In the Zanzibar Chest

Thank you, Aidan Hartley, for The Zanzibar Chest.  A brilliant book to read and reread.  Such compelling writing, so many important messages.  I lingered over the many sections about Yemen because I live next door in Oman.  Africa, not so much.  But I could not put the book down.

I’ve just finished reading this “memoir of love and war” – tales from the lives of three adventurers:  author Aidan Hartley, as a Reuter’s war correspondent in Africa; his father Brian Joseph Hartley as an agriculturalist from rural England posted to Aden first and then settled in Africa;  and his father’s friend Peter Davey who died young, trying to bring some prosperity and stability to mountain villages in Yemen.  In the book, all three lived the strangely ordinary lives of British expats who just couldn’t stay in the routine anonymity of life in England and who became obsessed with their new homes where they were committed to making a difference.

I am an expat Canadian, a lesser adventurer, with work experience throughout the Middle East and Asia.  I freelance in the field of higher education, and I always like to think my work as an education futurist makes a difference.  By this book, I am inspired to reflect on what difference I have made, and that these adventurers made, wondering if the four of us, and many more, simply crave adventure and challenge and the rush of fear every now and then.  Aiden Hartley is tortured by the idea that, in fact, he was only an observer and could have done more. I would submit that his book is an achievement in opening eyes and hearts to the ugliness of war and the ubiquity of love and passion, and that is important.

Thinking about expat experts, I can see both sides of the “foreign expert” situation, albeit only to the degree that a foreigner can.  I profess to love Oman and feel inclined to side with Omanis on issues of sovereignty and tradition and values.  Last night I socialized in the company of some military personnel and diplomats posted to my adopted home on work assignments from America who were trying to appear innocuous.  But we know why they are here and it is not innocuous.  Are they any different from Hartley’s characters?  Hoping to do good?  Committed to making a difference?  As a “local,” I want to say go home and stay home.  The Africans certainly did, time and time again, by expelling the expats in brutal ways.  A clash of cultures, values and power structures.  Traditional, reprehensible colonialism has morphed into military capitalist colonialism.  Nations are now just pawns in global military escapades that fuel the war industry.  How can I or anyone make a difference anymore?  Is it as hopeless as it seems?

Harley’s story spills out of a chest from Zanzibar.  Now then, Zanzibar has deep historical connections to Oman – even hosting the seat of government for a Sultan who preferred the sultry topics off the coast of Africa to the arid mountains and coastal plains of Oman.  Many stories and business empires link Omani and Zanzibari families still. So I was really just curious about the Zanzibar chest referred to, because I actually have two small chests – called mandoose in Arabic.


I store treasures in mine.  The Hartleys stored memories.  The stories of politics and battles, of love and lust, of shattered dreams and intrepid restarts in Yemen and in Africa poured out, and circled around in the past and present – wars that never seem to end, “foreign experts” convinced to intervene in unimaginable conflicts, “foreign correspondents” snapping photos to sell media stories.  As I write, Yemen is being destroyed by aggressors who have only their own enrichment in mind.  Continuous battles rage in many parts of Africa – Libya, Nigeria,  even Kenya. Does anybody or anything make a difference?  I want Adian Hartley to know that his book has been really inspirational to me and probably many others, on several levels.

The Zanzibar chest is a metaphor to frame the intertwining of lives and generations and cultures. In reality, most families have a Zanzibar chest of memories and memorabilia.  It can be exciting or depressing to dig around in the lives of ancestors and to compare them with our own. I am only beginning, with The Calgary Barkers from East Anglia.  I am going in search of the Calgary Changs from Canton this fall.  Telling the family stories by digging in the chests.

But the Zanzibar chest is also a metaphor for the perhaps more deliberate collection of memorabilia from a more deliberate life.   In China, I have graduate students from Africa and Pakistan and China, and I know so little of what is in their Zanzibar chests, while at the same time believing that I am teaching them leadership philosophies and competencies.  Irony at best, professional neglect at its worst. I need to know more.  I need to do more. For my grandchildren and my loved ones, I need to be more deliberate about what ends up in my  Zanzibar Chest. We all do.

Thanks for your stimulation and your eloquence, Aiden Hartley!