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A Memoir of Survival in Darfur

Written by Halima BashirAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Halima Bashir and Damien LewisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Damien Lewis

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On Sale: September 09, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-50990-1
Published by : One World/Ballantine Ballantine Group
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Synopsis

Born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert, Halima Bashir received a good education away from her rural surroundings (thanks to her doting, politically astute father) and at twenty-four became her village’s first formal doctor. Yet not even Bashir’s degree could protect her from the encroaching conflict that would consume her homeland. Janjaweed Arab militias savagely assaulted the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, in early 2004, the Janjaweed attacked Bashir’s village and surrounding areas, raping forty-two schoolgirls and their teachers. Bashir, who treated the traumatized victims, some as young as eight years old, could no longer remain quiet. But breaking her silence ignited a horrifying turn of events.

Raw and riveting, Tears of the Desert is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivor’s tale of a conflicted country, a resilient people, and an uncompromising spirit.

Excerpt

The Naming
Come here my love,
I have a song for you.
Come here my love,
I have a dream for you...

I sing-whisper this lullaby to my boy, my tiny child, as I rock him to sleep in my arms. Outside the window of our cell-like apartment the London traf?c roars by. But here we are safe, he and I, this little sleepy miracle that I clutch to myself with a desperate joy in my heart. And as I sing, inside my head I am transported home, home to my beloved Africa.

Come here my love,
I have a kiss for you.
Come here my love...

This is the lullaby that my kind and gentle mother used to sing to me, of an evening by the ?reside.

This is the lullaby that my ?erce Grandma Sumah would sing, on those warm African nights when she allowed herself to relax a little, and for her inner love to shine through. And this is the lullaby that my wonderful, funny, clever father would murmur in my ear, as he rocked me on his lap and ran his ?ngers through my hair.

Come here my love,
I have a smile for you...

As I sing this song I am in Africa again, enveloped in the loving warmth and security of my family.

As I sing this song I am with my tribe again, the Zaghawa, a ?erce, warlike black African people who are the most generous and open when welcoming strangers. I am back in the hot, spicy, dry desert air of my village, a child dressed only in dust and happiness, and all in my life is wondrous and good.

I am in my home, with my family, with my people, in my village, in Darfur.

Darfur. I know to you this must be a word soaked in suffering and blood. A name that conjures up terrible images of a dark horror and an evil without end. Pain and cruelty on a magnitude inconceivable in most of the civilized world. But to me Darfur means something quite different: It was and is that irreplaceable, unfathomable joy that is home.

Come here my love,
I have a home for you...

I sing this song for my little boy who is not yet one year old, and re?ect upon the miracle of his birth–for it gave me the spirit and the will to live. Without you, I tell his shining, sleepy eyes, I would have killed myself from the horror and shame of it all. The darkness would have overcome me, dragged me down into its eager drowning.

We Zaghawa are a ?erce, warlike people, and death–violent and bloody and at one’s own hand–is far preferable to dishonor and shame. It has always been thus for my tribe.

Come here my love,
I have a hug for you...

“You know what rape is?” The face is a mask of hatred–eyes close to mine, his soldier’s breath stinking. “You think because you are a doctor you really know what rape is?”

A second soldier lunges at me, pinning me to the ?oor. “We’ll show you what rape is, you black dog...”

“You think you can talk to the foreigners about rape!” a third screams. “Let me tell you–you know nothing. But in rape we are expert teachers...”



“And when we are ?nished with you we might just let you live,” the ?rst one spits out. “Then you can go and tell the world...”

I try to block out the memory of it all, but sometimes it is not possible, and it comes crowding in on me, dark and suffocating, putrid and evil. I can still see their faces, even now, as if it were only yesterday. Bloodshot eyes, in?amed with hatred and lust. Graying stubble. Unclean breath, the reek of days-old sweat and unwashed uniforms. A ?ashing blade as one tries to cut my trousers off of me. I kick out, ?ercely, aiming for his groin. He cries out in pain, recovers himself, and stabs the knife into my thigh. I feel the agony of that knife thrust, and a dead weight bearing down on my bound hands.

Come here my love,
I have a life for you...

I hug my little boy close to my pounding, fearful heart. It is you who gave me life, the will to live, the spirit to go on. And because of you–and the countless other women and children who never made it through the horror alive–I am going to sit at this desk in our tiny apartment while you peacefully sleep, and I am going to start to write my story.

Come here my love,
I have a story for you...

My name is Halima. It is an important name and you must remember it. It is important because my father gave it to me seven days after I was born, in the village naming ceremony. In a sense my father saw into the future, for he named me after who and what I was to become.

I was my father’s ?rstborn child, and I was his favorite. I know all children say this, but I had an especially close bond with my father. For the ?rst ?ve years of my life I was an only child. I used to long for a brother or sister to play with. But I also knew that when one came along I’d have to share my parents with them, which was the last thing on earth that I wanted to do.

Whenever my father was home I would always be sitting at his side listening to his stories. He’d tell me about the legends of our tribe, the Zaghawa, or about the lineage of our family, which was descended from a long line of tribal chiefs. Or he’d tell me about his work buying and selling cattle, goats, and camels, and about his travels across the deserts and mountains of Darfur.


One day when I was very young we were lying on some rugs by the ?reside in the center of our home. In each corner of our fenced compound there was a thatched, circular mud hut: one for the women, one for the men, one for my parents, and one for visitors. And in the middle was a thatched wooden shelter with open sides. Here we gathered each evening, lounging around the ?re and gazing up at the bright stars, talking, talking and laughing.

My father was playing a game with me. It is just like the “This little piggy went to market” game that Westerners play with their children. He took my left hand in his, and traced a circle in my palm: “The camel’s home,” he announced, gazing into my eyes. Then he traced a similar pattern on my forearm: “The cow’s home.” Then higher up: “The sheep’s home . . .” Of course, we’d played this game many times before, and I knew what was coming. I was giggling and trying to pull my arm away to escape.

“The chicken’s home . . .” he continued, tracing a chicken coop at the top of my arm. And then, as I desperately tried to squidge myself up into a ball, he made a lunge for my armpit. “And who is this home for?!”

We fell about laughing, as he tickled me and I tried to ?ght him off. When we tired of the game we leaned back on the rugs, losing our thoughts in the dark night sky.

“You–you’re my favorite little girl,” my father murmured, as he stroked my hair. “You brought such luck to our family.”

“But why am I so lucky, abba?” I asked him. Abba is “Daddy” in our Zaghawa language. I was at that age when I always wanted to know “why.”

My father went on to tell me the story of my naming ceremony. In our tribe each child’s name must be announced within seven days of birth. My mother and father were so proud of their ?rstborn that they invited everyone to the naming ceremony. My father was a relatively rich man in our village, as he owned many cattle, sheep, and goats, and dozens of prized camels. My father slaughtered several animals and a feast was prepared for all.


My mother was resting after the birth, and would do so for forty days, as was our tradition. So my fearsome Grandma Boheda rounded up some of the village women to help cook. There were trays piled high with kissra, a ?at, sorghum pancake cooked on a metal plate over an open ?re. There were cauldrons over?owing with acidah, a thick maize mash. There were bowls piled high with fresh salad, garnished with sesame oil and lemon juice. And there was lots of smoked cattle and goat meat, with hot, spicy sauces.

On the morning of my naming, people came bearing gifts of food or little presents. The women were dressed in topes, long robes of a ?ne, chiffon material, decorated with all the colors of the rainbow. The unmarried girls wore the brightest, with ?ame red, ?re orange, and sunset pink designs. And the men looked magni?cent in their white robes that swathed the body from head to toe, topped off by a twisted white turban, an immah.

“You were lying inside the hut,” my father told me. “A tiny baby at your mother’s side. A stream of people came in to see you. But Grandma Sumah was there, and you know what she’s like.... She had your face covered. ‘Please can we see the baby’s face?’ people kept asking. But Grandma just scowled at them and muttered something about protecting you from the Evil Eye.”

The Evil Eye is a curse that all Zaghawa–and many other Muslims– believe in with fervor. With my mother resting, Grandma Sumah was looking after me, and she was very superstitious. She didn’t want anyone looking at me too closely, just in case they had bad intentions and gave me the Evil Eye.

“She’s so beautiful–what name have you chosen?” people kept asking. But Grandma just gave an even darker scowl, and refused to breathe a word.

My father had issued strict instructions. He wasn’t prepared to announce my name until a very special person was present–the traditional medicine woman of our village. When she arrived, my father led her to the center of our house. “I’m calling my ?rstborn child Halima, after you,” he announced. Then he took the medicine woman into the hut so she could bless me.

“But why did you name me after her, abba?” I asked my father. The tradition in our tribe is to name your children after their grandparents. I’d always wondered where my name had come from.



“Ah, well, that’s a long story,” my father replied, his eyes laughing in the warm glow of the ?relight.

“And it’s getting close to your bedtime...”

I knew he was teasing me, and I begged him to tell me the story. Eventually, as was nearly always the case, he relented.

“At ?rst I thought about calling you Sumah, after Grandma,” my father continued. “But she refused to let me . . .” My father rolled his eyes at me, and I giggled. We both knew what Grandma was like: She’d never agree to anything if she could help it. “And then I remembered a promise that I had made when I was a young man. One day I was out on a camel rounding up cattle. The camel stumbled in a dry riverbed and I had fallen. Some villagers found me lying unconscious, and they were convinced that I was near death...”

“But you couldn’t die, abba,” I objected. “Surely you couldn’t?”

My father chuckled. “Well, nothing they could do would wake me. All the herbs and medicines failed to stir me. They cut me open here.” My father revealed a thick white scar running around his neck. “They wanted to bleed me and let the infection run out, but it didn’t work. Even the hi-jabs that the Fakirs prepared didn’t help...”

I was amazed. Hijabs are potent spell-prayers that the village holy men–the Fakirs–would prepare to protect and heal people. We believe in their power absolutely. If even they had failed, my father must have been very ill.

“It was as if I was determined to die,” my father continued. “Finally, they took me to Halima, the medicine woman. She treated me for months on end, and nursed me until I was well. She saved my life, of that I’m certain. Anyway, I promised her that I would name one of my children after her. And that’s why I named you Halima.”

I felt so happy to learn how it was that I’d been named. The medicine woman was a kindly old lady who often visited our home. She’d search me out, calling to me: “Come here, come here, little girl who has my name!” She’d give me a hug and pat me on the head. I’d always presumed that she was just happy that we shared the same name–but now I knew the true signi?cance of what it meant for her, for my father, and for me. “But why does that make me lucky?” I persisted. He still hadn’t explained that part of the story.



My father laughed, and his eyes twinkled like ?ery coals. “You don’t miss a thing, do you, Rathebe?”

“Rathebe” was the nickname that my father had given me. There was a famous singer called Dolly Rathebe, and my father had seen her picture during a visit to one of the big towns. She had an unruly fuzz of hair just like mine, and she was a wild, spirited performer. She lived in a country called South Africa, and she sang about the suffering of black Africans at the hands of those who believed they were better than us. For some reason my father thought that I was going to grow up to be just like her.

“On the day of your naming, old Halima was brought into the hut,” my father continued. “She was the guest of honor, so Grandma allowed her to see your face. She bent close to kiss you and spotted your white eyelash. She may have been old, but her beady little eyes missed nothing. She called me into the hut and pointed it out. She told me that it was a special blessing, and that you would bring luck to all the family. And so it proved...”

I put a hand to my face and touched my eyelash. Ever since I was old enough to listen, my parents had warned me that my white eyelash was precious, and that I should never cut it. In Zaghawa tradition a white eyelash signi?es good fortune. My father was convinced that the year of my birth was the year that his livestock business had really started to ?ourish. He’d even managed to buy himself an old Land Rover–the ?rst vehicle to be owned by anyone in our village.

The Land Rover was an old khaki green thing, half held together by string and bits of wire. But to us it was like a miraculous apparition from the modern world. When I was older we tried to get my father to sell it, and buy a nicer, newer one. But he refused. He had a strong emotional attachment to that Land Rover, he said. He had so many memories bound up in it, and he feared that they would disappear with the car.

My father’s name was Abdul, but everyone in our village called him Okiramaj–which means “the man who has many camels.” It also has another de?nition–“he who can do anything”; for the man who has many camels is rich, and capable of many things. He was tall and dark-skinned, with a long, ovoid face. He had a thick, glossy mustache, and I used to think that he was the most handsome man in the world.

He had two vertical scars on either side of his head, at his temples. He had been cut when just a boy, to mark him as being from the Zaghawa tribe. These two cuts were also believed to prevent eye infections, and so we called them “the glasses cuts.”



If you didn’t have them people would ask: “You don’t have glasses? Why not? Can you still see well?”

The more scarring that a boy endured, the more of a brave warrior and ?ghter people believed he would be. Some Zaghawa men had clusters of scarring all over their neck and chest, but my father didn’t. He came from a long line of tribal leaders, and education and skill at trading were highly valued. He was more a thinking man and a village philosopher. He was slow to anger and quick to forgive, and in all my years he never once raised a hand to me.

My father wore a traditional Zaghawa dagger strapped to his arm just below the shoulder. It had a wooden handle, a silver pommel, and a leather scabbard decorated with snakeskin and ?ne, geometric patterns. All Zaghawa men wore one, which meant they were ready to ?ght if need be. Around his waist was a string of hijabs–little leather pouches made by the Fakirs, each with a spell-prayer scribbled on a scrap of paper and sewn up inside.

My father was in his midthirties when he married my mother, Sumah. She was just eighteen and a real beauty. One day he saw her walking through the village, and it was love at ?rst sight. He sought out Grandma Sumah and asked if he might marry her daughter. Grandma was long estranged from her husband, and she and her children had had a hard life. My father was wealthy and Grandma knew him to be a good man. She felt he would make a ?ne husband for her eldest daughter, and she had readily agreed to the match.

My father and I lay around the ?re talking long into the night. He explained to me what an extraordinary day my naming had turned out to be–quite apart from the discovery of my white eyelash. An old man on a camel had arrived at the gates of our home. Although he was a stranger he was invited in, for it was our culture to welcome visitors. But as soon as he clapped eyes on my mother and Grandma Sumah, he ?ew into a towering rage.

This was Grandma Sumah’s long-estranged husband and he had ridden many days to ?nd her. The Zaghawa are divided into three clans– the Towhir, the Coube, and the Bidayat. Grandma and Grandpa came from different clans. When Grandma had run away from him, she’d returned to the heartland of her tribe, the Coube. Grandpa lived in the distant lands of the Bidayat, and for all these years he’d been unable to trace her.



Then he had heard of a beautiful young Coube girl in our village, Hadurah. He’d learned that she was marrying a rich and handsome man from the Towhir clan. He traced the family names and was convinced that it was his estranged wife who was involved. And so he had set out on his camel to discover if he had ?nally tracked down his long lost family. Upon arrival he had realized that he had, and that his eldest daughter was already married. He’d ?own into a rage against my father, drawing his dagger.

“How dare you marry my daughter!” he’d cried. “Who gave you permission to do so? Certainly not me, and I am her father!”

Before my father could say anything, Grandma Sumah jumped to her feet and whipped out a dagger from her robes. Zaghawa women are not supposed to carry one, and everyone stared at her in openmouthed amazement. It was ?fteen years since Grandma had last seen her husband, but she had no problem recognizing him.

“Just you try coming near me!” she yelled, her face like dark thunder. “Leave me and my children be!”

Needless to say, Grandma’s intervention didn’t help very much. And when Grandpa discovered that I existed and that the feast was all in honor of my naming, it made matters even worse. Not only had his wife left him and his eldest daughter married without his permission, but she’d already given birth to a child. Grandpa demanded that he be allowed to take me back to his village. If my father wouldn’t agree, then he would forever curse their marriage.

In Zaghawa tradition the worst one man can do to another is to dishonor him, so my father knew that he had to handle this carefully. He called together the village elders–men of Grandpa’s age and older–and they tried to talk him down. They explained that however much everyone regretted it, what was done was done. My father and mother were married, the child was born, and it had been named that very morning.

My father left the elders to talk and returned with a pillowcase stuffed full of money. He handed it to Grandpa, explaining that it was a down payment on the dowry that he would be paying for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Better late than never, Grandpa must have decided, for his mood suddenly brightened.



My father slaughtered another cow, and announced that it was now a triple celebration: ?rst, for my naming; second, for the discovery of my white eyelash; and third, for the reuni?cation of a long-separated family. The only person who wasn’t very happy with the turn of events was Grandma. She refused to say a word to Grandpa. She just stood and stared at him, gripping her knife and testing its edge on her arm.

Grandpa had stayed a day or two, before he had to get back to his village. He told Grandma that now he knew where she lived and that she was happy, he could go home with a clear mind. But still Grandma brandished her knife at him, and told him to be on his way.

The story of why Grandma had run away from Grandpa was an extraordinary one, my father added. Once he had heard it, it explained a lot about Grandma’s ?erce nature. But we should keep it for another day. Everyone else had retired to their huts to sleep, and it was time that we joined them.

My father ruf?ed my sleepy head. “So, now you know the story of how you got your name,” he told me. “And who knows, maybe one day you will be a healer–just like the village medicine woman, Halima.”

My father didn’t know it, but his words were a prophecy of the future.
My father didn’t know it, but his words were a prophecy of the future.
Damien Lewis|Author Q&A

About Damien Lewis

Damien Lewis - Tears of the Desert
Damien Lewis is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has worked for the Daily Telegraph, Guardian and the BBC. His previous books include Sunday Times bestsellers: Slave, Operation Certain Death and, most recently Bloody Heroes.

Author Q&A

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. 

Praise

Praise

“This memoir helps keep the Darfur tragedy open as a wound not yet healed.”—Elie Wiesel, author of Night

“This is a brave book. And a valuable one. Halima’s story of the atrocities and immeasurable losses she has endured must be told. The world continues to turn a deaf ear to the cries from the Darfur region, and our failure to protect this tortured population is a measure of who we are as a global ‘community’. Still, Halima leaves us with hope and awe in the face of her courage.”—Mia Farrow, actor and advocate

“Halima Bashir has bared her soul to help stop the bleeding of her people in Darfur. Attention must be paid.”—John Prendergast, co-chair of the ENOUGH Project and co-author of Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond

“A harrowing and beautifully written tale of a rich life, untold suffering, and impossible hope told from the heart of a fellow African sister. Read this as the tragedy that has overcome our long-suffering country, Sudan.”—Mende Nazer, author of Slave

“Halima’s story is fantastic and exhausting, perhaps all the more so because I can see and hear and feel the people and places she describes. People need to be drawn into Darfur through stories like this, to cut through the statistics and the horror and to come back to the humanity–to families, love, hope, and courage and the normality of life in such abnormal circumstances.”—Lisa French Blaker, author of Heart of Darfur

“The genocide in Darfur has found its Anne Frank. The slaughter inflicted on the African peoples of western Sudan is one of modern Africa’s darkest episodes but one Darfuri woman, Halima Bashir, rips through diplomatic compromise and political double-speak to lay bear Darfur’s ghastly reality. A searingly frank testimonial of a war crime that deserves all our attention.'”—Tim Butcher, author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

“Bashir, a physician and refugee living in London, offers a vivid personal portrait of life in the Darfur region of Sudan before the catastrophe . . . This is a vehement cri de coeur, but in showing what she suffered, and lost, Bashir makes it resonate.”—Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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? 


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