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Canadian author Jay Bahadur poses with Somali villagers in Dhanane, the semiautonomous region of Puntland, Somalia, on June 1, 2009, while researching his book about piracy. (Stringer/AP)
Canadian author Jay Bahadur poses with Somali villagers in Dhanane, the semiautonomous region of Puntland, Somalia, on June 1, 2009, while researching his book about piracy. (Stringer/AP)

Review: Non-fiction

Low conduct on the high seas Add to ...

There are few places on the planet more uninviting to outsiders than Somalia, the lawless "failed state" currently in the grip of the worst drought to hit East Africa in some 60 years.

To most people it's known only for violence, anarchy and humanitarian crises. And, of course, pirates.

The spectacular growth of piracy in the seas off the Horn of Africa has amazed many people, but the root causes that have engendered it ashore have been little reported, simply because most observers prefer to avoid travelling there. With The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, Jay Bahadur goes a long way to rectifying this.

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Bahadur, a young Canadian journalist, has spent the last few years digging into the nefarious world of the pirates who have made Somalia so infamous. He has ventured where few others have gone - be they foreigners or even Somalis - to craft one of the most incisive looks at modern-day piracy yet seen. And he has turned his research into a compelling and insightful book that takes readers into the very communities that harbour these high-seas criminals to meet with many Somalis, including pirates.

On landing in the country, the cold reality of where he is immediately hits Bahadur. As he puts it, "Somalia is like a country out of a twisted fairy tale," a land we only hear about from brief news reports. And many, if not most, of those reports are filed by journalists working outside the country, so fearful are foreigners of the place. But the fundamental problem is not really the instability of Somalia, but understanding the complexity of its local culture.

Bahadur overcomes this by having spent a lot of time developing contacts within the country. His grasp of the minutiae of how local clans interact, and his ability to explain this seminal aspect of Somali culture to us, is remarkable. At one point in his travels, he learns to identify himself not as a Canadian, but as essentially an honoured member of a Somali sub-clan, all the better to break down barriers and talk with people. He even learns to chew khat - the narcotic leaves widely consumed by locals - in order to gain their confidence.

The book's strongest moments come when Bahadur meets with pirates, some imprisoned, others whom he meets in various parts of the country. He hears their oft-repeated defence that they are merely poor fishermen trying to defend themselves from overzealous foreign fishing vessels, but quickly sees through this fantasy. "They mouth the worn-out mantra of the just crusade against illegal fishing like sanctimonious popes, with sly eyes and cynical smiles," he writes.

At times the book slows down as Bahadur delves into the history of piracy's growth off the Horn of Africa and statistical information about its impact. But the data he has collected and presented will be important to many observers of the problem. And when he takes that information and simplifies it for general readers, it provides startling details on how Somali pirate gangs operate today.

For instance, he analyses the costs of one pirate operation, the hijacking of the German-owned freighter MV Victoria, in 2009. Doing the math after talking to his contacts, he figures the head of the gang that seized the vessel probably made about $900,000 (U.S.) from the operation. But the guys at the bottom of the hierarchy, the guys with guns who watched over the captive crew? They likely pocketed the equivalent of $41,000, which works out to $10.43 an hour. Hardly a huge payday. Piracy is really a pyramid scheme, in Bahadur's view, with the clear winner being the man at the top.

With The Pirates of Somalia, Jay Bahadur debunks the myths, strips away the lies and takes readers on a dramatic journey through a criminal landscape that shows no signs of ending any time soon. After talking with all those affected by piracy off Somalia, the stark reality of who he's met on his travels sinks in: "I was struck by the chilling realization that I had shared tea with murderers."

Daniel Sekulich is a journalist and expert on global piracy, and the author of Terror on the Seas: True Tales of Modern-Day Pirates.

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