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Feeling far from home: Al-Ghurba

Osman Shinger
The Arabic word ‘Al-Ghurba’ frequently crops up in Sudanese traditional songs and poetry, conveying a feeling of loneliness and a migrant’s yearning for home.
5.12.2016  |  Nairobi, Kenya
Nubian children play on a broken down military truck on the outskirts of the Yida refugee camp. (photo: The Niles | Marc Hofer)
Nubian children play on a broken down military truck on the outskirts of the Yida refugee camp. (photo: The Niles | Marc Hofer)

‘Al-Ghurba’, which roughly translates as estrangement, litters Sudanese conversions about migration, conjuring up a poignant mix of loss and displacement. Historically Sudanese were deeply attached to their tribal life, meaning that they found it hard to imagine living beyond their clan, ethnic group or extended family. But when social, economic and political changes rocked the basic pillars of Sudanese patriarchal society, attachments shifted and many were prompted to leave Sudan. 

At first Sudanese people moved from the countryside to the cities, then to Arab, Asian and European countries, and finally migrants ventured to the United States, Canada and Australia. Small Sudanese communities formed in these countries. At first, people did not integrate into their new homes, reflecting a stereotypical national trait: Sudanese abroad first seek out fellow Sudanese for protection and familiarity.

From the perspective of those who stayed behind, Sudanese born abroad, especially in European and American countries, lack roots outside their new home. They have absorbed the values of their new society and they do not feel Sudanese. Living in remote countries for a long time can cause an identity crisis: These people are neither attached to their country, nor are they necessarily citizens of their new location. In some cases this sense of estrangement has even sparked psychological disorders.

And Al-Ghurba has another face, conveying the alienation that some Sudanese, especially older generations, feel in their own country due to rapid social change. Men in their sixties or seventies frequently complain about people’s behaviour. “We have become strangers in this country,” is a common saying in these circles.

Key to Al-Ghurba is a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia for the homeland, for the land itself and for the people we grew up with. This can trigger a particularly poignant shock when we return to our country of origin after a long absence, arriving to a different place than we remember, where we find that people we once knew have changed. This is life – and this is also Al-Ghurba.

This article is part of:
Migration: The children of the land scatter...
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