First, They Erased Our Name
First, They Erased Our Name is a work of autobiography but also testimony, bearing witness to the plight of the Rohingya, a minority Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar. After a long history of persecution, their mass exodus into Bangladesh in 2017 finally captured the world’s attention. The book also bears witness to the precarious condition of statelessness and the devastating experience of asylum seekers more generally. If you believe there are queues that people can simply join to escape tyranny, then you need to read this.
Habiburahman begins his story as a Rohingya child living under a Buddhist military dictatorship that engages in regular “ethnic cleansing” operations. These operations are given poetic names such as “Purify and Whiten like the Jasmine Flower” and “Clean and Beautiful Nation”, but the aim is to “sow hatred, fear, and disunity” among the ethnically and religiously diverse Myanmar people. The Rohingya are viewed as “evil ogres from a faraway land, more animal than human” – similarly to how the Jews were once portrayed in Nazi Germany – and they are subjected to random arrests, extortion, forced labour, indefinite imprisonment, summary executions, rape, the burning of their homes and villages, and the demolition of their mosques and cultural history. When Habiburahman is 15, he wonders “if I’ll ever reach adulthood or if I’ll be murdered first”. At 17, he is imprisoned and tortured for the first time, and experiences “degrading violence so mortifying that it is hard to put into words”. By the time the final genocidal campaign begins in 2016, he has been forced to flee to Thailand and Malaysia, where the situation for refugees is appalling, and then to Australia – by boat.
It is not easy to testify. Trauma and shame are silencing. There are also the barriers created by language differences, something overcome here through Habiburahman’s collaboration with the French journalist Sophie Ansel. (Worth noting, too, is the lucid prose of Andrea Reece’s translation.) The greatest barriers to stories such as Habiburahman’s being heard, though, are invalidation and indifference.
Do not be indifferent to this urgent, humane book. Read it, share it, talk about what has been happening – and in so doing safeguard the humanity of Habiburahman, the Rohingya and all asylum seekers, as well as the imperilled humanity of this country.
Scribe, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Habiburahman, First, They Erased Our Name". Subscribe here.