Darfur, 2005; the fear, the hopelessness, the genocide. I can’t imagine a heavier topic. And yet, somehow, Daoud writes with a lightness and an ease that is disarming. Before you know it, you’re sitting under a tarp in the afternoon heat of the Sahara, engrossed in this harrowing tale of cruelty and bravery.
The story is written in a loop. He starts at the end, when he meets Phillip, a journalist. Before we can get to know either of them very well, though, he jumps back to his primary school days before the rumble of war could be heard. In the end, he and Phillip spend about 6 weeks in various jails, but the truth of the genocide has been revealed to the world.
This memoir was published in 2008 so I am 8 years late with this review. There are already scores of detailed plot reviews online, so I will rather talk about it from a literary point of view. Daoud is a translator, he is fighting in this war using words, languages. What a beautiful example of the power of words.
On Pg. 5 he spells it out for us; “Most of the young men I had grown up with were now dead or fighting in the resistance; I, too, had chosen to risk myself, but it was using my English instead of a gun.” In the story he is using language to bring international attention to the genocide that is happening and also to give victims of the violence an outlet for the pain of their stories. Through the medium of the book, he is again using language to immortalise his story and hopefully stop this from happening again, somewhere else.
Language is not always taken at face value, though. Daoud listens to what people say and then figures out what they mean. On pg. 10, Phillip says “Lucky thing really” and Daoud translates it to their driver as “God is good”. He explains this mis-translation with “which, indeed, is what I believe he was saying.”
He does this quite often; crediting a deity for luck, co-incidence and good fortune but is careful not to prescribe a specific name for his god. I guess this is a strategic decision so as not to alienate any potential readers. Also, his ancestors seem to be spiritual guides that appear to him in dreams at crucial points. Perhaps this was true but after a while it seemed formulaic. These were the only instances where I fell out of the story with a thump.
His name is a version of the Biblical king David. He identifies more with young David, though, in that he also faces a formidable and giant foe and must use his cunning and thrift to overcome it. But names can be dangerous in a place where news seems to travel on the wind. So, he changes his name to stay out of prison. One journalist comments on pg. 11 that “everyone has lots of names around here.”
The heartbreak and violence that Daoud sees is devastating, I feel nauseous even thinking back on what I read. The vilest of the stories is one about a father who loses his 4 year old daughter as she tries to stop his execution. It is heartbreaking. There are some words you cannot unread.
Later, the father (who is not executed after all) is given a traditional remedy for his broken heart. Words from the Quran are written on a wooden tablet. The tablet is washed and the inky water offered as a cure for his pain. Literally, he is told to drink the words of God! I haven’t read the Quran, but I have read (some of) the Bible. In it, we are told that Jesus IS the Word and he is our saviour. (The Bible also warns us often enough that words are incredibly powerful; the power of life and death are in the tongue…)
This book dealt with the most disgusting parts of humanity; greed, evil, violence and oppression and yet he ends with a challenge that could change the world; “What can one person do? You make friends, of course, and do what you can.”
It’s that simple. So, I commit to making friends and doing what I can to lift my people (all people) out of poverty and oppression. It is not enough to throw money at poor people. I’ve seen this response enough times. We must build relationships, listen to their stories and offer a hand up.