March 21, 2012
Last Friday George Clooney was arrested protesting the new humanitarian violations in Sudan. The Satellite Sentinel Project, which he co-founded with John Prendergast in October 2010, collects digital images analyzed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and used as a local warning system, as well as a global media resource. A video of his most recent trip to document the fresh attacks on the populations of the Nuba Mountains, posted on March 13 on YouTube, has already been viewed more than 300, 000 times.
I was thinking about all of this as I taught Dave Eggers’ What is the What this week. Students in this junior seminar (strangely, 16 women and 2 men) have heard of the book and are enthusiastic about it. They also know the collaboration between Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng is a potential problem.
How much of it is Eggers’, how much of it is Deng’s? Is this another instance of a famous author stealing someone else’s life-story, as Harriet Beecher Stowe “stole” the life-story of Josiah Henson in the nineteenth century?
I don’t think we’ve quite settled that question. But all of us were struck by this observation: “This war has made racists of too many of them and too many of us.” And it goes on: “The strangest thing is that the so-called Arabs are not so different in any way, particularly in appearance, from the peoples of the south. Have you seen the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir? His skin is almost as dark as mine… there are plenty among the Arab peoples of the Middle East who do have their own prejudices against dark-skinned Bashir and his proud Sudanese Muslim friends. There are many from within and without Sudan who don’t consider them Arabs at all.”
A statement like that could only have come from a dark-skinned person, looking at those around him, all dark-skinned, though some strangely called “Arabs.” Moments like this convince me that What is the What is indeed Valentino Achak Deng’s — his and no one else’s. His relation to Eggers is indeed different from George Clooney’s relation to those he captures on camera. YouTube has not made literature obsolete. Quite the contrary.