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EXCERPT: 'Tears of the Desert'


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 traffic 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 fireside. This is the lullaby that my fierce 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 fingers 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 fierce, 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 reflect 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 fierce, 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 floor. "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 finished with you we might just let you live," the first 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, inflamed with hatred and lust. Graying stubble. Unclean breath, the reek of days-old sweat and unwashed uniforms. A flashing blade as one tries to cut my trousers off of me. I kick out, fiercely, 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 hre 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 firstborn child, and I was his favorite. I know all children say this, but I had an especially close bond with my father. For the first five 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 Zatghawa, 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 fireside 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 fire 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 fight 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 firstborn 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 flat, sorghum pancake cooked on a metal plate over an open fire. There were cauldrons overflowing 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 fine, chiffon material, decorated with all the colors of the rainbow. The unmarried girls wore the brightest, with flame red, fire orange, and sunset pink designs. And the men looked magnificent 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 firstborn 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 firelight. "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 first 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 hijabs 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 significance 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 fiery 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 signifies good fortune. My father was convinced that the year of my birth was the year that his livestock business had really started to flourish. He'd even managed to buy himself an old Land Rover—the first 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 definition—"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 fighter 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 fine, geometric patterns. All Zaghawa men wore one, which meant they were ready to fight 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 first 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 fine husband for her eldest daughter, and she had readily agreed to the match.

My father and I lay around the fire 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 flew into a towering rage.

This was Grandma Sumah's long-estranged husband and he had ridden many days to find her. The Zaghawa are divided into three clans—the Towhir, the Coube, and the Bidayat. Grandma and Grandpa camefrom 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 finally tracked down his long lost family. Upon arrival he had realized that he had, and that his eldest daughter was already married. He'd flown 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 fifteen 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: first, for my naming; second, for the discovery of my white eyelash; and third, for the reunification 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 fierce 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 ruffled 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.

Excerpted from "Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur".

Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Publishing Group

Copyright (c) 2008

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