Endowed with all the peculiar arrogance of a third culture kid, I’ve never thought of the Atlantic Ocean as uncrossable. All those miles of angry water, which for centuries have turned trips into adventures, are just a puddle which I skipped over joyfully. When I was younger, the ocean was sometimes a bit cruel, asking that we pay it in long years spent saving money and vacation hours before tickets for a summer trip from the United States to Sudan could be purchased. But still, it was only a matter of waiting. And until recently, B.C. (Before Corona), I have been going yearly.
This year, there have been no trips to either of my homes. I am spending the pandemic in Germany, where I live with my husband. Or rather, the pandemic is spending me, buying its continuing lifespan with bits of my mental health. I have not been back to the US in more than a year.
In Sudan, my grandmother’s kitchen is separated from the rest of the house by a bit of courtyard. And just like hers, my kitchen, too, is separated from the rest of our home.
While it may appear to be rooted in Germany, really it stretches across borders, across oceans, into both Virginia and Omdurman. My mother’s face in my phone screen sits perched inside a cabinet or atop a jug, instructing me in the recipes she learned long ago from her mother. I happily wolf down dishes that I never liked while growing up at home, not because I can make them better than my mother, but because now they are richly seasoned with nostalgia and longing. Or perhaps simply because as I get older, my taste buds revert back to their roots.
My aunt, my second mother, is sometimes present on these calls too. On Eid, I almost feel like it’s a real holiday. Despite our quarantining, then at its peak, my aunt has successfully guided me through the steps of making the holiday essential: ka’ak cookies. She gives me the most Sudanese of instructions — “Add butter until you like the texture,” “Preheat the oven until it’s very hot,” “Add a little salt.” If she were more specific, I would understand her less. I have been trained by my mother to work in this mode of intuitive cooking.
I am very much like my mother. Not only have I borrowed her whole face, but now I seem to be reliving her life as well. Almost thirty years after my parents left Sudan on their wedding day to search for a brighter future in the strange world of the United States, I left Sudan myself with my new husband, ready to live in Germany, where he is completing his Ph.D.
There are some differences in our situations. My husband had lived in Germany for two years before I joined him, whereas my parents were both new to America. They also knew English pretty well when they arrived, while upon my entry into Germany, all my knowledge of the language could fit into the palm of one hand. But the disorientation of being totally new is the same in both cases. It is a feeling of being completely decontextualized — all the social cues you’ve spent years learning, all the friends and family you’re used to relying on, all the certainty of knowing how to conduct yourself—all gone. I often find myself in situations where I cannot quite tell whether someone’s tone or comments are rude or actually just acceptable in a German context.
It wasn’t until I found myself driven nearly to despair by stacks of incomprehensible German forms, that I truly understood why my mother passed my sister’s and my American school forms back to us every year. It’s not even really about the language barrier; sometimes I feel that the endless bureaucracy of grown-up life will surely destroy me.
In college, I had noticed that I only knew the names of spices in Arabic because my mother’s kitchen was so firmly placed in Sudan, so when I cooked for myself I had to translate them all into English. Now, I have to learn everything all over again in German. After more than a year here, I still find myself setting out for cumin yet ending up with caraway seeds because the names are so similar auf Deutsch.
Little by little, however, I am beginning to become integrated into my German reality. While my grammar is dismal, I can stumble creditably through all sorts of conversations, and more often than not, I can make sure my point is understood. Our little apartment has become a real home, though we don’t plan to stay long-term; we’ve hosted a number of happy dinner parties here and — the surest sign of homeyness — our bookshelf is slowly filling up.
Sometimes, the dishes I make are foreign to my mother. My husband and I both love maafe, the rich, delicious peanut stew that comes not from Sudan, but from the other side of the continent. We are also big fans of fried rice, and we’ve even been known to consume a little tofu now and again or to attack a pan of chilaquiles.
But no matter where a dish originates from, I make it with my mother’s hands. Her choice of spices influences mine, her techniques for sauteing, her ability to pour out ingredients without measuring. By the time a plate makes it to our dining room table, it might have journeyed from Senegal to Germany, passing through the bit of Sudan my mother built in America. The thick curls of garlic-scented steam rising from the plate zoom through the conflation of mixed cultures, the hardened Corona borders, the sheer distance to bind my family and me together in ties so strong all the waters of the Atlantic could never wash them away.
Zeena Mubarak is a Sudanese American writer living in Germany. She is currently pursuing a Masters in English Literature and Culture at the University of Tuebingen.