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Interview with Jay Bahadur on "The Pirates of Somalia"

Jay Bahadur chewed khat, fielded lies, and made his way through the intricacies of Somali clan politics as he gathered information for "The Pirates of Somalia."

By Kristin Rawls / August 30, 2011

The Somali pirates Jay Bahadur met sometimes bristle at the word “pirate,” insisting that they are instead “saviors of the sea.”

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Before his first trip to Somalia in 2008, Jay Bahadur, the 27-year-old author of The Pirates of Somalia, had no journalism training or experience. A recent graduate of the University of Toronto, he had studied political science and economics. After several failed attempts to break into journalism, Bahadur found a Somali journalist willing to help him set up a self-funded research trip to the semi-autonomous zone of Puntland in northeast Somalia.

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There, he would learn as much as he could about the infamous Somali piracy problem. On returning home, Bahadur secured a book deal – and enough funding to complete his research on the pirates. I recently caught up with Bahadur to discuss his book.

Q. These pirates did not want to be called pirates. Why?

They often argue that illegal international fishermen who deplete their lobster population are the real pirates. They believe that fishing is wrong and has diminished their livelihood. Sometimes they bristle at the word “pirate,” and insist they are “saviors of the sea” or “coast guard,” but this is inaccurate. I use the word because the UN and other international bodies use it, and Somalis themselves call them “ocean robbers.”

Q. You went into the area through connections with Abdirahman Farole, the president of Puntland, and his family. Why do it this way, and how might it have affected your access to information?

I needed a partner because it’s unwise to enter Somalia alone. I contacted Somali universities and journalists, and Mohamad Farole, the president’s son, was the most enthusiastic journalist to respond. It came as quite a surprise when his father was later elected president. I was nervous of walking into a clan war, but at the time, Farole’s universal popularity was helpful.

These connections gave me access to government officials. Also, [my source, Boyah] and his crew came from the president’s sub-clan. I was considered a guest of their clan, which made them more willing to talk to me. They weren’t completely open, as I was an outsider and they were recounting crimes. But it helped.

In some places, like the coastal area, the pirates were more jittery and nervous. A leader of one of the gangs there told people that I was CIA and that they shouldn’t talk to me.

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