Book Review

First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks (2019)

“I would have liked to tell him about everything that has happened to me. I would have liked to tell him about Arakan, our land that was confiscated, the arrests, imprisonment, the humiliation and torture, my house that was stolen, and the continuing persecution of my family who are held hostage under the apartheid system in Sittwe. I would have liked to be asked how I feel, what my needs are. If I had somewhere to sleep, if I was hungry, about my state of health. I would have liked all kinds of things because I feel alone, hunted, and sad; I would have liked a listening ear, some empathy. I am tired of being on edge, day by day, a ball of stress in my stomach, with no respite, in a world where a single lapse of concentration could turn my life upside down. Because I am my mother’s and father’s son … Because I am a man like any other.”⁣

Habiburahman and Sophie Ansel, tr. Andrea Reece

This book is the first-ever memoir co-written by a Rohingya, Habiburahman, who through his coming-of-age story talks about the history of the oppression, persecution, and genocide that the Rohingya community in Myanmar has been subjected to, from late 1980s to mid-2000s.⁣

Habib, who’s 41, has been through such unimaginable hardships since the day he was born, merely for the “crime” of being born as a Rohingya — from being denied access to education & work, harassed and bullied for his skin colour (the Rohingya are often called “kalar” which is like the n-word), to constantly being tortured and extorted by authorities just to stay alive.⁣

From this book, I learnt how the Myanmar government operates, and how it systematically carries out its pogroms and genocide against the Rohingya, particularly in Arakan state, where the majority are. While most of us first heard of the plight of the Rohingya in 2015-2017, where more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Myanmar and neighbouring countries, their persecution was first started in 1982 when the Myanmar military dictatorship decided that Rohingya is not one of the recognised ethnic groups, practically deeming them stateless and outlawing their existence in the country.

Today, Habib lives in Australia, and yet despite his resilience in overcoming insurmountable difficulties in life, he is still as stateless as he was when he was just three years old and the Myanmar government decided to outlaw the existence of the Rohingya in the country — life is cruel like that.

It’s such a heartbreaking, difficult read despite its simple narrative, but I beg and implore you all to read this book so we could better understand and empathise with refugees & asylum-seekers everywhere, in particular the Rohingya.

Several other memorable quotes from the book:

“Men and women come and go from one side to the other, skipping freely from one country to another, totally unaware of the enormous privilege that their passports bestow.”

“In this day and age, where modern lifestyles place so much emphasis on not wasting a single minute, our time does not count. We are struck by the bitter realisation that there is no peaceful place on the planet for us Rohingya.”

“Today, our people are scattered. Rohingya are living in exile around the globe, but our hearts are more than ever in Arakan.”

“The one voice of Myanmar had not spoken for us, and so now we would have to speak for ourselves.”

They are speaking out. Let’s listen.

My score: 5/5.⁣

3 thoughts on “First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks (2019)”

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