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Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur
Synopses & Reviews
Like the single white eyelash that graces her row of dark lashes–seen by her people as a mark of good fortune–Halima Bashirs story stands out. Tears of the Desert is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivors tale of a conflicted country, a resilient people, and the uncompromising spirit of a young woman who refused to be silenced.
Born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert, Halima was doted on by her father, a cattle herder, and kept in line by her formidable grandmother. A politically astute man, Halimas father saw to it that his daughter received a good education away from their rural surroundings. Halima excelled in her studies and exams, surpassing even the privileged Arab girls who looked down their noses at the black Africans. With her love of learning and her fathers support, Halima went on to study medicine, and at twenty-four became her villages first formal doctor.
Yet not even the symbol of good luck that dotted her eye could protect her from the encroaching conflict that would consume her land. Janjaweed Arab militias started savagely assaulting the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, in early 2004, the Janjaweed attacked Bashirs 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.
In this harrowing and heartbreaking account, Halima Bashir sheds light on the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being eradicated by what is fast becoming one of the most terrifying genocides of the twenty-first century. Raw and riveting, Tears of the Desert is more than just a memoir–it is Halima Bashirs global call to action.
"Tears of the Desert" is that rarest of literary endeavors, not just a book you read but a book you experience. Halima Bashir's story of growing up in the Zaghawa tribe of Darfur is vivid, poignant and brutally candid. It is also, simply, brutal. When she describes (with the expert help of her co-writer) the life of her remote desert village, readers will not want to put the book down. When she turns... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to the violence that shattered her village, her family and her own life, readers will have to steel themselves to go on. The first part of this book is about Bashir's childhood and youth. What makes this so engrossing is her self-awareness and honesty; she reveals herself and in so doing paints a portrait of the Zaghawa character, with all its warmth, generosity, superstition and fierceness. She puts a magnifying glass on a distant people we have known up to now only as faceless victims. By introducing us to the memorable characters who make up her family and clan, Bashir brings the previously anonymous victims of the Darfur genocide to life. She recalls in rich detail the foods of the desert: the sorghum pancakes, roasted groundnuts, spiced lamb stews and candylike fried locusts. We see how the children of this warrior tribe play: the moon bone game; the no-holds-barred wrestling; the wild scrambles of the young children, fighting each other to the amusement of and with encouragement from their parents. We are given entree into the male Zaghawa psychology: Bashir's proud, kind-hearted father; her two brothers, one soft and shy, the other fiery and untamed. But she has a special talent for revealing the inner lives of the Zaghawa women, from her mother, all love and compassion, to her ferocious, violence-prone grandmother. While describing her own life as a girl, Bashir gives readers the first taste of her naked courage and her gift, if that is the right word, for depicting the unspeakable. She tells how she was prepared for her circumcision, the radical genital cutting and infibulation practiced by the Zaghawa. How her grandmother and mother painted her hands, feet, arms and legs with intricate whorls of red henna — "just as if I were a bride." How they rubbed her body with oil so it would glow more lustrously. And then how a stab of panic knifed through her when the circumciser came to her with her instruments. In what follows, Bashir hides nothing and minces nothing. It is almost as if she were preparing us for the rest of her story, which is one of human strength and courage confronted by inhuman savagery. In the town where her father enrolls her in school, then at the Khartoum medical school, Bashir is exposed to the bone-deep racism that characterizes Sudanese society. The Zaghawa are Islamicized black Africans, and Bashir notices that all the servants in Arab homes are black; in medical school, every cadaver the students work on is black. An infuriated Arab in the street calls a black man "Abeed! Abeed!" — "slave," the universal Sudanese Arab pejorative for blacks. "I walked away from the marketplace," Bashir writes, "my mind in turmoil. The Arab man had openly called the African man a 'black dog' and 'black slave.' That meant he had also called me a black dog and a slave." Finishing medical school, she is posted to a distant Zaghawa village. By now the Darfur violence has ratcheted up, and government troops and Janjaweed Arab militia are spreading terror. In the village of Mazkhabad, Bashir's life changes forever. One tranquil morning she hears distant cries and sounds of running; then the clinic is flooded by a crush of people carrying screaming or unconscious girls — 30 or 40, she can't count them. They are wounded, their dresses ripped and bloodied. The girls, students at a school outside town, have all been beaten and raped for hours by Janjaweed. Bashir tends to these ruined children. Later, shaken to the core, she tells a visiting U.N. team what has happened. Shortly after that, the army comes for her. "She speaks about rape!" says one soldier. "She knows nothing of rape!" What happens then, what happens when Bashir returns to her own village, what happens when she escapes the destruction of everything she knows — that is the tale of the rest of this book. No one who finishes "Tears of the Desert" will ever be able to say he or she has not been called as a witness to this genocide. Reviewed by David Chanoff, who is academic adviser to the Sudanese Education Fund, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this first memoir of its kind from a woman affected by the war in Darfur, a female doctor in Sudan shares her harrowing tale of courage, hope, family, and survival.
About the Author
Halima Bashir lives with her husband and son in England, where she continues to speak out about the violence in Sudan.
Damien Lewis has spent the last twenty years reporting from war zones in Africa, with a particular focus and expertise in Sudan. His reporting from Darfur won the BBC One World Award. He is the internationally bestselling co-author of Slave, winner of the Index on Censorship Book Award.
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