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The Zanzibar Chest

4.01  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,875 Ratings  ·  170 Reviews
Hartley, an acclaimedfrontline reporter who covered the atrocities of 1990s Africa, embarks on a journey to unlock the mysteries and secrets of his own family's 150-year-colonial legacy in Africa. A beautiful, sometimes harrowing memoir of intrepid young men cut down in their prime, of forbidden love and its fatal consequences, and of family and history. and the collision ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published August 3rd 2004 by Riverhead Books (first published 2003)
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Community Reviews

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Sharon W.
May 21, 2007 Sharon W. rated it liked it
To be completely honest, Aiden Hartley, although I envy his travels, is a pompous prick. he wanders around Africa pretending that it is his, and yet knows nothing of the people he lives "with." He hangs out with white people in white bars, and is essentially a whiny ex-pat child even though he was born in Kenya.

And then Ex-pats (of every culture) wonder why everyone hates them; It's because of people like Aiden Hartley.
I found this book to be absolutely riveting. Hartley has actually related two tales here, one detailing his quest to shed some light on the circumstances surrounding the death of his father's friend Peter Davey; the other tale relates Hartley's own story from his education abroad to his misadventures as a foreign/war correspondent for the Reuters news agency.

As a journalist, he was dispatched to the world's hotspots: Croatia, Somalia, and Rwanda being foremost in my memory. He broke bread and r
orsodimondo (a zonzo)
Una storia bellissima fatta di tante storie, tutte belle.
Hartley è un inglese nato in Kenia, cresciuto in Africa, un mzungu che ha studiato in Inghilterra, giovane reporter per l’agenzia Reuters.
Ama il continente africano, lo conosce, lo gira e rigira. Da giornalista è sul campo a raccontare e testimoniare le crisi economiche umanitarie e militari più importanti degli ultimi due decenni.

La sua famiglia ha alle spalle due secoli di storia coloniale in tutti i continenti, fra
Jan 28, 2011 Tom rated it liked it
In the first 20 or so pages I was grumbling as I found myself drowning in adjectives. Though, as Hartley hits his stride, the prose loses the overwritten feel and develops into a very fine book.

I'm not sure he needed the device of 'the Zanzibar chest' as a framing tool. It's almost insecurity. Almost like he didn't think the true stories of an intrepid reporter in the middle of the worst of the worst atrocities in Mogadishu and Rwanda would hold the reader's interest so he needed to spice it up
Michael Flanagan
Jan 28, 2012 Michael Flanagan rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The author delivers a book that will stay with me long after the last page is turned. One quarter travelogue, another family history and the other half memoirs the author shows us Africa in all it's brutality and sadness. Not what I was expecting but an essential read to remind us what we should not forget.
Jun 17, 2010 Mattie rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites, africa, memoir
In many ways, this is a 5-star book. Horrifying, inspiring, bloody, real. Once I got sucked in, I wanted to read this book every. single. minute. and at the same time toss aside my peaceful, happy life and do what I already knew that I wanted to do. For me, reading this book was both utterly absorbing and incredibly painful: how could I bear to sit and read when there is SO MUCH going on out there? (Out there, you know, the greater world, adventure, war, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll: that familia ...more
Tariq Mahmood
Oct 29, 2013 Tariq Mahmood rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Classic, absolutely classic memoir of a very fulfilled life. Part of the narrative was as good as the 'Heart of Darkness'. What a story, kept me captivated and engaged throughout the 440 odd pages. For me the most interesting aspect was the self reflection of the White colonisation of Africa. I tend to agree with Hartley's dad. They should have never gone into Africa. Whence gone in they should never have left it. Arabs colonised Africa before the Europeans, and they stayed on, slowly converting ...more
Jul 28, 2009 Foster rated it really liked it
While the first 100 pages or so were hard to get through due to the boasting tone Hartley took as he listed off all of his adventurous British ancestors, this changed as he began writing about his own experiences as a reporter in Africa. His account of this time was amplified due to him being witness to (or involved in) every major conflict to grip Africa in the late 80s and 90s. Ethiopa, Rwanda, Somalia - they are all here and in a vivid detail I had not encountered before.

What makes Hartley's
Margaret Sankey
Apr 30, 2015 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Anecdotally-driven account of Hartley's experiences as a reporter in Africa in the 1990s, framed by his family's generations of British colonial service in India, Aden, Kenya and Arabia and his own coming of age during decolonization and the political repercussions of 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Africa. Part of the power of this book is inadvertent, as the more Hartley insists that he is from Kenya, the more it is clear that ex-pats may be from a place, but never really of it.
Apr 12, 2012 Suzanne rated it really liked it
While this book wasn’t what I was expecting, I want to declare right at the outset that it was REALLY REALLY GOOD! The author, Aidan Hartley, is a journalist and The Zanzibar Chest is his memoir of his childhood, being born and raised in Tanzania, and also the years of his 20′s and 30′s, when he was war correspondent in Africa. The son of a British military colonial, Aidan’s family had a rich history of living the ex-pat life. Weaving in tales of his father’s life in Africa, Aidan Hartley narrat ...more
Babak Fakhamzadeh
Hartley has written something of a memoir of himself and his family. Truth be told, his family history is quite interesting, filled with individuals occupying important roles in Britain's colonial history. Hartley himself, who was born and grew up in East Africa, became a journalist and the book is like personal therapy to come to terms with the the death of his father and the violence he was faced with while working in (mostly) African warzones.

The book is interesting, but not nearly as good a
Jan 16, 2016 Trenchologist rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ostensibly a story of the author's discovery, that of his father and his father's lifelong friend and their trials in colonial India and Africa. It's really about the author himself, the parallels he digs in deep furrows about his own experiences as a war correspondent in far-reaching countries and terrible times, from the Balkans to Yemen and home again in Africa. Not for the faint of heart, inexplicably compelling, while Hartley is neither sympathetic or unlikable, just a man on a mission to g ...more
Ellis Amdur
Jan 14, 2015 Ellis Amdur rated it really liked it
This book is four things at once:

1. An elegy for a lost Africa – an entire continent rich in cultures and nations, mulched both by colonial wars and dissection into artificial boundaries, but also by naïve attempts to forcibly remake the people.

2. This recovery of two lives – Hartley’s father, a giant of a man who lived most of his life in Africa and Aden, assisting people in agricultural projects, whose last words were, “We never should have come,” and his best friend, Peter Davey, a colonial o
Sep 15, 2015 Alexandra rated it really liked it
The first hundred pages were a little bit confusing to me when he narrated about his family's ancestors in Africa. He opened up his life experience as a frontline journalist in many dangerous places like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Rwanda during their civil wars. His accounts on the wars, famine, hatred, and hope will make you not be able to put down the book but at the same time, you will have to put it away for a while before reading a new chapter so you can absorb all the horrific details about fa ...more
This was a sort of weird book, that didn't have a very linear narrative structure, which got annoying in spots. But the material was interesting enough to me to make up for it - his parents lived in Yemen (which I'm not sure I even knew was a British... protectorate?), he grew up in Kenya, and was a newspaper journalist in places throughout Africa. Honestly, it was a little bit Flashman, where all the players know each other.

Almost painful descriptions of places collapsing; the ineptitude of for
Elan Durham
May 03, 2015 Elan Durham rated it really liked it
This is both stomach-churning and hair-raising reportage, irritating, confounding and yes, sometimes very moving. Hartley allows himself to be seduced into the myth of the British explorers of old: the Livingston's and the Shackleton's of the Dark Continent by reading the diary of his father's best friend, Davey, and following in his footsteps.

As a result, this is a difficult book to read for two reasons: the writer finds himself in the midst of some of the most horrendous conflicts and genocid
William Barr
Oct 29, 2015 William Barr rated it it was amazing
Intrigued by the reviews I started reading this but was put off by the introductory chapter and laid it to one side - for a couple of years or more (how time passes).
On trying again I had more success although the book is a harrowing read at times it is also quite spellbinding.
As I read about the conflicts he reported on, Somalia, Yemen, Rwanda etc, etc, and the visceral nature of the stories, it became apparent to me that most of us pay little or no heed when they actually happen, just giving
Jul 29, 2016 Vel rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I have read that has been written by a journalist. I have always wondered how life would be for a war correspondent who is on the ground and this book was perfect answer to my question. The author narrates from two different timelines, one from the 1930s and the other from the 1970s to 90s. The earlier one is more of a recollection of his dad's friends' diary and the later is his own experiences in the war ravaged areas. Though some sections of the book reads gory i ...more
Annie Shapiro
Aug 27, 2014 Annie Shapiro rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This book offered some amazing perspective on what occurred in Northeast Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. However, two things about the book made me not appreciate it as much as I was hoping I would. First, the book switched between Northeast Africa and Yemen without any connection. I still do not understand completely the connections, and I greatly disliked the Yemen parts. Number two, Hartley writes as though he is not a colonizing influence in the continent, that he is an African at heart. ...more
Simon K
Jan 21, 2009 Simon K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Raw - Modern War Torn Africa thru the eyes of a desperately irresponsible, selfish, careless...but passionate, exciting, challenging Reuters journalist
Oct 12, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone
Very good. Different and disturbing, but an excellent book.
Mar 22, 2014 Beth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought that this would be a biography of the author's life in Africa, and his observations of the continent. In many ways it was. However, tied up in this book is the story of his parents, his father's long dead friend Peter Davey, and his time in other places (the Balkans, England, the Middle East). It is rambling, eclectic and scattered story. It is also full of disturbing details of what the author saw in the conflicts that he reported on. I found his experience in the Rwandan genocide to ...more
Apr 08, 2013 Cherop rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I originally started reading this book just over a year ago and put it aside as I got busy. I decided to start over again so I could follow the entire story from beginning to end.

So far it is a rather bleak book in the sense of being about the author's recollections of war and what seems like a dismal life in different parts of Africa. To the author however, Africa is home and is not so dismal as it may be to a foreigner. To him Africa is where he was born. It holds many precious memories, fami
Jul 06, 2011 Kiwiflora rated it it was amazing
If you just took a moment to think about the devastation wrought on Africa since the white man landed on its vast coastlines, you would weep. Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Russia, America, Spain, Turkey: they have all left their indelible and catastrophic mark on the continent. Once these countries have wrought their havoc, bled the place dry of its resources, its people and its essence they leave. And really in our little Western worlds we think very little and very infrequently of ...more
Francie Effler
Dec 07, 2012 Francie Effler rated it really liked it
Hartley greatly portrayed the scope of Africa from an objective point of view. During the first part of the book, it seems as though Hartley is "gushing" about his family's historic ties with Africa, especially his fathers. However, readers will come to realize that his father greatly impacted Africa in the mid 20th century by creating agricultural improvements for Africans.
Aiden Hartley's early years were taken up in London where he constantly felt he did not fit in properly with other kids.
Jul 27, 2010 Mary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up at NBO airport on my way to Zanzibar, having heard a few good things about it. The first disappointment was that it was not about Zanzibar, which could have been avoided if I'd found out a little more about the book before sitting down with it on the beach. I didn't love it.

This is really two books in one, which is what I've averaged together for three stars (I think I'd like to give it 2.5 but won't). I didn't think the two halves really meshed well together. The most important
Nov 01, 2007 Molly rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Masochists and those with any interest in Africa
This is probably one of the best books I've ever read. It is one of the few books that has made me cry (in an airport bar! I had to abadon my draft Flat Tire :-(

I was in a bookstore in Tanzania and overwhelmed by the fantastic selection of African non-fiction, I asked the Tanzanian staff to point out the one book I couldn't walk away without. They chose this one.

This book takes you through the incredible recent history of East Africa/parts of the Middle East through the stories of the author, a
Aug 03, 2013 Brendan rated it liked it
It's very hard for me to write about this book (which it why I'll give it a shot), as it's all a little too close to home, and any attempt to review this book will be more about just reviewing myself (and who wants to read that)?

This is a book both shallow and deep, meaningless and profound. The mixture of nostalgia and irritation that I feel with the writer, his reminiscences, and his lifestyle are of course directly linked to my feelings about my own career and life choices. I'm surprised - an
Aug 16, 2013 Alan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most of the book takes place in Africa (war-torn Somalia, famine-stricken Ethiopia, the blood bath of Rwanda’s genocide, post-independence socialist Tanzania, etc), but he spends some time developing the story of his father’s career in service of the crown. I get the feeling that his father was unlike the stereotypical colonialist. From the stories, he was a man who effortlessly integrated with the local people and strove to understand their traditions, speak their languages, and help them solve ...more
May 08, 2013 Ian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
There is a fair amount of reportage in this book, much of it harrowing although delivered with the nonchalance and detatchment of the war reporter, and yet one detects that the thick skin is somewhat cosmetic, self protective and indeed in due course it falls away. It is Hartley's inate love and empathy with Africa and Africans, and a hard earned camerarderie with the various hacks and rhino skinned media folk he falls in with, which lifts the writing above that of straight documentary. Whilst t ...more
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“Lizzie and I arrived in the polluted heat of a London summer. We stood frozen at street corners as a blur of pedestrians burst out of the subways and spilled like ants down the pavements. The crowed bars, the expensive shops, the fashionable clothes - to me it all seemed a population rushing about to no avail...I stared at a huge poster of a woman in her underwear staring down at her own breasts. HELLO BOYS, she said. At the movies we witnessed sickening violence, except that this time we held tubs of popcorn between our legs and the gunfire and screams were broadcast in digital Dolby. We had escaped a skull on a battlefield, only to arrive in London, where office workers led lines of such tedium and plenty that they had to entertain themselves with all the f****** and killing on the big screen. So here then was the prosperous, democratic and civilized Western world. A place of washing machines, reality TV, Armani, frequent-flier miles, mortgages. And this is what the Africans are supposed to hope for, if they're lucky.” 5 likes
“We throw ourselves into the journey and when it's done, even while having learned that all experience involves the loss of something beloved, what is ledt in the residue of memory is love.” 4 likes
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