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About a bandit
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 02 - 2010

The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur (2009) by Daoud Hari. Random House, New York
"My aunt Joyar, for example, was a famous warrior who dressed like a man, fought camel theives and Arab armies, wrestled men for sport -- and always won. She refused to marry until she was well into her forties." This is a wicked portrait of an atypical woman of Darfur that speaks volumes.
This is no inchoate mess of memories. It may not necessarily be a turn-off to talk of a tomboy or a manly aunt, for the author Daoud Hari understands that he owes the women of Darfur an awful lot. His reminiscences are not rude awakenings either. They are animated revelations that fly in the face of what the world has come to hear about the horrific tales of rape and sexual violence against the women of Darfur. They might not all be as physically strong and athletic as his beloved Joyar, but they were subjected to the most distressing and humiliating experiences that faced women at war. The women of Darfur spend an awful lot of time in the wilderness trying to recover their menfolk.
"I dedicate this book to her and to the girls of my village who were faster and stronger than the boys at our rough childhood games." Hari's memoirs are confessions of a quasi-religious nature. Women are simultaneously victims and heroines. "I dedicate this to my mother who as a young woman kept a circle of attacking lions away from our cattle and sheep in the bush for a long day, a long night and all the next morning, using only the power of her voice and the banging of two sticks. The power of her voice is something I know very well."
It is not a novelty to commence a review of this type of chiller by noting its physical details. This, after all, is a shocker about sleaze and spook-lore. It is about adolescent soldiers with a taste for young girls and hapless women.
"Women are often not told about the troubles of war, though they suffer them greatly. But whether they are told or not, the women know everything." Yes, Hari's memoirs begin abruptly and end in exile -- a tribesman uprooted to America. But Hari is no country bumpkin. He possesses a sophisticated mind, far from free of disenchantment. His pain is palpable. Grief and loss stalk him like the ferocious beasts that roam his homeland. It reads like autobiography, except that it is not exactly so. It is an anti-war statement. His adolescent drive to self-assertion in the midst of war ends in self-immolation.
Hari has a sense of humour. Sometimes he jazzes up his style by black humour and satire. He comes across as neither saint nor Satan. He is a storyteller who recounts his tales in detail, often purely in dialogue. But without the humour and the garish detraction and self-depreciation of himself and his people and their foes, the book would surely be unreadable.
Hari doesn't solicit the readers' pity. "The best way to bury your pain is to help others and to lose yourself in that."
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir comes across as one of the African continent's least savoury characters. "I didn't even hate the man who was organising all these crimes, the president of Sudan, though I wished deeply to take him for a long walk through the villages of my childhood and perhaps change his way of thinking about how best to serve the people, which is surely his job." And, Hari had to begin with much respect for his own fellow tribesman, the future president of Chad. "A Chad commander named Idriss Deby was fighting the Chad government for control of that country. He is a Zaghawa and we thought he was a great hero. Some wanted to go join him. He would later become president of Chad. This fighting sounded like a good idea to me."
This week's signing of a peace treaty confirmed the notion that the political future of Chad and Sudan are inextricably intertwined. The relationship between the peoples of Chad and Darfur is probably the most important in contemporary Saharan politics. There have been many wars in the huge swathe of territory straddling the Sahelian and Saharan zones in Africa. But it is the wars of Chad and Darfur that have had the largest impact on the population of the vast area, since these wars have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If Chad and Sudan cannot co-operate, what hope is there for a permanent peace in Darfur? This pertinent question crops up periodically in Hari's memoir.
"I dropped out of high school and hid for two weeks, planning with friends to go to Chad and join up with Deby," Hari muses. His brother Ahmed knew better. The war that tore Darfur apart eventually claimed the life of Ahmed, the author's mentor. "Ahmed came and found me. He sat me down under a tree and told me that I should use my brain, not a gun, to make life better."
Macabre scenes absorbed the author from an early age. The tragedies of his tribesmen and women prefigured the horrors of Hari's memoirs. "Some of those fleeing were wounded or held their wounded children in their arms. They screamed for medical help that was no longer there. The most seriously injured just sat or lay down around the clinic, some crying or moaning from pain or despair, waiting to die from their injuries or be killed by the approaching Janjaweed. Yet they looked at us and felt concern for us and told us to run while we could."
Hari was reviled as a sellout by both the Sudanese and the Chadian authorities and even by the armed opposition groups fighting the Sudanese government forces in Darfur. He was castigated because he was a translator. That we are told in no uncertain terms is a most dangerous profession in a war zone, and especially on the frontline.
Hari was not a particularly energetic self-starter. His brother Ahmed egged him on. He never saw himself as a victim, at least that is the impression the reader is left with. Schooling offered a far more profitable escape from his own ignorance and weaknesses. The kindness of his people, their generosity, their industry and domestic solidarity he greatly admired. That much is clear. "Everyone knows the family of everyone else among the Zaghawa," he reminisces.
His people are people, like people the world over. However, his people have their own unique value system that sometimes does not match those of either Westerners or Arabs. Hari is acutely aware that he is not an Arab. His people have their ways, their unique customs and traditions that have survived since time immemorial.
Convulsed with grief, widows are never bereft of the company of men. They are not denied the tender sounds of endearment from the friends of their departed husbands. Now that would be an outrage in traditional Arab societies. Not so with the Zaghawa. "The surviving men would split up and spend up to two weeks in the family enclosures of the widows, so that the women would have company and could overhear their stories. This was how their lost husbands were honoured. In time, the widow might be taken as an extra wife by one of her late husband's brothers or another man."
Old habits are hard to break. Hari's memoir goes back to the roots of the war in Darfur, to climate change, overgrazing and soil erosion in order to track the course of Zaghawa resentment against the Arabs of Darfur. The Zaghawa, like the other non-Arab indigenous peoples of Darfur are essentially sedentary agriculturalists. The Arab tribes, in sharp contrast, are nomadic pastoralists.
The issue, as so often in contemporary African wars, revolves around the struggle for survival and the conflicts of controlling meagre resources. The past week has produced a sharp reminder of how sensitive the relationship between Chad and Sudan can be. It also has shed light on the artificial borders created by colonialists and the repercussions of such borders on the inhabitants of the region.
When told by Zaghawa boys that Chad was the enemy, Hari was confused. He is, however, candid in his judgements about British and French perfidy to the indigenous peoples of Africa. "Did you know that the French, who later controlled Chad, and the British, who later controlled Sudan, drew a line, putting half of Darfur in each new nation? Did you know that? What do you care about this line if you are Darfur men? What business is it of yours if the British and the French draw lines on maps? What does it have to do with the fact that we are brothers? The boys were moved by this."
The fact that the borders are here to stay for the time being is beside the point. The heart of the matter is that Africans, ever since the Europeans carved up the continent into artificial nation states, have been obliged -- often at gunpoint -- to acknowledge these make-belief borders.
So what has become of the boys of the artificial borders? They fight one another fiercely to defend what they believe are their borders. "Did you know that Darfur was a great country long ago, so great that it was both in Sudan and also in Chad?"
The tragedy is that most people in Africa don't know their history. Most people abroad, too, have not the slightest knowledge of Africa's history.
"Everything is complicated like that in Africa. Nothing is simple. No one is simple. Poverty generously provides every man a colourful past." A deep disquiet pervades Darfur, Sudan and all of Africa.
Hari knows that the Arab is not necessarily the enemy. "While we Zaghawa are not Arabs, many nomadic Arabs lived near us and were part of my childhood as friends. My father took me to feasts in their tents, and they feasted with us."
Yet the Arab interest in the indigenous people of Darfur seems to be fragile at best. Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa might currently be touring Darfur, but what do the local Arab tribesmen of Darfur think of their non-Arab co-religionists? Hari's memoir is heavy on atmosphere and heavier still on facts. The reader understands his motives for writing as the author sifts through the windblown leaves of his tribal family tree.
"The five kingdoms of North Darfur -- Dar Kobe, Dar Gala Dar Artaj, Dar Sueni, and our own Dar Tuar -- were all under attack at the same time. Kingdoms in West and South Darfur were also being hit. The resistance fighters -- some barely fourteen years old -- would come into the villages in pieced-together Land Rovers for water and food, then would speed away to the next emergency, leaving their wounded with the women of the village."
Do people in the Arab world know of these kingdoms in Darfur, many of them Muslim political entities that emerged in medieval times. African history has to be reread. Illusions and gross misapprehensions of the civilisations of Africa south of the Sahara have to be challenged. The very notion of African primivitism must come under fire. Poverty caused by colonialism and underdevelopment must not be confused with primivitism. Hari has subtly tackled the political dimensions of such questions in the context of the Darfur tragedy.
So why should his people be condemned to hapless victimhood and abject poverty? Hari eloquently narrates his people's predicament. The harshness of the land, the lack and want of its people is vividly depicted in Hari's memoirs -- the unforgiving land that has become an arena of conflict because of climate change. It is hard to believe that adolescents so young could have committed such appalling war crimes. The very nature of the land, the stark realities of its aridity propelled the boys to take the law into their own hands. They learnt the lessons from the very cruelty of nature.
"It says everything about this land to know that even the mountains are not to be trusted, and that the crunching sound under your camel's hooves is usually human bones, hidden and revealed as the wind pleases," Hari bemoans the ruthlessness of the elements of his beloved Darfur.
And yet, there is also a tremendous attachment to the creatures great and small of his homeland. The author's love of animals is touching. Camels and donkeys, in particular, he holds in high esteem.
"Like camels, donkeys are loyal unto death. Donkeys suffered terribly as they carried children out of Darfur into Chad. They kept going without enough food or water -- three days without water will kill a donkey."
Donkeys are kind, camels are Herculean. Both are loved dearly by Hari. "A camel, by comparison, will deflate after many days without water. He will get smaller and older looking, with a drooping head. But when he is refreshed with water and grass, he is beautiful again, strong, big and young- looking again. Donkeys cannot do that. Some donkeys went longer than three days without water, because if there was any water at all, it was given to the children riding on them. When these animals reached the camps and finally felt the children slide down, many of the donkeys straightaway fell dead."
The tenacity of the animals is reflected in the perseverance of the people. Hari's book is equally compelling about the lives of the proud people of Darfur among whom he was raised, and among whom he has lived, and almost lost his life watching many of his compatriots die.
It is impossible to conduct large-scale military operations in the rugged terrain of Darfur, but the boys of the Zaghawa are prepared to die for their land. What they are most concerned about is the civilian casualties the conflict incurs. These are a people accustomed to the harshness of nature, the cruelty of the elements. They freely roam the vast expanses of the Sahel and the Sahara in search of greener pastures. And, that degree of freedom demands hardened collaborators, a considerable amount of self-knowledge and even more self-confidence.
Perhaps the most bizarre experience of Hari is his sojourn in Egypt and Israel. He fled Darfur and came in search of work in Egypt and was lured to get a job in Israel. He ended up in jail, but he remembers the Israeli incarceration experience fondly. This is, perhaps, a telling exposition of the vast differences in standards of living between Israel and the impoverished countries of Africa, including Sudan.
"So I did get to Beersheba, but only to the prison there. It was actually very nice, with television and free international calls. I would recommend it even over many hotels I have known." The Israeli jail was better furnished and more comfortable than any two-star hotel in Darfur. Of course, there are no five-star hotels over in Darfur. Surprisingly, Hari has fond memories of Egypt. Most Sudanese refugees have had distressing experiences in the country. They complain bitterly about the
"My years away from Darfur were mostly good years. It takes nothing away from them to say that I ended this sojourn as a prisoner in Egypt."
Reviewd by Gamal Nkrumah


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