The Translator: A Tribesman's Memory of Darfur

Overview

"If God must break your leg He will at least teach you to limp – so it is said in Africa. This book is my poor limping – a modest account that cannot tell every story that deserves telling. I have seen and heard many things in Darfur that have broken my heart. I bring the stories to you because I know most people want others to have good lives and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to bend the world back toward kindness. This is when human beings, I believe, are most admirable."

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Overview

"If God must break your leg He will at least teach you to limp – so it is said in Africa. This book is my poor limping – a modest account that cannot tell every story that deserves telling. I have seen and heard many things in Darfur that have broken my heart. I bring the stories to you because I know most people want others to have good lives and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to bend the world back toward kindness. This is when human beings, I believe, are most admirable."

The young life of Daoud Hari – his friends call him David – has been one of bravery and mesmerizing adventure. As a translator and the guide of choice to media, the US Embassy, and the United Nations, Hari became a vital link to the outside world, a living witness to the brutal genocide underway in Darfur. Most of the reporting on the great tragedies of our day has been written by journalists, and after-the-fact. Rarely, in a conflict of this magnitude, has there been an eyewitness voice to the events as they are still happening. Daoud Hari is that voice.

The Translator is a suspenseful, harrowing and deeply moving memoir of how one person can make a difference in the world – an on-the-ground account of one of the biggest stories of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A beautifully written and often poetic story of personal courage and redemption in the face of the worst that we can be. [Hari] invites us not only to discover but to be our better selves." – James Orbinski, author of An Imperfect Offering

"What a beautiful and powerfully told story. The harrowing details of Daoud Hari's survival in the most nightmarish of times oblige us to keep our faith in human decency. I will read The Translator again and again." –Wayson Choy

"May be the biggest small book of this year, or any year....In a voice that is restrained, generous, gentle and — astonishingly — humorous...Hari allows the vastness of Darfur's suffering to seep into the reader's consciousness in a way that a raw, more emotional telling might now. Gently ironic...Moving." –The Washington Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385666169
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada
  • Publication date: 1/13/2009
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Daoud Hari was born in the Darfur region of Sudan. After escaping an assault on his village, he entered the refugee camps in Chad and began serving as a translator for major news organizations including The New York Times, NBC, and the BBC, as well as the UN and other aid groups. He now lives in the United States, and was part of SaveDarfur.org’s “Voices from Darfur” tour.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Call from the Road

I am sure you know how important it can be to get a good phone signal. We were speeding through the hot African desert in a scratched and muddy Land Cruiser that had been much whiter a week earlier. Our driver, a Darfur tribesman like me, was swerving through thorny acacia bushes, working the gears expertly in the deep sands of another and always another ravine, which we call a wadi, and sailing over the bumps in the land–there are no roads to speak of. In the backseat, a young news filmmaker from Britain, Philip Cox, was holding on as we bounced and as our supplies thumped and clanked and sloshed around. A veteran of these deserts, he was in good humor–even after a long week of dusty travel and so many emotionally difficult interviews. Survivors told us of villages surrounded at night by men with torches and machine guns, the killing of men, women, and children, the burning of people alive in the grass huts of Darfur. They told us of the rape and mutilation of young girls, of execution by machete of young men–sometimes eighty at a time in long lines.

You cannot be a human being and remain unmoved, yet if it is your job to get these stories out to the world, you keep going. So we did that.

I was Philip’s translator and guide, and it was my job tokeep us alive. Several times each hour I was calling militarycommanders from rebel groups or from the Chad National Army to ask if we should go this way or that way to avoid battles or other trouble.My great collection of phone numbers was the reason many reporters trusted me to take them intoDarfur. I don’t know how Philip got my cell number in the first place–maybe from the U.S. Embassy, or the U.S. State Department, or the British Embassy, or from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or from one of the aid organizations or a resistance group. It seemed that everyone had my cell phone number now. He certainly did not get my number from the government of Sudan, whose soldiers would kill me if they caught me bringing in a reporter.

These satellite phone calls–and often just cell phonecalls–frequently were to commanders who said, No, you will die if you come here, because we are fighting so-and-so today. We would then find another way.

If one rebel group hears that you have been calling another group, they might think you are a spy, even though you are only doing this for the journalist and for the story–you give the rebels nothing in return. I had to be careful about such things if I wanted to get my reporters out of Darfur alive, and so more stories could go out to the world. Since the attack on my own village, that had become my reason, and really my only reason, for living. I was feeling mostly dead inside and wanted only to make my remaining days count for something. You have perhaps felt this way at some time. 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 was using my English instead of a gun.

We needed to arrive at our destination before sundown or risk attack by the Sudanese Army, or by Darfur rebels aligned with government, or by other rebels who didn’t know who we were and who might kill us just to be safe. So we didn’t like what happened next.

Our Land Cruiser was suddenly blocked by six trucks that emerged from a maze of desert bushes. These were Land Cruisers, too, but with their roofs cut off completely so men could pile in and out instantly, as when they have to escape a losing battle or get out before a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) reaches them. Dusty men with Kalashnikov rifles piled out. On the order of their commander, they pointed their guns at us. When so many guns are pulled ready at the same time, the crunching sound is memorable. We moved slowly out of our vehicle with our hands raised.

These men were clearly rebel troops: their uniforms were but dirty jeans; ammunition belts hung across their chests; their loosely wrapped turbans, or shals–head scarves, really–were caked with the dust of many days’fighting. No doctors travel with these troops, who fight almost every day and leave their friends in shallow graves. Emotionally, they are walking dead men who count their future in hours. This makes them often ruthless, as if they think everyone might as well go to the next life with them. Many of them have seen their families murdered and their villages burned. You can imagine how you would feel if your hometown were wiped away and all your family killed by an enemy whom you now roam the land to find and kill so you can die in peace.

Among the rebels are the Sudan Liberation Movement, the Sudan Liberation Army, the Justice and Equality Movement, and several others. There are other groups in Chad, and they travel across the borders as they please. Where they get their guns and money is often a mystery, but Darfur has been filled with automatic weapons from the time when Libya attacked Chad and used Darfur as a staging area. Also, it must be understood that Sudan is aligned with radical Islamic groups and is, as a separate matter, letting China get most of its oil. So some Western interests and some surrounding countries are thought to be involved in supporting the rebel groups. It is sad how ordinary people suffer when these chess games are played.

Nearly half of Africa is covered by the pastoral lands of herding villages, and much of this land has great wealth below and poor people above. They are among the three hundred million Africans who earn less than a dollar a day, and who are often pushed out of the way or killed for such things as oil, water, metal ore, and diamonds. This makes the rise of rebel groups very easy. The men who stopped us probably needed no persuasion to join this group.

The men’s weary-looking young commander walked to me and said in the Zaghawa language,

“Daoud Ibarahaem Hari, we know all about you. You are a spy. I know you are Zaghawa like us, not Arab, but unfortunately we have some orders, and we have to kill you now.”

It was easy for him to know I was a Zaghawa from the small scars that look like quotation marks and were cut into my temples by my grandmother when I was an infant. I told him yes, I am Zaghawa, but I am no spy.

The commander breathed in a sad way and then put the muzzle of his M-14 rifle to one of these scars on my head. He asked me to hold still and told Philip to stand away. He paused to tell Philip in broken English not to worry, that they would send him back to Chad after they killed me.

“Yes, fine, but just a sec,” Philip replied, holding his hand up to stop the necessary business for a moment while he consulted me.

“What is going on?”

“They think I am a spy, and they are going to shoot the gun and it will make my head explode, so you should stand away.”

“Who are they?” he asked.

I told him the name of the group, nodding carefully in the direction of a vehicle that had their initials handpainted on the side.

He looked at the vehicle and lowered his hands to his hips. He looked the way the British look when they are upset by some unnecessary inconvenience. Philip wore a well-wrapped turban; his skin was tanned and a littlecracked from his many adventures in these deserts. He was not going to stand by and lose a perfectly good translator.

“Wait just a moment!” he said to the rebel commander. “Do . . . not . . . shoot . . . this . . . man. This man is not a spy. This man is my translator and his name is Suleyman Abakar Moussa of Chad. He has his papers.” Philip thought that was my name. I had been using that name to avoid being deported from Chad to a certain death in Sudan, where I was wanted, and to avoid being otherwise forced to stay in a Chad refugee camp, where I could be of little service.

“I hired this man to come here; he is not a spy. We are doing a film for British television. Do you understand this? It’s absolutely essential that you understand this.” He asked me to translate, just to be sure, which, under my circumstance, I was happy to do.

More than his words, Philip’s manner made the commander hesitate. I watched the commander’s finger pet the trigger. The gun muzzle was hot against my temple. Had he fired it recently, or was it just hot from the sun? I decided that if these were about to be my last thoughts, I should try some better ones instead. So I thought about my family and how I loved them and how I might see my brothers soon.

“I am going to make a telephone call,” Philip explained, slowly withdrawing his satellite phone from his khaki pants pocket. “You will not shoot this man, because your commander will talk to you on this telephone momentarily– you understand?” He looked up a number from his pocket notebook. It was the personal number of the rebel group’s top commander. He had interviewed him the previous year.

“Your top man,” he said to all the gunmen standing like a firing squad around us as he waited for the call to go through. “Top man. Calling his personal number now. It’s ringing. Ringing and ringing.”

God is good. The satellite phone had a strong signal. The number still worked. The distant commander answered his own phone. He remembered Philip warmly. Miracle after miracle.
Philip talked on the phone in a rapid English that I quietly translated for the man holding the gun.
Philip held one finger up as he spoke, begging with that finger and with his eyes for one more moment, one more moment. He laughed to show that he and the man on the phone were old friends.

“They are old friends,” I translated.

Philip then held out the satellite phone to the commander, who pressed the muzzle even harder against my head.

“Please talk to him now. Please. He says it’s an order for you to talk to him.”

The commander hesitated as if it were some trick, but finally reached over and took the phone.

The two commanders talked at length. I watched his trigger finger rise and fall like a cobra and then finally slither away. We were told to leave the country immediately.

To not get killed is a very good thing. It makes you smile again and again, foolishly, helplessly, for several hours. Amazing. I was not shot–humdallah.My brothers, you will have to wait for me a little longer.

Our driver had been wide-eyed through all this, since drivers often do not fare well in this kind of situation. There was joy and some laughter in the Land Cruiser as we sped back toward the village of Tine–which you say “Tina”–on the Chad-Sudan border.
“That was amazing what you did,” I said to Philip. We drove a few trees farther before he replied.
“Amazing, yes. Actually, I’ve been trying to get through to him for weeks,” he said. “Lucky thing, really.”
The driver, who spoke almost no English, asked me what Philip had said. I told him that he had said God is good, which, indeed, is what I believe he was saying.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Daoud Hari manages to find the good in many people and makes friends easily. As he says, “I bring the stories to you because I know most people want others to have good lives and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to steer the world back to kindness.” How does he make these friends? How can we apply this to our own lives? Do you agree that most people want others to have good lives?

2. The conflict in Darfur is often described as being between black Africans and Arabs. The book shows that the conflict is more complicated than that. What are some of the root causes of the conflict in Darfur? How did the African farmers and Arab nomads live together before the conflict? What are the similarities to other conflicts around the world? How can these conflicts be prevented in the future, particularly in light of global warming?

3. What specific steps can the world take to help ensure that Darfuris are allowed to return home, and to send the message that genocide doesn’t work? Do you think genocide has worked so far in this conflict or in others? Can it be prevented in the future? If so, how?

4. Daoud describes the suffering of Darfuri refugees, particularly women and children. How are women and children refugees most vulnerable and what can be done to help them? What is the difference between refugees and internally displaced persons? Where else in the world do large numbers of refugees live? What do you know about them, and what is being done to help them survive and eventually return home?

5. When Daoud is in the small jail near Aswan, Egypt, with the old jailer, and he finds the Egyptian hundred-pound note in a pocket he had forgotten existed, he says that the note “was so folded and faded that I think it was waiting for me for a long time in that pocket, in the way that many things are waiting for us to be ready to receive them.” What does Daoud mean by this? Can you describe how this could apply to your own life?

6. Daoud says at the end of the book that it is likely people are still being killed in Darfur and suffering in the camps as you read the book. What were the most recent events in Darfur when you read the book? How can you act to promote peace in Darfur and to help ensure that the refugees are returned to their land? What actions should the international community take?

7. Daoud uses his language skills to help his people in the only way he knows how — as a translator. Why is this role so important? How does this work help the people of Darfur? Others he knows have chosen to use guns. What do you think of this choice?

8. Daoud writes about how he had known for a long time that he could not help his family in the way his brothers had or as his father and grandfathers had before him. What do you think this means for tradition-based cultures like the one in Darfur? How has change of this kind happened in your own area, and what effect has it had?

9. Paul Salopek and Daoud have a complex relationship. Describe how they work together to help each other and Ali. Both Daoud and Paul have the opportunity to separate themselves from each other in captivity, which would have bettered each of their chances for survival. What would you have done in such a situation?

10. How does Daoud’s concept of family change throughout the book? How is it redefined and enlarged? What role does his time in the various prisons play in this transformation?

11. Daoud is constantly breaking the rules for what he sees as a higher good. How does this relate to your life? How are you willing to break the rules and suffer the consequences in order to serve your higher values? How far would you go in order to pursue your ideals?

12. What are some of the ways in which Daoud deals with the emotional stress of Darfur’s horrors? How does this differ from the ways in which you would deal with such trauma? How does our culture tell us to deal with trauma? Is a horrific news story played over and over on TV — for example, the attack on the World Trade Center — therapeutic as a way for our nation to share and understand this horror, or is it hurtful rather than helpful?

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