The Translator (Sudan and South Sudan)

book cover

by Daoud Hari

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

I must like to read books that make me angry and sad, because so many of them have appeared on this blog.

This memoir tells the story of a Zaghwa boy who is unique from his brothers because his father sends him to school in a city, where he learns English and Arabic (and unlearns animal husbandry).

It’s how he ends up as a translator for U.N. specialists trying to determine if Sudan is having a genocide or a civil war, and later, for the foreign journalists covering the genocide. It is why he is still alive when so many of his family are dead.

What I Learned

Waterhole for camelsDafur in the Sudan is split between Sudan and Chad.

Sudan’s government was hijacked by Arab strongman Omar al-Bashir in 1989 when he ousted the democratically-elected president. He’s got 2 wives. In this book, his goal seems to be to move the indigenous people off their land, so he can take the resources there–water and oil beneath the ground. To do this, he arms minority Arab villages, telling them that the African villages are preparing to attack and kill them, and giving them money to do it first. He also encourages the Janjaweed, an armed militia of rapists and murderers who go around committing horrible atrocities.

Sudan mapMummar al-Khaddafi, the bogeyman of my youth in the 1980s, is partially responsible for promoting a doctrine of Arab superiority throughout the region. And for using Sudan as a launching base for his attacks on Chad.

In 2011, after The Translator was written, South Sudan formed its own country.

The Beauty of the Sahara

traditional village

Traditional village

While man in this narrative is vile, the Sahara is beautiful, in a way. Creepy. Fascinating. Powerful. I didn’t realize that there are no roads in the Sahara. Douad’s father and brothers have taught him to navigate the traditional way, because even if you have a GPS and a compass, the desert will eat them. So you wait for the stars at night, you find true north, and you lay out sticks touching the tend so you can find your way in the morning.

SaharaThose who try to navigate by using a distant mountain as a guide are doomed to wander in circles until they die in the desert, because those mountains are actually sand dunes. And mountains move.

In the desert, a small bird on a distant dune can look as big as a camel. Sand can take on the appearance of water.

Once, the newly-elected president of Chad was driving to Libya through the Sahara and became hopelessly lost. His cavalcade had to be rescued by Libyan helicopters who flew overhead and spotted him.

The Things I Carry

refugee campAs I write this the day after a terrorist bombing at the Brussels airport, I have realized the global impact of these atrocities is becoming lost on me. Since the 1980s and my first trip to Germany at the age of 14 (we flew through the Frankfurt airport two days after it had been bombed) I’ve grown increasingly numb. Oh, humanity–there you go again, being so stupidly angry, hateful, intolerant, and power-mad.

But a few details of the people in these refugee camps will stick with me for a long time:

  • Women and young girls being raped every time they leave the camp to fetch firewood, because they can’t prepare the food donated by NGOs without fire. If they send the men, the men are killed.
  • “Shelters” donated by NGOs that are made of plastic–hot and sweltering under a desert sun.
  • Young Sudanese kids who love their camels and their donkeys like I love my dogs and cats.
  • An author who is beaten unmercifully in a prison cell for guiding journalists and accused of being a spy–a man who loves Jane Austen and the Wind in the Willows.

Rating: A necessary, though stomach-turning read.

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