It’s rare when one gets the opportunity to read a novel that’s set in the small east African nation of Djibouti. It’s rarer still when the author of said novel is actually from that particular country. Needless to say, when I came across a copy of Abdourahman Waberi’s recent novel Passage of Tears while rummaging through the assorted offerings on the International Authors shelf at my public library I didn’t hesitate to grab it. After letting it sit on my desk ignored and unread for about a week one lazy summer afternoon I grabbed it and a few other books and headed to the park. As my ears were assaulted by the shrieks of ill-behaved children, I buried myself in Waberi’s novel. After finishing it after only a few days I was happy I took a chance on Passage of Tears. While it didn’t rock my world, Waberi’s storytelling and the novel’s unusual setting kept me intrigued and more than a little bit entertained.
Taking its title from the narrow passage on the Red Sea nestled between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Passage of Tears tells the story of Djibril, formerly from the area but now living abroad in Canada, who has returned to his old stomping grounds as part of a covert mission orchestrated by his employer (a shadowy private-sector intelligence firm based in Denver) to gather first hand information on local Islamist groups and other potential threats to Western interests. Along the way his every move is mysteriously watched and commented upon by an unnamed adversary who sits incarcerated in the local prison as he awaits execution.
I found this novel not only well-translated, but also very clever, blending many elements including espionage, clash of cultures and coming of age. Surprisingly, for a novel set in an African country it contains a number of Jewish references. Passage of Tears includes references to the Kabbalah, the 1949-1950 airborne evacuation of Yemenite Jews and lastly the life and writings of literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. Keeping all of this lively is Waberi’s use of alternating narrators and the juxtaposing those narratives with excerpts from Benjamin’s personal writings, in essence giving voice to a third narrator.
At the beginning of this year I joined Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. Sadly, this is just my second book as part of that challenge. With several African-themed books sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, I’m hoping Waberi’s novel will inspire me to finish strong when it comes to Kinna’s challenge.