Literary Hub

Teaching Yoga to My Captors in a Somali Pirate Villa

I was a hostage for almost ten months in Somalia when my captors moved me to a house I would call the “Pirate Villa,” in the city of Galkayo. I had spent several months on a hijacked ship, anchored off the pirate stronghold of Hobyo; I had lived in ruined Italian colonial buildings and under trees in the Somali bush. Now the pirates had brought me back to town.

The Pirate Villa was just an empty concrete shell, half-built by a pirate boss, according to my guards—maybe waiting for a fresh infusion of ransom cash to finish construction. It was large, one-storied, with high ceilings, but not furnished: a sort of pristine ruin. We had to camp under mosquito nets on the concrete floor. On my first morning the pastel colors of the house’s inner walls seemed to glow in the African sun, and I saw that my hollow room had plenty of dusty floor space. A few weeks had passed since I’d last exercised, so I asked my guards for a yoga mat.

“Eh?” said Bashko, who sat in my doorway with a Kalashnikov.

“Salli,” I said, using the Somali word for a mat, which sounded like “sully.” “Aniga.” I pointed at myself, then at the open floor. “Exercise.” Bashko gathered my meaning.

“Okay!” he said, and lifted his thumb.

Galkayo was a pirate hub located well inland, in the middle of Somalia. I had first traveled here in January, 2012, to research a book about pirates. During 2011 I had reported on the trial of ten Somali pirates as a journalist in Germany, where I lived, and at least half of those suspects came from Galkayo. The city’s economy had boomed in tandem with the rise of maritime ransoms, and I had followed a path here worn by a handful of other journalists. But after ten days as a free man I was kidnapped by a group of gunmen belonging to a pirate gang, who had lain in wait for my car on a dusty road.

Now it was October 2012. Negotiations had stalled. I wouldn’t go free for almost two more years.

The morning was improbably cold, and Bashko built a coal fire by dropping two or three hot coals from the kitchen into an empty powdered-milk tin. By late morning, maybe to ward off flies, he tossed a few rocks of incense onto the coals and sent a small cloud of thick white smoke wandering through the doorway. The Pirate Villa started to smell like a Catholic church.

“Bashko, what is that?” I said, and he came to show me, carrying the hot tin with a rag. He made an exaggerated show of sniffing the smoke, which burned off in fierce, thick gouts and had a sharp odor somewhere between soap and spice. He set down the can and held out a spare rock of unburned incense resin, dried sap from the Somali bush.

“Somalia, full!” he said.

“A few weeks had passed since I’d last exercised, so I asked my guards for a yoga mat.

“Eh?” said Bashko, who sat in my doorway with a Kalashnikov.”

Somalia had more than one source of incense, including a gnarled tree that produced frankincense and a white thornbush that gave up myrrh[*]. Both grew throughout Yemen, Oman, and the Horn of Africa. The dry bushes and trees used to mean real money. The Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula had once belonged to a swerve of the Spice Route, and some traditions maintained that the “Wise Men of the East” were traders known to ancient Jews and early Christians from these pre-Muslim places.

“You could sell this to churches around the world,” I told him, rubbing my fingers together. “Business, business.”

“Okay!” Bashko laughed.

A limited trade in both myrrh and frankincense resins still exists in Somalia, and Bashko had a wiry intelligence that might have made him a good businessman. Part of me hoped that his share of my ransom, if any, would go toward funding an incense business. But I couldn’t be too optimistic. Bashko, like every pirate I had met, was also a khat addict, with a habit costing 600 dollars a month.

*
A pirate called Abdinasser came a few days later with a new, woven-plastic mat, still wrapped in a clear plastic bag. He flopped it on the floor, tapped his chest with his fist in a gesture of brotherhood, and said, in his barrel-chested voice:

“SAHIB! Salli, adiga.

“Thank you, sahib.”

“Okay!”

Sahib in Somalia meant “friend.” It was important to get along with my guards. At least half of them didn’t give a damn about me, but with the men who seemed willing to talk I built an uneasy rapport.

I asked for a broom and swept the concrete. I spread out the mat in front of a window and used it, first, to do push-ups. When I finished, three guards from the hall were staring into the room.

“Exercise!” I told them.

I figured the pirates would find yoga kind of strange, so I tried to wait for a gap in the afternoon when no guard sat by the door. But I was under close observation. The men seemed to have orders to watch me day and night.

I started by standing on the mat and lowering my pulse with a series of deep breaths. I followed an ashtanga routine in Berlin to keep myself in shape to surf, and I liked a tough regimen that made my heart beat and my skin sweat. Meditation was never the point. But in Somalia I was so used to feeling wild with nerves that half an hour of mental concentration had a powerful effect; it calmed me for hours at a time.

I moved through a few postures and noticed all the guards laughing and smiling at the door.

“Exercise!” I said again.

“Exercise!” said Abdinasser.

“Exercise!” repeated Bashko, and he lifted his thumb.

The next day, when I did it again, both men came into my room and spread flattened cardboard boxes on the unclean floor and imitated my postures, with enthusiastic smiles. At first I thought they were goofing around. Soon they picked up their boxes, laughed, and went out. But it happened again the next day, and the next. To my intense surprise, they wanted to learn yoga.

“No, put your feet there,” I said. “Like that. Twist your back like this.”

“Okay, sahib!”

These lessons embarrassed the other pirates, but Bashko and Abdinasser, and sometimes Issa, came in for yoga class because they never got “exercise” of their own. They were locked in this Pirate Villa, too.

Bashko and Abdinasser both mimicked my yoga poses like housewives watching a weight-loss video. “Sahib—exercise!” said Bashko when he needed help with a pose.

“Like this,” I said. “Don’t forget to breathe.”

I’m not much of an ashtanga practitioner, but I may be the only Westerner who has (consciously, accidentally) taught yoga to Somali pirates. They never held a pose long enough to accomplish very much, and sometimes out of boredom they shifted from yoga to quasi-military calisthenics. I saw stiff and comical marching drills as well as wild, flailing backbends.

I said, “Askari exercise?”—using the word for “soldier”—and Bashko lit up with pride.

“Askari, yes,” he said.

“But you are shifta,” I teased him. Thieves.”

“Haa, yes,” he added in a rare moment of bashful candor.

Abdinasser and Bashko became my “sahibs” in the Pirate Villa. Whenever I needed something, they were the guys to ask. Bashko in particular kept my hope alive with rumors of negotiations. He made it sound as if I would go free in a matter of days. Of course I was happy to believe him. But in the Pirate Villa it became clear that hope itself was no good for my mental stability. Hope had an underside that moved me through cycles of wild depression and rage. There would be days and weeks when I wanted to kill my guards. The discipline of yoga, about an hour a day, smoothed out those cycles. It detached me from the breaking wheel of optimism, and its opposite. Hope, it turned out, was like heroin for a hostage; and it could be just as destructive.

[*]Boswellia carteri and commiphora myrrha, respectively.

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