Excerpted from Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir, with Damien Lewis. Copyright © 2008 by Halima Bashir. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Halima Bashir
Random House Reader’s Circle: You were born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudan, and a good deal of Tears of the Desert captures your experiences as a young girl in that community. How would you characterize the Zaghawa?
Halima Bashir: The Zaghawa are a black African tribe who inhabit the western region of Sudan, and the eastern part of Chad. They are a Muslim people, with strong tribal traditions that date back many centuries. They are settled farmers by trade, living for the most part in traditional mud-walled villages. While they have a fierce and warlike reputation to those who may try to visit aggression on them, they are extremely hospitable and welcoming when receiving strangers, as that is their tradition.
RHRC: You grew up to become your village ’s first formal doctor, a path your father supported. Why did you choose to practice medicine? Are you currently able to practice in the UK?
HB:When I was born I was named Halima, after the traditional medicine woman of my village. I knew that old woman when I was growing up, and I was told by my father the story of how it happened that I was named after her. Somehow, that naming became like a prophecy–that I would grow up to follow after her. As my father was so keen on my getting a proper education and one far out of the reach of most in my tribe, I wasn’t destined to become a traditional medicine woman. But I was able to study hard at school and achieve the dream I shared with my father– that of becoming the first medical doctor of my village and my entire subclan within the Zaghawa.
RHRC: How do you account for the extreme racism perpetrated by Sudanese Arabs against black African Sudanese? When did you personally first become aware of this racism?
HB: I can’t account for it. But racism by so-called Arab Sudanese against black African Sudanese has long existed in my country. It is one of the root causes of the civil war that has torn Sudan apart for the past several decades. But if you actually look at the people who carry out such racism, and compare them to the people they are trying to abuse, you often cannot really see much difference in their appearance. One’s skin is as black as the others. I first became truly aware of it when I went to school in the big town and faced racism of this nature from the Arab teachers and Arab schoolgirls.
RHRC: The systematic sexual violence used against women and children in Darfur is almost beyond comprehension, and something you experienced firsthand after graduating from medical school. Speaking as a survivor, what is the long-term effect of such violence? How do you survive it? What makes you want to go on living?
HB: The long-term effect is that it will stay with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget the faces of the men who did such things to me. They haunt me. But my spirit endured, and it did in part because I remain so strong in my Zaghawa identity, and in part because my little son gave me the will to live.
RHRC: After 1994 in Rwanda the world pledged “Never again.” Why has the world failed to act in Darfur? Do you feel that the International Criminal Court’s decision to seek an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president will prove effective?
HB: The ICC’s decision is a brave and principled one and I applaud it. If nothing else, it has served to focus world attention on the suffering in Darfur, which is ongoing and largely unabated. And it has forced the world community and the media to refocus attention on this all-toooften- forgotten disaster.
Damien Lewis (co-author): If you ask people who are Darfur refugees– the victims–what they want done in Darfur, as I have asked when visiting the camps, they say three things: 1) We want a proper robust UN peacekeeping force to stop the killing and violence; 2) We want security and safety so we can leave the camps and go home; 3) We want justice meted out to those who have perpetrated this genocidal conflict. The ICC’s ruling goes to the heart of that last request, but it needs to be coupled with greater international efforts on the ground to protect and provide the means of survival to the victims in Darfur.
RHRC: The world community has claimed that Darfur is not, strictly speaking, a genocide. Bearing in mind the revelations in your book, how would you respond to such claims?
HB: It is an attempt to wipe a people and a culture off the face of the earth, so how that can’t be a genocide escapes me. It was planned and executed with military precision, with the Janjaweed being armed by those in the Sudan regime who planned and orchestrated it to wage a proxy war.
DL: The ICC ruling by Luis Moreno-Ocampo charges the Khartoum regime in its entirety, as it says that all levels of the regime were responsible for the situation in Darfur; the ICC’s charges are crimes against humanity and genocide.
RHRC: Your husband, a Zaghawa, married you in spite of what you had been through. Does this make him special in your tradition? How do you now view the terrible stigma of rape that Zaghawa women traditionally suffer?
HB: It makes him special in that he refused to bow to the traditional stigma that rape can attract in our culture–in which the victim is somehow seen as blameworthy. But as he has seen much suffering himself across the Sudan in the civil war, he understands how women and even children can be horribly victimized in this way.
RHRC: You describe your circumcision as a child in painfully frank detail. How do you now view such practices? Are they still common in your tribe? Would you ever consider circumcising your daughter, when and if you have one?
HB: No. Its clearly wrong and unnecessary, not to mention the medical risks involved–both when it is done initially as a child (children die from the wounds caused) and as an adult when giving birth. It is a practice that needs to be stamped out.
RHRC: Can you ever forgive those who destroyed your life and your family and your home in Darfur?
HB: Forgiveness is difficult. We may be able to live alongside one another in Sudan again, but true forgiveness? Imagine if this had been done to you, and then imagine how you would react. If your homes were burned down, your loved ones slaughtered and burned alive, and you and your people forced to flee your homeland, ask yourself honestly if you could ever forgive.
RHRC: Can you ever see yourself going home to live peacefully is Sudan once again?
HB: Yes. That is my dream. Like all my Zaghawa and other Darfuri friends, we dream of going home and living in peace in the land where we were born–one day.
RHRC: Is religion the issue in Darfur, or is race the real issue? Or is it, as some have claimed, access to natural resources?
HB: It isn’t religion: we are Muslims, as are those who were sent to attack us. It is race; there is an Arab-African elite in Sudan who treat black Africans like myself with terrible contempt. I saw this and experienced it and it is so horrible and cruel. It made me hugely angry–especially as Africa is our original homeland. There is conflict over natural resources also–farmland, grazing, water, and, of course, oil.
RHRC:What is the message of your life story for black people the world over?
HB: Survival. The survival of the spirit in the face of all odds. And that the persecution of blacks simply because of the color of their skin has not gone away–certainly not in the Sudan. It is alive and thriving and we need to fight it, as the world community once did in South Africa.
1. Halima Bashir gives rich details about the story of her birth. What do you recall about your own birth story and those of your family? How are births celebrated in your family, in your society?
2. Like Bashir’s white eyelash, do you have a special feature that makes you stand out, that you feel brings you luck and success?
3. Bashir makes several notes about the Zaghawa standards of beauty. Hair is often braided in a variety of styles, and long hair is especially treasured. The “Zaghawa believe that scarring makes women look beautiful” (p.13), and “Zaghawa men like their women plump” (p.14). How do these ideals of beauty compare or contrast with those of your culture?
4. Bashir’s father would have preferred the family buy water and buy firewood, while her grandmother wanted Halima and her friends to fetch it, even if the sources were far away. She did this to teach the girls how to work hard and justly appreciate the fruits of their labors. Do you think these lessons came in handy for Bashir and Kadiga? Were they at all useful? What similar chores have you undertaken? How did your parents communicate to you the value of hard work?
5. “In Zaghawa culture, there was nothing worse than the thought that your daughter might fail to find, or keep, her own Zaghawa man” (p.26). In your culture, how are ideas and expectations of marriage and adult relationships expressed? How are marriage rules communicated, and roles assigned? What happens to adult women who find themselves unmarried, and how does this contrast with people ’s opinions of unmarried men?
6. The Zaghawa language was not written down until 1986; previously, the society’s history was proudly passed down orally from generation to generation. How have you learned about your own history? Do you know as much of your family and national history as you’d like? What tools would you use to record your current events to inform and educate your descendants? What information would be most important for you to share?
7. Bashir writes, “Eating alone was considered a sin, and it was as bad, if not worse, than living alone. And it was better to be dead than to be bereft of one ’s family” (p.28). What mealtime rituals do you follow? How does your mealtime experience differ in those settings?
8. Bashir’s father was reluctant to buy new toys for his children after her little brother’s toys were stolen, so Bashir and her brothers had to make their own entertainment. How did you entertain yourself as a child? What creative things did you do for fun when you didn’t have the toys you wanted?
9. “Such customs might seem barbaric to outsiders, but to us that was the way things had always been. Our identity as Zaghawa was defined by such traditions” (p.36). What traditions define you, your culture, and your way of life?
10. Halima ran from her facial scarring, but welcomed her circumcision. Why do you think this was? Why do you think female circumcision is such an important ritual in some cultures?
11. In the face of ridicule from the Arab girls at school, Halima was determined to practice her Arabic and study hard to succeed. How would you have behaved in a similar situation? How do you handle having to work against difficult odds, or in tough and contrary environments?
12. “[The Arabs] were a minority in Sudan, so how was it that the best homes and the best jobs were reserved for them?” (p.99). How would you answer Halima’s question? Have you seen this type of social stratification play out elsewhere in the world?
13. How did you understand the conflict between the Arabs and the black African tribes? Where do you think this conflict had its origins? Do you think this conflict is strictly confined to Sudan? Where else in the world do you see similar strife, and what solutions, if any, would you recommend?
14. “The Arab man had openly called the African man a ‘black dog’ and a ‘black slave.’ That meant that he had also called me a black dog and a slave–for the African man and I were the same color, with similar facial features” (p.125). Have you ever aligned yourself with someone who was being ridiculed or mistreated? What did you feel you had in common with him? And how did you respond to the mistreatment?
15. “More than ever before now, I felt as if I was no longer of the village. My education has alienated me” (p.130). Have you ever felt separated from your peers because of your life experiences?
16. As Halima completed her medical training, she learned to distinguish between which traditional medicines were effective (like the taro shrub) and which antiquated practices were harmful (certain types of cutting). What holistic remedies do you rely on?
17. As the war escalated, Halima found her Arab university friends shocked by her fierce loyalty to her black African countrymen. Have you ever found yourself at odds with your close friends, divided by political, social, or religious differences?
18. How did you feel in reading the story of Halima’s reunion with Sharif? What about their first days together as husband and wife stirred you most? In what ways does Sharif ’s attitude toward Halima typify the character of Zaghawa men?
19. When Halima was approached by reporters asking her to share her story, at first she was hesitant. How would you explain her hesitancy, and would you have spoken up, broken the silence? And how would you explain her admission–and that of some of the girls she treated in Darfur–that sharing their most painful stories actually helped them to feel better, helped them to heal?