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on 11 September 2003
The title of Aidan Hartley's book - the Zanzibar Chest - is an arresting one, but it has actually little to do with the contents of the book itself. We can read fragments of the diaries found in the camphor chest belonging to his father - written by a Peter Christmas(!) Davey, his friend - who had spent his early years in Arabia in the '30s and, speaking arabic, was employed as a political officer for the British government. In this role he was expected to broker peace between the feuding tribes so some sort of development could begin. Davey fell in love with a local woman, around which is woven a beautifully described and romantic story, with vivid descriptions of the Yemen of the period, its architecture, and its people. At the same time, and this really is the principal subject of the book, we read of the author's own experiences in Africa, from the time he was born there, his first vague recollections, and the experiences of his own parents during their early lives about which the author describes vividly the results of the "winds of change" blowing through Africa at the time. However,it's as if the author is too modest to say "this is what I have done with my life" and has found an excuse to write his memoirs - despite his still being only 35 - and to use the story of his father's friend as a leitmotif for writing the book. The story that is really gripping - until the last page - is of Aidan Hartley's own experiences - and derring-do - in what have been the most dangerous places on earth, as a "stringer" for Reuters, working with them in places from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Ethiopia to the Sudan, from Somalia to Burundi. He describes in horrific detail what he has witnessed, and although at the time he finds sufficient moral strength to support the unsupportable, we realise, reading between the lines, that years later he was haunted by, and bore the consequences of, these experiences. His book is full of drama and humour; historically and politically we put it down having learnt more than when we picked it up (not altogether surprising as part of his erudition stems from a Master's from the School of African and Oriental Studies, a degree in Politics from London University, and, also, incidentally a degree in English from Oxford). However, academic accomplishments aside, it takes someone of outstanding character and courage to face the hardships and dangers to which Aidan Hartley subjected himself in his years working as a journalist. His writing skills are prodigious -each page of his book comes to life with his descriptions of human relationhips (his extraordinary friends); horror (the massacres witnessed in Somalia, Burundi and Rwanda)and excitement (his daring exploits in Ethiopia, and surviving a plane crash!), against beautifully described backdrops of the regions in which he lived. His own personal feelings about himself and his work sometimes penetrate the pages, adding another dimension to this remarkable book, which, as one reviewer says, deserves to become a classic.
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on 28 November 2003
As an NGO worker based in Nairobi, ‘The Zanzibar Chest’ was a must read for me. However Hartley has not just rattled off the 1990's well documented ‘New World Order’ war stories. He has used the backdrop of his own life as a Nairobi based Reuter’s hack to delve into not just his own family history but also that of long-term family friend Peter Davey, a British Colonial Officer based in Aden in the 30's with the seemingly impossible mandate of conflict resolution long before the term was invented.
Of the three stories, his own, as a sometimes brutally honest and frequently hilarious account of his journalistic work is the most interesting and it appears the subject matter he is most comfortable with. However the concurrent Davey story, and the author’s seeming need to reconcile himself with his vastly elevated father-figure, whose affirmation appears still being sought from the pages of this memoir long after the man's death, definitely make this a more interesting read.
Aside from the above, Hartley, like many others who witnessed so much carnage through the 90’s, appears still haunted by the horror. This is not shied away from, rather used as a stick to beat the reader over the head in its extraordinary descriptiveness. From the beer, prostitute and drug soaked nightlife of Nairobi’s underbelly, to the shocking descriptions of some of the cruellest acts ever committed on this planet, to the gentle stories of love and families trying to survive each other, Aidan Hartley takes the reader with him.
This is a sometimes complex story that twists and turns, hauls you in then spits you back out again, but always engages you as it makes its way towards its conclusion, and it seems, some well earned peace for its author.
Its fantastic.... buy it!
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on 23 November 2004
I would absolutely recommend this startling book to ANYBODY for at least two reasons:
First, Hartley's account of Africa-its beauties and its horrors-is the most candid, fair and honest I've ever read. As one who reads a lot on Africa and has traveled there many times, I am often sickened by the spin and slant that many authors give their books. They are anti-colonial, anti-American, anti-globalization or anti-something else. They use Africa as a medium to push thier own agendas. But Hartley's account displays neither the pride nor the prejudice of his peers. He is frank, even blunt-both about what he sees and his own response to it. He puts his story out there, for better or worse, willing to accept any verdict.
Second, the experiences he relates in this book are powerful, eye-opening and moving. I reached a point about half way through the book where I couldn't put it down. I was absolutely horrified, but I couldn't stop reading. I felt sick, stunned, outraged and energized. I was deeply disturbed by his accounts of events I thought I already knew well. Tears sprang to my eyes often and I choked back sobs more than once. And yet I turned the last page with a deeper love and appreciation for Africa and its people, as well as a firmer resolve to do my part to help this troubled land.
Read this book. If you can't afford to buy it, borrow it or check it out from the library. A few here have sited weaknesses in The Zanzibar Chest. Fair enough, but this book's strengths so far outweigh any weaknesses that it's no contest. Read it! And thank you Aidan Hartley!
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on 29 October 2013
Classic, absolutely classic memoir of a very fulfilled life. Part of the narrative was as good as the 'Heart of Darkness'. What a story, kept me captivated and engaged throughout the 440 odd pages. For me the most interesting aspect was the self reflection of the White colonisation of Africa. I tend to agree with Hartley's dad. They should have never gone into Africa. Whence gone in they should never have left it. Arabs colonised Africa before the Europeans, and they stayed on, slowly converting the local cultures to Islam. Now it is impossible to differentiate between the two races in Africa. This book is a homage to the few but extremely courageous Europeans who decided to stay on, long after their mother-ship had decided to go back. Aidan's experiences in some of the most vile and despicable massacres in Africa clearly demonstrates the important role of white man still has in controlling human disasters on unimaginable scale in Africa. Perhaps the most important insight I have had from the book is the working of the Western media when covering human catastrophes, where there is an implicit policy of fitting the pigeon holes of the Charities, reader's fatigue, and stock market reactions. It does seem like that traditional media has become pretty ineffective and needs to be completely redefined.

Read the book if you want to witness the real face of human nature.
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on 7 October 2010
This is an extraordinary book - both in terms of its subject matter and the skill in which the various conflicts - and indeed the author's own history - are woven together into a compelling whole. Aidan Hartley is insightful, honest and refreshingly non-judgmental in his coverage of some of Africa's most brutal conflicts. The contents of this book are sometimes deeply shocking - as you would expect from a book that covers (amongst other things) the Rwandan genocide and Somalian conflict - but Aidan's perspective as a Reuters war reporter and - in his own view at least - a white African, brings a new perspective to realities and issues that all too often become just the backdrop of 'war torn Africa'.
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on 29 September 2014
Enjoyed the intertwining of family history and personal experiences in central Africa. Fast pace but also the author shows professional detachment from what he saw - as he says, that was the only way to continue.
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on 7 January 2013
This is a book written by a journalist going through a particularly difficult time in his life, so he starts to write about his life to try to make sense of it. For me, he grew up in Africa so I felt I could relate to him. The way he writes about his experiences of reporting in Africa are outstanding, but at the same time there is the story of his father's friend woven into the book. This book blew me away and it was this book that has influenced my reading now of so many books written by journalists.
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on 28 July 2009
Aidan Hartley's `Zanzibar Chest' interweaves four strands - the horrors of Somalia and Rwanda, the life of Hartley's father, the life of Hartley's father's friend Peter Davey, and Aidan Hartley's own life as a Reuters reporter. At times there seems little connection between these stories other than Africa and its effect on lives and of course the connection of Hartley himself. There is a little on the Serbia/Croatia/Bosnia conflict confusingly thrown in too which turns the book into more of Hartley's own idiosyncratic and rather sad autobiography. The book is increasingly well written and more readable as it progresses. Many of the later descriptive passages are evocative, beautific and haunting. But the opening section on Hartley's father's life is almost hagiographic. It is strange to read a book with every other sentence about what `my father' did next. The style is inevitably teenage. Hartley lionises his father although he is temporarily set back by learning of his father's dual life with an African wife and child. The life of Peter Davey is fascinating but could almost better be told separately, even making four separate sections of the book.

The fact of the Africa presented in the book is extreme and partial - it is about horror in Somalia and Rwanda. At times it becomes a concatenation of press reporting. It is entirely narrative history in which Hartley provides no interpretation or analysis. This is surprising and disappointing for someone of his intellectual capacity (Oxford and the School of Oriental and African Studies). In an early section (pages 48-51) he writes with simple disdain on Julius Nyerere, president of the newly independent Tanzania which he repeats in a brief passage on page 86, although on page 79 clearly influenced by his time at SOAS he writes `I had grown to admire Julius Nyerere'! Contrarily he admits to being seduced by the Eritrean Marxist Meles Zenawi, writing `I was impressionable and flattered' (page 133). Hartley summarily dismisses Christian contributions to Africa from derisory comments about literature from an organisation called SOON in Derby UK to claims that another Christian group only prayed and didn't help in the Rwanda disaster. On page 282 Hartley loathes the Serbs, apparently generically. Later in Rwanda he is clearly pro-Tutsi. He reports from Rwanda whilst admitting to not speaking French. All of this reduces any potential serious nuanced intellectual reflection on the experience of post colonial Africa which this is not the book for.

What we get instead is the degenerate life of one particular Reuter's reporter. Hartley tells us that much about the work `made me want to go out and drink, f*** and behave badly' (page 170) and there is much in this mould from teenage renderings of what LUFTHANSA stands for, Hartley's sexual exploits, frequent khat drug chewing, etc to the inevitable c word cropping up in a quoted reference referring to Madeleine Albright. Tellingly, his girlfriend Lizzie tells Hartley that he needs a shrink and `it's not because of Rwanda' (page 398). It's laddish in the extreme, at times simply teenage and puerile. This might be OK if Hartley offers some sober reflections later on. But he hardly does - he remains a purveyor of pure narrative.

These are significant weaknesses, but still the book is very readable, the accounts of Somalia and Rwanda very moving, and the writing style always gripping.
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on 2 June 2004
An excellent read but I was disturbed to discover (from The Sunday Telegraph on 31st May 2004) that parts of this are fiction. Notably the trip that the Hurds are meant to have made to Rwanda, which never happened. So I now find myself questioning whether the author has broken my trust in it as work of non-fiction. Sow hat is it? Fiction or non-fiction? Or neithe beast nor fowl?
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on 30 December 2011
Perhaps one of the finest documents of a life tied to modern Africa. There is probably a misconception of those who moved to Africa from Europe; colonialism is not a word used nicely. But what of those who moved there, possibly like those from Africa who move to Europe now, with no agenda but to be somewhere where their life is fulfilled and has meaning? Add to this the experience of their descendants who grow up not needing to believe in anything else. Aidan Hartley reaches out to his father and his experiences in Africa, through documents left in his musty Zanzibar chest, to discover more about himself. We then see him entering the ragtag world of a correspondent, and then suddenly there is Rwanda and Somalia. The experience of being at the centre of modern Africa's most harrowing periods is described so vividly by Hartley, it has the power to deeply affect the reader. How he then comes to terms with this is also described. A must for anyone with an interest in making sense of Africa today.
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