Backbench: Dancing to forget in Djibouti City

Lachlan Harris

The War in Iraq has been described as a very big boulder dropped into the very small pond that is the Middle East, with the ripples of consequence spreading around the region in a multitude of expected and unexpected rings.

One of those ripples passes over Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, rolls across the aquamarine waters of the Red Sea and washes up on the harsh shores of the tiny Republic of Djibouti.

It's not improvised explosive devices, or even kidnapped journalists that are littering the beaches of this strange little country. Djibouti's bountiful harvest is young, barrel chested American sailors, on ...R n R... from combat missions in the Persian Gulf.

Djibouti is a true city state perched in the middle of a desolate and brutally hot volcanic plane. There is no real agriculture in Djibouti, or noticeable botany of any kind. Instead most of Djibouti's 23,000 Square Kilometres (about one quarter the size of Tasmania) is dramatic black rock planes, freckled with brooding black boulders and pugnaciously bright spiky green date palms. Jagged black rock mountains randomly escape from under the planes. Baked clean of life, their creator seems to have abandoned the convention that mountains congregate in ranges, and instead has scattered these at whim. Djibouti's one ancient railway line winds its way between them like a drunken boa constrictor sliding its way home after closing time. Only the wise old camels gracefully navigating around their base seem to understand the mountains' chaotic choreography.
Rather than grow things, which is virtually impossible in such absurd geography, Djibouti imports things, a lot of things. The massive commercial port accepting all these imports, and sending them on to Ethiopia, and further south to Kenya, Uganda and beyond, is the sole reason for Djibouti's continued existence. The well guarded French Naval base defensively squatting beside the port is the sole reason for Djibouti's continued independence.

Up until the late 1970's Djibouti was a French colony and the place is still crawling with macho French Foreign Legionaries stomping around in tight muscle shirts and sandals with knee length white socks. Good French restaurants litter the European quarter of Djibouti City like refugees from the skyrocketing price of Parisian real estate, and tired French colonial buildings stare emptily out across the Red Sea. Having failed to secure a prestigious position in the post colonial regime, the gorgeously run down relics seem to have turned their back on the locals, preferring abandoned freedom to subservience under an apparently unworthy tenant.

However despite the quality of the French food and architecture, it is not French culture that the young American sailors are sent here to discover. No sir, these sailors are sent here to blow off some steam, or let off hot air, or any of the other euphemisms that we use to describe the process of searching for forgetfulness.

These tough looking sailors wander around the red light district of Djibouti City wide eyed and defensive, looking exactly like bewildered Australian country boys on their first big night out in Kings Cross. Their muscly arms are illustrated with colourful and aggressive tattoos that somehow look cartoonish on such clean and well mannered young men. The only obvious sign that they are soldiers, not an American high school field trip that accidentally caught the wrong plane out of JFK airport, is that their hair is cut so badly I am left wondering if the obscene aftermath littering their scalp is some mysterious experiment in psychological warfare.

Following them through the heavy padded doors of Club Golden, or Le Barfly, or any of the countless dilapidated and dingy "night clubs" that form a debaucherous scrum in a dark corner of Djibouti City, I couldn't help but think for a second that I had actually slipped through a hole in the time space continuum and landed back in a seedy Saigon gogo bar, circa 1969. These night clubs look like a set straight out of a remake of Stanley Kubrick's classic Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, only this time produced by the creators of Beverly Hills 90210.

The young pretty prostitutes dressed in fancy, but fake, western clothes are there. The loud and outrageously dressed Madame greeting you as you shyly walk through the door, all fake French accent and over applied eye shadow is there, and of course the tough looking American sailors are there to.

But rather than Private Joker's jungle fatigues, these sailors are dressed to the nines in the latest gangster rap outfits, with two white wrist bands around one arm and long shorts so baggy they give the impression of being two ankle length denim kilts sewn together. The sailors look like they have just stumbled out of the MTV music awards, not retreated from the most technologically advanced war in human history. Only their embarrassed looks as they glance at every person coming through the door, as if they expect their irate mothers to storm in at any moment to grab them by the ear and drag them out of such a disreputable "entertainment venue", warns me that these quiet Americans definitely ain't rap superstars.

Inside, rather than milling around the fringes of the dance floor, like good girls would, the Ethiopian bar girls, living in Djibouti to earn hard currency the hard way, stand behind the raised bar eyeing off their customers like submerged alligators eye off a wildebeest drinking from a nearby river bank. Walking up to the bar with fifteen of these wise to the world beauties staring down at me, I feel like a decidedly untalented actor auditioning for the lead role in a well funded Ethiopian film based loosely on Casanova's autobiography, History of My Life. The outrageous price of my first Heineken does nothing to ease my discomfort.

By the time I have ordered my first drink, some unspoken delegation has taken place and a girl casually plonks herself down beside me. She asks me if I want to buy her a drink. No more, and no less. But some how the look in her eyes, and the seriousness of her tone, leave me in little doubt that if I say yes, I will get much more than a vodka lime and soda.

Rather than face my demons at the bar, it seems safer to retreat to one of the couches guarding the locked fire exit in the back of the room. The couches look like they have seen more action than a projectionist in a Hong Kong movie cinema, but are a better option then the well worn booths that line the wall closest to the dance floor. The tightly packed row of booths, light by a single naked globe hanging at head height above each long narrow table, look like something pilfered from the special high security cell block at Abu Ghraib prison.

Afraid that Private First Class Lynddie England may be hanging out by the booths waiting to ask me for a light, or even worse a dance, I gingerly plonked myself down on one of the couches. Sipping on my cold can of beer, I took some time to ponder some of life's imponderables. Didn't these sailors know that the HIV infection rate among Ethiopian prostitutes is estimated at 30 percent? My guide book warned me, so why didn't theirs? Maybe they did know and didn't care, or maybe they didn't know and really would care if they did. Looking around that bar, packed with young men who do brave and unspeakable things for honourable reasons, bargaining with young women, who do brave and unspeakable things for honourable reasons, it was hard to decide which would be more tragic.

Having such dark thoughts as your drinking partner always lends itself to depressingly long, alcohol soaked nights. In Djibouti's bars that outcome is all the more likely. You see there is something about the bars in Djibouti City that makes it that much easier to forget about the promises and commitments you made in the outside world, to forget about the risks and the assaults on yours, and other's dignity.

It's easy to forget about all stuff inside these places because that's what these places are all about, forgetting. If for a second you can prove to yourself that you haven't been were you have been, haven't seen what you have seen, haven't done what you have done, and aren't going back to where you are going back to then this bar, this drink, this woman have served their time humoured purpose. That's what these bars were all about in Saigon in the 1960's and that's what they are all about in Djibouti in 2005. The bars haven't changed, and the horrible reason for their existence hasn't changed either.

Sitting in that bar, watching these sailors who have seen so much, but act like they know so little, I found myself wondering if it's possible they have changed since those dangerous days in Saigon. Even as they stumble outside, drunk, satisfied, forgotten, they seem to have a core of seriousness, a steely purpose in their stumbling gait that reeks of a man, or a boy, on a mission. Did conscripted soldiers plucked from the poverty of the Bronx or Detroit Michigan have that core in Vietnam? They didn't seem to in Dear Hunter.

As the night drags on, Heineken after Heineken, the dance floor slowly fills with more drunk and stumbling soldiers who have obviously agreed to buy their new found girlfriend a drink. The rap music blaring across the dance floor is so loud and so angry it is obviously a key ingredient in the amnesia conspiracy that lie at the heart of all these places. But despite all the volume, and all the violent "pop a cap in your ass" lyrics the sailors slow dance with their partners, gently shuffling their feet from side to side, head sadly resting on a sadly offered shoulder.

As I sat their watching those guys dance, clinging to their girls as if they were afraid letting them go would mean they would be pulled away to some cold and lonely place, never to feel the warm embrace of a woman again, one line from that great Eagles song released a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, Hotel California, kept on looping through my head;

...How they dance in the courtyard 
Sweet summer sweat 
Some dance to remember 
Some dance to forget....

Lachlan Harris has worked as a lawyer, journalist and political adviser. This article first appeared on The Backbench. All Rights Reserved The Backbench 2005.