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."

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

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.

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.

Q. You write about using the popular drug, khat, to help your sources open up. Could you say more about this?

The khat was part of their daily routine. It’s a mild drug, much like a strong cup of coffee. This was comparable to taking interview subjects out for food or drinks. They would sit with each other and chew the khat for hours, so it helped me work my way into their daily lives. As I got to know them during these sessions, they opened up.

Q. You suggest that some of your sources embellished the truth. How did you deal with that?

I corroborated their stories as well as possible. I looked for public hijacking records when anyone claimed to hijack a particular ship. I asked them questions about what the ship was holding or how much ransom was paid. Garaad Mohammad, [my source] who was probably the biggest prevaricator, claimed to control 800 pirates – or about half of the pirates in Somalia – as direct employees. That was patently ridiculous, so of course I indicate that I thought he was exaggerating in the book.

Q. The pirates have a fascinating moral code. Alcohol is prohibited. They don’t kill people or assault women. Why?

Boyah and his men were going through a religious awakening influenced by the values of Islam when I spoke with them. However, one piracy code of conduct has been discovered, and it says not to abuse women, not to beat the hostages and so on. I think this is more pragmatic than religious. It would be important not to abuse the hostages because that could jeopardize ransom negotiations.

Q. One of your sources expresses a sense that your project will bring “something good” to Puntland. In what ways might your book be understood as an effort to give back?

I want to create more awareness of Puntland, and I went beyond this to do an almost anthropological study. I focused on understanding the culture and the history of the piracy problem. The book was originally called “The Pirates of Puntland,” but [publisher Pantheon Books] opted to change the title since there is so little awareness of the region.

I also hope to help change the conversation. International bodies like the UN focus on helping the official government in the south. But small clan-based regions in the north have done a good job of creating their own governments. These regions need to be supported in lieu of the top-down approach pushed in the south.

Q. What’s next for you?

I’m starting a news site for independent journalists called “Journalist Nation.” It’s an attempt to find a home for all the news-worthy videos that people post to Youtube. I have some free time now, and that’s what I’ll be working on in the immediate future.

Kristin Rawls is a Monitor contributor.

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