The Zanzibar Chest

CLJ Reviews The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley

What We Read

I read the Zanzibar chest during a booze filled week in Mexico. At the time it seemed like a rollicking good read – chronicling the journeys of Aiden Hartley, a BBC journalist through African conflict zones of the late 90’s. A parallel back story is provided sketching the experience of Hartley’s father as a Lawrence of Arabia-type administrator in the Middle East of the 1920’s. The two Africa’s make for an interesting portrait of how the continent was changed and in a lot of ways, worsened by colonialism. Some of the more riveting parts of the book take place in the bombed out street of Mogadishu, Somalia, with Hartely right in the thick of marauding militia.  Hartley’s experience is typical of the privileged African British White Man who grew up with one foot in Africa and the other in Britain – ultimately at home in neither.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

The game I designed was very involved, and, dare I say, ambitious. A lot of wine flowed before we got to what was supposed to be a mish mash of Risk, Trivial Pursuit and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego [Editor's note: none of this was close to apparent during the explanation and there was also an element of Balderdash in there somewhere, except Godfrey made his lovely fiance/wife Maya judge everyone's answers, which was as awkward as it was hilarious] ….Fine, I’ll admit that I really can’t remember what the challenge was. All I know is that it was a gong show. Prizes of chocolate from Downtown Chocolatier Mink were handed out to soothe somewhat befuddled and flustered participants.

What We Thought

As I said, I loved this book as a quick read on a Mexico beach. It did not stand up well under the critical reading of the CLJ. People condemned its self-indulged lengthiness and the equally self-centred perspective of Hartley, too cowardly and removed from the horrors around him to step out from behind his journalist notepad and actually try to alleviate suffering.  Strong debate also sprung up about the soporific drug, Qaat, which is featured prominently in several chapters – chewed sullenly by local tribesmen and the protagonist himself. There was insinuation by some participants that legalized drugs fuelled conflict. Needless to say the book was a bit of a flop, but it did not disappoint in creating a raucous evening of wine, and, by association, Qaat.

As told by Godfrey von Bismarck…

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