FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail