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|'The Zanzibar Chest - A Story Of Life, Love And Death In Foreign Hands'|
Reviewed by Richard Eder
The New York Times
Friday, August 1, 2003
'Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia," Aidan Hartley quotes from the prophet Isaiah. "Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down."
That shadowed, peeled nation is Africa, Hartley writes, hitching Isaiah's prophecy to the ever more ghastly cycle of coups, famines and massacres of the past dozen years. As for "the swift messengers," the author numbers himself among them: one of the pack of journalists who crisscrossed Africa for some of those years. He uses that epithet in a mix of irony, vainglory, passionate sympathy and despair. His book displays the same mix.
"The Zanzibar Chest" is a many-legged hybrid. In part it is a wrenching account of African horrors, particularly those of Somalia and Rwanda.
There is the Rwandan refugee camp. A starving boy "crouches like a frog with eyes clouded white as moonstones," he writes. "And the American nurse is whispering in my ear, 'We say the ones like that are circling the drain. You know, like a spider in your bath?'" There is the gang of paparazzi stampeding behind Sophia Loren, on a celebrity-appeal tour of a Somalian famine camp, and stomping on the arm of a child too weak to roll away.
Further, "The Zanzibar Chest" is also a loving, often evocative account of East Africa where the author grew up, the son of a British agriculture expert and would-be rural entrepreneur, and descendant of a long line of colonial administrators and army officers.
Additionally, in alternating sequences drawn from the diary found in a chest left by his father - the Zanzibar chest of the title - Hartley recounts the life and killing of his father's best friend, Peter Davey, a British political officer who worked among the battling Arab tribes of what today is Yemen.
Clearly a larger literary aim is involved, with more things to say than Hartley felt he could satisfy through journalism. Yet the journalistic memories - enhanced sometimes by lyrical writing and sometimes inflated by it - are the strongest parts of his book. Along with the terrible things he witnessed traveling through Africa for Reuters, he draws a picaresque portrait of his fellow journalists, companions more than rivals. They are not byline stars but lowlier-ranked and -paid beat reporters and photographers of assorted nationalities, many of them stringers (nonstaff) for newspapers and news agencies.
All affectations drop away or are swallowed up in the book's centerpiece. Hartley covered the Somalia drama from beginning to end: from the overthrow of the dictatorship of Muhammad Siad Barre, through the rampage of warring chiefs that followed, the famine aggravated by the war, the United Nations intervention spearheaded by the U.S. Marines, a brief time of hope, the breakdown of hope as the fight against the chieftains became a fight against the streets, and the withdrawal of the UN forces, again spearheaded by the Marines.
Hartley writes with powerful detail of the pillaging of Mogadishu by the anti-Barre rebels. He writes of subsequent perilous daily sorties he made with his fellow Africa veterans.
He writes the horrors along with the sharpest of vignettes. At a Somali checkpoint armed tribesmen demand the clan affiliations of those seeking passage. One man is pulled out and shot. "He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend," a Somali remarks.
Hartley is scathing about the U.S. intervention: not its intentions but its disastrous misapprehension of the place and the people. Inevitably of course Iraq comes to mind. He writes of the bloody attack on what intelligence reported as a meeting of warring chieftains; they turned out to be tribal elders seeking to broker a truce. Seventy were killed, according to the Red Cross; a UN official quit in protest.
He quotes a spokesman's bitter assessment of a mission that began as humanitarian aid, went on to topple the bad guys, then became - haplessly - bad guys and finally left after 150 peacekeepers and thousands of Somalis died, with little accomplished: "We fed them. They grew strong. They killed us."