On Mathematics

In mathematics by Dinan Alasad

In stacks of one-dirham notebooks with plastic covers, Haboba keeps track of things. Accompanied by a classic CASIO calculator, scrap paper from knitting print-outs and a pen, she documents anything that can be quantified. She has kept track of her life as our family expanded in numbers and scattered across countries. At some point, the calculator became redundant. She says it slows her down, so she just does the maths in her head now. And indeed, she does. When it’s time to sort out Eid money for eleven grandkids in 4 continents, she moves decimals around in her head and gives us currency equivalents in seconds. 

This summer, as she knitted and I held her yarn, she told me about her time hospitalized in the UK. She was a new mother in her early 20s and could barely speak the language. She watched the nurses knit, asked my grandfather to bring her supplies and became proficient in two days. Since then, she’s knitted enough to decorate and clothe the small village that is our extended family. 

Once she can identify a pattern and repeat it, Haboba is unstoppable. In the early 2000s, she learned how to use the computer then taught my siblings and me how to email because she wanted to hear from us faster. When the iPhone came out, she was the first person I knew to have it. Whenever there’s a new way to do what she cares about, Haboba will learn it and quickly become incredibly good at it. 

My father, her firstborn, is the same way. He’s an engineer by training, but his very nature tells me he was an engineer long before any institution decided to name him one. Whenever I come to him in crisis, he begins by ‘sketching out’ my problem. Once we’ve identified all the moving parts, we begin to create a system to solve them. This is how he shows love, in sketches and spreadsheets. Our entire life is a collection of the systems he built to optimize the things that matter most.

When I tell people that I voluntarily chose to study engineering or mathematics, they often assume I did so because I am an eager, career-savvy LinkedIn-frequenter. In their eyes, I immediately become a Big Tech fan or the star of a science underdog film who is keen on inventing something or discovering another. I find this laughable because nothing could be further from the truth. While I do love a good hackathon, I am not one to dedicate my life to labour, and the idea of having an equation named after me is just not particularly thrilling. 

I began loving mathematics as a very young child, at the peak of my confusion about the world. Nothing made sense to me. I did not understand the principles behind societal standards, I was frustrated with the ambiguity surrounding how humans came to be, and I did not understand why most things happened the way they did. In retrospect, I think that – like most children – I was just afraid of what I did not know. I wanted to understand my surroundings so I could better predict how and when they would change. 

When I began learning maths, I entered a a world where the rules and reasoning were clearly stated before the problem was presented. This world – the world of numbers – was one where patterns were promised, and a solution was guaranteed. I was fascinated by the simplicity of this world and the grace that it offered me in comparison to the larger one. Mathematics was fair and reliable, a refreshing escape from the ambiguity of life beyond it. 

As I got older, this larger world only got more confusing. There are so many undeclared rules for human interactions yet so little governs how life actually unravels. The more of life I experience, the more I begin to realize that understanding all of it is simply beyond my capacity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t absolve me from experiencing what I don’t understand. With time, I learned to surrender to fate and to have faith and patience. Still, I often find myself confused about the roots of injustice, the uncertainty surrounding death, the infinite ways trauma can transform one’s being and many other bewildering aspects of our existence. 

Through all of this, Maths has not changed. It may have evolved in complexity and broadened in range, but it has not contradicted itself, nor has it altered the principles upon which it stands. Instead, it continues to give me the grace of absolute understanding, the promise of patterns and the guarantee of solutions if I seek them. In the turbulence of the past year, I found particular comfort in its familiarity. Even when university and work seemed daunting, the opportunity to escape into a relatively simple and straightforward world was a blessing.

When I speak about Mathematics, I am not speaking of a Mathematics that belongs to Gates and Gauss. I did not meet it in the stories of European Mathematicians or in American industry tales about how much utility can be drawn from an algorithm. I did not meet it in textbooks or in any of the “prestigious” institutions that I attended. I met it in my grandmother’s flat in Abu Dhabi, where she used it to build an unchanging world that would always make sense to her.

We never spoke about it, but I believe that my grandmother’s love for mathematics stems from a similar appreciation for stability and predictability. I also imagine that this is how mathematics came to be in the first place. The chaos of the world birthed one unchanging branch that we could build on and we’ve been innovating within that rare safety ever since. I now know that this is not new to my people, that it began long before me and my grandmother. The Sudanese-Nubian monuments that remain speak of an intimate relationship with geometry and nature as seen through its patterns.

I imagine that my ancestors felt a similar closeness to Maths – not for exploitability or grandeur – but for its ability to explain the world around them and make their lives easier. They used it to understand their own bodies and to learn about the moons and the stars. Maths was their way of answering every question they had. Before any law or governance, we were ruled only by these numbers that make up our world. It is a solid, non-arbitrary rule that they harnessed to make meaning and give life a shape and rhythm. Ever since I realised this, I stopped straining to ‘feel like I belong in Maths”. The truth is, Maths has always belonged to me.