The Rumpus Interview with Craig Walzer


“We need to be able to digest and give people who are very far away the time and space to tell their story in their own words, rather than these hygienic CNN clips of a mother crying and saying we need supplies, or, ‘They came and burned our village in the middle of the night and we had to run.’ It’s so much more important to humanize things like that.”

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit book series dedicated to depicting human rights crises through the oral histories of the men and women who have experienced them.  Out of Exile:  Narratives From the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan is the fourth book in the series.

Interestingly, it was intended to be the first book, and the series was conceived through it.  In 2003 Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng traveled to Valentino’s hometown, Marial Bai, and met three women there who had been abducted and enslaved. (Deng is the subject of Eggers’ novel What is the What, a collaborative effort to tell Valentino’s life story.)  A Lost Boy himself, Deng was shocked at the tales the women of his hometown told him, and both men agreed to return when they could sit down with the women and listen to their full life stories.

However, the project didn’t fall into place until Harvard Law student Craig Walzer interviewed Dave and Valentino for the school paper. Walzer had an interest in Sudan and had worked there;  he suggested they do a book about forced migration. In the end, they asked Walzer to do the book.

The result is an emotionally arresting compilation of seventeen Sudanese who have been abducted and displaced. The narrators are more than just victims or news soundbites; they are brothers, sisters, mothers and cousins who have undergone difficulties that no one should undergo. The subject matter isn’t light and some parts are devastating just to read, let alone live through, but many of the narrators offer hope as well.

Since its hardcover release, Sudanese and Darfurian advocacy organizations have used the book to frame their own work, and John Prendergast of the ENOUGH project has presented the book in Congress.

I have had the good fortune to hear Craig speak at various events, and urge those in the San Francisco area  to see him yourself this Thursday, September 17th at 7:00 pm at the Jewish Cultural Museum for The Art of Listening:  Oral Histories from Voice of Witness and StoryCorps.

This month Voice of Witness released Out of Exile in paperback, and Craig was kind enough to sit down with me to speak about his experience.

The Rumpus: How did you become involved in this project?

Craig Walzer: I had some experience in Sudan from the summer of 2006, where during my law studies I had gone there to do development work and refugee advocacy work.  I actually spent a little over a month in Cairo, Egypt, and then the rest of the summer in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.  So in the following year I was planning to return in summer, and during I think it was February of that year I met Dave and Valentino when they came to talk at Harvard, where I was studying.  I had an in, and sort of bribed the editor of the newspaper to get me an interview with the two of them.  We got done speaking and they said do you want to walk with us, we’re walking back to the hotel.  We walked and by the end of it they said “send us a proposal and maybe you should do this book for us.”

They’d been talking about doing this book, and initially their idea was to do something on women who had been enslaved during the civil war, particularly from the south. My counter to that was to suggest doing something about forced migration in Sudan, which would sort of tie in the broader scope of the population of the very diverse country.

Rumpus: Why did you go to Sudan in 2006?

Walzer: I had wanted to leave and go to somewhere very different, outside of the G8, and do something where I could be useful. During the previous year I was helping a friend who was working on an article for the New York Times Magazine about Sudan and the International Criminal Court. I helped her doing research and background, and afterward she told me of an opportunity to work at the best domestic Sudanese NGO. That was definitely where I was most interested. I didn’t want to be living in a compound somewhere with a bunch of Dutch and French folk doing things in a back office that’s artificially lit. So I was happy to go there because they thought I’d be useful.

Rumpus: What kind of work did you do there?

Walzer: I thought I was going to go there and feed the hungry, but you realize very quickly that that’s not how it works. The most useful thing that I did there was showing staff members how to use Microsoft Word more efficiently. These are Sudanese folks in the educated class of Sudan, but the country as a whole has been sort of purposefully uneducated by the government as a tool of repression.  So literacy is there, but basic organizational strategy just isn’t there in a strong way. Some of them are lawyers or journalists or engineers, working in their very specific culture, but now they are dependent on development aid. Suddenly they have to be working in a Western template, which means project assessments and updates, and so forth.

Rumpus: Did you meet a lot of Sudanese outside your work while you were there?  Did you explore the place?

Walzer: In Khartoum not so much.  I met the folks I was working with and some of their friends, and went to a Sudanese wedding and little things, but it was a lot harder in Khartoum itself.  The social life there is not vibrant. It’s a city of a couple million people, but the nightlife is very quiet. There’s no alcohol allowed. The city is completely safe but there’s not a lot of activity going on. Part of this is the Sharia law, but it’s also a police state, so there’s that level of security where you just don’t want to step out of line and make a scene of yourself. There aren’t many big, comfortable public spaces in the city.

It was actually in Cairo that I spent a lot of time with Sudanese refugees. There’s a huge Sudanese population in Cairo that we don’t talk about nearly enough. Official numbers are something like twenty-five to thirty-five thousand Sudanese that live in Cairo, but that’s only the documented ones. People there say it’s closer to one or two million Sudanese. And these are Southern Sudanese who fled during the civil wars of the 80s and 90s, and also Darfurians. A lot of Darfurians have gone up there.

Cairo’s the biggest refugee city in Africa. As a gateway to the Arabian peninsula and to Europe, you have Somalians, Eritreans, Liberians, and of course a ton of Sudanese there. It’s a much more dynamic city. It’s huge and bustling, and there are great old bars and cafes.  While I was there I was doing a lot more case work with individuals and got to know a few folks. That was much more where I spent time going to underground establishments, where an old Sudanese lady would brew super-strong Sudanese alcohol that makes vodka taste like Gatorade, and people would sit around and drink. There was much more of a social experience in that city.

Sudan is such a hugely diverse country, and the one thing that people from all corners of it do have in common is that, if not they themselves then at least someone in their family, or someone they know from a village nearby, has been forcibly moved from their homes because of threat of violence, or threat of drought or famine. In a strange way, this is sort of the thread that unites all Sudanese.

Rumpus: How did you come to meet the people you interviewed in the book?

Walzer: Some of them I knew from that summer in Cairo, where I knew I could go back and that person had a story.  I wanted to sit down with them for eight to ten hours and really get it out. Not all of them were that long, but nothing was shorter than a few hours. So I met with those people from Cairo, and then a lot of them helped me to find others.

Tarig, for example, who was a university student and had been there for six or seven years, he’s one of the guides who is in town. If you are new to town and are Sudanese, and you need to get settled and find your coordinates, he’s very good at just helping out with those sorts of things. He was hugely helpful to me.  He had helped me to translate stuff the previous year, so of course I came back and wanted to interview him. But I also asked whether he knew any other folks. He said, “Oh, I can get you ten folks in five minutes, no problem, I’ll get you good stories.”  And he did.

And there was a lot of detective work. We had a list of certain topics that we wanted to cover, and find people who would speak about them in the first person. For example, at the end of 2006 some Sudanese, a community that included Darfurians and southern Sudanese, started a sit-in protest in a park in the middle of the city, near the UN agency office. They occupied the park peacefully and set up tents and just stayed there for three months. They had a whole community set up there; the women would do the laundry and the young men, for the most part, would provide security. Then one night in late December, the Egyptian police stormed the camp, broke it up, and killed about thirty-eight Sudanese in the process, including small children, and captured and tortured probably hundreds of other protesters who were there. We wanted somebody who had been there to tell us what it was like. We had sort of a checklist of things we needed, but it was surprisingly easy to cover it because people had just been around.

It was really a very informal process. Whenever I tried to work with, let’s say, the UN or organizations like that, it actually was only cumbersome.  Just cause there are regulations and people are watching, and then it’s just not nearly as comfortable. It just wasn’t as easy and not as trustworthy. I mean, these are people who are telling highly personal stories that they are never going to see, for all intents and purposes, on their own.

Rumpus: But some people got to see them.

Walzer: Some people got to see them. But many of them I was probably never going to see again, and they were giving me something. And you have to have a reason to want to do that, you have to have a foundation of trust. And that just comes through, say, this guy who knows this guy introduced me to you, or to be able to say, “Yeah, I know that street in Khartoum, and I know that silly-looking building over there,” and they say, “Oh, here’s a white guy who knows where I’m coming from.” It was sort of as capricious as that.

Rumpus: Were these stories something you had to coax out of them? Were they surprised that you wanted to hear the stories?

Walzer: It varied from person to person. Some of them, not terribly often, just wanted to tell me everything from the get go. Some of them obfuscated and danced around what actually happened, and some of them were very emotional. Some were just sort of dumbfoundedly honest and told me, not without a few tears along the way.

My approach with it was to let them set the tone. Most of the folks had probably never sat down in front of a recorder and tried doing this before, and I can’t imagine what that’s like.

It wasn’t sitting down with a recorder saying,  “So tell me about the time you were raped.”  We’d start out with, “Tell me about where you were born and what did it look like? Did you go to primary school? What games did you play as a kid?” And I would just kind of let them run. The big question was, “And what happened next?” And then I would say,  “Can you stop and tell me a little bit more detail about the color, or what it smelled like?” Something like that, and let them determine what was comfortable. The stories that we took were ones that covered a lot of meaty topics of course, but it wasn’t — I was never really motivated to push that.

Rumpus: Did anybody cut the interview short?

Walzer: There was only one woman that just cut off the interview and said she didn’t want to go any further.

Rumpus: Did she give you any reason as to why? Were you surprised?

Walzer: I wasn’t surprised because we were a ways into the project already, and I was kind of waiting for that to happen. She’s the woman I opened the book with. She spoke for about fifteen minutes and then said, “What’s the point of this?” And I said, “Well, we hope that in some small way at least, sharing these stories will spread awareness. I’m not promising you a ticket to New York City, a house for your family, or even much at all, except to share your story.”  She just had no reason to believe in that. She said “I’m sorry, I’m tired.” Very politely, but she just realized that she didn’t want to go there.  And that’s totally respectable.

Rumpus: In the introduction you talk about that and wonder what good this project will do. How do you feel about it now? Now that the book is about to have its paperback release, are you happy with what’s happened?

Walzer: When we were going into the project, one of the reasons actually that I was really excited and enthusiastic about it was that Sudan is an overwhelmingly complex and dangerous situation, and it  is so easy to produce unintended consequences.  With anything that one does, especially coming from the outside.  I was really sort of scared, thinking about going back and doing anything more and thinking, “How do I do this right?” How do you know what you are doing is right?  It’s certainly better to bring some humility to it.  And I sort of thought, this is great!  Certainly at least we can stand on the idea that it’s better to record these things then not to.  It’s better to archive and to tell stories, then not to.

I don’t know if twenty or thirty pages of time for everybody, and eight or ten hours of dialogue that’s clipped down to twenty or thirty pages of story that we try to reflect their voice in, I don’t know if that really does more to obfuscate, or to give the illusion of something that’s real, when that is still only the tip of the iceberg.  I see these people in my minds, I remember sitting down with them with coffee, cigarettes and candy, but I don’t know what the readers see.  I don’t know how much of that really gets through, or if it gives people a taste of it but not enough to really know.

And then I worry about the folks that we spoke to, our narrators, many of whom I’m still in touch with, who in two years, for many of them, nothing has happened.  They are in the same place they were two years ago.  And maybe, even though we did say to them, you know, we’re not paying you money for this, and we’re not promising you anything great, I wonder if it gave them some sort of hope even indeliberately. That even this doesn’t help their case? That makes me wonder.

Rumpus: What if you look at it as a starting point?  The books themselves might not be enough to experience what you experienced, certainly not to experience what those people experienced, but the more people hear a little bit the more they will want to hear more.

Walzer: That’s what we hope.  It’s a difficult thing to quantify.  It is different now than when it was first hot off the presses, and we were like “Here, we’re going to take this and members of Congress are going to read this, and sit down and start weeping in the halls of Congress.” That phase has now passed, and the book takes on a different light now when it’s like, look at where everyone is still.  That part of it — I wasn’t really thinking about that two years ago.

I mean this is part of the dynamic, this is part of working in these sorts of situations.  It’s not supposed to be easy, and maybe it was a little bit of hubris just to be like, “You can at least stand on this:  It’s better to have your story told than not to, and it won’t hurt anybody.”  With any of these things, when you come into a crisis situation, or an oppressive situation, it’s not going to work out as nicely as you’d like it to. It’s part of the way that these things are.

A lot of things don’t translate well. Things that we would think about naturally as sharing stories, but I don’t know if sharing stories means stealing stories, you know?  My friends and I, when we’re drinking, always talk about headlines or notices in my high school alumni magazine that should be like, “Local Jew Steals African Stories and Puts Them In a Book.”  Where do you draw the line between a noble, young guy who travels to Sudan to bring these stories back that the world needs to hear, and a local Jew who steals stories and gets published by McSweeney’s?  I don’t know!

Rumpus: Oh man, that’s harsh on yourself.

Walzer: No, it’s not.  You have to embrace the whole.  It’s multi-sided, and it’s absurd, but that’s what all of this stuff is.  I mean, I think it’s interesting.  I don’t know, I’m not willing to judge or place value.

Rumpus: Did you get your hopes up a little bit?  I would think it’d be hard not to.

Walzer: I don’t know if I got my hopes up; I just had hopes. I tried not to, and then I kind of did cling to some. But I’m glad the stories are out there. I think it fills a niche that’s not filled enough, and that needs work in contemporary political discourse, and contemporary political and social literature.  I think that one of the things that’s so hard is this big paradigm shift now.  The primary sources are so much more available to those of us that want to know what’s going on in the world.  We can hear those voices and see their faces instantly, but we haven’t taken advantage of that nearly enough. I think that we need to be able to digest and give people who are very far away the time and space to tell their story in their own words, rather than these hygienic CNN clips of a mother crying and saying we need supplies, or, “They came and burned our village in the middle of the night and we had to run.”  It’s so much more important to humanize things like that, and I’m glad that we have at least made an honest effort towards that.  I think that it if there’s anything, and again this is me clinging to anything, is that with everything that is going on in Sudan right now, which is complicated and in some ways got stuck at this Save Darfur movement, at least this furthers the debate.

“Save Darfur.” I don’t know what that means, but Darfur hasn’t been saved. There was never a moment it was saved, and yet Darfur is not burning right now.  So were we wrong to say that we have to save them? When George Clooney gets up and says that if we don’t send in peacekeepers in September, then we’re just going to have to send in gravediggers in November, and then September comes and there are no peacekeepers, and then November comes and there are no gravediggers, then what do we do next? That sort of discourse is not enough, and one of the things we do need to look at is the people.

One of the huge untapped resources is this refugee population, this displaced population.  These are people who are not across dangerous international borders, in Cairo for example.  It’s a huge diplomatic gesture, and it’s a longterm investment.  Because whatever happens to “save Darfur,” or to “save Sudan,” is not going to happen in a year. It’ll be a multi-generational task to bring these people back to their homes, to rebuild in a way that’s more fair and to set up systems of government and society that affords equal opportunity, basic rights and dignity.  It’s a project of generations.

We need to work slowly and look at nice little ways that we can help.  At least shining a spotlight on the diaspora more than we do is a good thing to start.

Rumpus: I think so. I worry that if there’s not enough drama surrounding an issue, then there’s not enough interest.

Walzer: I think this is one of the good things about the stories we chose in the book, is that they are kind of weird stories.  I think that’s a big part of bringing people to something like this, especially, is you have to bring in a new slant to tell the iconic story of African suffering.  This is something that will make people tune in very easily.  There are these very hygienic images that come into people’s minds of burning villages and starving children, women in camps, UN blue plastic sheets, things like that.  What I was very intent on doing was bringing in the absurd, weird parts, and the basic dynamic of worlds coming into contact with one another.  When people have to leave their homes, especially if it’s been home for generations, and they are flung out into a world of bureaucacies, computers, different languages, passports, birth certificates and ID cards, you have all these crazy circumstances.  These are stories of people doing things that illuminate the complexity of it, and bring all of these things into this sort of collage.

For example the story of Bob who smuggles himself into Israel. Bob is the one who figured out, well, Sudan hates Israel, everybody in Sudan always told me all my life that Israel is the great Satan. I hate Sudan now because they fucked me over, Cairo is miserable, Cairo hates the Israelis, so it seems like the logical thing, is to go to Israel.  So he gets Bedouin traders to smuggle him through the Egyptian border to the south of Israel, and then goes up and asks for refugee protection in Israel.  The Israelis don’t know what to do with him, or what to make of him because he’s a Sudanese; bad, but he hates the Sudanese government; good. He doesn’t look like an Arab; good, but he’s a Muslim; bad. So they stick him in a prison camp with Palestinian terrorists, or whatever you want to call them.  Palestinian people who have been arrested for causing a ruckus in Israel.  And Bob has the best six months of his life; he has clean facilities, he can play soccer with the guards, he can hang out and smoke cigarettes.  He’s doing okay in the prison camp.  At least he has some hope.

Eventually the UN makes a deal with the Egyptians to say take him back to Egypt, just promise us you won’t give him back to the Sudanese.  He’ll be arrested for espionage and probably executed if you hand him over. The Egyptians say “yeah yeah” and take him.  They take him on the first train down to the southern border of Egypt and northern border of Sudan, and they were about to put him on a plane to his execution when the UN finally gets their act together and realizes that wasn’t a good idea, and saves his ass at the last second.  They get him back up at least to Cairo, where he’s stuck now and saving up money to try to get into Israel again.

I mean, it’s just just fascinating stuff to see. And his resourcefulness!  I’m cutting out, of course, everything it took to get him into Egypt in the first place, to survive in Egypt, things he’s done for years now living underground undocumented.  In Egypt, in the face of all this, the women are forced to care for families and make some sort of life for their children. The stuff that they did is dramatic on a literary level, and I think that brings folks in.  We didn’t plan those things, but it’s just the nature of the beast that people are going to be in sticky situations and they are going to find themselves coming out of it.  That, to me, is much more interesting than bomb-strapped people.  What happened before?  What happened afterward?  That part of it is our comparative advantage, I think, with the oral history format.

With refugees in general that is a comparative advantage, because through these Kafkaesque nightmares they find themselves in, you see very familiar and pervasive themes emerging.  About family and culture, and the way those things change in exile or in a new land, and the new associations that you make with people that you’ve never made before.  How generations change that are growing up in a different land than their fathers did. And how people will beg, borrow and steal to get by when they need to.


Read “I Just Want to See It Through: A Full Story from Out of Exile”