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“Why was the Bay of Djibouti so attractive to the Europeans?  And what was Djibouti originally?  A handful of little magical islands over which history rose and swirled like a hurricane for centuries?  A handful of little islands like beauty spots on the neck of a beautiful woman rich in legends and rumours?”

In one of the most stimulating novels I have read in months, Djibouti author Abdourahman A. Waberi, now living in France, explores issues of crucial contemporary importance while examining the history of religious extremism and how young people are drawn to it.  He does this within the context of an intriguing, often poetic, novel which contains mysteries, a spy narrative, secret identities, a writer speaking from the grave,  and a mystical, real-time connection between two characters who never meet during the narrative.   I was glued to the pages of this short novel, and I am still thinking of all the mysteries the author raises here as he takes the reader in new directions, offering no easy answers.

In the opening chapter, Djibril, a Djibouti native now living in Montreal and working for a North American security company, returns on assignment to his former country after being away for eleven years:  “I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me…The past interests me less than the future and my time is precious….In the world I [now] come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist.  Time is money.”  Djibril (“Call me Djib.”) has arrived on a one-week mission to evaluate whether Djibouti is secure, the political situation stable, and the terrorists under control. His employer, Adorno Location Scouting, has been contracted to investigate on behalf of a client which wants to do some development there, but they need someone like Djibril with insights into the country itself for the security analysis.  Despite being away from Djibouti for more than a decade, however, Djibril is not anonymous – he is tracked by unidentified men from the instant he sets foot on the soil.

Chapters about Djibril alternate with narratives by a mysterious prisoner, confined to a tiny cell on a desert island with only a blind old man for company.  This prisoner has become a scribe for the old man, his Venerable Master, recording his thoughts on scraps of paper which blow under the door of their cell.  The prisoner seems to have supernatural knowledge about Djibril, his arrival, and of the fact that he is being followed, and he is decidedly hostile towards him.

Goubet al-Kharat (the Devil’s Cauldron), with the Devil’s Isles in the background.  Photo from: http://epousesemia.canalblog.com

As Djibril details the country’s social conditions in his notebook, he comments on the intrusion of foreigners into the country and their damaging effects, not just on Djibouti but throughout the Third World:  “Today sovereign states are losing ground, becoming denationalized in the big picture of globalization.  They see whole chunks of their sovereignty crumble away, given over to conglomerates.” In Djibouti, Dubai has built a huge industrial park, and the Saudis want to build an eighteen-mile long bridge over the strait at the entrance to the Red Sea, between Djibouti and Yemen.  A new city, The City of Light, built by foreigners, will arise near this bridge, with a twin city built on the other side of the bridge in Yemen.  The US has long had a command center near the entrance to the Red Sea, and Italy and France have been fighting for influence in Djibouti for generations.  The country, the author says, is the “greatest powder keg in the world after Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Ardoukoba, the volcanic zone at the end of the Gulf of Tadjoura. Photo by George Kourounis.

According to the prisoner, the development of terror cells, promoted and taught by a charismatic zealot, has appealed to many of the youth, who feel they no longer have a place in their country, which is now being governed by leaders with connections to foreigners.  “Inspired by Satan, [their leaders] opted for the worst of all tactics.  With a great deal of money, they were able to hire impious soldiers and sign pacts with foreign powers that are nothing more than the military branch of the Vatican or Israel.”  As a result of the zealot’s efforts, “Fresh recruits came pouring in…including battalions of mature men who had seen the light.”  The revolution he envisions will start from the Horn, branch out into Africa, and ultimately arise in the Urals, and spread to the “petromonarchies” of the Gulf.

As Djibril investigates, without much in the way of results, he remembers his past, his loving relationship with his grandfather, his difficulties with his mother, and his problems with his twin brother.  He enjoys the memories of his best friend and soul brother, David, a Jewish boy.  The prisoner, however, has harsher memories, and is clearly influenced by the intensity of the blind prophet and his own devotion to him and to Allah.  As he is recording his Venerable Master’s words, however, he is suddenly overcome by a mystical experience:  the paper on which he has been recording the Master begins to look as if it has other words, not his own, written there in tiny script, a “palimpsest.”  When he breathes on the paper, the script becomes clear, and it is foreign, associated with someone named Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher, critic, and writer.  Benjamin was forced to flee Germany and then France during the Nazi takeover, ultimately escaping toward Spain in the hope of reaching Portugal, just as Djibril has fled to France from Djibouti.  Long passages from this “Book of Ben,” continue to raise ideas in conflict with much that the prisoner has learned.

The drama ratchets up when Djibril makes contact with someone who can provide him with information he needs, leading to a climactic final scene.  Throughout, Djibril’s seemingly casual, comfortable attitudes draw in the reader, in contrast to those of the prisoner, who is distant and driven.  Still, there were times in which I wondered (wrongly) whether the prisoner even existed and whether he might be an alterego for Djibril, since they seemed to share something on a psychic level.  Parts of the “Book of Ben” are at times obscure, and a coherent picture of Walter Benjamin’s ideas does not fully emerge, but this does not limit their interest or their effects on the reader, including the prisoner.  The author deliberately leaves questions unanswered while creating many ironies in his conclusion, and I suspect that I will be thinking of this unsettling, evocative, and memorable novel for weeks to come.

Also by Waberi:  TRANSIT

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on

The Devil’s Cauldron is located at the end of the Gulf of Tadjoura, an inlet from the Gulf of Aden.  Djibril visits this area on his second day in Djibouti.  Photo from http://epousesemia.canalblog.com

Ardoukouba is in the mountains not far from the Gulf of Tadjoura, a volcanic area where “the Gulf comes to die.”  This photo by George Kourounis is from  http://www.stormchaser.ca

The Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin are published by Harvard University Press.

The map of Djibouti and surrounding countries shows Djibouti and Yemen straddling the entrance to the Red Sea. http://www.gettingaround.net

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