from “Passage of Tears”

[Translators’ note: This excerpt, taken almost entirely from the first chapter, presents one voice in a polyphonic novel. The other main voice is that of this narrator’s twin brother, a fanatic Islamist imprisoned with his “venerable Master” in a cell on an island off the coast of Djibouti. Still another voice appears in palimpsest as the Islamist takes dictation from his Master: it tells the life of Walter Benjamin. Excerpts from an earlier version of that section appeared in the Spring 2008 WWB as “In Ben’s Footsteps,” while Waberi was still working on this novel.]

Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.

I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.

So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.

I am back. For a mission neither easier nor harder than any other. For three days now I’ve been poking my eyes and ears into everything everywhere, to penetrate the mystery of the shadowy maneuvers that began before I got here. Since that Wednesday, September 28 when I received a mysterious phone call before flying from Montreal to Djibouti via Paris the next day, I’ve been tracking down tiny clues like a prospecting geologist who never runs out of aquifers and oil wells to drill.

Yesterday, just before I listened to the 5 o’clock Journal of the BBC from London in Somali, I wrote up my first report:

Somewhere between Assab and Zeïlah, as you go by the Gulf of Tadjoura, there is a land without water. A rocky land, plowed by the stubborn steps of men. It sprang up from prehistoric chaos and was once greener than Amazonia. Since then, the boiling sap of its own fires has kept the sun from growing old. As for men, they have been there since the dawn of time, their feet dusty from walking the powdery earth, their spirits tumbling down the stones of time. The men of this ancient country have always been waiting for something: a storm, a messiah, or an earthquake. Luckily, there is the fog. A real pea-soup fog that falls and settles in for the day. Men, ever alert, have set a trap for the fog. A diabolically clever system: imposing canvases of seventy square meters—courtesy of the American military—have been spread on the beach on each side of a perimeter as big as a soccer field. They are not meant to be used by an open-air movie theater but to collect that fog water. The tiny particles floating in suspension in the air are trapped in the mesh of the net, and then flow down in a gutter connected to a pipe. The water obtained from this operation is filtered and its effluvia of hydrocarbon eliminated. It tastes good, although rich in sodium and calcium. The fog can produce several liters of water a day, but it is unpredictable by nature. This capricious manna may meet the daily needs of several families who have been driven from the capital. To the extent that I can rely on appearances, young people here are excellent fog hunters.

—Notebook # 1, note # 1, under “climate.”

This is how I gather my notes; I record my harvest in small dark-blue Moleskine notebooks numbered 1-10. I do hope that these notes will help me to carry my investigation to a successful conclusion: once they have been assembled, checked, analyzed and compared, a guiding principle will emerge from the sea. A plan will be brought to light. My sponsors will derive maximum benefit from it. The uranium magnates, who are betting on the disappearance of oil and the renewed interest in nuclear energy, will put billions of dollars on the table once the battle to restore security has been won. Their mouths are watering over “this long-neglected region” (I’m quoting the first words of my assignment sheet from memory), “and has significant uranium potential, judging by its surface and geological profile.”

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. Intelligence is at the core of the world economy in wartime, its strongest sector, which has been well funded by governments since 9/11. Hundreds of young, dynamic companies have entered it.

These past few years, the Americans are intent on quickly making up for their profound ignorance of the rest of the world. Universities are scrambling to hire professors of Arabic, Persian, Lingala, or Turkmen. They’re creating new positions to make up for lost time. Out of all the activities Washington engages in, intelligence takes precedence. Of course the companies that have rushed into this sector are not all in military intelligence. Some of them use flocks of translators and speakers of the most obscure languages. They periodically send the CIA and the big military-industrial conglomerates confidential notes that complete the data gathered by the embassies and the usual channels of information in the countries concerned.

Other companies put their cutting-edge capacities at the service of the state and civil defense, for pay. The frantic competition between companies of this new kind does the rest. The little computer whizzes work hand in hand with the brains and hawks of the Pentagon. That’s how the biometrical signs measuring the physical characteristics unique to each individual, like facial traits, fingerprints, or iris scans are translated into algorithms and inscribed on each passport as barcodes. This technology could not have spread to every point of entry into American territory in so little time without the help of these new companies, like ours, the economic intelligence company Adorno Location Scouting, located in Denver, Colorado.

Our group, which originally specialized in scouting locations and in logistics for film shoots, has been able to grow uninterruptedly in the last few years in its market niche. Thousands of federal agents, airline employees and civil defense auxiliaries have done weeks of internships inside similar companies. It’s called outsourcing, a practice borrowed from the business world and now used without a qualm by most governments. Half the American forces in Iraq are composed of individuals recruited by private agencies. They are not counted in the statistics. Something goes wrong? No casualties to record, no press release.

Everybody does the same thing. The British recently handed over the protection of their embassies and consulates in Kabul, Islamabad, Nairobi and elsewhere to the same organizations. To the same security units, as they say in official jargon.

And here I am in Djibouti, an essential square on the ever-changing geopolitical chessboard. I left in record time with a small suitcase. Objective:  intelligence + profitability. Mobility, discretion and efficiency: the three key words of our group. Needless to say, we do not operate in the open. The group is a past master of deception and simulation.

I am back. I must leave nothing to chance and trust my intuition, for across the centuries and through the rocks, everything here is a sign, everything has meaning. The most banal anecdote may turn out to be the missing piece of the puzzle, the smallest clue that leads you to the key you’re looking for. The most visible things are often the hardest to grasp. Which reminds me of Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter.” I reread it on the plane that brought me here. The detective, Auguste Dupin, found the letter everyone was looking for, although it was in plain view on the culprit’s desk. These things happen more often than one would think.

I only have a handful of days left to wrap everything up before the weekend. It starts on Thursday, ever since the government changed the calendar fifteen or twenty years ago to show the regional powers how eager it was to join the camp of Allah. The newly decolonized country was thus leaving the Western orbit and its Gregorian calendar to return to its ancestral Muslim fold. Ancestral? Right. No comment.

I must speed up the pace, but without rushing it, for this mission isn’t a one-man commando operation. Of the Hit and Run kind, as the agents of the Mossad—with whom we have, in fact, excellent relations—would say. I must feel out the temperature and let nature enter into me, permeate my sensations, sharpen my cognitive faculties. I can be reached and found 24/7. At every moment, I keep myself ready to report on my mission to my superior, the head of the Global Logistics department who must be skiing with his nice little family at this very moment.

There’s lots of snow in the Rockies, I thought as I listened distractedly to the grievances of my childhood friends. They come in bunches, with their arms dangling at their sides and their eyes on the lookout. They want to see me “after all these years of absence,” they say, putting on conspiratorial airs. I know they haven’t come to admire my pretty face, but to take the measure of a curious object: the native turned Canadian. To wring some money out of me, too, most of the time a 2,000 Djibouti-franc bill, the equivalent of 12 American dollars. Just one won’t come and put on this act: my brother Djamal. I haven’t seen him since I was 18. He is too proud to associate with these parasites.

All of them try the economic-refugee number on me. According to them, they all try hard, but they just don’t have any luck. They get up at dawn but that doesn’t help, what with the favoritism, unemployment, corruption and all the injustice in the world. They all sport the same costume of a sad clown; they love to cry over their own fate. The only right people here want to exercise is the right to shut up or leave the country as fast as possible. I listen to them with one very distracted ear and keep taking notes for my investigation.

I have a practiced eye, an eye that can pick up the slightest detail in the hollow of a face or the depths of a landscape. The small hair sticking out of a nostril or the most banal assemblage of rocks in the brush—nothing must escape my vigilance. There is an impressive number of twisted faces, of people with goiters or tuberculosis. I would never have seen so many in the time of my youth, when my father and mother were still alive. There is more migratory movement in the region, more poverty, too.

I’m paid to scrutinize this country inside out. To record everything, analyze and put it through the scanner if necessary. Every piece of data will be weighed and measured over and over. Photographed every which way. Every shot enlarged a hundred or a thousand times. Sent off instantly to the offices of Adorno Location Scouting. Connected to their agents on the five continents, they stay open 24/7.

(. . .)

I was about to take a forced leave, fix up an old shack in the Gatineau Valley before going back to my position as part-time Assistant Lecturer in the IT Networks Laboratory at McGill University in Montreal in the spring. And now here I am with a new contract, or more precisely a new mission, as we say in our jargon. War, as everyone knows, cannot wait. And it’s not all bad. It’s a stimulus to business and strengthens the muscles of the stock market. As business never stops, neither do armed conflicts. There are always new markets to explore, new partners to consult, new logos to design, new directions to take and new masters to advise. I am a link in that chain of transnational command. A foot soldier of the shadows.

From Passage des larmes. Copyright Abdourahman A. Waberi. Published by Lattès, 2009. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2011 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.