FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Fringes in Djibouti and Soweto

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In Passage of Tears, twenty-nine-year-old Djibril (or “Djib” in the shortened version), returns to Djibouti, the country of his birth, for the first time in many years.  He’s been living in Canada but has agreed to return to Djibouti for a research intelligence company in order to feel out “the temperature on the ground, making sure the country is secure, the situation stable and the terrorists under control,” a rather unlikely situation just about anywhere in the Horn of Africa.  Presumably, because of his past, he’s the right man for the job, though clearly there are risks involved—not only the ones he can foresee.  His report, once it is finished, will help a Western corporation determine whether Djibouti’s uranium is a promising investment.  As he identifies himself, “I have no desire to attract attention.  I earned my spurs in a specific sector of the world of international business.  I am part of that new elite with no permanent ties, at home everywhere, and foreign everywhere.”

Djib is a little like Changez in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, returning home to Pakistan, after becoming disillusioned with the United States; or Malik, the journalist, in Nuruddin Farah’s recent novel, Crossbones, also making a pilgrimage to his homeland: Somalia.  Both of these novels and Passage of Tears are concerned with Islamic fundamentalism in troubled countries.  All three present tense situations for the prodigal son and/or Westerners who venture into such trouble spots in the world today, which is only to say that their immediacy is chillingly close to what we read in our newspapers, watch on TV or in movies, as exaggerated and distorted as those situations may be.  Thus, it isn’t long before Djib is being watched—his every move, in fact.

Waberi’s forté is his daringly innovative way of narrating his story.  First, there are the sections where Djib relates his own adventures, not only the difficulty he has collecting the information he’s been sent to acquire but also flashbacks to his life in Canada and the Canadian woman with whom he lives.  He phones her every evening.  Then there are passages related by a mysterious figure from a prison cell, who somehow knows about Djib’s every move, both inside and outside of his hotel room.  Thirdly, that second narrator (obviously an intellectual) interweaves into his own observations the events in Walter Benjamin’s last days, when Benjamin was being pursued by the Gestapo during World War II—real life events that culminate with the German intellectual’s suicide after he realized that he could not escape the Nazis.  Are these three narratives convincing?  Disturbingly so, as Djib begins to realize that he is a marked man, pursued by fanatics, and that he’s no longer regarded by his people as Djibouti, but Western.

Hamid, Farah, and Waberi all attack Capitalism and its virulent overseas form: corporatism.  But, unlike Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who comes to question his job at Underwood Samson (US), raiding companies and skimming off their assets, Djib does not question his work that is only designed to benefit Western corporations as non-Western companies are being destroyed.  Djib glibly remarks, “I have been trained to disorganize these states and weaken them still more, so as to benefit multinational companies and their stockholders.  It is lucrative work but it has its dangers.”  Somewhat later, he also observes, “As business never stops, neither do armed conflicts.  There are always new markets to explore, new partners to consult, new logos to design, new directions to take and new masters to advise.  I am a link in that chain of transnational command.  A foot soldier of the shadows.”

The story slowly twists on family dynamics, on scars from childhood wounds, rivalries and jealousies, and religious fundamentalism.  Waberi conjures up Djibouti’s barrenness, its poverty, and political factions—wrapped around the American Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonier: “a fortified base, protected by a double surrounding wall bristling with watchtowers, infrared cameras and concrete barriers, as well as several rows of barbed wire.”  And the country itself?  “Due to its geographical position and stability, my little country has charmed the high strategists of the Pentagon and the Businessmen of the Persian Gulf, Dubai first and foremost.”

Waberi is a gifted writer and the translation by David and Nicole Ball serves him well.  His chilling narrative of America’s repeated blunders in international intervention is enough to make one quake.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. 


 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail