Today, Benjamin’s review looks at contemporary danger on the high seas.
I first learned of this book through the Daily Show. Jon Stewart interviewed the author, highlighting the audacity, or perhaps stupidity, of Bahadur’s decision to visit Somalia. Indeed, the ubiquitous warning “don’t try this at home (or abroad) kids” comes to mind the moment you open the book. Bahadur, a journalist by profession, decided to visit Somalia and interview the pirates there. The reader can only wonder at how someone would actively decide to put his life at risk, but he does.
Somalia has made headlines for more than a decade as the pirating capital of the world. Even discounting the inherent dangers of living among pirates, it has difficulties. Its people suffer from poverty, violence, hunger, and corruption. Not only is Somalia a difficult place to live in, it is a difficult place to reach. Early in his book, the author relates his herculean 45-hour trip, just to arrive in the country.
Bahadur’s book peels back the layers of history to explain why the pirates exist, what motivates them, who controls them and why they have not been stopped. Along the way the reader learns how the people of Somalia rely more on their genealogical connections than their political institutions to run the country. There is no effective central government. For that matter, there is no cohesive country. Somalia is divided into regions that are defined by a combination of geography and lineage. Bahadur illustrates how this geographic reality helped to shape the piratical realities within Somalia.
The author provides excellent analysis on the evolution of piracy in Somalia. The most common explanation for what motivates Somali pirates is that they are protecting their fishing interests. Foreign commercial fishing devastated the local industry and the pirates responded in the only way they could. Bahadur notes that while this problem might have been an initial inspiring factor, it has long since ceased to be the main explanation. Although there are still instances of large scale illegal fishing operations, piracy now is less about protecting the country’s sovereign fishing rights than about greed. Somali pirates are members of gangs, thugs, controlled by larger players. Those larger players make money, while the thugs earn almost nothing. There is an intricate pay formula that determines how much each participant receives when a ransom is received. For most of the men taking the risks as pirates, the payout is minimal and quickly spent.
According to the author, Somali pirates generally use their bounty to purchase a drug called Khat. Somali men, especially the pirates, chew Khat daily. According to the DEA, “Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.” Abusers are prone to violence, depression, insomnia, and gastric disorders. Between the physical and financial costs of chewing Khat and the dangers of piracy on the high seas, these pirates do not enjoy much of the good life.
The Pirates of Somalia provides an interesting look into the world of these men. Bahadur does not so much sympathize with them, as explain their evolution. While he was both insane and inspired in writing this book, his greatest problem now might be figuring out how to top such an adventure, and live to tell about it.
Check the WRL catalog for The Pirates of Somalia