 miles through lion and crocodile country, eating mud to stave off thirst and starvation. Wandering for years, half of them died before reaching a Kenyan refugee camp. The survivors became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan."
The current conflict in Sudan, in which untold numbers of civilians have died or fled their homes, is centered on the Darfur region, an arid and poor area in the west. The fighting began three years ago when a rebel group attacked government targets, saying the region was being neglected by the rulers in
. The government responded with troops and local Arab militia, who have been accused of most of the civilian attacks. The rebels, who themselves are split into groups, say the government is oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs. But the conflict may be as much a fight over ever-diminishing resources - water and pasture for cattle, for example - as about ethnicity. Unlike in southern
, most of the people in
“What is the What”:
Last month, I attended a reading by author Dave Eggers at
. Eggers' latest book, “What is the What,” is a fictionalized memoir written in the voice of the real-life Valentino Achak Deng, one of Sudan's "Lost Boys." The "autobiography" charts Deng's experiences during the Sudanese civil war - from his childhood in the war-torn south to his eventual resettlement with other refugees in
Waiting to have a book signed afterward, I searched my mind for something clever to say instead of the standard banal fan blather. After an hour in line, I approached the table, handed Eggers my book, babbled about how much I enjoyed his work and announced that I had a somewhat personal investment in “What is the What” because I am Sudanese.
Correction: I'm half Sudanese, my father being an immigrant from the Nile-nestled town of
and my mother a native of
. The two met while students at Indiana University in Bloomington, my mother working toward her undergraduate degree in nursing and my father studying journalism and political science on scholarship from the Sudanese government. Differences in race, age, background, religion and politics meant nothing - in their case, opposites really did attract.
As is true of most biracial children, defining myself along cultural lines has always been somewhat problematic. I was raised in a tolerant household that valued exposure to different cultures. Living in the suburbs of
, a veritable ethnic soup, provided my two young sisters and me with chance after chance for just such exposure. The only downside: With all the various communities explored and religious services attended, I found it hard - and still do - to cultivate a culture in which to plant roots and call my own.
Meeting Mr. Eggers:
All this aside, I called upon my Sudanese heritage to make myself stand out from the others behind me waiting to meet Eggers. Our conversation on
was brief, but its unintended effect on me was not.
In telling Eggers that my dad was from the north, the clear aggressor of the current situation in
, I felt a curious sense of shame - a cultural connection I never recall feeling before. It was as if, standing before this author who was telling me how corrupt the ruling power was, I were somehow responsible by mere association for the horrible situation in the west.
In self-consciously assuring Eggers that my father and I disapprove of Darfur, I felt the way I always imagine present-day Germans feel when reminded about the legacy of the Third Reich and the Holocaust: consciously aware that any connection is ludicrous but still paranoid about the unspoken pronouncements of blame and shame.
I've seen the miserable tableau of the genocide in western
through magazine articles and television reports. Yet powerful as they are, I still remain largely ignorant about the issue while hundreds of thousands of Sudanese, who are just as much a part of me as my blood relations in the north, are starving and dying.
I find my lack of knowledge reflective of a larger malaise regarding
's views of the situation in
. How strange that someone like Eggers, with no literal connection to
, would possess more passion for the country than a Sudanese-American like me.
And in that fact, instead of the vague associations with a regime I've never known, is perhaps the real shame, the real source of the guilt I felt when chatting with Eggers, whose support for those struggling in
is so great that he even fasted on the day of his reading.
In the face of such an impassioned stance, I felt insecure over my own cultural agnosticism, my inability to commit myself wholeheartedly to one of my multiple backgrounds.
Here he was, writing a novel about my country, and there I was in front of him, woefully unaware of my country's plight and feeling like a Lost Boy of the
Zak M. Salih, 24, lives in Burke,
A recent graduate of
, he is a staff writer for University Relations at the
. [email protected]
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