On the Fringes in Djibouti and Soweto
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.