Almost Dying for the Story: On Michael Scott Moore’s “The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast”

By Tristan McConnellJuly 24, 2018

Almost Dying for the Story: On Michael Scott Moore’s “The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast”

The Desert and the Sea by Michael Scott Moore

I MET A PIRATE once. It was the summer of 2009 in Somaliland, and I’d made the hot drive across a scrub of desert date, myrrh, and acacia trees to Mandheera, a no-stoplight town. A couple of miles off the road stood the most prominent building in the area and Farah Ismail Eid’s home — a whitewashed, colonial-era prison.

Eid was something of a celebrity, being one of the only convicted Somali pirates who conceded his guilt and would agree to be interviewed. Later, at a prison in Berbera, one pirate declined my offer (“Fuck you,” he told me in surprisingly idiomatic English) while another simply spat at my feet before retreating into the sweaty dark of his cramped, shared cell.

Back then, piracy off Somalia’s lawless coast was a big story that worked on a number of levels: it resonated broadly — thanks to Johnny Depp’s Hollywood adaptations of a theme park ride — had a direct impact on the global economy by disrupting one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, full of oil tankers and cargo vessels, and was a genuinely new iteration of Somalia’s long-running chaos.

Eid told me the Somali pirate origin story: untrammeled illegal fishing by foreign trawlers, toxic waste dumped on the shore, depleted fish stocks and wrecked reefs, lack of opportunity in a shattered state that has suffered decades of clan-based civil war, the necessity of protecting your livelihood, even if it meant law-breaking, and the imperative to survive.

He was a victim, as he saw it. “These problems fell on us like rain,” he told me, with a poetic flourish. “We are quite aware that what we are doing is wrong, but this is a way of shouting to the world. The world should ask, ‘Are these people wrong or were they wronged themselves?’” It was a call-to-arms, and an apologia.

Few journalists have risked finding active pirates, and for good reason, given the risks. One of the few is American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was betrayed by his hosts and spent close to three years in captivity. He relates the story in an enthralling memoir called The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast (2018).

Moore was living in Germany when he found himself covering the trial of 10 Somali pirates in Hamburg in 2011 who had been involved in the failed hijacking of a German cargo ship. “[I]t seemed to me that a book about the case and some underreported aspects of Somali piracy might be interesting,” he writes. He was familiar with the sea, having written a previous book about the history of surfing.

His reporting initially takes him to Djibouti — a godforsaken chunk of scorched rock on the Gulf of Aden that consists mainly of ports, military bases, and sand — as well as to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. He knows there’s more to know, “[b]ut I wavered about going to Somalia.”

During the trial, however, Moore meets a Somali clan elder who, he believes, can arrange safe passage from the central Somali town of Galkayo to the pirate village of Hobyo, 125 miles away on the Indian Ocean coast. In early 2012, Moore sets off. In Galkayo, he meets “the mayor of Hobyo” who, in a quintessential Somali-diaspora fashion, is a London bus driver when not flaunting his impressive, if hollow, job title.

Moore feels queasy while reporting in Somalia but buries his fears and carries on. He makes it safely to Hobyo and back, but it is on the relatively innocuous journey between Galkayo’s town and its airport that his trip goes terribly wrong. A Mad Max–style “technical” — a Toyota pickup with a heavy machine gun welded onto the flatbed, so named because foreigners hiring them for security in the early 1990s would reclaim the cost as “technical expenses” — stops his vehicle. Moore is wrenched from the car, beaten, and abducted. His glasses are smashed, after which “everything looked like Monet.”

The self-inflicted horror of his situation, and the journalistic hubris that brought him to it, dawns fast. “What did I think I would find around here?” Moore writes. “Pirates who trusted writers? Truth?”

Once he is captured, his kidnappers demand a “pathological” $20 million ransom from his mother, 72 years old and retired with her second husband in Redondo Beach, California. Foreigners held in Somalia have commonly been released for less than $1 million, but pirates, it turns out, are less often aggrieved fishermen like Eid. They are chancers, and stubborn, often inept ones.

That reality was mostly obscure at this time to Western editors who loved Somalia’s 21st-century pirates because they seemed to bleed romantic, renegade history onto the news pages. The story drew journalists from Nairobi and further afield. Most of us did secondhand reporting, speaking to self-declared experts, negotiators, shipping monitors, and shady ex-soldiers who would either airdrop plastic-wrapped bricks of cash onto hijacked vessels or retrieve hostages from dust-blown air strips.

Some journalists made more of an effort, attending pirate trials in the Kenyan port town of Mombasa and the Seychelles, visiting Eid in his jail cell to exchange khat for quotes, or joining the international naval patrols whose warships were intended to deter pirates in their little motorized skiffs. This was dangerous work. Colin Freeman, a London-based foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, was nabbed by his own security guards and held for 40 days while attempting to cover Somali piracy in 2008, as recorded in his book Kidnapped (2011). Jay Bahadur, a young Canadian journalist — precocious, foolhardy, brave — rocked up in northern Somalia with some flimsy connections and a truckload of luck, eventually writing The Pirates of Somalia (2012). Years later, in 2015, James Verini wrote a compelling article for The New Yorker about the experience of pirate hostages, interviewing the surviving crew of the MV Albedo (captured in November 2010, freed in June 2014, a year after their boat had foundered in a storm off Hobyo). Moore showed great courage in going after the story at its source, and paid a huge price for it.

After weeks of shunting him from one dingy safe house to another in a series of SUVs, the pirates move Moore to the Naham 3 — an Omani-flagged Taiwanese trawler with a mixed Asian crew and a freezer hold filled with immense tuna and, grotesquely, the body of the vessel’s captain, shot dead during the hijacking. This shift underscores an important point about “Somali pirates,” which is that they are not really pirates at all, but opportunistic kidnappers who happened, mostly, to work at sea. The cargo was irrelevant and rarely touched, neither when it was millions of barrels of oil nor a freighter full of tanks and rockets.

Moore’s sense of hopelessness deepens as he reaches the rusting trawler. “For the first time in Somalia, but not the last, I considered suicide,” he writes. Fantasies of escape recur. They often take the form of a heroic blaze of glory — seizing an AK-47 from a dozy guard, rescue by Navy SEALs, or a leap to freedom from the gunwales (the latter he actually does, relishing fleeting moments of liberty in the sea, before his recapture) — but more often the escape he dreams of is suicide.

The struggle is constant, but throughout his captivity, hope penetrates the carapace of despair: Moore persists in using the LED torches on cheap cigarette lighters to signal to the presumably American drones that he hears buzz overhead, he tarries when ordered inside as light aircraft or helicopters fly by — as they regularly do, sometimes photographing the ship — and he risks smuggling German phrases identifying his location into the occasional phone calls home in which the pirates force him to beg for a ransom payment. Scrounging pens and notebooks, Moore jots down a series of scrappy prison diaries. Written where and when he can, and frequently confiscated as punishment or out of malice, these become “an essential refuge from prison.”

The other constant is the pirates’ inability to comprehend the gulf between their demands and Moore’s reality. In a moment of rare candor, a pirate guard called Dag, incredulous that Moore’s mother won’t pony up the ransom, desperately tells him he just wants “the Good Life,” the American Dream fed to him via television and smartphone. “I don’t have the Good Life, Dag. You guys kidnapped the wrong man,” Moore replies.

It is a measure of the misery of solitary confinement that Moore’s months at sea seem almost jolly in comparison to his time in the desert. There was a shared experience on the Naham 3, but no shared language, so the captives concocted a pidgin (“Hai dao loco-loco”: “Pirates crazy”), cooked for one another — including regular sashimi carved from the frozen tuna store — and watched Tom and Jerry DVDs. Most of his fellow hostages were “hip young Asian youth” who were either conned onto the trawler by unscrupulous employment agencies or lured by the promise of relative wealth. Moore has sympathy for the crew, but little for his captors, who are portrayed as cruel, sometimes comical and often stupid, a “bumbling criminal tag team” of guards, negotiators, and bosses united by greed and clan.

Moore’s talent for dark observational humor is used to great effect and leavens what might, in another writer’s hands, have been a relentlessly bleak book.

His eventual release, after the payment of an undisclosed though undoubtedly more modest ransom than initially demanded, and scratched together by his mother, offers almost instant Schadenfreude for the reader when his pirate captors get into a deadly altercation over the ransom. There follows a disappointingly short section dealing with Moore’s struggle to readjust to a liberty so long lost, which seems only to skim across the surface of a psychological distress that, one imagines, must linger.

Moore did not die for his story, but he suffered deeply and helplessly. Yet the book Moore has written, while clearly not the one he would’ve chosen, provides rare insight into Somali piracy and is an important addition to that most traumatic and illuminating genre of nonfiction, the hostage memoir.


Tristan McConnell is a foreign correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya.

LARB Contributor

Tristan McConnell is a foreign correspondent living in Nairobi, Kenya. He has written for GQ, The New YorkerHarper’sForeign Policy, Columbia Journalism Review, London Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and others. His reporting has won awards from the Overseas Press Club of America, the Prix Bayeux for War Correspondents and the Society for Features Journalism.


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