Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


An interview with Sudanese refugee and UPenn student Ahmed Elmardi
By Lea T. Burns, Drexel University Student

They either kill you, or you leave the country,” says Ahmed Elmardi, speaking about the National Islamic Front (NIF) that took over the government of Sudan in 1989, shortly before he came to the United States.

Now a resident of Philadelphia, Elmardi was once an artist and university professor in Khartoum, Sudan. Although he had plans to leave Khartoum with a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and an acceptance into its MFA program in painting, the NIF interfered.

“They changed the laws so that the government could hire and fire as they pleased,” he says. “They prepared a long list of people to fire from universities. I was one of those people.”

Elmardi says the regime targeted the universities first because there was potential power in the student movement. At one time, students were able to change the government through strikes and demonstrations. Elmardi remembers the October Revolution in 1964, when students from the University of Khartoum banded together with the trade unions and successfully overthrew Ibrahim Abboud’s military dictatorship in Sudan. Since then, governmental changes in how universities are run prevent anything like that from happening now.

“They deliberately worked to deprive the country from its soul,” he says. “Artists, musicians and poets were all forced or encouraged to leave the country one way or the other.”

Along with many of his colleagues and other community intellectuals, Elmardi was arrested and imprisoned without reason. Calmly, he recounts his time spent in the detainment center. He explains that in order to maintain a sense of fear and minimize any resistance in the Sudanese people, the prisoners were tortured — or worse. Elmardi specifically remembers one of his fellow detainees, a pilot, taken from his cell and hanged.

“At that time they were very harsh,” says Elmardi. “They didn’t even care if you were related to one of them.”

After a month in the detainment center, Elmardi was released. As to why, he cannot say. He assumes that they let him go because they knew he was accepted into the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think I was lucky,” says Elmardi. “Especially because if I stayed there I don’t know what would have happened to me. I remember walking to the plane and looking behind me to see if anyone was following.”

Life as an immigrant in the United States has been far from easy. “I found myself without a Social Security number,” he says. “I thought, so what can I do now? I tried to drive a cab but I didn’t last more than one week. That wasn’t me.”

Elmardi says the immigrant people’s ability to bounce back is remarkable. Even the ATM machines posed serious problems for the Sudanese who came to the United States in the 1990s because they never had to use one before. So many years later, Elmardi believes that the Sudanese community has gained its footing.

“They have built their lives,” he says. “By now many have their own houses. It is very interesting to see how people have all this resilience.”

After completing his MFA in painting from Penn and starting his own graphic design company, Elmardi is surprised at how long he has been in Philadelphia. “In the beginning I thought, I am here only for a short time,” he says. “And now this is really half of my adult life — 18 years.”

With his wife, Iman, and 9-year-old son, Monier, in Philadelphia, Elmardi says it is too late for him to return to Sudan, despite his love and attachment to the country.

“A lot of my friends are not there anymore,” he says. “It is just too much to deal with. I have my son doing quite well in school. So to take him back there, to start again — the threat is still there. It would not be good for him and it would not be good for me, either.”

Asked to compare Khartoum and Philadelphia, Elmardi speaks in visual terms. He mentions that Khartoum suffers a lot from sandstorms, making the city look brown. He also says that shadows are much stronger in the cities in Sudan because the light is more intense. Still, continents apart, Elmardi can draw similarities between his native city and his new home. He sees shapes, shadows and lines that bring back memories of his life in Khartoum.

“Sometimes I am driving and I think I am home,” he says with a smile.

Currently, Elmardi is focusing on his art, which includes sculpture, mixed media and animation. With his wife, he started a Web site for contemporary Sudanese artists around the world. He says the site is an important tool because it educates viewers on contemporary art from Africa’s largest country and exposes Sudanese artists to an international audience.

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