Review | Elamin Abdelmahmoud ‘leads us to the poetry of Highway 401’ in his memoir ‘Son of Elsewhere’
“Son of Elsewhere,” Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s memoir about coming of age as a Sudanese immigrant in ultra-white Kingston, Ont., where he arrived as a 12-year-old at the turn of the millennium, differs from typical newcomer narratives in a few ways.
One is the lack of an epithet-hurling schoolyard scene that cements his outsider status (although his mother, who wore a head covering, got plenty of withering looks). Most of the kids and teachers Abdelmahmoud encountered seem to have been kind. One of his closest friends was from a deeply Christian family, their strict religious households being a common bond, ditto their abstinent, compliant personas. His own Muslim parents, Abdelmahmoud writes, “felt they could trust the Christian kids because at least we had an Abrahamic god in common.”
Abdelmahmoud’s chief struggle was with a kind of insidious psychic colonization, something he experienced in Khartoum as well, where his parents were both from prominent upper-middle-class families. In Kingston, where he was seen as Black rather than Arab, he embraced his “Oreo” status (“black on the outside, white on the inside”), even using the term next to his yearbook grad photo. “The ailment,” he writes, “is being colonized, and being convinced you like it.”
Now a culture and politics commentator with the CBC, among other outlets, Abdelmahmoud calls his book a “memoir in pieces,” an apt description of his mostly non-linear approach, which highlights, in chapters, the things and people that formed him. Wrestling, early-aughts metal bands and the TV show “The O.C.” all opened portals of belonging for the teenage Abdelmahmoud (and laid the groundwork for his future career as a culture critic and broadcaster). When he got into WWF, he found he had a knack for writing the fantasy narratives that were becoming popular on a nascent internet. That he could move through this online world with accentless anonymity didn’t hurt, either.
When an employee at his father’s convenience store introduces 15-year-old Elamin to heavy metal, he’s flabbergasted. Sudanese music is, he explains, all about love, longing and heartbreak, but here is all anger and nihilism: the perfect channel for the “internal chaos” induced by his tightly controlled, curfewed life. When he learns that one of his favourite metal acts is coming to Toronto, he gets permission to go, on the withering condition that his mother accompany him; which she does, cookies at the ready in her purse. They arrive at 3 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show, Abdelmahmoud’s humiliation turning to triumph when he becomes enraptured witness to the band’s sound check.
“Son of Elsewhere” abounds in such perceptively written, funny-slash-poignant anecdotes. In another, Abdelmahmoud goes to Nashville on a kind of pilgrimage (he has a “deep romance with the American South” tied to his love of country music, in whose banjo he recognized, right away, the nostalgic strains of African guitar) and is picked up by a Sudanese Uber driver who, affirming a shared characteristic of Southerners and Sudanese, insists Abdelmahmoud stay with him. Abdelmahmoud amiably refuses and “after the customary twenty-one rounds, he relented and wished me a good time.”
If Sudanese music’s heartbeat is the Nile, this book’s is Highway 401 — a comparison that might seem, at first blink, a tad strained, but Abdelmahmoud uses his outsider’s eyes and flair for description to lead us to the poetry.
The highway was young Elamin’s on-ramp, literally, to Canada after arriving here from infrastructure-challenged Khartoum, its breadth, speed and orderliness striking him as “graceful” and “magnificent.” Later, it takes him to Hamilton, where he steals visits with his non-Muslim fiancée, Emily, who is initially spurned by his parents. Later still, it leads him to a Wendy’s where, in one of the book’s most aching scenes, Abdelmahmoud’s proud, stubborn father apologizes for not having embraced his son’s now-wife. The highway is a place where — and here many of us will nod along — he processes emotions and regrets. It’s all written in a breezy, easygoing tone, but don’t let that fool you: this is a thoughtful, often profound book.
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