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Zanzibar, Giles Foden’s novel about the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, came out in Britian last year, but so far U.S. publishing houses have been skittish—perhaps because of the human face it puts on Islamic terrorism.

Pieces of Africa

BY Jeremy O’Kasick
He had awoken to a journalist’s dream assignment. In August 1998, British author and book critic Giles Foden journeyed to the tropical isles of Zanzibar off the East African coast to write for a travel magazine.

Unified with mainland Tanzania, the semi-autonomous state had recently become a growing tourist haven and had long inspired exotic tales from Western explorers and writers. But while Foden followed that legacy, touring the Islamic island’s white sand beaches, al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. For a moment, a so-called paradise was lost.

After Foden heard the news, he immediately went to Dar es Salaam to witness the aftermath. In Kenya, 213 people, almost all Africans, lost their lives; in Tanzania there were 11 additional fatalities. East Africa’s extreme shock coupled with the relative unconcern in the United States disturbed and inspired Foden. A vision of his next novel soon became clear.

Jump forward a little more than three years and a month to September 2001. Foden had all but finished his seventh and final draft of Zanzibar, a fictionalized account of events surrounding the Dar es Salaam bombing. His film agent happened to be pitching the book’s rights to production companies in New York City on the 11th. Then and there, the next bomb dropped. “After September 11, I had to live up to the immense narrative power of the news media, where the truth is always in question. Unlike some other media, fiction can hold arguments in suspension and give a truth that is somewhere in between extremes,” says the 35-year-old author.

With similar aim, his award-winning first novel, The Last King of Scotland, chronicled the murderous reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin through the perspective of his Scottish physician. As Foden’s third historical novel set in Africa, Zanzibar sought to explore issues of neocolonialism, U.S.-dominated geopolitics and Islam in Africa. Although he did not dramatically alter the content or perspective of Zanzibar after 9/11, a year would pass before it appeared in British bookstores. It received positive appraisal overall from critics and readers, and promised to do well in the United States too. It had all the drama of a Hollywood thriller, with a realistic account of how Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda agents lived and operated years before they had consumed the popular consciousness.

U.S. publishers, however, were less than enthusiastic to take on a novel with a graphic depiction of a terrorist bombing and criticism of U.S. security and foreign policy. To this day, American readers can only find Zanzibar overseas or online. Knopf-Vintage Books, which published Foden’s two previous novels in the United States, hasn’t touched Zanzibar yet, though it is still reportedly considering it. For more than a year, Foden has been approaching several other publishers as well. As Foden explains it, one of them told him that “they just weren’t ready for this as entertainment yet.” (In terms of how publishers value novels, that comment may say it all.)

“It’s not a question of censorship,” continues Foden, who also works as the deputy books editor at the Guardian in London. “An orthodoxy just takes hold across the global media, and it’s like what Chomsky calls ‘manufactured consent.’ Some publishers are just too nervous to go against the orthodoxy on these hot issues.”

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Zanzibar follows a long tradition of British international thrillers, from Graham Greene to John le Carré, weaving together four storylines from some of the genre’s usual suspects. Nick Karolides is an adventurous American marine biologist who joins a USAID mission in Zanzibar. His female counterpart, Miranda Powers, receives her first diplomatic post as an executive assistant of security at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Needless to say, East Africa’s two innocent newcomers soon spark a romantic intrigue and later fall into the terrorists’ web.

For a novel that at first unravels as slowly as the East African pace of life, and whose primary climax is known before page one, Foden keeps the reader going with in-depth detail of terrorist operations and the workings of U.S. intelligence and security. Yet the novel’s true strength, which may have also deterred skittish stateside publishers, lies with the two characters who transcend their character types.

Khaled al-Khidr, a young Zanzibari, turns to Islamic fundamentalism and joins al-Qaeda after his parents are ruthlessly murdered. With repeated flashbacks, the narrative tracks Khaled through the Afghan desert, where he receives his training and even meets the long-bearded “Sheikh” himself, and then back to his native Zanzibar, where he and other al-Qaeda members plot the embassy attack. The callow perspective of a rising terrorist is balanced by that of a fallen hero, grizzled CIA veteran Jack Queller, whose closet holds as many ghosts as empty whisky bottles. Queller is quick to criticize U.S. security and foreign policy flaws, as he spotted the coming of the terrorist tide before it even got rolling.

Through Khaled, Foden gives terrorism a human face, in this case, of an African Muslim manipulated by outside fundamentalist forces. Foden based Khaled on the real-life Zanzibari terrorist Khalfan Kamis Mohammed, whom a federal court in New York City sentenced to life in prison in October 2001 for his role in the 1998 bombing. Foden characterizes the terrorist’s narrow worldview with a series of terse, passive sentences: “He was confused. The world was confused also. Only the pain was the same. That was the fate of all human beings. Only those who were believers could escape it. And among the believers, only those who undertook jihad were guarantied a place in paradise. The thought of it frightened him.”

Yet Khaled’s spiritual profundity shines through in Foden’s evocative description: “Khaled stood barefoot on the white, wrack-strewn shore, stood on the gleaming, purring sand looking out to sea. Even though the waves came with some regularity, the foam broke into patterns that were slightly different each time. This seemed a very holy thing to him, as if each wave were craving admission to that perfection comprehended by Allah alone.”

Not exactly your typical CNN-broadcasted confessions from the terrorist mind.

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Given the superstory arching over Zanzibar, it is easy to forget that, at its heart, this is a novel about Africa in the era of globalization. Foden moved from England to Africa when he was 5 years old, as his father worked as an agricultural economist for the United Nations. For the 20 or so years, he grew up between Britain and various African countries, including Tanzania.

Foden, who has written extensively about Africa and African literature, shies away from professing his love for the continent, an attitude that he categorizes as rather colonial and loaded with primitivist associations. Indeed, his devotion to challenging Western readers’ views of African life remains undeterred. Toward the end of Zanzibar, Queller reflects on the meaning of the 1998 bombings for Africans: “There was innocence in every place, but here among the African poor, whose vicissitudes were so much greater, it glowed starbright. The continent had its own intense griefs and did not deserve the griefs of others.”

The grief in East Africa, whether provoked externally or fostered internally, continues to grow. On November 28, an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 people. Nearby, an Israeli airliner in takeoff narrowly avoided two shoulder-fired missiles. Two of the three hotel suicide bombers were fugitive terrorists indicted for the 1998 bombings. Other al-Qaeda fugitives are still at large.

The State Department has since issued a travel warning for all of East Africa, alerting Americans to continuing terrorist threats, including bombings and kidnappings. To the woe of these impoverished nations economically dependent on tourism, many travel companies have suspended their operations in locations such as Zanzibar and the East African coast.

“Partly, the book came out of this rage about how little value is placed on African life as opposed to a European or American life,” Foden says. “It’s also about these characters’ illusions of adventure and Africa. It’s true that so many young people go to Africa hoping for adventure. I was one of them. I have lost some of the romantic illusions. But it’s a place that sticks with you.”

Jeremy O’Kasick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who recently lived in Dar es Salaam as a Fulbright Scholar.

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