Book Review: A Season In Hell

Held captive by al-Qaeda for 130 days in the unforgiving Malian desert, not knowing whether each day would be his last, Robert Fowler says it was the idea of writing a book about his ordeal that gave him the hope he needed to carry on.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to write the book, then it means I’m going to get out’,” recalled Fowler at his Ottawa home.

Well, it won’t spoil the ending to reveal that Fowler survived and kept the promise he made to himself to write a book documenting his experience. That cathartic exercise is ‘A Season In Hell’ – an incredibly detailed and candid account of how, eleven days before Christmas in 2008 the Canadian diplomat, his driver and assistant Louis Guay were abducted on a Niger road by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and taken across the border into Mali. Fowler was, at the time, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy to Niger, tasked with negotiating a solution to a conflict in the nearby Agadez region.

“I wrote the book in my head, there in the sand,” said Fowler. “Specifically remembering events in my head as they occurred was a way of exercising my mind, and maintaining hope.”

Now, Fowler is not a particularly talented writer. His prose is unadorned, simple and at times pedestrian. The first 50 pages of his autobiography detailing “The Grab” and the subsequent torturous five-day journey in the back of a pickup truck are utterly gripping. But once Fowler settles into a routine with his captors it’s arguably only the subject matter, and not the writing, that keeps the reader engaged.

But what skills Fowler may lack in writing prose, he makes up for with the staggering amount of detail concerning the daily life and routines of AQIM. His embedded experience gives us a profoundly detailed breakdown of a post-modern desert insurgency, which analyzes the structure, behaviour and belief system of this particular branch of corporate al-Qaeda.

From his description of the remote AQIM camps to recalling complete conversations, one has to question how, without access to a notebook or audio recorder, Fowler could remember the intricate details that help transport the reader to the Malian desert.

“In the first eight days of getting home I produced an enormous bloody Excel spreadsheet,” explained Fowler. “There was one column that tracked each of the 130 days, and then others for my recollections, those of Louis, a column for my wife and daughters, and two more for reports in the international and domestic press.”

This Venn diagram approach gives the reader an unprecedentedly accurate account that could easily have been another unreliable and embellished account of a hostage situation. However Fowler admits that in a final re-structuring of the book the fate of his driver Soumana was mistakenly omitted (he survived).

Fowler pulls no punches in describing the fanaticism of his captors. At one point in the book, the former diplomat recounts how parents donated their sons to the cause as “gifts to God”. In a warning that was prescient of the conflict currently unfolding in Mali, he cautions that it will take more than French intervention to defeat AQIM.

“They didn’t care if it took another twenty, two hundred, or two thousand years to achieve their vision…the when just didn’t matter. That is a powerful weapon by any standard.”

And yet Fowler’s depiction of his captors oscillates between the serious and the farcical, which arguably undermines his assertion that the AQIM is a threat that should be taken seriously by neighbouring West African countries and the UN. Through a series of anecdotes he portrays the jihadists as Celine Dion-loving incompetents who accidentally fire off rocket propelled grenades and get their 4x4s ensnared in sand dunes. Coupled with an account which admirably goes some way to humanize his kidnappers, the reader may wonder how these Keystone Cop-esque characters pose a threat to Europe – a prediction Fowler makes in the book’s appendix.

But to its credit, ‘A Season In Hell’ is unfailingly and refreshingly candid. The majority of non-fiction that documents hostage-taking or conflict situations comes across as retroactively brave and self-congratulatory, treating the experience as an adventure. But from the outset Fowler isn’t ashamed to admit he feared for his life.

“Drawing out the moment with cruel anticipation, he [an AQIM member] fiercely spat the words, ‘We are al-Qaeda!’ and the bottom fell out of my world.”

The former diplomat details the measures that he and Guay devised to survive their ordeal. The hostages adopted a walking regimen that would exhaust them physically and also be psychologically therapeutic. Fowler also describes four ground rules – such as “no discussing bad stuff after midday” – they tried to abide by to foster their brittle optimism and sense of hope. It’s a fascinating insight a hostage’s psyche.

But despite these safety guards Fowler confesses he often broke these four rules, and came close to giving up hope on a number of occasions. He recounts one situation where he believed he was talking to his wife from the desert for the final time. He tells his wife how much he loves her in case he doesn’t see her again.

“’What do you mean, if you don’t get back? Of course you’re going to get back…we will bring you home…don’t you let your guard down now.’”

But this is typical of Fowler’s writing – unabashed honesty and candour in the most traumatic and personal situations.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the scene in which Fowler builds an enema kit from a plastic bag and a ballpoint pen to combat his severe constipation. In a moment that’s both humourous and tender, Guay helps Fowler administer the enema that results in a “long, very compact, glistening turd”.

As well as being a narrative account of one man’s experience at the hands of al-Qaeda, ‘A Season In Hell’ is also part polemic and part warning. In a comment that foreshadows the current situation in Mali, Fowler warned how “a Somalia-like contagion could sweep across the Sahel, which is AQIM’s avowed adjective.” He argued, considering Canada development in Mali – more than $1 billion on various infrastructure projects in the past 25 years – it would behoove Canada to intervene.

“This is by no means the stuff of exaggerated threat analysis, nor is it about the puffing of military budgets. Rather, such unrest is an evidently present danger, as recent attacks in Nigeria so eloquently attest.”

The latter chapters of the book lambast the RCMP’s dealings with his family, as well as the lack of interest from the Canadian government in learning about AQIM’s practices which could arguably teach them how to defeat al-Qaeda in that part of the world. And only in February 2012, the Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird dismissed the validity of Fowler’s input during a foreign affairs committee.

‘A Season In Hell’ may not win any awards for writing – it recently lost out in competition for the 2013 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction – however it offers not only a compelling and unembellished insight into the experience of a hostage, but an opportunity for its author to remind us of the very real dangers of a global jihad.