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Book Review: Daoud Hari, The Translator — A Tribeseman’s Memoir of Darfur

June 13, 2008

Daoud Hari, <em>The Translator.</em>

Reviewed for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

As anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of Darfur will expect, there is much that is deeply harrowing in this book. What is surprising and remarkable is that, despite the horrors, Daoud Hari’s storyteller’s instinct, gentle humor, and stubborn joie de vivre make the book a pleasure to read. It not only puts a human face to tragic headlines, but issues a stirring call to advocate on behalf of those who have lost their homes and families in Darfur.

After a narrow escape from an attack by the Sudanese government on his village, Hari and his family were forced to flee to the refugee camps in Chad. There, his fluency in English, Arabic and his native Zaghawa (the language of the Ethnic group of the same name that is attacked by the Sudanese government and Arab militias in Darfur) led him to become a translator for prominent Western journalists. Feeling that getting the story of what was happening to his people out to the wider world was the best way he could help them, Hari repeatedly risked death by leading journalists back into Darfur to observe the genocide first hand. After a number of narrow escapes, Hari, a Chadian driver and Pullitzer-Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek were caught and suffered severe beatings and deprivation for months before being released under pressure from the advocates in the United States and around the world. Forced to flee Africa after this episode, Hari continues his work of making the story of the genocide known to the world – this memoir being one of his most effective means of doing so.

Hari is much more than a simple translator of languages. He also makes the complex and dangerous moral world of Darfur intelligible to Westerners. The power of the book lies not only in showing what has been suffered, but making us understand the rich tribal life of the Zaghawa that is in danger of being lost. Though Hari is no doubt accentuating the positive aspects of traditional life, one cannot help but be impressed by the conviviality and hospitality within the extensive network of kinship relations he describes:

Everyone knows the family of everyone else among the Zaghawa. If you live in a small town, you know a great deal about the families who live there. If your town had no television or other things to take you away from visiting all the time, your town could be very large and you would still know something about everyone. So it is like that. And of course when people travel close together like this on long journeys, you get to know a great deal about many people. Everyone is well-known eventually.”

In fact, no matter where he travels in North Africa, he seems to be able to find cousins or family friends who are eager to give help and transmit news. And where he does not know people, his humility and good humor allow him to win friends. And in a world as dangerous as Darfur, it turns out that friends are everything. In the very last lines of the narrative, describing his feelings as he is forced to leave his beloved Africa, Hari explains this beautifully and captures the essence of advocacy work:

I would work now in other ways to help get the story out and help return the people to Darfur and their homes in peace. What can one person do? You make friends of course, and do what you can.”

Save Darfur

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2008 4:00 am

    Thanks for writing about this. I found your blog while looking for a new memoir to read and this one sounds perfect! I am fascinated by memoirs of personal struggle and you can’t get more of a struggle than what is happening in Darfur and other parts of Africa right now. I’ll definitely be hunting this book out, thanks!

    If you’re interested in a memoir with a little change of pace might I recommend “What Peace There May Be” by Susanna Barlow. In this heartfelt personal memoir Susanna writes an account of her adolescent years growing up in a polygamist household. I found the struggles she faces to find her true self somewhere between family loyalty and the desire to escape something she knew to be wrong was something I, and I imagine many others, could relate to. Anyway, if you like memoirs I thought you might be interested.

  2. July 10, 2008 3:20 pm

    Peter — thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out.

  3. October 31, 2010 8:21 am

    it is a good idea to look for book reviews first before buying an expensive book `

  4. November 24, 2010 2:01 pm

    oprah also makes some good book reviews, i always wait for the book reviews of oprah ;”

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