First published in French in 2009, Passage of Tears is best described as an espionage thriller with an East African twist, though that description would hardly do justice to the genius that rests within its pages. Abdourahman A Waberi spins a yarn that hooks in elements of historical drama, political affairs and familial tension.
Eschewing the usual conventions associated with the spy genre, Waberi’s protagonist Djibril is as far as you can get from Bond or Bourne. Rather than M16 or the FBI, he reports back to an economic intelligence firm once he reaches his destination. Awaiting Djibril’s return to his homeland is the vengeful presence of his twin brother, Djamal, a man lost to religious fanaticism.
Unlike some other thrillers, things go exactly according to plan, although exactly in whose favour becomes anyone’s guess as the plot steadily thickens. Wabari employs a range of stylistic forms to add both mysticism and suspense, which deepen as each of the twins confronts his past in this highly accomplished and rewarding novel.
The young French-Djiboutian author Abdourahman A. Waberi is one of the more inventive of a new wave of African writers, and is also unique in the range of his influences. His work manages to reference authors as diverse as Nuruddin Farah, Rimbaud, and Walter Benjamin, which also gives you a sense of how he has continued to confound expectations of both literary genres and African writing. His two previously translated books include The Land Without Shadows, a pastiche of folktales, fragmented stories, and ruminations on shantytown life; and In the United States of Africa, a wry parable of a world where the power balance between Europe and Africa has flipped. With Passage of Tears, nimbly translated by David and Nicole Ball, Waberi considers again his native land from a variety of angles. “And what was Djibouti originally?” the book’s central protagonist, Djibril, wonders. “A handful of magic little islands over which history rose and swirled like a hurricane for centuries?”
On its most immediate level, Passage of Tears is coiled tight with the tensions of a thriller. Djibril, who has spent the past fifteen years living abroad in Canada, has come home to gather intelligence for a Western company on this strategic location for the shipment of the world’s oil, across the “passage of tears” from the Arabian Peninsula. “My mission consists in feeling out the temperature on the ground,” he writes in his notebook, “making sure the country is secure, the situation stable, and the terrorists under control.” Even as it becomes clear that he is being trailed and his life endangered, his musings turn inward, colored by childhood memories. He recalls the comfort of his grandfather’s wisdom; nights spent at the area’s lone cinema; and hopeful days idling on the beach with his Jewish friend, David. “We loved the south wind, heavy with dust,” he reminisces, “which gives the impression that the universe is honey-colored, that fate isn’t necessarily grim.”
But he is also reminded of the bitter estrangement with his twin brother, Djamal, an Islamic extremist whose prison writings form a harsh counterpoint to Djibril’s sentimental reflections. And these two dueling voices might seem enough to frame one slim book about exile and home, faith and freedom, in this tiny corner of the Horn of Africa. Yet another layer is gradually revealed as well. For Djamal’s prison journal, like the novel itself, is something of a palimpsest: Beneath Djamal’s daily incantations is the slightly faded ink of a text by the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (who also happens to be one of Djibril’s favorite authors), an essayistic celebration of “the City of Light” and his own quest for personal freedom.
Ultimately, it is Benjamin’s voice that prevails, converting the Islamic radical to a more open vision of the world. “The main thing is that the story of Walter Benjamin, the philosopher exiled in Paris,” Djamal realizes, “has found its way into my life, irrigating it with its underground charm. It has captivated me; or rather, conquered me.” Does it seem strange that Walter Benjamin, the European thinker, has the final word in this novel of the clash of ideas in modern-day Djibouti? With Waberi, the juxtapositions—surprising, provocative, and original—form a good part of the thrill themselves.