Book review: Tears of the Desert: One Woman's True Story of Surviving the Horrors of Darfur

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by Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis Hodder and Stoughton, 367pp, £12.99 Review by LESLEY McDOWELL

HOW DO YOU CRITIQUE A BOOK that's based on a survivor's experience of genocide? The short answer is: you don't. Because you can't. Lack of pace? Too many clichs? If ever it was churlish to complain about these things in a book – and the "misery lit" genre certainly pushed the boundaries on this one for reviewers – then this is definitely the time. It's not simply a matter of bad manners. You can't fail to empathise with someone who has been through these kinds of experiences, and it's an empathy that transcends all the requirements of literary criticism.

Bashir's account of her gang rape at the hands of the Janjaweed Arab militias in Darfur takes up a tiny part of this book, however. Her memoir is divided into two halves: her childhood growing up in a tiny village, and then her move to the city and university, her work as a doctor. From the beginning, it's her relationship with her adored father that figures large: a reasonably wealthy man, by village standards, he had high expectations of his clever daughter that he was financially able to fulfil.

Bashir grew up with two younger brothers, one wild, the other gentle, a beautiful if rather passive mother and a fearsome grandmother. This grandmother is quite a character – never reluctant to give her grandchildren a good beating should the occasion warrant one (and even if it shouldn't), she had abandoned her own husband because she refused to accept the rules of the Zaghawa tribe that allowed men to take more than one wife. Bashir is interesting on this – as women did most of the work, she says, the man who had many wives was the man who did least work.

But transgressing laws herself didn't make her grandmother kinder to her grandchildren when they did, and there's a harrowing account of Bashir's experience of circumcision, which she was tricked into by her grandmother. As she ponders later, why did both her mother and her grandmother suffer her to undergo an experience that causes pain and trauma, and in some cases even death, which they themselves had suffered? I would have loved it if Bashir had asked them directly, but she never did.

It's when Bashir attends secondary school in the city, however, that she comes up against traditional enmities between the black Africans of Darfur and the minority Arab elite. She keeps historical exposition to a minimum, telling simply of the British handover of rule to the Arabs, and the subsequent discrimination against the black Africans ever since. She tells of schoolgirl prejudices that lead to physical fights; of a lack of support from teachers that leads to expulsion – all of it an early lesson in a lack of power.

And yet, this lack of power is something Bashir has been learning since she was born – whether it's at her grandmother's hands, or the hands of more privileged schoolfellows or teachers. This culminates, of course, in the rape she endures. Before this, she saves the lives of both Arab militia and black rebels in the hospitals she works in, bringing her to the attention of the security forces. When she is sent to a remote northern village – the implication is, to keep her out of the way – she is faced with a truly horrific crime: the mass rape of schoolgirls, some as young as seven, on a single day, by the Janjaweed. Even worse, accounts are given to her of government officials surrounding the school and firing on any parents trying to rescue their children from the horror taking place inside the building. It's Bashir who has to try and repair these little girls' broken bodies – and this is also what finishes her.

She is taken away and for two days is beaten and gang-raped before being "set free". Friends from the village help her to get back to her parents, but soon this home is under attack too. The remainder of the memoir charts her mixed experience at the hands of officials when she arrives in London, and her struggle to obtain asylum-seeker status for herself and her family.

The cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another never fails to astonish, or to horrify, and Bashir wants this to translate into political action – understandably, she isn't content simply to tell the world of her experiences. She wants things to change, she wants guilty people punished. It's not enough for her to have survived. For those of us reading her story, it's remarkable that she's achieved that much.

&#149 Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis are at the Edinburgh book festival today.