This article is from 2008.
The horrors of Darfur have shocked celebrities and politicians, but have yet to reach the general population. Suzanne Black talks to Halima Bashir whose traumatic memoir should change all that
‘The disease in question had, as its main deleterious effect, the fact that it renders its victims perfectly unable to write anything but 500-page books about the civil war in Sudan.’ The ‘victim’ in this case is US author Dave Eggers, but the deceptively flippant comment from a Guardian commentary in 2005 could equally apply to Halima Bashir, a doctor from Darfur, Sudan, who survived the destruction of her village, intimidation of her people and personal attacks to publish a memoir Tears of the Desert: One Woman’s True Story of Surviving the Horrors of Darfur. Eggers’ fictive What is the What and Bashir’s autobiographical offering join the ranks of responses to a situation in urgent need of a cure.
Eggers’ tome struggles to make sense of the fallout of 20 years of civil war between the Islamist Sudanese government and Christian tribes that resided in the south. Now, after the violence has escalated to the level of genocide in Darfur, with the Arab government trying to cleanse the country of black African tribes, Bashir says the country’s plight must continue to be the focus of international attention. Settled in London with a husband and two young sons, she now feels safe enough to publish her testimony, albeit under an assumed name.
On arrival in this country she was struck by the lack of knowledge about the reality of the dangers in Darfur. When her asylum and that of other Sudanese refugees came under threat, she chose to speak out, despite the cultural stigma attached to admitting to rape. ‘People in the UK don’t know too much about Darfur, only the headlines,’ she says. ‘There are many stories like mine.’
The press coverage brought her to the attention of war reporter Damien Lewis, who was instrumental in her decision to open up in book form, and who will be present at this Book Festival event. ‘He told me how powerful a statement this would make to the people and how it would help the situation there,’ she says. ‘After that I decided to do it.’
And she did, despite the obvious difficulties in reliving such incidents and conveying them to an often blinkered western audience. ‘Darfur. I know to you this must be a word soaked in suffering and blood,’ she says in the opening pages. ‘But to me, Darfur means something quite different: it was and is that irreplaceable, unfathomable joy that is home.’
Born into a fairly prosperous family in the Zaghawa tribe, who put an unusual value on her education, she had an idyllic childhood. Using lyrical yet accessible language, she makes her rural tribal upbringing, which will be alien to most readers, shine from the page with warmth and clarity.
When the conflict begins, it is devastating. Sparing the reader no details, she lays out the full ghastly horrors, from the torching of villages by armed horsemen (the Janjaweed militia) to the rape of schoolgirls and the torture and intimidation she endured. The plain language turns figurative to cope with the unimaginable events and the pastoral bliss of earlier chapters gives way to a heartbreaking account without hyperbole: the events are horrific enough that no extra tugging of the heart-strings is necessary.
Conveying ‘pain and cruelty on a magnitude inconceivable in most of the civilised world’, while arousing the reader’s empathy for an entirely foreign situation, is not easy. The success of Tears of the Desert lies in its absolute ability to render the experience with humanity and immediacy. Skirting the political, Bashir calls upon the ‘common humanity’ of her readers. ‘I don’t think of it in a political way,’ she says. ‘Imagine this happening to someone you loved; your reaction would be the same.’
This reaction, this ‘disease’ of Eggers, has struck others, including the most prominent of the self-appointed celebrity activists for Darfur, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg. The latter notoriously back-pedalled from the position of artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, citing China’s complicity in the Darfur conflict, and generating the widespread headlines Bashir believes it needs. Clooney took a more active role, founding the charitable foundation Not On Our Watch with fellow high-profile do-gooders Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Jerry Weintraub. With the aim of bringing advocacy and humanitarian aid to Darfur and Burma, it secured a position as UN Messenger of Peace for the ex-ER actor and bought him an audience with Gordon Brown in April this year.
The British PM has been criticised for his lack of action regarding Darfur and it is unclear whether even Gorgeous George has the power to change his mind. Is such celebrity involvement a positive thing? ‘Yes, of course,’ says Bashir. ‘The people here love celebrities. I am very happy for celebrities to be involved in reporting about Darfur and it will attract many people to know more about what is happening there. Celebrities have more power than any other people.’
But what does she hope her book will achieve? ‘I think everyone will have a common sense of feeling sympathy reading stories like mine,’ she says and, indeed, reading the book it’s impossible not to be moved. While others, such as Eggers and military observer Brian Steidle in The Devil Came on Horseback, have witnessed the affront to human rights in Darfur and responded as impassioned observers, Bashir has produced a confessional that is part of a larger need to be heard.
As yet, peace remains elusive. Recent United Nations reports estimate the death toll to be 300,000. Let’s hope more people, like Halima Bashir, fall prey to Eggers’ malady of exposition, description and comment. It surely can’t be the case that, as the protagonist of What is the What laments while silently narrating his story to an imaginary audience, ‘You have no ears for someone like me.’
Halima Bashir, 9 Aug, noon, £9 (£7).