Beau Travail (1999) Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Gregoire Colin. A brilliant retelling of Melville’s Billy Budd, only instead of a British frigate the action takes place in the desert on the Gulf of Djibouti near the Horn of Africa. Instead of sailors the men involved are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. This is a movie about military discipline, routine, and codes of honor. A new recruit is introduced and tension develops with the second in command. There is not much of a plot or narrative arc but this is an extremely visual film and you get all you need to know from the visual story telling. The photography is spectacular.
There is an unmistakable undercurrent of homoeroticism swirling around just below the surface as Denis directs our gaze to the half naked young men going through their ritualist exercises and bonding together as in a slow moving ballet. It is an examination of military culture and the masculine mystique.
The next thing you see when you get off the plane at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport after the “Welcome to Kenya” sign is the sign which says, “DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS.” There were other signs I saw along the way during my two weeks stay in Nairobi but I chose to ignore them. In Uhuru Park there was a sign that read, “Beware of Human Beasts, Don’t Be the Next Rape Victim, Every 30 Minutes a Woman is Raped in Kenya.”
At the Nairobi Serena Hotel, before we were allowed to drive onto the property, a uniformed armed guard probed the underside of our car with a long-handled mirror. Once inside and checked into our room I looked out the window and saw a uniformed guard standing watch. At a restaurant we went to called The Carnivore, we passed through a security fence which was manned by security guards carrying automatic assault rifles and flanked by large German Shepard dogs straining at their leashes. Yes, I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.
I had gone to Kenya on a business trip. Actually, I was traveling with a companion who was there on business attending a worldwide meeting of company officials who were stationed around the globe. While Mary was going to meetings, I was on my own.
On the first day I hung out at the Hotel. The Serena is a Five Star Hotel and very nice. I had breakfast with Mary in the dining room and later I had lunch out by the pool by myself. I had a cheeseburger with fries and a Tusker beer. Delicious! After lunch I had a dip in the pool and sat in the sun reading as the water slowly evaporated off my body.
After a couple of days of this I got bored and decided to venture out on my own. I am an adventurous sort and had walked the mean streets of some of the toughest cities of America, so I wasn’t too worried.
I struck out midmorning on a beautiful sun-drenched day. The skies were azure blue with cotton candy clouds. Nairobi is a mile high so the atmosphere was crystal clear and every object stood out in vivid colored relief.
I walked the half mile stretch along Uhuru Highway to downtown Nairobi. It was as crowded as any major city might be and traffic was going about in a chaotic fashion. I walked to the corner of a busy intersection crowded with people. I was approached on all sides by people who wanted to sell me things like trinkets or cheap jewelry. A rather large and burley individual who was head taller than me and wearing a tight red T-shirt walked up to me and pounded his chest. “Promote me! Promote me!” He said over and over again, striking his chest for emphasis.
I just walked away. Soon others were following me and asking me questions. They all wanted to know if I was from the States? Did I know Obama? One fellow dressed in raggedy clothes stopped me and asked for money to buy some rice. I wasn’t inclined to give him any, especially in front of the crowd and all, but I did say to him, “I’m not going to give you any money, but if you will meet me here in one hour I will buy you some rice and give it to you.” He looked a little disappointed but reluctantly agreed.
I continued to walk along the street deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. As I walked along, I noticed another fellow tracking me and falling into step beside me. He was wearing a dark brown suit, but it looked like it had seen its better days. A little shabby with frayed cuffs. He had on a soiled white dress shirt and a thin black tie loosened at the throat. He was wearing black dress shoes that were run over at the heels and in bad need of a shine. “Hello!” He said, flashing me a big smile. “Can we have a conversation?”
“Sure,” I answered. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I like to talk to Americans about politics and history.”
“Ok. What did you want to know?”
“Can we go somewhere and sit down at a table to talk?”
“Where did you want to go?”
“I know a Tea Room not far from here. We could go there.”
I’m starting to get a little suspicious now and I’m not in any big hurry to go anywhere with this stranger.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Sudan,” he answered. “I am staying at a refugee camp near the border.”
“I’ll tell you what. I am going to walk around a little bit, you want to meet me here in an hour, we can talk then. How’s that?”
He hesitated a little bit but finally agreed. So, I had the same arrangement with two strangers I had met in Nairobi and I had only been in town 15 minutes! I thought chances are either one or the other or both wouldn’t show up, and I had bought myself a little time.
So, I spent the next hour exploring the city. I went to gift shops, hotels, and had lunch in an outdoor café. I checked my watch and saw it was time to head back to meet my new friends.
I got back to the corner at the appointed time and guy #1 wasn’t there yet. I looked around and noticed a market about a half a block away. I walked over to it and went in. After my eyes adjusted to the low-level light, I saw baskets of various products including rice. The pungent smell of spices hung in the air. I secured a bag of rice and walked out returning to the corner. My new friend showed up with a big smile on his face.
“Jambo!” he said
“Jambo!” I returned.
I handed him the rice. We had a moment then he left.
Now the second guy, the guy with the suit. I thought was going to be a no show. I waited about 15 minutes and was about to leave when he rounded the corner. He greeted me warmly and pointed his hand out in front of him and said, “The Tea Room is down this way.”
We walked about six blocks and I was beginning to wonder where he was taking me.
“Say, where are you taking me?”
“It’s just a little further.”
We walked on another two blocks and my friend became a little more excited as we stopped in front of rather impressive looking two-story structure in the middle of the block with a wide set of steps leading up to the front door.
“Ah, here we are,” my companion spoke to me as he swept his arm up the stairway in the direction of entrance. We had arrived at the Jade Tea House.
We mounted the steps and went inside. Once inside I had the distinct feeling, I had stepped into a time portal. The interior of the Tea Room was dark and the blades of the overhead fans were whirring about pushing the hot air around the room. I felt a little uneasy as I looked around the room. Others were seated around at various tables deep in what seemed like conspiratorial conversation as if they were plotting some crime against humanity or an act of terror. We went upstairs to another level where it was a little brighter and sat down at a table. Soon a waiter come over and we placed our order. We each ordered a cup of tea.
Asim and I started having our conversation about what was going on in America. We worked it around to politics in Africa. There was a presidential election going on in Kenya and we talked about that. Then he reminded me that he was Sudanese and was living in a refugee camp. Oh, boy I thought, here it comes. I had been waiting for this and wondered just how and when he would work it. I figured he’d put the bite on me before it was over with. Of course, I was reluctant to play along. I didn’t like getting played. As we were sitting there, I noticed a lone individual sidle up to the table next to ours and had a seat. It seemed like he was listening to our conversation. He didn’t order anything, he just sat there on the edge of his seat. I didn’t pay much attention to him as I was focused on Asim and how I was going to handle his request. I decided I would excuse myself to the bathroom to buy some time.
When I got back to the table, I decided I would pay our tab and leave. Whatever change I had coming I would let Asim have and that would be it. I called the waiter over and asked for the check. When he got back, I handed him a 50 Shilling note and he brought back my change which I pushed over in front of Asim.
Just as soon as I pushed the money over the guy at the other table jumped up and four other guys, all wearing suits, came out of the shadows and surrounded the table. Two of the men led Asim away, one on each side of him. Two others stood guard and the ring leader came over and sat directly in front of me. His eyes were shot with blood and his breath stank with alcohol. He flashed an ID at me and said he was a police officer with the Nairobi Police Department. I didn’t get a good look at the ID but it looked like an ordinary driver’s license.
“Why were you talking to that man?” He wanted to know.
“I don’t know. We just met on the street and he wanted to talk.”
“We have been looking for that man. Did you know he was a drug dealer?”
Uh oh! I thought to myself. Here it comes. First the hook then ….
“He’s also a counterfeiter. I see you gave him some money. Why did you give him money?”
“I was just leaving him the change because I thought he might need it.”
“How much Kenyan money do you have?”
“About 20,000 Shillings.”
“Let me see it.” He reached out his hand.
I slowly reached into my pocket and retrieved my Kenyan money. He reached out his hand further and I reluctantly handed it over. He grunted his approval and stared to count it.
“Do you have any American money?”
“Yeah. I guess you are going to take that too?”
He didn’t’ like that. He scowled.
“If you are not going to cooperate, we can take you down to the station with us and make you cooperate.”
I didn’t like that idea. So, l reached back into my pocket and got the rest of my money out and handed it over to him which he promptly proceeded to count. He took out a small notebook and wrote some figures down in it and tore it out. He handed it to me with the amount of money he had taken as a receipt.
“We have a machine at headquarters that can tell if this money is counterfeit. We will run your money through the machine and if it is real, we will return it to you. Where are you staying?”
I didn’t want to tell him. If I ever got out of this alive, I never wanted to see them again. But I felt like I had to play along so I told them I was staying at the Serena Hotel but I gave them a false room number. Like that would do a lot of good.
After that he stood up and motioned for me to get up. They escorted me out of the building down the front steps to the curb where a car was waiting. They got into the car and sped away leaving me standing on the side walk in a total state of bewilderment. It was only then that the full force of the experience hit me.
I looked up at the sky and the tops of the building were literally swirling around in the blue canopy overhead. Or was it just in my head? I didn’t know. I became momentarily quite dizzy and thought I would pass out. I had to find my way back to the hotel but I was disoriented and actually quite lost. Calm down, I told myself. At least you are still alive and free at last. Now just assess your situation and you will be fine.
I looked around again and saw in the distance the top of a building I recognized that was in the direction of the hotel. I started walking in the direction of the familiar landmark, navigating by dead reckoning. The closer I got to the building the more familiar were my surroundings. Soon I found myself back on Uhuru Highway and almost home.
When I made it back to the hotel I went right to the room and collapsed on the bed. Mary wasn’t back yet and I feared telling her what happened. I knew she would be furious with me for putting us both in danger. When she finally got back, I told her the story and she was sympathetic but I could tell she was not happy with me. Hell, I wasn’t happy with me either. We spent the rest of the trip looking over our shoulders as we never knew if the rough and rowdy crew would show back up again and cause more trouble.
We got out of the country with no further incidents but I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t talk to strangers.
This is the title of Alexandra Fuller’s latest book and my new motto.
I just received this book in the mail after a long waiting period. It didn’t come from the Amazon Warehouse right around the corner where most books come from. Oh, no, no, no. This book came from a book depository in Jolly Olde England and it took it’s sweet time about arriving here. Some weeks in fact. Well, it was much anticipated and I am sure it will be much loved. I had pre-ordered it as soon as it was available. Not to worry, I am sure I will enjoy it all the more .
This will be the fourth book I have read by Fuller. The first three: Cocktail Hour UnderTree of Forgetfulness, Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight, and Leaving Before the Rains Come. She is a terrific writer and I can’t wait to get started on this book.
Alexandra was born in England and raised in Africa where she lived until she was in her twenties. She then moved to Wyoming. Her stories of growing up in Africa with her eccentric family are fascinating and endlessly entertaining told by a gifted story teller.
“He did not think of himself as a tourist. He was a traveler. The difference was partly one of time. Whereas the tourist hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging to no more one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. It would be very difficult indeed to tell anyone, of the many places he lived, precisely where he felt most at home.
Another important difference between the tourist and the traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization as his own without question; not so with the traveler, who compares it with the others and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”