- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

THE ZANZIBAR CHEST

A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands

By Aidan Hartley

Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 377 pages

REVIEWED BY BART MCDOWELL

This remarkable book is more than the memoir of a war correspondent. It is, by turn, slam-bang adventure and shimmering poetry. It is hilarious, orgiastically bawdy, poignantly romantic, gory as war itself, and populated with a census-sized number of vivid personalities. All that — plus informative and dreadfully prophetic.

The author is Kenya-born Aidan Hartley, a former Reuters correspondent. His parents chose Aidan’s first name to honor the Middle Eastern protectorate where they first met, Aden. (They altered the spelling to accommodate a saint; and history altered the protectorate to become part of Yemen.)

For generations, his family had served Britain in faraway places so young Hartley grew up with his formative years divided between Africa and English public schools. At age 6, he prayed to “Our Father who art in Africa.” And, indeed, the elder Hartley set a formidable example for his sons. He was a colonial civil servant, a pioneering farmer (until his lands were confiscated) and an agricultural expert. He built irrigation systems, introduced new crops, and counseled tribal rulers in their own languages. He traveled the rural world by foot, by horse and camel. His British wife, herself born in Lahore, then part of India, was once asked by young Aidan why his great-grandparents had left Yorkshire and Scotland to roam the world. “Oh,” she answered, “to get out of the rain, dear.”

Young Hartley managed to stay out of the rain by becoming a stringer — or part-time correspondent — for the Financial Times in Dar es Salaam (the name has an ironic translation as Haven of Peace) on the Indian Ocean. Then a military coup in Khartoum inspired Mr. Hartley to call the London Times, and, yes, they would take stories from him until their regular Cairo man reached the Sudan. So Mr. Hartley raced off to cover the coup, and in Khartoum he learned from other journalists, how to pad an expense account— and how to interview a self-appointed president.

There, too, he survived his first plane crash. Ever after, on hundreds of flights, “I am transformed … palms sweating, bare-toothed with fear and possessed of a high-altitude belief in God.” So it is with many of us who have missed death in a crashed plane.

Soon he was working in Nairobi, and learning from his journalistic colleagues (“correspondents are strangely sentimental about the past”) along with a lexicon of city nicknames. Nairobi becomes “Nairobbery,” Dar es Salaam becomes “Dar-Is-The-Slum” and so on. Words are washed down with Tusker beer, named after the elephant that killed one of the brewery’s founders.

And there was more flying — all over Africa. “Ten minutes out of Nairobi and the great gate of clouds opened out… . Our path led over patchwork peasant lands, sequined with tin hut roofs glinting in the sun … arid plains broken by the capillaries of seasonal streams that dissipated into stains of green … . Look down and you’d see herds of goats and camels scatter in unison like shoals of fish. And even in this modern day, whole grid squares on the tactical pilotage charts were half blank and marked with the words RELIEF DATA INCOMPLETE. They might as well have written ‘here be monsters.’”

Monsters there really were. A Marxist Congolese rebel leader is asked, “What do you need to start a guerrilla war?” He answers: “Ten thousand dollars and a satellite phone. You use the dollars to recruit fighters to raid the local police stations for their guns. The phone you use to call the world’s press after the attack.”

A woman guerrilla of Mr. Hartley’s age — then in his twenties — explained the way to “necklace” an enemy: Pour gasoline into a tire, sling it around a man’s neck, and set fire to it. The “heat was so great that the skull popped like an egg in a microwave oven.”

In the Comoro Islands, he interviews Bob Denard, the soldier of fortune who had invaded Katanga on a bicycle, had been sentenced to death in absentia in Benin, and had done other violent deeds of statecraft in Angola, Chad , and the Ivory Coast. In the Comoros, when his foreign paymasters “refused to renew his contract to protect the president in 1989, he gutted the country’s leader from throat to groin like a goat.”

In Rwanda Mr. Hartley asks, “Is this the front line? It should be a school. The soldiers all appear to be twelve years old … . The hillside below us is on fire and a battle is still in progress … . A Kidogo child soldier sways, swigging from a bottle of claret in one hand and dangling a white rabbit by the ears in the other.”

In Ethiopia, he writes that “I could always find some bones to pick clean in the aftermath of a tragedy … . I trod carefully among a congregation of bodies incinerated so that their carbonated, fused forms resembled obsidian volcanic glass.”

In a Mogadishu hospital, he notes a “brown track of drying blood flowing up the stairs and down the corridors … .Casualties lay all over the place, moaning and sometimes screaming … . In the courtyard there were piles of amputated limbs and bloody bandages.” It was in Somalia where Mr. Hartley first coined the term “warlord” — a noun much resented by the warlord Aydiid when he was interviewed.

It is in his coverage of the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi where the horror reaches a crescendo. His car is stopped by a roadblock built of corpses, “still warm and oozing blood.”

“We have history,” Mr. Hartley writes, “to explain why events happen. How does history apply to the sight of one woman with a baby tied to her back gleefully using a machete to hack up another woman with a baby tied to her back?”

War-weary and sick at heart, Mr. Hartley returned to England. His father had died, and when he went through the old man’s things, he opened an old camphor chest, carved in Zanzibar. There he finds the diary of his father’s closest friend, one Peter Davey. To retrace the travels and the life of his father’s old friend, Mr. Hartley returns to Africa, and then to Arabia. There he uncovers a touching love story six decades old. “The desert was clean,” he writes. “I saw the sands were crossed by the hieroglyphic tracks of beetles, the arabesques of snakes.” The more things change, the more they are the same.

Mr. Hartley tells a love story of his own, with a backdrop of war and the stimulants of booze and adrenaline. It was another casualty of war. “Men get hit by syndromes years after exposure to chemical agents or enriched uranium,” he writes. “What about the brain? I have to try every day to prevent the poison that sits in my mind to spread outwards and hurt the people I love.”

Adam Hartley’s book must rank with other great journalistic memoirs — Eric Severeids’s “Not So Wild a Dream” and Webb Miller’s “I Found No Peace.” I read Mr. Hartley’s book in uncorrected page proof. I do hope that the publishers, Atlantic Monthly Press, will see fit to add a map or two. And certainly their omniscient proof readers will correct errors of grammar that could discredit dons in Mr. Hartley’s English public schools.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.


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