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Proof of Life: Self-Abnegation Amongst the Post-Colonial Pirates of Somalia

In April 2010, ten young Somali pirates were caught trying to hijack the Taipan, a German cargo ship, some 500 miles off the coast of Somalia.  They were returned to Germany for trial, which took place in Hamburg the following year. Michael Scott Moore, covering the trial for Der Spiegel at the time, noted the almost ‘farcical’ quality of the proceedings–no one had been tried in Germany before for piracy, raising new legal questions; the pirates came from a country with no working centralized government, so background information on the pirates couldn’t readily be obtained; and, the ages of the defendants were impossible to determine, leading to their being tried as juveniles. Their defense lawyer seemed to liken the pirates to joy-riding car thieves–wayward kids from a broken home–who needed a lift up, rather than internment in a “Guantanamo at sea,” such as they would have faced in an American trial. Germany, largely accommodating to immigrants, chose the more humane route.

Moore was piqued by the unanswered questions of the young pirates’ lives and soon thereafter decided to venture to the village of one of the defendants, to seek unknown truths and gain journalistic perspective. “The rise of modern pirates buzzing off Somalia,” he writes in his memoir, “was an example of entropy in my lifetime, and it seemed important to know why there were pirates at all.” As is often the case with any trek into ‘the unknown interior’ of a mystery, shit happens: Moore got kidnapped by Somalis in the early days of his investigative journey and stayed with his captors for 977 days.  The Desert and the Sea is the memoir that describes that experience.  

In Somalia, captive Moore is immersed in the every-man-for-himself desperation of ordinary people living in a failed state–a place of droughts, warring clans, and post-colonial insurgencies of power-grabbing Islamists battling Western forces (think: “Black Hawk Down”)–which informs the background mindscape of Moore’s ‘journalistic’ memoir. This wild west milieu has changed little in the years since his release.  In a recent piece, Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion, an Assistant Professor at the National College of Arts and Social Sciences in neighboring Eritrea, writes of the latest doings in Somalia, “Despite years of international efforts and billions of dollars spent, sustainable peace, security, and stability remain elusive in Somalia….Structural marginalization and exclusion, divisive politics, clan rivalries and disputes, displacement, persecution, endemic poverty, inequality, rampant corruption, a dire lack of transparency and accountability, the absence of basic economic infrastructure, a lack of social services, and unemployment, particularly among youth, are significant grievances that extremists [such as al-Shabab] are often able to tap into and exploit.”  

While Moore manages to stay out of the hands of al-Shabab during his tenure with pirates (although there is speculation he will be sold to the Islamic terrorists), he and other wayward tourists, as well as kidnapped ships’ crews, come to intimately understand what it’s like to be property–a ‘normalized’ commodity in a human trafficking market.  Writes Moore, “Piracy was just a brutal form of trade, and it flourished where jobs were scarce, in modern Somalia as well as the colonial United States.” (At one point, Moore, as others have, discusses the importance of American piracy in the movement toward democracy.) But, just as importantly, his long captivity at the hands of khat-chewing, Kalashnikov-wielding pirates forces him to come to terms with his own presumptuous humanity and suicidal ideation.  Turns out, when you think about it, it’s a jungle in there.

Moore, the journalist, takes in and ‘objectively’ analyzes his environs and the ineluctable situation he’s in; there is an aspect of ‘dry reporting’ that frames the subjective experience he endures.  A leitmotif of the memoir is Moore’s coming to terms with his deeply unhappy father’s suicide–his father’s motives fueled by alcoholism and self-abnegation, and his own propensity for self-destructive thinking; coming to Somalia seems to him, after a while, to be a good example.  “My real mistake had been coming to Somalia at all,” he writes. “What did I think I would find around here? Pirates who trusted writers? Truth?” Instead, he moves toward an epipahny, repeating to himself, like a mantra, “You have made a mistake. Mistakes are human.”

To fill in the long days of having little to do but think, Moore settles in to long considerations of great thinkers–Epictetus, Nietzsche, Einstein–and mental exercises: “For me these afternoons were long and terrifying. The heat mounted; the flies lost their minds….My heart knocked  against my sternum and I lay rigid, one arm over my face, just trying to keep the floor-grimed chains off my mattress, while in my head I recited the capitals of all fifty American states. When that was done, I tried to name all of Saul Bellow’s novels in order. Then Dylan albums. Then Faulkner.”

Naturally, religion, especially Islam, figures into his daily thinking, too.  For instance, the title of the book, “The Desert and the Sea,” is a derived from a Ryszard Kapuscinski passage in Travels with Herodotus  which refers to two kinds of Islam–one a “war-like, nomadic”  desert-bound Islam, reflected, in say, the Sharia-driven authoritarianism of Sunni adherents; the other reflective of a more open, mercantile Islam, perhaps more reflective of Sh’ia followers. This is a crucial distinction for Moore, as his capture by, say, al-Shabab, would have been a much more brutal experience than it proved to be with his more open market-driven kidnappers, who saw him as a way of making a buck ($20 million ransom) and rarely directly threatened physical harm. Although, tension builds as the ransom demands are impossible to meet after about 900 days, and he is told he “would be sold like chattel to the jihadist beasts [al-Shabab].”

Crucial to his mental survival was the role of Moore’s mother, back in Los Angeles, who received the ransom demand and had to deal with rounding up the cash. In an interesting narrative contrast, as Moore is getting to become accustomed to the limited humanity of the pirates’ treatment of him and others, sharing meals, making sure he has writing supplies, listening to Somali folk music together, and watching pirated videos together (“Captain Phillips” was a pirate favorite) on their cell phones, he details the frequent visits by FBI agents to his mother. “Whenever the FBI paid a visit, she served coffee and bagels, and whenever a meeting or a phone call had been scheduled in advance, she ordered sandwiches. Later she baked banana bread and cookies. She’d started to think of the agents as surrogate family.”  Together, they watch her son’s proof of life videos, commenting on the staged quality of the proceedings, and generally keeping hope afloat.

 Eventually, the ransom is reduced to $1.5 million and Moore is released–physically, and emotionally from his world-weary Dad’s ghostlike presence in his mind: “Dad’s disillusion sounded like bare-knuckled realism, but it proved to be a stubborn chemical ignorance of a beauty that surrounded us every day.”  This new attitude of release from his father seems to be the first and perhaps most important example of a new philosophy evolving from his captivity. In the end, he sides with the relativism of Albert Einstein: “…‘The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self,’ he wrote in a letter in 1934….” It seems a more productive take on his father’s fatal self-abnegation.

Despite his liberation, Moore’s transition back to the ‘real’ world proves troublesome.  “I was in a fugue state,” he writes, “dissociated from my old life and self even while I returned to it. I had trouble believing they were real.” It was a dissociation no doubt amplified by a return to a world now-conditioned by Internet dependency, especially the addiction to the sometimes-surreal social media world–for instance, recently, on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Moore relates how he was later contacted on Facebook by one of his captors, who updates him on the doings of his kidnappers, almost like two pals getting together for a beer and catch-up. Moore rejects this notion, never forgetting the ordeal with its suffering and murders, but it’s clear he accepts the humanity of the dialogue–he has continued the correspondence, maybe mapping it through his journalistic filters, and it aligns with his original desire, during the Hamburg trial of Somalis, with his desire to understand what makes pirates tick.

A side note: I found the audiobook version of The Desert and the Sea more engaging than the text version.  Corey Snow does an outstanding job narrating the audio version, opening up the spaces of captivity, the boring routines, the pithy observations; pirate characterizations come to life in a well-modulated textual performance, and the narrative voice seems just the right age for the author.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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