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Tag: Somalia

Book of the Year: “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard

Tuesday, 31 December, 2013 0 Comments

J.M. Ledgard leads a double life. As a journalist, he covers East Africa for The Economist, but he’s also a novelist and the multitasking narrator of Submergence, James More, reflects Ledgard’s twofold career. Ostensibly, he’s a water engineer based in Nairobi, but that’s just a cover for his activities as a British intelligence agent. When we meet him, he’s been captured by a Somalian affiliate of al-Qaeda, which keeps moving him back and forth across the bleak African terrain, trying to hide from American drones while planning jihad. James is sustained in his suffering by the memory of a brief affair in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant and carnal bio-mathematician, who studies the luminous creatures of the ocean floor. As James sinks deeper into the desolation of his captivity, Danielle prepares for a dive that will take her to the extreme depths of the Atlantic. Submergence mixes language, science, politics, geography and love in a superb story about deserts, oceans, desire and terror.

Saif, the leader of the jihadist group, constantly talks of martyrdom. At one point, he says, “I expect to die soon. I welcome it. I expect you’ll be killed too. That is why I want you to convert to Islam.”
“No,” James said, firmly.

This exchange is followed by a truly extraordinary lyrical passage:

“There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him: a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewellery, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with their knights’ tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the first World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and the drizzle… He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.”

J.M. Ledgard has partaken in something that will outlive him and he’s to be congratulated for writing such honest and moving prose. If, in 2014, we are to suffer pain and loss, let us remain familiar and coherent to those whom we love and who love us.

desert


Frederick Forsyth has al-Shabab in his Kill List

Thursday, 26 September, 2013 0 Comments

The Kill List “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” said Woody Allen, famously, but what about the critical remainder? Success is tied to timing so which part of good timing is due to good luck? Or is good timing a function of hard work? These questions are worth discussing in light of the latest thriller from Frederick Forsyth, The Kill List. What makes its appearance right now so uncanny is that much of the story plays out in Somalia, home to the terrorist group al-Shabab, which provides sanctuary for the fanatical Islamist at the centre of the novel. Following the weekend slaughter at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the name al-Shabab, meaning “The Youth” in Arabic, is now associated with butchery and horror as fact intersects with fiction.

In Forsyth’s novel, the evil sermons of the wicked “Preacher” are being broadcast in immaculate English from a command centre in the Somali port of Kismayo, and in the real world on Monday a man identifying himself as Abu Umar, an al-Shabab commander in Kismayo, spoke impeccable English as he offered details on the identity of the terrorists and the siege that suggested a command centre inside Somalia was running the operation. Forsyth is concise on the tragic story of this wretched place, which once had comprised French Somaliland, British Somaliland and the former Italian Somaliland. Snippet:

“After a few years of the usual dictatorship, the once thriving and elegant colony where wealthy Italians use to vacation had lapsed into civil war. Clan fought clan, tribe fought tribe, warlord after warlord sought supremacy. Finally, with Mogadishu and Kismayo just seas of rubble, the outside world had given up.

A belated notoriety had returned when the beggared fishermen of the north turned to piracy and the south to Islamic fanaticism. Al-Shabab had arisen not as an offshoot but as an ally to Al-Qaeda and conquered all the south. Mogadishu hovered as a fragile token capital of a corrupt regime living on aid…”

Frederick Forsyth provides much more than a page turner when he writes thrillers. The Kill List is history, geography and a warning to the civilized world as well. As events at Westgate Mall have shown, the barbarians are at the gates.