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The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur

The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur

4.4 37
by Daoud Hari, Dennis Michael Burke, Megan M. McKenna

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I am the translator who has taken journalists into dangerous Darfur. It is my intention now to take you there in this book, if you have the courage to come with me.

The young life of Daoud Hari–his friends call him David–has been one of bravery and mesmerizing adventure. He is a living witness to the brutal genocide under way in Darfur.



I am the translator who has taken journalists into dangerous Darfur. It is my intention now to take you there in this book, if you have the courage to come with me.

The young life of Daoud Hari–his friends call him David–has been one of bravery and mesmerizing adventure. He is a living witness to the brutal genocide under way in Darfur.

The Translator is a suspenseful, harrowing, and deeply moving memoir of how one person has made a difference in the world–an on-the-ground account of one of the biggest stories of our time. Using his high school knowledge of languages as his weapon–while others around him were taking up arms–Daoud Hari has helped inform the world about Darfur.

Hari, a Zaghawa tribesman, grew up in a village in the Darfur region of Sudan. As a child he saw colorful weddings, raced his camels across the desert, and played games in the moonlight after his work was done. In 2003, this traditional life was shattered when helicopter gunships appeared over Darfur’s villages, followed by Sudanese-government-backed militia groups attacking on horseback, raping and murdering citizens and burning villages. Ancient hatreds and greed for natural resources had collided, and the conflagration spread.

Though Hari’s village was attacked and destroyedhis family decimated and dispersed, he himself escaped. Roaming the battlefield deserts on camels, he and a group of his friends helped survivors find food, water, and the way to safety. When international aid groups and reporters arrived, Hari offered his services as a translator and guide. In doing so, he risked his life again and again, for the government of Sudan had outlawed journalists in the region, and death was the punishment for those who aided the “foreign spies.” And then, inevitably, his luck ran out and he was captured. . . .

The Translator tells the remarkable story of a man who came face-to-face with genocide– time and again risking his own life to fight injustice and save his people.

Editorial Reviews

David Chanoff
The Translator, by Daoud Hari, a native Darfurian, may be the biggest small book of this year, or any year. In roughly 200 pages of simple, lucid prose, it lays open the Darfur genocide more intimately and powerfully than do a dozen books by journalists or academic experts. Hari and his co-writers achieve this in a voice that is restrained, generous, gentle and—astonishingly—humorous. He is not an Elie Wiesel or a Simon Wiesenthal speaking the unspeakable in words so searing as to be practically unbearable. I, for one, am grateful for that. In these times, when news of carnage and atrocity comes at us so insistently, Hari's tone allows the vastness of Darfur's suffering to seep into the reader's consciousness in a way that a raw, more emotional telling might not.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Hari's harrowing and stunning memoir recounts life in the Sudan during one of the most widely neglected and horrifying events in human history. Mirron Willis brings a subtle reality to the touching story through his simple yet incredibly understated performance. Read with a just-right Sudanese dialect, Willis becomes Hari from the very beginning, bringing listeners into the story slowly by relating the beauties of his former home before the helicopters arrive late one night in 2003. The result is a story of survival in the midst of an intense genocide, heartbreaking yet stunningly uplifting. Willis speaks directly and captivatingly to his listener. This is an important story that speaks to everyone. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (reviewed online). (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

A Sudanese tribesman who has worked as a translator and guide for journalists reporting on the conflict in Darfur, Hari offers a moving account of his experiences in his troubled homeland, rendered in spare and direct prose. With quiet power and gripping immediacy, Hari eloquently describes the devastating genocide in Darfur and the resulting human suffering. Hari's dangerous mission as a translator was to give voice to the silenced victims of Darfur; with his memoir he continues this important work by clearly explaining and humanizing the causes and consequences of the conflict within the context of his own story. Even amid great personal danger and hardship, he steadfastly maintains an inspiring degree of compassion for all sides of the conflict, never wavering in his burning desire to raise worldwide awareness of the unchecked genocide in his homeland. This memoir raises fundamental questions about the global community's moral responsibility to act, leaving the reader with unsettling questions about humanity's capacity for evil. With parallels to works such as Paul Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man(with Tom Zoellner) and John Bul Dau's God Grew Tired of Us(with Michael S. Sweeney), this wise and compelling autobiography is highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Ingrid Levin

Kirkus Reviews
Harrowing but hopeful account of the genocide in Sudan, as told by one of the courageous locals who make it possible for a stubborn cadre of journalists to bring word of the atrocities to the outside world. Hari belongs to the Zaghawa tribe, which when he was a boy came into increasing conflict with Arab nomads grazing their animals without permission on Zaghawa lands. The government in Khartoum encouraged the nomads, just as it encouraged the Arab militias called Janjaweed to kill non-Arab Africans and burn their homes. After a brutal assault by the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed on his village, Hari narrowly escaped to a refugee camp in Chad. There, he put his limited English and affable manner to work, hiring himself out as a translator and all-around fixer to many foreign journalists, who soon couldn't do without his impressive Rolodex and his ability to make friends nearly everywhere. Crossing back into the conflict zone exposed Hari and his employers to indescribable tragedies. Following one particularly senseless massacre of 81 villagers by the Janjaweed, the BBC reporters he was with entered a medical clinic for three days "to recover from what they saw, and smelled, and learned about the nature of what simply must be called evil." Yet Hari refuses merely to recite a litany of woe; he takes time to recount, in more vivid detail than that of any Westerner's Darfur memoir, the history of Darfur's ancient kingdoms, their hereditary system of sheiks and sultans and the complex interconnections among all Sudanese, who until recently mingled freely across racial and religious lines. The narrative displays a light touch befitting the author's friendly disposition; even near the end,when he describes a frightening period of torture and imprisonment, he remains the kind of man who wants to look for the good in everybody. A book of unusually humane power and astounding moral clarity: evenhanded but pointing a reproachful finger at all the right targets. Agent: Gail Ross/Gail Ross Literary Agency

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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5.81(w) x 8.47(h) x 0.97(d)

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.


Meet the Author

Daoud Hari was born in the Darfur region of Sudan. After escaping an attack 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 United Nations and other aid groups. He now lives in the United States and was part of SaveDarfur.org's Voices from Darfur tour.

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Translator 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Translator is a horrifying first-hand account of the modern-day holocaust in Sudan. Daoud Hari has seen wretched acts of cruelty that appear in ones only most gut-wrenching nightmares. Unfortunately, these heartbreaking stories are a harsh reality for those living it. Hari, a native to Darfur, a region in Sudan that is under constant attack, became determined to share the horror of his life with the world. In his eye-opening memoir, he does so. Hari became incredibly useful to organizations and journalists who were eager to help the war-stricken region. With his ability to speak English, Zaghawa, and Arabic, plus have a gifted knowledge of Darfur's terrain, he proved useful. Hari risked his life over and over to save the country that he once so dearly loved. In his story, he tells that tales of grief and the violence that swept Sudan. This is a book like no other, and we are incredibly fortunate to have it. The memoir brings tears to ones eyes- the graphic detail are absolutely heinous. All in all, this novel is nothing short of pure excellence.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The complete title is as follows: The Translator: A Tribesman¿s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari, as told to Dennis Burke and Megan M. McKenna, 2008, Random House. If this book only reported firsthand on the situation in Sudan, it would already be an excellent, highly recommended book, but Daoud Hari¿s uniquely penetrating, concise eyewitness account puts this book in a higher category: this is a necessary book. If you read no other book this year, at least read this one if you read 100 other books, read this one first. The descriptions of horror can make you weep or wretch, yet the book is infused with humanity, dignity, and even humor--a testimony to the worst and best humanity has to offer. Daoud Hari has witnessed utmost cruelties and survived unspeakable crimes which struck down his family, his village, the region of Darfur, and which continue to corrupt and cripple the nation of Sudan, as its tribal citizens are wiped off the face of the earth or turned into unwelcome refugees. Overwhelmed by the senseless loss of his brother, the escape of his aged mother into the wilderness to hide, the dangerous roaming of his aged, noble father, the author sought to do something meaningful in the wake of madness which engulfed everyone and everything he knew. Armed with his ability to speak Zaghawa, Arabic, and English, and with intimate knowledge of Darfur¿s geography, Hari became useful to aid organizations and journalists. He became determined to help bring to the outside world the stories of those who died, who killed them, how, and why. The courage and humanity of journalists and other individuals who gathered eyewitness accounts of the genocide in Sudan comprise an essential part of his story. He also supplies significant explanations into the historic and cultural contexts of the strife in his country. His frankness makes this catastrophe very real for us.
YoyoMitch More than 1 year ago
Finding accurate descriptors to relate this snapshot of a place and time as foreign to my experience as imaginable is a challenge. Heart-rending – there are moments detailed in this account of the war(s) in Sudan that left me feeling as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Humorous – Mr. Hari’s gentle, welcoming spirit, tongue-in-cheek wit and “Gift of Gab” shine through on nearly every page. Frightening – to witness the rapid destruction of an ancient culture, even from the remoteness of reading it in a book, and realize how vulnerable even the most established society actually is cause for one’s anxiety to rise. Joyous – overhearing Mr. Hari’s family as they welcome each other amid the terror that surrounds them is to hear the voices of ones who: know what is valuable, practice the heritage of their ancestors with humility and invites all to celebrate their familial connections. Those four words are a poor start to relating the marvel of this book. Daoud Hari grew up in the close-knit, much extended Zaghawa tribe of Eastern Africa. This group has existed long before the concept of land “belonging” to people and the need for boundaries to define “countries” existed. His parents recognized his high intelligence and provided formal education to further develop his talents. This education combined with his ability to speak (at least) three languages fluently and his already large capacity to make friends made him highly sought as a translator after the various rebel groups (according to the author, these groups are actually supported by the government in a systematic effort at genocide) began a civil war and foreign journalists began arriving to cover the “action.” In the course of Sudan’s “Season of War,” Mr. Hari’s family, as have most of the population of that area, has suffered the loss of many of its members.  Entire villages have been attacked, its inhabitants slaughtered or forced from their lands, becoming refugees in the neighboring country of Chad. Mr. Hari’s position as translator made him a witness to many of the atrocities of this conflict, highly valued as a guide and deeply suspected by his government of being a spy. He speaks openly of the fear that was ever-present in his work, but he functioned from the perspective of “you have to be stronger than your fears if you want to get anything done in this life.” (p.11). His commitment to helping the journalists, who were reporting the carnage to the rest of the world, is rooted in his tribal heritage and the values taught him by his elders lead him to live the reality that “(you) must of course help everyone you can” (p.63). During his last job as guide and translator, he was arrested by one of the “rebel groups” and turned over to the government. His time as a prisoner was filled torture, interrogations, starvation, sleep deprivation and a heightened awareness that his Government cared more for power than it cared for justice or caring for its people. “The proof of a democracy is surely whether or not a government represents the hearts of its people” (p.86). The book is written to further educate the world about what is happening in Sudan, as the rulers of that country will not cease the genocide unless they are forced to do so by the outside world. Through all of the loss, torture, harassment and becoming a refugee himself, Mr. Hari remains hopeful – that the Zaghawa will return to the land without borders, that justice will prevail and that he may return home to his family.  May this wish become a reality.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read-alot More than 1 year ago
This book really answered any questions I had about what is going on in Darfur.  Don't miss out on  reading the appendixes in the back of the book. They have some good info too.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
menomm26 More than 1 year ago
The Translator, written by Daoud Hari, is a memoir about Daoud’s own experiences with the genocide in Darfur. Hari, being Zaghawa and born and raised in Darfur, brings to light a whole new perspective on the atrocities occurring in Sudan. He describes his childhood spent in a peaceful Sudanese village, and how life for the tribesmen got turned upside down once the fighting and attacks broke out across his country. Suddenly neighboring villages that had lived in harmony since the beginning were killing, raping, and torturing each other. Daoud, the scholar of his family, had learned English, and therefore began offering his services to journalists and reporters across the globe. Time after time he would risk his life to shuttle these people across the Chad Sudan border and translate for them the tragic stories of the victims of this genocide. While each one was different and more terrible than the next, they all had a way of impacting all those who heard it. Daoud knew this, and knew that it was his responsibility to get these stories out into the world so that people would know what about what was happening in Darfur and that they might help. Eventually his luck caught up with him and while taking journalist Paul Salopek into the warzone which was Sudan they were captured by the rebel forces. Through friendships and determination that fought to stay alive so that one day that may tell their own stories. One major theme in this novel is that your relationship with your family and friends, family specifically, should be one of the most important and valued aspects of your life. Daoud, along with everyone else in his culture, has a very strong respect and love for his family. Family comes first, before everything and everyone else, no matter what. Another theme was that humanity should not discriminate against each other, we should always stick together regardless of race or ethnicity. Personally, I liked how, even though politics has a lot to do with the killings and attacks in Darfur, the book didn’t focus on that part too much, rather it focused on the flaws in humanity that allows all this to happen. I also liked how Daoud didn’t sugarcoat anything that happened to the people he interviewed; he told it exactly how it happened no matter how awful it may have been. The only dislike I had was that there were a lot of run on sentences, but other than that there was nothing I didn’t like content-wise. I definitely think this is a great book for anyone to read because it really makes you take a second look at your life and realize how lucky you are. I value my family and friends so much more after reading this. It’s so inspirational and hearing about these terribly awful things that happen to people makes you want to go out and help in any way you can. I haven’t finished this one yet, but I also recommend reading Tears of the Desert by Dr. Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis, which is also a memoir about Darfur.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ChariK More than 1 year ago
Very inspiring. This man took great risks in order to protect his beautiful country and reveal the atrocities going on within. Courage like this is hard to find. Beautiful story.
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This book was phenomenal! Very informative, heart felt account of what is occurring in the Darfur region today.
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balletlove More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up by chance while browsing at the bookstore. I have wanted to know more about the situation in Sudan and this book was quite helpful. Hari's writing style is simple, but gentle and genuine. Of course, the book depicts many of the horrific situations that Hari was witness to while serving as a translator for journalists writing about the refugee camps in Chad. Also, I appreciated the extra appendix chapter at the end of the book that more fully explained the history of the conflict in this region. Very helpful! Of course, reading this book makes me no expert on the situation, but at least now I am more informed about what's going on and am more aware that the Sudanese people need help!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
very interesting, first hand information, current experiences, describes different curcumstances in Darfur and Sudan. Excellent for a study. Is topic for United Methodist Women study for this year
Anonymous More than 1 year ago