Thursday, August 13, 2009


Last week I finished reading a fascinating book, What is the What. It's a best seller, so you may have heard of it or perhaps even read it. If not, I strongly recommend it to anyone who cares about either a good story, or, more importantly, about stuff that goes on in this world and looks like nothing we know of at home. Basically, it's the story of a young Sudanese man who ran from the war as a child and eventually moved to the US, where life wasn't necessarily that much kinder.

The following excerpt is his description of the first time he ever saw a white man, at the age of 9 or 10, in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. In spite of the much more colorful theories below, the white man turned out to be a UN worker. Reading this was quite an experience:

"-You haven't seen him?
-No. You're saying he's a white man? His hair is white?
-No, his skin, every part of him. He's white like chalk.
[...] I followed their [his young friends'] stares and saw what seemed to be a man who had been turned inside out. He was the absence of a man. He had been erased. An involuntary shudder went through my body, the same reaction I had when I saw a burn, a missing limb--a perversion of nature.
I began to walk toward the erased man before I realized I had not lifted my pants after urinating. I fixed myself and followed the crowd of boys who were herding in the direction of the erased man. [...]
We returned to our shelters, to our chores, but over the course of the day, theories about the new man abounded. The first theory held that he had been sent by the Sudanese government to kill all of us--that he would count all of the boys, and then he would decide how many weapons he would need to exterminate us. Once he had done so, the killing would come at night. This theory was quickly debunked when we discovered that the elders did not fear him; in fact, they were talking to him and shaking his hand. Naturally, then the pendulum swung and the next notion positied that he was a god, and that he had come to save all of us, and would lead us back to southern Sudan, to triumph over the murahaleen. This idea gained currency throughout the day, and was underminded only when we catalogued the activities in which the god engaged. He spent most of his time with a few of the elders, building a storage shed for food, which seemed like work too pedestrian for a god or even a minor deity. Thereafter, some of the older boys offered more nuanced views." (pp. 279-280)


  1. that's the second time in a few days that I hear about that book!
    Maybe I should read it too

  2. ok, I am checking this book out for sure!