Posted on November 13, 2013


A guest who breaks the dishes of his host is not soon forgotten: Djibouti proverb

lake-assal-djibouti-steinmetz_46572_990x742Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Passage des Larmes is one of those books.  You know, the ones you are forced to read in book groups, or pick up because it’s on a ‘recommends’ table in the bookshop and you need makeweight on your 3-for-2,  one of those you’d definitely not bother with otherwise. And, it’s one of those books that having been forced, driven or drawn to yourself you feel compelled to foist on others, because it’s so good. See, here I am foisting. It is not only readable, but informative, not only serious, but enthralling.  It deals with the big issues, of globalisation and global terrorism, with exile and immigration, with philosophy and religion and does so with grace and skill.   It is a book that makes you think, that gently shifts you into a different position from which to view the picked over, oleiferous carcasses of The Gulfs (Persian, Omani, Adeni).

The book opens with the return to Djibouti of Djibril, (voluntarily in exile in Montreal, his twin brother remaining in Djibouti), who is sent home to prepare a security report for a large economic intelligence agency in the U.S.   Here, like Djibril himself, the narrative becomes twinned.  The threads of Djibril’s report,  which takes the form of a diary that increasingly becomes autobiographical, mingle with the dictated life story of a mysterious prisoner, incarcerated on an island off the coast.  Then, almost imperceptibly, a third narrative appears. As the prisoner recounts his life story to his amanuensis, (a fundamentalist fellow prisoner) as if by lemon juice on invisible ink, the autobiography of Walter Benjamin appears – perhaps the lost manuscript Benjamin was carrying in his suitcase when he committed suicide.   The inclusion/intrusion of Walter Benjamin in/to Waberi’s narrative isn’t clear to me. I know Benjamin’s work only in so far as it relates to History of Art, but Waberi is clearly trying to make a point, especially given that the company Djibril works for is  called Adorno Location.  I don’t think Waberi is simply showing off, so I know I’m missing something.

Through the use of this polyvalent narrative Waberi gives us a panoramic view of the homeland, which he loves, of its history and politics as a country strategically placed on the horn of Africa.   And be assured, living in any country that is ‘strategically placed’, seems to lead to a history of conflict, conquest, colonialism and crisis.  I knew nothing of Djibouti before reading Passage of Tears other than that humankind first moved out of Africa across the narrow slip of sea that separates it from Yemen. I wonder whether any memory of Djibouti lingers in our DNA.  If so, I suspect that, as Mahmoud Darwish notes, ‘The way home [may be] more lovely than home itself’.

And now a quick note about the Dominican Republic.  I chose a novel by Angel Luis Arambilet Alvarez (‘Arambilet’), El secreto de Neguri, and duly ordered it without giving it much more thought than that it has won awards and that everyone who’s read it says it’s an ‘experience’.  So far it is living up to its reputation. However, at over 400 pages long in Spanish, and, I suspect, veering wildly into the surreal, it may take me a while to plow through.  So, I may shake things up a bit, and concurrently read East Timor’s Luis Cardoso’s, The Crossing. I’m not sure it’ll be light relief, but it’ll be in English and, as non-fiction, easier to follow.