Friday, 13 May 2011

Book of the Month: Zanzibar (Giles Foden)

Osama Bin Laden’s war against Western democracies did not start, as many these days tend to assume, with the attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC), New York, in September 2001. Almost three years before they flew two American planes into the twin towers of the WTC (which triggered the then American president George W Bush to declare a war on ‘terror’—an imprecise noun at best—and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq) the Al Qaeda terrorists bombed the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing dozens of people, most of them native Africans.

Giles Foden's third novel, Zanzibar, is a thriller, which revolves around the bombing of the Dar-es-Salaam embassy. The main protagonists are: Nick Karolides, a young marine biologist who has come to Zanzibar (a semi-autonomous island, controlled by Tanzania), having accepted a job in a USAID mission for preservation of coral reefs around the island; Miranda Powers, an executive assistant of security in the Dar Embassy; and Jack Queller, the world-weary ex-CIA veteran, who, during the Regan administration, when the USA pursued the short-sighted policy of providing arms to the the Mujahidins who were fighting the Soviets occupying Afghanistan. Jack Queller has also had the pleasure of meeting Bin Laden in person on many occasions in the 1980s, in Afghanistan. Then there is Khaled-al-Khidr, a young Zanzibari, who is recruited by Al-Qaeda, after a personal tragedy for which he blames the West (represented by America). Khaled travels to Afghanistan and receives training during the course of which he too rubs shoulders with Bin Laden. Khaled then returns to Zanzibar along with two other Al Qaeda terrorists. The group camps on the nearby island of Lyly. their mission: to blow up the American embassy in Dar-Es-Salaam. The terrorists bomb the embassy, setting in motion the American response (which brings Jack Queller first to Dar-es-Salaam and then to Zanzibar) and concluding with a chase scene that could have come straight out of Ian Fleming novel.

Zanzibar manages the feat of not proceeding at a break-neck speed, yet being thoroughly absorbing. For the first couple of hundred pages of the novel nothing much happens, yet the reader does not lose interest. With great care Foden builds up various threads of the story that come together—almost neatly—towards the end. He also develops characters of his protagonists. He does not—perhaps deliberately—spell out everything for the reader while describing the characters, does not offer an in-depth emotional analysis of what makes them tick. The reader is thus free to draw his own conclusions. 

Of the three main protagonists, the most interesting is Jack Quller. He is a cerebral agent, who places premium on understanding the identified enemy rather than demonising it in crude stereotypes. Miranda Powers first sees Queller at the graduation seminar at the Bureau of the Diplomatic Security, Washington where she has trained. Queller is one of the speakers at the ceremony. This is how Quller starts his speech: ‘If the main threat to the world peace is to emerge out of Islam let’s at least understand it. It is because it is misunderstood that Islam as a whole is feared, that it is perceived as extreme in its totality. That’s way off target.’ At another point he maintains that Islam lends itself to distortion by the terrorists because of the low value it places on the material world. If you believe something the human frame includes is merely an illusion, it is easier to destroy it. These quasi-philosophical accounts—which impress you as very reasonable and sensible—are interspersed with Queller’s account of his actual meetings with Bin Laden when he was the go-between the CIA and the multimillionaire Laden who, at that time, had vowed to rid the Islamic land of Afghanistan of the anti-God Soviets. These encounters, while slightly stagy, do not strike as ludicrous. Foden does not attempt to give us insight into Bin Laden’s mind, but neither does he demonise the founder of Al Qaeda. (The name of the organization, we are informed, was inspired from an Isaac Asimov novel!)  

The approach of Queller is contrasted with his other, younger and slightly gung-ho colleagues in the organization. Miranda Powers, the callow executive assistant of security in the Dar Embassy, too, is an endearing character, who gets the reader’s sympathy when the CIA investigating officer who arrives in Dar following the bombings tries to pin the blame on her for lapses in security. The chain of events that brings Nick Karolides and Miranda together and sucks them into the vortex of events is utterly believable. 

By contrast the depiction of Khaled, the junior member of the terrorist group, is somewhat formulaic, if not exactly weak. Khaled—Foden apparently based this character on a real-life Zanzibari terrorist, Khalfan Kamis Mohammed, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal court in New York for his role in the 1998 bombing—is recruited to Al Qaeda after he finds his parents murdered in their house; an Al-Qaeda ‘recruiting agent’ convinces Khaled that the parents were murdered by the Americans for the father’s link with Al-Qaeda. Khaled is depicted as a gullible young Muslim man who joins Al-Qaeda not because he is brainwashed into believing Bin Laden’s, hateful, violent rhetoric but because he identifies the America, the geo-political entity, as responsible for the murder of his parents. Khaled is a simple, probably not excessively bright, man. Foden brilliantly brings to fore the confused state of what passes for Khaled’s mind and the ambivalence towards the method espoused by Bin Laden’s brand of Islam to achieve eternal bliss by a subtle change in the narrative style: the sentences become short, more passive, bringing into relief the passive, helpless flotsam that has becomes Khaled’s life. Formulaic it might be, Khaled’s predicament does not fail to move the reader. As the war on terror rages on in Afghanistan, you cannot help thinking that there is no more effective advertisements for Al-Qaeda than the  innocent civilians ‘collaterally damaged’ by the American drones.  

Foden (who grew up in Africa) writes about Africa with great tenderness and compassion , without, at  any time, descending into patronizing sympathy or excessive sentimentality. As the novel slowly builds up towards the climax, Foden describes in rich detail the ecology of the islands surrounding Tanzania. It probably dilutes the focus of the novel (if Foden’s intention was solely to write a thriller) it is no less insightful and enjoyable for that. This is a writer who clearly has a great fondness for Africa.

Gile's Foden's debut novel, The Last King of Scotland, became a worldwide best-seller and was also made into a successful Hollywood film. His subsequent novels (he has written three more) have not reached the dizzy height of The Last King of Scotland. Which is a shame; Foden is a mightily talented writer. Zanzibar is more than just an entertaining thriller. It is a novel that exudes ideas, and is very impressive in its attempt to understand ‘the enemy’ that goes beyond the ridiculous, two-dimensional, demonizing stereotype that seems to hold sway these days. A very wise novel.