Quick – tell me everything you know about Djibouti! You may be better informed than I am, but about the only thing I knew for sure before this week’s reading was that Djibouti is in Africa. One thing I love about this project, though, is that it’s filling in so many holes in my knowledge base. Reading Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Passage of Tears taught me about this tiny country’s history and culture, as well as its strategic importance to countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even to the United States, which set up a military base in Djibouti in 2001.
Djibouti, a country about the size of Vermont, is on the east coast of the African continent, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. What surprised me, however, when looking at the map, was Djibouti’s close proximity to the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, which is a scant eighteen miles away. The two countries are separated by a strait called the Bab-el-Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”). The distance is so small that plans have been discussed to build a bridge connecting Djibouti and Yemen.
The protagonist in Passage of Tears, Djib (short for Djibril), was born and raised in Djibouti, but left behind his parents and twin brother Djamal fifteen years ago to move to Montreal, Canada. He works for an economic intelligence firm and is back in Djibouti to analyze the country for a company interested in its uranium potential. According to Djib, “My mission consists in feeling out the temperature on the ground, making sure the country is secure, the situation stable and the terrorists under control.” He feels confident in his ability to put together the necessary reports, but the longer he’s in Djibouti, the more the country seems to resurrect old memories and fears.
Woven in between the chapters narrated by Djib are the writings of a condemned inmate in a nearby prison. This inmate is the scribe for a man he refers to as his venerable Master, and they are both facing execution because of their involvement with an Islamic terrorist organization called the New Way. The inmate knows everything about Djib’s movements from the moment he arrives in Djibouti, and he is extremely critical of Djib’s life in the Western world. His writings become increasingly ominous the longer Djib remains in Djibouti.
In addition to the book’s obvious themes, such as the clashes between cultures and the difficulty in going home after a long absence, Passage of Tears invokes the work of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin throughout. Djib appreciates the work of Benjamin because of “his encyclopedic mind, his intuitive method and, above all, by his conception of history, which was not theoretical or arid in the least.” The condemned inmate discovers the story of Benjamin, who spent years on the run from the Nazis before finally committing suicide, in an old account left behind by a previous inmate. It takes on a special meaning for him: “What is this book if not a homage to the human spirit and its immense aura?”
Passage of Tears held my interest and taught me things I never knew. What more can one ask of a book?
There wasn’t much mention of food in Passage of Tears. In one recollection from his childhood, Djib talks of eating “a paper cone full of peanuts or hot spicy fritters.” I did an Internet search for recipes from Djibouti and found one for fritters, although not the hot spicy variety. The recipe, from InternationalCuisine.com, was for banana fritters. It seemed like they would be simple enough to make, with only a few ingredients and a minimum of preparation and cooking time required. The picture that accompanied the recipe showed something that looked like a stack of pancakes, but that’s not how my fritters turned out. Mine were kind of gooey on the inside, and if I were to make this recipe again, I’d try putting all the ingredients in the blender to make a smoother fritter. You win some, you lose some.
GlobalGiving.com doesn’t have any projects in Djibouti, so I had to search the Internet for another option. It wasn’t easy because, even though many organizations have projects in Djibouti, they are generally operating throughout Africa and it’s not possible to designate my donation specifically for Djibouti. I finally found a GoFundMe project to raise funds for a school serving 150 homeless children in Djibouti. More information about this project can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/supporteducationforall.
NEXT STOP: DOMINICA