A couple years back, I spoke at length with Michael Scott Moore, a journalist and author who’d been captured by Somali pirates, held hostage for nearly three years, and had, just weeks before, been released.
Moore was surprisingly candid about his ordeal and his views on how the US government deals with pirates. I hadn’t spoken to him prior to that, but had enjoyed a travel book he’d written a few years before, called “Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results.” He struck me as a brilliant observer in that book, and his detailed description over the phone of the pirates who’d held him, the bizarre friendships he’d made in captivity, and of the dismal conditions he’d been held in were just as sharp and well detailed.
Now, Moore tells the rest of the world about his time in captivity in an enthralling new memoir: “The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast.”
Moore divides his time between Southern California and Berlin, Germany, as a correspondent for the German publication, Der Spiegel. Back in 2011, he’d covered a story about a failed hijacking of a German vessel by Somali pirates. Something about the pirates fascinated Moore, and he made the fateful decision to do a bit of adventuresome and potentially highly dangerous journalism by venturing first to Djibouti and Nairobi, then, later, Somalia to sketch a more complete picture of piracy.
“I first went to the Horn of Africa out of curiosity.” he writes. “I liked the strange distances of the arid savanna, the rocky desert sound of the languages, the lack of Western pleasantries.”
Moore had made a friendly Somali contact who told Moore he could, relatively safely, put him in touch with pirates. Why Moore thought this would work out smoothly, or what exactly he hoped to learn from them, is never entirely clear. “Big ideas” are what Moore said lured him to Somalia. They also nearly got him killed.
Pirates captured Moore not long after he’d arrived in Somalia and immediately asked for a $20 million ransom. Thus began nearly three years of psychological, more than physical, torture for Moore. He’s kept in squalid brick buildings and an aging fishing trawler. He befriends a fellow prisoner from the Seychelles named Rolly; the companionship Rolly provided may very well have saved Moore’s life.
At times, Moore’s mental state made suicide a kind of viable escape plan. While aboard the traweler, he nearly does both when he leaps overboard, the boat chugging away, no real plan for how to get to land, or what he’d do if he got there.
“I kicked off my sandals so they skittered across the deck and ran for the cutaway section, launched myself off the gunwhale with one bare foot, and dove, fingertips first, about twenty feet into the wavering, black, surprisingly warm water…The culmination of a dream that had percolated in me for more than five months at sea gave me a quick thrill of hope; but when I came up for air I noticed how buoyant I was, and how afraid.
I dove again, waiting for bullets. My only consolation was that pirates would have terrible aim. The Naham 3 churned forward, and I swam with the slanting current, toward the rear, keeping just under the waves like a dolphin. I raised my head to breathe.”
The pirates wheeled the ship around and recovered Moore from the water. He remained a hostage.
Moore ends up painting a vivid portrait of his pirate captors. Rarely do they come across as malicious, violent monsters. More often they seem merely opportunistic and, somehow, vaguely empathetic toward Moore’s pain and anguish, despite also being its source.
Eventually, Moore is freed after a ransom is paid, though I won’t spoil how that process works itself out.
The Desert and the Sea is a fascinating look at not just piracy, but also the mental journey Moore embarks on once he’s captured. In the end, he ends up learning more about piracy than he ever wanted to, but in captivity, also provides the closest look possible into their motivations and the spider webs of allegiances between pirate gangs on the east African coast.
Moore also manages to write a book about being held hostage in dire circumstances that’s entertaining and rarely dark. A journalistic feat.