"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Liaison In The Comoros – The Finest Affairs In The Most Unlikely Of Places

The Comoros Islands – a small archipelago off the coast of Tanzania – is classified by the UN as Africa but, like its neighbor Madagascar, more Indonesian and Malaysian.  Its principal islands –Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan - are far enough apart to be reached only by small plane, and the third island, Mayotte, part of the Seychelles, is French colony, now a department of France.  The port of Moroni on Grande Comore is very Arab, built and settled by Arab slavers in the 19th century. The government is African but with membership in the Arab League and conservative Sunni Muslim. The main exports are vanilla, cloves, and ylang-ylang, an important ingredient in perfume; and the sweet fragrance of these plants is everywhere.

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Since independence from France in 1975, the country has undergone many bloody and bloodless coups.  It has one of the highest poverty rates in the African region and its isolation, distance from the African mainland, and because of its unusual African-Asian-Arab mix, it was no one’s adopted step-child. 

A few years after independence and before the time of prolonged instability, the country looked to Europe, the Arab world, and the United Nations for development assistance.  It realized the value of its natural resources but knew that it had too long lagged behind other countries in the region in adopting modern techniques of exploitation.  It had little idea how to organize itself as a modern state, and although it considered Arab theocracy, East African socialism, and Western democratic capitalism, it couldn’t decide on any of them.  Its mullahs, former African tribal chiefs, and French ex-colonists who had stayed on rarely agreed on the way forward.   At the same time the Comoros during this short period of confused but benign governmental rule and a still-docile and complaisant population was an idyll for those few willing to travel or live there.  It was still a multi-cultural country not yet radicalized by geopolitical or religious militancy.  It was a place where Indonesian reverence for the dead, African totemism, and Arab religious conservatism existed together not yet suspicious of each other and far from hostile.

Transitional places always seem to have this out-of-time, curiously harmonious feel.  Populations of former Soviet bloc countries whose reliance on the State’s cradle-to-grave socialism had disappeared in a matter of months after the USSR collapsed.  Citizens who had known only Communism but who were asked to engage in free market capitalism, fend for themselves and their children, and rely on no one else felt exposed, vulnerable, and lost.  The years following the deposition of Ceausescu were years of tentative self-sufficiency and small-scale enterprise.  They were years of exploration and determination.  What should replace Communism and how?

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The people of Poland shortly after 1989 were also debating their future.  Conservative lawmakers were enamored of the United States free-market liberalism and crafted drafts of a constitution which had a Bill of Rights.  Yet these rights included many of the tenets of Communism, unrealistic, idealistic principles that had long been inculcated.  Who guaranteed the Right To Work, asked American political consultants invited to participate in the deliberations?

Despite the political uncertainty, the economic dislocation of millions, and the social disruption of entire communities, these countries were fascinating.  One could see the old and the new at the same time.  Bucharest was in many ways like cities of Western Europe almost 100 years before.

In Mali in the late 70s and early 80s when the French ex-colonists were still managing small hotels, restaurants, and shops, one could see a bit of la France profonde a very old, traditional, conservative provincial France at the same time as new France-trained African bureaucrats begin the reformation of post-colonial Mali.  Bamako was old and new, still la France profonde, an emerging modern Africa before the ethnic, tribal, religious, and radical forces were to change it forever.

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I spent a month in the Comoros in the late 70s as part of a UN mission to help the government sort out its population policy; and in particular to help them balance traditional religious views on sexuality, reproduction, and family with civil rights.  The mission stayed in a old hotel run by a stateless Italian who had been a cook onboard European Mediterranean and Transatlantic passenger ships before he jumped ship – pursued, he said, by Libyan operatives who accused him of sedition, theft, and murder.  Because he had no papers, no documentation to prove who he was or where he was from, he wandered from port to port, signing on to freighters whose captains were unconcerned about legitimacy and national laws, always travelling, never moored or anchored; until he came to Moroni, convinced the owner of the hotel, a friend of the freighter first mate that he could manage it, cook, and keep it alive. 

The hotel had no electricity, no screens, limited plumbing, and was located in one of Grande Comore’s micro-climates where rain was permanent.  The warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the cool breezes that flowed down the western slopes of the mountains, and the hot air currents from the African land mass somehow met in El-Farouk, the small all-but deserted community to the far east of town.  The rain hammered down on the tin roof of the hotel all day and especially at night.  Water poured off the roof into courtyard swales through the culvert under the road, and on to the sea.  The noise was incessant, coming in crescendos and diminuendos, but always loud and never-ending.  It rained during breakfast on the verandah.  It rained in the open dining room in the evening, and it poured all night, cascading over the open windows of the bedrooms.

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Dinner was by candlelight, every Victorian four-poster had mosquito netting.  The rooms were high-ceilinged, empty except for the ornate sconces, remnants of the Italian builder’s original vision for a European class hotel in the tropics.  They were damp and mildewed with puddles by the open windows and under the door.

Dana Mueller was an Austrian demographer on our mission, a world traveler almost as stateless as the hotel manager except with papers and credentials.  She had helped the Saudi princes prepare the country’s first census, developed disaster algorithms for Bangladeshi authorities who because nothing could be done to stop the frequent typhoons and flooding in the Bay of Bengal, needed to have a population-based predictive tool to estimate probable casualties and relief requirements; and for the World Bank created demographic models for the resettlement of Sahelian economic migrants to urban regional ‘opportunity zones’.  She had a residence in Vienna but was never there.  She was an albatross, an itinerant sailor, a wanderer for whom there was no rhyme or reason to explain her ports of call.  She went where she was needed, never missing turf or territory, never nostalgic, never reminiscent. 

The hotel being what it was – an indeterminate place at an even more indeterminate time with the constant rain, the stateless Italian manager, the old Arab port, and the scent of ylang-ylang and vanilla – it was easy for Dana and me to meet and to sleep together.  Foreign travel is always unlawful.  Far away from home, family, and responsibility, the solitary traveler is transformed from a dutiful provider, respectful son, wife, or daughter into an individual.  There are no preconceived notions, no ambitions, and no hinderances.  Life in this suspended world is like that of the transitional countries I visited - a hiatus, a time of sexual relaxation and emotional freedom.

Not only is one free from the responsibilities left at home, but free from constricting local conventions; but a traveler can pick and choose in a strangely tolerant environment.  Removed from the familiar, one is entirely on one’s own.

Raoul Bennett, an economist at the World Bank and his Canadian lover had been brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in their balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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Perhaps more than anything it was because of the unreal time of the Duvaliers – a family which had autocratically ruled Haiti for decades but whose demise was imminent.  It was the uncertainty, the impermanence, and even the imminent danger which was the yeast of the affair.

For anyone who has traveled to these unfamiliar and difficult places, such an affair would not be at all surprising.   It is almost de rigeur to share companionship. misery, and ultimately physical intimacy as an anodyne, an idyll, and above all an easy, uncomplicated, guilt-free remove from responsibilities back home.

There is something about the confines of threat which lubricate sexual interest.  Why not when the tontons macoute could break into the room or when the Salafist insurgents could take you hostage? Or when Ebola or fulminating River Fever could take one off?

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It is not surprising that love in a a hiatus – a tryst between two wandering people in an unsettled place – can never be picked up elsewhere.  It is meant to be transitory, impermanent, and unlikely; and it is because of that, all the more exciting.

So, I never saw or heard from Dana Mueller again or tried to contact her.  It was not exactly a one-off – no emotional involvement can be so easily dismissed – but a once only.  There are many kinds of love in the world, wrote Fitzgerald, but never the same love twice; and it is this knowing uniqueness that makes each affair so much more important.

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