Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Book 3: A Season In Hell- Robert R Fowler

My third book of my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge has been ‘A Season in Hell’ by Robert Fowler. ‘A Season in Hell’ is the first non-fiction book I have read this year, and couldn’t be farther from the wishy washy romantic novel I started the year with. This is a book of hard facts, political analysis and lots and lots of sand. In the book, Robert Fowler recounts his 130 days in the Sahara desert as a Captive of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) along with his United Nations colleague Louis Guay. 

“A Season in Hell” was given to me by my mother last year as a present, and I had been half ignoring it and always finding another book to read first as I prefer reading fiction. However this year is not just about reading what I already like, it is about branching out and expanding my comfortable reading world. Overall the book was interesting, well written and insightful but it wasn't an especially quick read.


Robert R Fowler’s name is familiar to many Canadians, not simply because of his kidnapping but because of his career as a high profile diplomat and through his work at the UN as Canada’s representative to the UN, and more recently as a special envoy to Ban Ki Moon. In this book he recounts his capture in Niger in 2008, the extremely long and painful trip in the back of a ute into the middle of the Sahara, and his subsequent months spent in the desert with a hardy bunch of religious AQIM zealots.
As a westerner, my image of being hostage is being held in a camp or locked in some sort of room. Fowler and his fellow captive Louis Guay obviously thought likewise. However this does not at all conform to the reality of the extremely nomadic life that his Al Qaeda captors live. In fact, I was shocked to read that during his 130 days of capture Fowler and Guay not once were kept in a room or any kind of structure at all. They spent their time as hostages living as their captors did, in the desert, perhaps by a scraggly tree or a few rocks, and sleeping on the sand with a blanket. Only once did they sleep in a tent. 
This is similar terrain to where Fowler and Guay spent the majority of their captivity
 Imagine 130 days of really, really sandy undies

The book provides a very interesting insight into how Al Qaeda operates, the mindset of its members and the absolutely dogged determination of its members to succeed in removing the 'infidels' from Islamic lands, no matter how many generations it will take. Fowler's captors were extremely religious men, prescribing to a fatalistic view of the world, if Allah wishes it, it will be. If anyone narrowly misses death for any reason (a rocket propelled grenade misfiring for example), it is simply shrugged of as the will of Allah. Fowler describes how he had never encountered a group of men more dedicated to Allah; in all his time as their capture there were never any women and no suggestion of fun or games to pass the monotony of life in the Sahara as an Al Qaeda operative.

The descriptions of each of Fowler's captors serve as a reminder that no ‘terrorist’ is the same. The Western media portrays Al Qaeda as turbaned extremists in Afghanistan and it is rare that we are offered any greater insight. Fowler describes the different personalities of all of his captors, ranging from the extremely intelligent, to those full of hatred, to a few very young boys who mostly seemed scared, to those who were businesslike and respectful. Fowler emphasises that he did not like his captors; the extremism of their religious Zealotry made finding any common ground impossible, as did the constant threat (never followed through) of violence or execution.

An image of Fowler (middle), Guay and their driver taken from a proof of life video
It is not much of a spoiler if I say that Fowler was released after 130 days, as he wouldn't have been able to write this book if he had been executed as he feared. However what is surprising is who helped secure his release. Fowler is extremely critical of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for which both he and Guay had worked, explaining that they both contributed little to the negotiations, and their bureaucracy and hubris greatly hindered the process. In fact the majority of assistance and bargaining for their release came from the most unlikely of African politicians, as Fowler discovers after his release.
Ultimately, if you are after facts, detail and geopolitical observations, this is the book for you. You can tell “A Season in Hell” is written by a diplomat as every word feels carefully chosen, and never inflammatory or provocative. Fowler’s tone is always measured and thought out, even when describing the extreme emotional and physical challenges he faces. The book would have perhaps be a quicker read if Fowler sensationalised the events surrounding his capture but it is a better account for his dedication to providing a truthful and measured account.

The Good Bits

Fowler's descriptions of West Africa before he is kidnapped at the very start of the book are fantastic, and they really transported me back to some time I spent in West Africa a few years back

The Not So Good Bits

I found this a slow read, and at times dry (duh, it was in the desert). I was not as drawn in by the story as I thought I would be, perhaps due to the sometimes dry and diplomatic tone used by Fowler.

Three  and a half out of Five sandy diplomats

The Next Book I am currently reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (readers of The Secret History rejoice, she has written another novel!). It is incredibly good, but at around 1000 pages it is not short and taking me a long time to read.
Buy the book here if you like the sound of it.
Please let me know what you think of my review!




  1. I love your great insightful review of Season in Hell. I'm currently trawling through a whack of trashy novels so just reading your blog is making up for it! Looking forward to your next review and if you want to delve into the bin I'm recommending Eleven on Top.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation D! I'll add Eleven on Top to my list :)

  2. Amelia, the book sounds like a good one for being factual, not sensationalized. That in itself gives it merit. In spite of it being "dry" -- not your cup of tea, your comments make it seem like a book worth reading. I don't know your rating criteria -- is it just your own personal preference? It would be nice to know more about how these men coped mentally and physically in harsh conditions. You did hint at it. Good work there girl!

    1. Thanks for your comment Joy, my rating criteria is just my gut feeling about the book, no specific 'criteria'. The book goes into a lot of detail about aspects of their every day lives and how they survived day to day, if you are interested I recommend the read!