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The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands

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In his final days, rising from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before, Aidan Hartley’s father says to him, "We should have never come." Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back over 150 years through four generations of one British family. From great-great-grandfather William Temple, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending British settlements in nineteenth century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to ...
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2003 Hard Cover First Edition NEW Copy. NEW DJ NEW copy in NEW DJ. Hardcover. FIRST EDITION Stated with number line starting with a 1. No remainder marks. Not ex-library.

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New York, NY 2003 Soft Cover Uncorrected Proof New in None as Issued jacket Uncorrected Proof BRAND NEW COPY. Enthralling historical novel of colonialism in southern Arabia---a ... narrative of English men and women meddling with, embracing, and ultimately transformed by alien cultures. Read more Show Less

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Overview

In his final days, rising from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before, Aidan Hartley’s father says to him, "We should have never come." Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back over 150 years through four generations of one British family. From great-great-grandfather William Temple, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending British settlements in nineteenth century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to Africa in the 1920s, building dams and irrigation projects in Arabia in the 1940s, then returning to Africa to raise a family—these were intrepid men who traveled to exotic lands to conquer, to build, and finally to bear witness. For finally there is Aidan, who becomes a journalist covering Africa in the 1990s. Weaving together stories, his family’s history, and his childhood in Africa, Aidan tells us what he saw.

After the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be new hope for Africa but again and again—in Ethiopia, in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Congo, the terror and genocide prevailed. In Somalia, three of Aidan’s close friends are torn to pieces by an angry mob. Then, after walking overland from Uganda with the rebel army, Aidan is witness to the terrible atrocities in Rwanda, appearing at the sites and interviewing survivors days after the massacres. Finally, burnt out from a decade of horror, Aidan retreats to his family’s house in Kenya where he discovers the Zanzibar chest his father left him. Intricately hand-carved and smelling of camphor, the chest contained the diaries of his father’s best friend, Peter Davey, an Englishman who died under mysteriouscircumstances over fifty years ago. Tucking the papers under his arm, Hartley embarked on a journey to southern Arabia in an effort not only to unlock the secrets of Davey’s life, but of his own. He travels to the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia where his father served as a British officer. He begins to piece together the disparate elements of Davey’s story, a man who fell in love with an Arabian princess and converted to Islam, but ultimately had to pay an exacting price.

The Zanzibar Chest is an enthralling narrative of men and women meddling with, embracing, and ultimately being transformed by other cultures—one of the most important examinations of colonialism ever written.

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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
In The Zanzibar Chest, Hartley has given us an unusually personal account of what it looks and smells and feels like to venture time and again into the belly of the beast. — Bill Berkeley
The New York Times
Mr. Hartley writes with powerful detail of the pillaging of Mogadishu by the anti-Barre rebels. He writes of subsequent perilous daily sorties he made with his fellow Africa veterans. The Big Feet (star reporters) arrived of course, but they were never big enough to pick their way, unaided, through a quicksand.

He writes the horrors along with the sharpest of vignettes. At a Somali checkpoint armed tribesmen demand the clan affiliations of those seeking passage. One man is pulled out and shot. "He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend," a Somali remarks. — Richard Eder

The Washington Post
This account of the author's time as a foreign correspondent in Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a strange, mesmerizing, painfully honest book: part hilarious and part horrifying, part memoir and part journalism-cum-history, part mockery and part celebration. It paints a brilliant portrait, fond but candid, of the "hacks" who chase dramatic stories in exotic and scary places -- "the good times, the friendship, intensity, fear, sense of purpose, the sheer exotic escapism of it all" -- but declines at all turns to lapse into sentimentality. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Toward the end of this mesmerizing chronicle, Hartley writes simply of Rwanda, "Like everything in Africa, the truth [is] somewhere in between." Hartley appreciates this complexity, mining the accounts that constitute his book not for the palliative but for the redemptive. Born in 1965 in Kenya into a long lineage of African colonialists, Hartley feels, like his father whose story he also traces, a magnetic, almost inexplicable pull to remain in Africa. Hartley's father imports modernity to the continent (promoting irrigation systems and sophisticated husbandry); later, Hartley himself "exports" Africa as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Both men struggle to find moral imperatives as "foreigners" native to a continent still emerging from colonialism. Hartley's father concludes, "We should never have come here," and Hartley himself appears understandably beleaguered by the horrors he witnesses (and which he describes impressively) covering Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda. Emotionally shattered by the genocide in the latter ("Rwanda sits like a tumour leaking poison into the back of my head"), the journalist returns to his family home in Kenya, where he happens upon the diary of Peter Davey, his father's best friend, in the chest of the book's title. Hartley travels to the Arabian Peninsula to trace Davey's mysterious death in 1947, a story he weaves into the rest of his narrative. The account of Davey, while the least engaging portion of the book, provides Hartley with a perspective for grappling with the legacy that haunts him. This book is a sweeping, poetic homage to Africa, a continent made vivid by Hartley's capable, stunning prose. B&w photos not seen by PW. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Weary of the atrocities he has witnessed over the last decade, the African-born Hartley revives when he discovers an elaborately carved chest containing the diaries of his father's best friend, who fell in love with an Arabian princess. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Raised by British parents in East Africa, former Reuters correspondent Hartley chronicles a decade of encounters with the world’s bloodiest conflicts and considers the twisted legacy of colonialism through the microcosm of his own family. Not for the squeamish, these accounts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and other conflicts seethe with shocking and grisly consequences often wrought, in the author’s view, by the "one-size-fits-all solutions" imposed by well-intentioned but clueless Western power structures. United Nations peacekeepers are portrayed as effete by design (undermanned, underequipped, etc.), spooked in fog-of-war conditions, and when left to their own devices occasionally capable of barbarities that mimic the African adversaries they are supposed to buffer. American efforts in Somalia are viewed as typically cynical, exploiting technological superiority to gain PR or political benefit, but almost always arriving too late and leaving too soon, with neither concern for nor full comprehension of the inevitable aftermath. Food drops left unguarded in starving villages, for example, are simply commandeered by the local warlords who rule by terror. Hartley’s m.o. is to recount the impact of these revelations on his own psyche, along with his rationalizations, yearnings, and compensations practiced in the company of likeminded "hacks": foreign correspondents who regularly drink, drug, and fornicate to excess in the name of requisite therapy. They are mostly runaways, he postulates, "from emotional distress at home, divorce, bereavement, career burnout, boredom, or simply themselves." As most of his close companions become casualties, an intermittently persistent love affairwith a young American photographer provides the obligatory passionate interludes that punctuate the horror. His native’s perspective on African affairs enhances the narrative, although a habitual barrage of corroborating details—no projectile breaks a window without notation of its probable caliber—sometimes doesn’t. Overall, morbid and engaging. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken Associates, UK
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871138712
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/5/2003
  • Pages: 414
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Read an Excerpt

In the corner of the veranda was a Zanzibar chest, carved with a skill modern Swahili carpenters have forgotten. The old camphor box bore a design of lotus, paisley, and pineapple, and was studded with rivets tarnished green in the salty air. When I opened the chest lid, cobwebs tore and something scuttled into a corner.

Inside one box file were my father's hand-written memoirs on which he had been working for years. I opened a second file and reached down to grasp the pages. The instant I touched them they began to crumble in my hands. Time, heat, and the drenching humidity had ravaged them. Mildew dusted the covers, giving off that scent of the forgotten.

I quickly realized I had stumbled on a secret that had been buried for half a century. Here were the diaries of the man named Peter Davey, my father's good friend. Ever since I was a boy, the story of Davey crept in and out of conversation at home in vague, half-finished sentences. The tale had always been there, yet my father never properly talked about it. Davey was a silence, a shadow that moved constantly out of the corner of one's eye. And now, as if it had been deliberately dropped into my lap, was the full and tragic rendition of Davey's life.
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Table of Contents

Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia 3
Take Me Home to Mama 13
Journalist Plus Plus 71
The Zanzibar Chest 133
Feeding the Beast 155
Going Native 225
The Sound of Freedom in the Air 259
Empty Quarter 305
Lazarus 323
One Moment, of the Well of Life to Taste 383
Herograms 393
Postscript 411
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2004

    In the right place, at the right time

    Without Aidan Hartley and the other journalists/photographers mentioned in this moving work, the plight of Africa may have been forever beyond our realm of comprehension. A fascinating combination of memoir and social commentary, particularly relating to the First World's selective interest in the Third World countries of Africa, this is a must read for anyone interested in journalism/political science.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2003

    Remarkable story

    If you are interested in the politics of near 'down and out' and near down and out countries where lawlessness and self-preservation is a constant in life, this book is for you. Very educational and eye-opening of how countries that speak of human-rights can and do affect those left behind by ignoring such countries as it is not 'good' media will leave you spell bound in disbelief. Very interesting reading.

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