ALEK — Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel: Alek Wek; Virago, London, Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110001. £ 6.99.
After all, haute couture doesn’t really fit the image of a valiant, determined conqueror. Yet, following in the tradition of Waris Dirie (the stunning model who wrote a wrenching autobiographical 1997 novel Desert Flower: The extraordinary Journey of A Desert Nomad) Alek Wek’s book, Alek: Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, talks of the desperate struggles, immense fortitude and unwavering faith that led her out of the Sudan, and onto the Parisian catwalk. Waris quit modelling to work as Special Ambassador for the elimination of “Female Genital Mutilation”, which she describes undergoing in her book. Desert Flower topped best-seller lists in Europe and was translated and sold across the world. Alek’s book might remind you of Waris, but it’s actually a very different story, similar only because of the immense spirit of the two authors.
Alek, written in the voice of Wek, is an easy read, if a difficult story to tell. “In ten years I went from dodging bullets in a scarred and frightened little town to strutting for fashion editors while wearing elaborate couture,” she says, going on to explain just how challenging her life in the Sudan was. The triumph of her prose is the fact that she manages to find a tone that is tranquil without being anaesthetic, composed without being impassive and powerful without being preachy. It’s easy to believe that this is her voice, and she’s just telling you her story. Alek talks with affection of the large, close-knit Wek family, which has lived in strife-torn Southern Sudan for many years, in which she was the seventh of nine children. She goes on to interlace the story with the colourful customs and beliefs of the Dinka tribe. Since the book is also used as a vehicle for their opinions, she speaks out against traditional atrocities, such as the ritual facial scarring practised on young boys and girls, which she narrowly escaped thanks to the stubbornness of her mother.
Since Alek’s past is so dramatic, her story really couldn’t be anything but. Her skill as an author has been in weaving all the essential background information and the action together with her personal thoughts, feelings and opinions, making readers feel like they are dipping into her diary. The book takes us through a reality that’s worlds away from everything that’s familiar: crippling wars in the Sudan, run-ins with the reckless, pillaging militia and finding a way to live between bullets, murders and chaos.
Dates and history notwithstanding, what really brings the story alive are the small details: “the sound of Kalashnikovs peppering the night,” or the pleasures of a Dinka meal cooked by her mother: dried okra stew, kissra bread or Asseeda, a wheat or corn porridge. Under all the Chanel and Versace, Alek’s essentially a Dinka girl through and through. Something she’s clearly proud of: “I got my long body from my father — I’m five feet eleven inches tall — and my mother gave me my smile. My inky skin came from both of them.”
Struggle to the top
Alek is not about soaring prose, astounding metaphors or clever word play. In fact, it’s almost childish sometimes in the simplicity of its prose. But the book is an interesting look into what made Alek Wek. Like the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster, it’s about good triumphing over adversity, and quiet strength conquering incredible odds. She walked though vast stretches of the bush in Sudan, boarding dugout canoes “dangerously full of people and their possessions — including chickens; a goat or two, some sacks of grain…”, suffered an attack of malaria, sneaked onto a plane to get to Khartoum and then gain refugee status to escape to London, where she cleaned bathrooms at the BBC. Between all that she battled psoriasis, a skin disease: “It’s so strange that I grew up to make a living off my looks, after so many years of looking like a monster. I’m lucky we didn’t have many mirrors.” Finally, in 1995, she was “discovered” in a park in London. Then came the struggle to the top. “By exotic they always meant black African, I was blacker than most and they seemed very scared of that.” Against all odds, Alek went on to feature in Tina Turner’s theme song,
Alek would have been interesting story even if Alek Wek wasn’t a super model — but it’s just so much more satisfying because it ends so triumphantly.