Sudan: Khawaja! Khawaja!

It’s a damn strange feeling to stand in a crowd of thousands and be the only khawaja in sight. All eyes are on you, and no one else has anything better to do than sit, wait for food distribution, and stare at the one person in their midst who’s not like the others. And you can’t do anything apart from feel thousands of eyes interrogate your presence.

To say it’s intimidating is an understatement of the tallest order. Forget about picking your nose. Forget about adjusting your boxers. Forget about sneaking in any surreptitious movement- it will be detected by someone, one of them. Still remember to ask yourself why you are here and they are there. Why you are the American at the center of attention, instead of sitting in a queue for hours waiting for the UN to give you a sack of grain ‘from the American people.’

Khawaja. It’s akin to ‘gringo’ and I hear it all the time. Sometimes it’s cute. Walking through the camps, little kids will run out of their tukuls naked, screaming it in adorably high-pitched voices and waving eagerly for a wave back. Sometimes it’s funny. In the market, when I complain about overpriced poles the locals laugh and say I can’t be a khawaja because I won’t pay khawaja prices. Sometimes it’s frightening. On the road, the soldiers spit and utter it menacingly as we drive by, unable to give them a ride in our no-gun vehicles in keeping with humanitarian neutrality.

Sunglasses help in situations like these. You discard the intimacy of eye contact and allow the brief illusion that you are not like them, that your soul is beyond their gaze. You become not you, but the archetypal khawaja, an abstraction to be accepted but not embraced, tolerated but not welcomed.

Sunglasses hurt in situations like these. You back away from your humanity, hide beyond their reflection. When they look at you, khawaja, they see themselves. They don’t see someone else who cares, who is trying to do what he can in a situation as alien to him as it is to them. You become not you but a body that is markedly different, something that cannot be related to.

I am khawaja; he is me. The name emphasizes a gap between referrer and referent. My actions do the same. In the same crowd, I take out a water-filled Nalgene and take a drink. They have no water bottles, no water save what they pump from the distant well, and few possessions. The fortunate few have a donkey to transport what little they do have. I could buy a donkey for the price I paid for my Nalgene. They stay thirsty, while the khawaja is sated. If I offered it to one, I would need to offer it to all. I keep my sunglasses on.

– Written on the side of a road near Doro market, Maban county, Upper Nile District, South Sudan.

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