Desert Flower

Desert FlowerThere’s a certain fate books face when they make it to your bookshelf rather than immediately being read upon purchase: that of being relegated to the dust-gathering, guilt-inducing, probably-never-going-be-read pile.

Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower fell into that category for me. Bought on a whim among a pile of books (as any bibliophile will attest, you can never just buy one book), it was put aside immediately for the most pressing, must-read purchases and then again later for the abundance of new titles that came upon my radar.

That’s probably in part because I’m not interested in the fashion industry or models (Dirie is a supermodel from the Naomi Campbell era), and because her backstory is relatively harrowing (Dirie is originally from Somalia, has suffered female genital mutilation (FGM), and is now a United Nations (UN) ambassador speaking out about the practice).

I don’t know whether I thought the book would be frivolous or distressing or both, but either way it featured high on the too-hard pile. I even passed over it on Saturday when, having just started to see the other side of a debilitating bout of gastro, I decided I wanted nothing more than to continue recuperating by losing myself in a good book.

My hand paused over The Twelve (the follow-up to The Passage), I Confess, and I Shall Not Hate, but all fell into the too-long or too-harrowing categories themselves. For some reason I finally plucked Dirie’s book from its dust-gathering location, and subsequently devoured it in a three-hour sitting. Why it took me so long to read it I’ll now never know.

The book opens climactically, with Dirie deliriously dehydrated, near starvation, and almost falling prey to a lion. She’s all of about 13 and has run away from home with literally nothing but the clothes she is wearing—not even shoes, because the family was too poor for her to ever have owned some—to avoid an arranged marriage to a 60-year-old man. Her family are Somalian nomads, and her father would be paid five camels for Dirie’s dowry. Her father considers that a good deal; Dirie not so much.

From there Dirie somehow manages to make it to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, and then, through a combination of chutzpah and naiveté, on to London as a housemaid for an uncle who’s based there as an ambassador. It sounds a charmed life, but she’s relegated to the role of cleaner and denied the education and opportunities of her cousins.

Desperate to stay in London when the ambassadorship ends, but lacking formal education, English language skills, and money, Dirie manages through a series of incredible tenacity to make it work. One element of that involves her being discovered as a model, with one of her first ever assignments alongside a then similarly naïve newbie, Naomi Campbell.

The modelling gig perhaps makes Dirie’s story one more fairytale than hard graft it really has been. She continues to experience debilitating ongoing health issues related to the FGM she suffered without anaesthetic in the bush at the hands of a rusty razor-wielding gypsy woman as a child. She endured countless visa issues that saw her resorting to desperate measures not to be deported. Dirie’s is an experience I’m not sure I would have survived. And certainly not with so much grace and humour intact.

I Shall Not HateDirie’s is an incredibly pragmatic, accessible storytelling style—you can imagine her holding rapt court at a dinner party, telling stories from the various chapters. It explains why I could absolutely devour the book in short sitting, but also why elements of it continue to remain with me.

Which is just as well, because the statistics on FGM about which she’s trying to raise awareness and stamp out are sobering—and escalating. The UN estimates some 130 million girls and women have experienced FGM and another two million—or 6000 a day—are at risk each year of the same fate.

The laundry list of infections and illnesses that accompany this practice are chilling, not least complications from shock, tetanus, septicaemia, HIV, Hepatitis B, recurring pelvic and urinary tract infections, dysmenorrhea (excruciatingly painful menstruation), depression, and death.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made a documentary about Dirie, and her book has reportedly been made into a film. Which is all to say that if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to reading it, you have other options. That written, the book is surprisingly easy and quick to read, so I’d recommend opting for that first. But the documentary/film are likely an equally good way to discover Dirie’s story and the wider FGM issue she now works to combat.

Puntland’s Pirates

Deadly WatersWith stories about Somali pirates confined to 30-second, us-v-them news grabs, few of us (including the journalists putting together those news grabs) understand the complex reasons why these pirates exist. One Canadian journalist—a fresh-out-of-uni freelancer, no less—set out to find out precisely what drives people to roam the ocean with not even enough fuel or food to see them safely back to shore and to kidnap ships and crews in the hope of extracting large ransoms.

The answers Jay Bahadur found are surprising and show the greyness of the issues underpinning piracy. These include the fact that rampant and illegal over-fishing by the kinds of commercial ships the pirates now kidnap killed off the fish stocks and left some of these former fishermen with no choice but to turn to piracy. Throw in a mysterious-sounding place called ‘Puntland’, a special kind of ‘pirate math’, and a reference to the game ‘Whac-a-Mole’, and what you have is a compelling read.

I spoke to Bahadur ahead of his Australian tour to find out a little more about Deadly Waters, his experiences while writing it, and what he’s got planned next…

I’ve got to admit that I’ve never heard of Puntland and that I think the name sounds made up. Is that the reaction you had when you first discovered it?

It’s hard to remember my exact reaction on discovering Puntland, because it would have been when I was studying Somalia in university, seven years ago. But the name ‘Punt’ is taken from the Ancient Egyptian accounts of a land rich in ebony and frankincense, which may (or may not) be the same as the Puntland of modern times. Puntland’s founders apparently thought it was.

You were a new graduate and freelancer when you tackled this project—something that many more established journalists hadn’t and haven’t. How important do you think a bit of naivety and enthusiasm were to making it happen? How has it influenced your career/others’ opinions of you since?

Many people I’ve spoken to (including close friends) thought that what I was doing was insane, but I never saw it that way; I saw it as a justified calculated risk. In my mind, the book was already a reality—all I had to do was to go to Somalia and bring it into being.

It may sound odd, or arrogant, but I never really doubted that some publisher would end up buying the book…the subject matter was just so engrossing, and I was really the only foreign journalist staying in Somalia long enough to get the whole story.

The book opens with you taking a fairly dubious flight and you require personal security throughout the trip. Did you feel safe at any stage? Were there any hairy moments that didn’t make it into the book?

The scariest moments were during the flight on my first trip into Somalia, not knowing if I was going to be picked up at the airstrip (I had not yet met my host and partner, a local journalist named Mohamad Farole). A lone white man hanging around a Somali airstrip would be prime kidnap bait, and I was ready to beg any of the other passengers to take me home for the night if my ride didn’t show.

There were also a few dodgy moments when I was in the coastal areas, questioning a pirate gang that had gathered in anticipation of an impending ransom delivery. I started asking the wrong questions, and one of the gang leaders took exception…but you can read about that in the book!

You note that there wasn’t much research available and that most major media organisations give 30-second sound bites that don’t delve into (or even understand) the complex issues that underpin piracy. How much of the book could you research/plan?

The best information available at the time I began working on the book was contained in a handful of UN reports, which were by then already out of date. I had composed a list of very basic questions—who are the pirates, who is funding them, do they have links to terrorists, etc.—but mostly I tried to keep an open mind and figure things out when I got there.

What’s the reaction been to/action inspired by your book?

The reviews have been very positive, so far. It’s a little too soon after the launch to judge what action it has inspired, but I hope it will stimulate a more serious policy debate about potential solutions to the piracy problem. With some exceptions, I haven’t been too impressed with the quality of the current scholarship.

You note the unreliability of your sources, including that they don’t give you full information or that their figures don’t add up/dates don’t match. How frustrating was that for you? How did you overcome it?

Yes, ‘pirate math’, as I call it, often didn’t add up. Ombaali, a hostage guard whom I interviewed soon after I first arrived in Puntland, was a prime example. He claimed to have worked for Abshir Boyah—a veteran pirate boss who became the main character in my book—but Boyah denied ever having employed him.

He also claimed to have made $50,000 over the course of three hijackings, but when I worked through his numbers (he told me that the guards collectively earned 30% of the ransom), I discovered that he couldn’t have made much more than $19,000. I strongly considered completely junking the interview, but in the end decided to use it; it was the sort of decision that journalism school definitely could have helped me with.

I was really surprised that the victims you spoke to didn’t seem too traumatised by the experience. Is that across the board or were they exceptions to the rule?

I’m not really sure, having only spoken to two former hostages. The ones I interviewed, however, were treated relatively well; in more recent days, hostages have been subjected to escalating brutality, as the pirates have employed methods such as beatings, mock executions, and using prisoners as human shields.

More than one has committed suicide; on the MV Iceberg, a vessel that has now been held captive for well over a year, one crew member jumped overboard and drowned while trying to escape. With the ransom money going through the roof, the international naval forces more willing to use violence, and the pirates increasingly paranoid and jittery, the plight of hostages is likely only to worsen going forward.

My favourite diagram is where you show the expansion in piracy. The dots are incredible, but at the same time don’t feel real. Is that perhaps the issue with Puntland’s piracy? That we recognise it in theory and know that’s expanding, but we don’t quite know how to tackle it?

The problem is that the international naval forces cannot possibly cover an area of almost eight million square kilometres—roughly four-fifths the size of the United States—with a few dozen warships. The prospect of addressing the problem on land immediately conjures up images of the 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, in which 18 US Army Rangers were killed and mutilated by Somali militiamen. Somalia is such a mess right now that no Western country would ever seriously consider putting boots on the ground.

You liken the efforts to contain pirates like playing a game of ‘Whac-a-Mole’. If you could recommend three strategies to implement right now to address the issues, what would they be?

A solution on land is a must. I suggest a five-point plan in the book, including the establishment of coastal garrisons in Puntland—equipped with radar stations, high frequency radios, and all-terrain vehicles—as well as local ‘pirate hotlines’, which would offer small rewards for intelligence tip-offs from local informants. The pirates are almost universally hated in the local communities, which is a resource that should be exploited.

You note that as big/even bigger than the issue of piracy is the issue of what to do with pirates once they’re caught. How can we address this human rights issue?

Deciding what to do with pirates is more a legal, logistical, and financial issue than a human rights issue. While most countries have a direct interest in ending piracy, none want to deal with the cost of dozens, or even hundreds, of essentially stateless persons clogging up their legal systems. In some countries, such as the UK, pirates may even be within their rights to claim asylum.

In the book, I suggest setting up regional tribunals, and ultimately funding prisons in Puntland and Somaliland where convicted pirates can serve out their terms. It’s the same approach as the one currently advocated by the UN special adviser on piracy, Jack Lang, but UN machinery is notoriously slow and cumbersome. These things take time.

On pay day, pirates throw their mobile phones into the water so no one can organise an ambush back on shore. Is it just me, or is that a problem environmentally? I’m envisaging a lot of toxic chemical-laden phones on the bottom of the harbour.

That was the practice of one pirate gang I investigated while in Puntland’s coastal areas. Even if it were a common occurrence, a few mobile phones on the ocean floor would be the least of Somalia’s problems.

Knowing what you know now, would you go in and research and write this book again?

Without a doubt. It’s worked out even better than I could have imagined. It was a sort of counter case for Murphy’s Law: everything that could have gone right, did go right.

What can we expect next from you?

I’m working with several colleagues on launching a citizen journalism website, Journalist Nation ( In a nutshell, our aim is to become a home for the numerous newsworthy cell phone videos ones sees floating around YouTube. My hope is to use the publicity surrounding the book to promote Journalist Nation (like I’m doing right now!).

You’re coming to the Brisbane Writers Festival (I’m currently based in Brisbane so am looking forward to it). Where else can we catch you in Australia?

After the festival I’ll be heading to Gleebooks in Sydney and also the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I’m really looking forward to it. This will be my first time in Australia.

I’m looking forward to it too. I’ll be in Jay’s Brisbane Writers Festival session(s) if you’d like to join me.

War—What Is It Good For?

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate MeasuresWhile I’m rarely able to pick a ‘favourite’ book, nor even do more than draw a blank when I’m asked to recommend something, one of my hands-down favourites and one that I regularly buy as a gift for friends or thrust upon them as a loaner is Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures). Written by three United Nations (UN) workers—lawyer Kenneth Cain, social worker Heidi Postlewait, and almost-Aussie New Zealand-born doctor Andrew Thomson—it gives a warts-and-all insight not only into war but the international organisation tasked with managing its fallout.

The three were stationed in the likes of Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia, the latter of which included them being there during the awfulness of Black Hawk Down. The revelations aren’t pretty and offer some fairly despairing examples of why the UN is referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’, but the book’s strangely inspiring too. In fact, despite cataloguing its flaws, the authors still work at the UN and still work to improve the world we live in. I’ve never more wanted to join the UN than I did after reading the book and apparently am not alone in my thinking.

I’m not going to dish details of the origins of the ‘emergency sex’ of the title—I recommend you read it to find out for yourself—but I will say that while it might be the gimmick that attracts you, there’s much more to the book than that. UN officials as high up as Kofi Annan tried to prevent the book from being published, but it was such in-text statements as the fact that if blue-helmeted UN officials turn up in your village purporting to be there to help you, you should run that were much more thought-provoking.

An Imperfect OfferingKeen to know more and to fill the post-good-book reading void after finishing Emergency Sex, I stumbled across Medecins Sans Frontieres president James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the Medical Frontline. Orbinski has spent years working in some pretty harrowing hotspots, but for me the most compelling aspect of the book was his account of his time spent in Rwanda. As one of the few foreigners who stayed in the country and who witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the genocide, which the world (including the UN) effectively watched unfold without intervening, his stories are harrowing and haunting.

By demonstrating the human cost of war, both books resoundingly show that war is much messier and less effective than the obfuscating ‘shock and awe’ and ‘smart bomb’ jargon would have us believe. They also demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit against the odds and give some very human insight into (for those of us who’ve grown up in safe environments) a very foreign experience. And while I’ve re-read and will continue to return to both books, the question I’m now faced with is, now that I’m again facing the good-book reading void, which insight-into-war book(s) should I read next?