"No days off, no holiday, no wages. She's always here. She belongs to me." Mende Nazer's first "master," a rich Arab woman, described Nazer with these chilling words. Abducted by raiders from her Sudanese village when she was about 12, Nazer describes her decade of involuntary servitude in Slave: My True Story, a straightforward memoir of simple, everyday horror.
Nazer's family raised her in one of the many native Muslim villages in the Nuba mountains. As the youngest girl, she was her father's favorite, accustomed to a nightly ritual of crawling into her parents' bed, along with her kitten. Occasionally, she heard the adults talking about "the war," the conflict between Arabs and natives that sometimes left homes burned, women raped, and children missing. When the war came to her village, she spent days in the back of a pickup truck, being delivered to her new owners in Khartoum, the first city she'd ever seen.
At first, Nazer was only allowed to clean, because her owner considered her too dirty to touch the family's food or children. But soon she was cleaning, cooking, and providing childcare around the clock. After several years of abuse, she was loaned to her owner's sister in England, and, bit by bit, Nazer began to realize that her forced, unpaid labor was abnormal. With the help of fellow Sudanese expatriates, she escaped, and her quest to avoid deportation back to Sudan began.
Journalist Damien Lewis, Slave's co-author, helped Nazer publicize her story in order to advance her asylum claim with the British government. Sensational memoirs have proliferated in the last several years, but few are as starkly powerful as this one: Nazer tells her story with lucid simplicity, deftly evoking her earlier self to convey that girl's innocence, violent loss, and compromise with survival. What comes across as almost more tragic than her physical and psychological exploitation is the toll it takes on her faith: Nazer and her abductors, captors, and masters are all Muslims, yet everyone is constantly reminded of where she stands.
The slave trade still flourishes in some parts of the world, and Slave's real gut-punch arrives in its revelations about slavery in first-world urban settings, behind the doors of high-class immigrant communities. Nazer says she still hopes to return to her village as a doctor, when she can be sure the powerful slave network won't retaliate for her public stance. It's appropriate, then, that her book performs a kind of surgery, inflicting pain and healing in equal measure.