Welcome to Travel Readings
Melbourne: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Books, Movies and Beyond…
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Washington, DC and New York
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Rome
Rio de Janeiro: Crimes of August (Agosto) by Rubem Fonseca
Istanbul: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Liège (Belgium): Pedigree by Georges Simenon
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Lisbon
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Cambodia
Hyde Park, Chicago: Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
Paris: Flowers of Ruin and Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Naples
Books, Movies and Beyond…: Tanzania
Sri Lanka: Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Books, Movies and Beyond… : Venice
Dublin: The Dead by James Joyce
Books, Movies and Beyond: Iran
Santa Cruz, Bolivia: The Matter of Desire (Materia del Deseo) by Edmundo Paz Soldán
Books, Movies and Beyond: Syria
Djibouti: Passage of Tears (Passage des Larmes) by Abdourahman Waberi
Books, Movies and Beyond: Armenia
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo
Bangkok: Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Périgord, France: The Caves of Périgord by Martin Walker
Books, Movies and Beyond: Brussels
Naples: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Books, Movies and Beyond: Rio de Janeiro
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos
New-York: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Israel and Palestine: To the End of the Land by David Grossman and Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifeh
Books, Movies and Beyond: Bavaria and Southern Germany
Cape Town: Boyhood, Youth and Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
Books, Movies and Beyond: India
Blue Ridge Mountains: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Books, Movies and Beyond: Algeria
Austrian Alps: A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler
Books, Movies and Beyond: Africans in America
Zimbabwe: The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
Books, Movies and Beyond: Colombia
Belgian Ardennes: The All Saints’ Day Lovers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Côte d’Ivoire: Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Japan: Haruki Murakami and Amélie Nothomb
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Rope and The Denial of Saint Peter by Charles Baudelaire
Books, Movies and Beyond: Cairo
Vancouver: What is Remembered by Alice Munro
Ghent (Belgium): War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans
Haiti: An Aroma of Coffee and Dining with the Dictator by Dany Laferrière and The Comedians by Graham Greene
Iceland: Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason
Siena and Tuscany : Il Palio delle contrade morte by Fruttero & Lucentini and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
China : Wild Swans. Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang
Amsterdam: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Former Soviet Union: The Unwomanly Face of War  by Svetlana Alexievich
Provence: The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono, La charrette bleue by René Barjavel, Madame de Sévigné and Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp
Moscow: The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère
Books, Movies and Beyond: Vietnam

Côte d’Ivoire: Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie

The highway that goes from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro is fast and well maintained. In a little bit more than two hours, one reaches the hill on top of which sits the President hotel. That is when you discover the impressive dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, one of the largest religious building in the Christian world. The church was built by order of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of Côte d’Ivoire, from the Independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. Consecrated by Pope John-Paul II in 1990, by its dome, its encircled plaza outside and the baldachin inside it looks very much like St. Peter in Rome. It seems that Houphouët-Boigny wanted it larger than its Roman model, but that after negotiations with the Vatican, an agreement was found so that the area would be smaller but the dome higher.

I thus went up under Christianity’s highest dome – 158 m– using the elevator hidden within one of the columns, and walked out on the balcony to admire the perspective and the city under the church. At the foot of this dome, I experienced mixed feelings. Was such a sumptuary expense shocking in a country still very much marked by poverty? And in a relatively small city which had only been elevated to the rank of administrative capital because it was the birthplace of the Father of the Independence? For sure. Even if the official version is that the expense was entirely paid from the first President’s “personal funds” and that the property was later donated, together with a brand new hospital, to a foundation managed by the Vatican. But if you look at it from an historical point of view, weren’t many of the cathedrals and churches in Europe, which are now admired as masterpieces of gothic architecture and testimonies of the medieval spirituality, built following the prince’s whim while the neighboring population was living in abject poverty?

I was nevertheless saddened to learn that this immense building had been filled by pilgrims only thrice since its inauguration. In that sense, the basilica reflects well the rest of Yamoussoukro. Starting from a small town, it became in a few years a capital born out of Houphouët’s grandiose dreams: large avenues with little traffic or even houses along them connect the Basilica, the House of Deputies, the Foundation Félix Houphouët-Boigny for Peace Search, the President hotel and the Presidential Palace. The crocodile lake in front of the Presidential Palace is the other attraction in town. The lake was featured in « The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro » a long narrative by British writer V.S. Naipaul, initially published by The New Yorker and reprinted in the collection “Finding the Centre”. The Nobel laureate, born in Trinidad and Tobago also made the trip from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, but in 1984, before the Basilica’s construction. It was the time when the economic successes of the 60 and 70s in Ivory Coast were falling apart. Naipaul doesn’t fail to stigmatize Houphouët’s « folie des grandeurs ». He also describes the feeding of the gigantic crocodiles who are living in the lake and who received political nicknames such as « chief of staff » or « commandant ». For 30 years, a guardian armed with a simple stick gave them living chickens under the excited gaze of the spectators behind the fences. But in 2012, the old man tripped and a crocodile jumped to snap him by his long flowing garment – a boubou – and took him in the water.

Yamoussoukro’s crocodiles played a totemic role in the representation of Houphouët-Boigny’s power. This role is also highlighted by Ivoirian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma in his book « Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages) », a surprising novel which describe with irony and through six evenings during which his praises and achievements are sung, the itinerary of a president-dictator in an imaginary West-African country. Houphouët-Boigny, with his capital city built in the middle of nowhere, its superlative basilica and his cunning experience is represented by the man with the caiman totem, President of the Ebony Republic.

The trip from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro is also mentioned in “Aya, life in Yop City (Aya de Yopougon)”, the graphic novel series written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie. It’s the road used by Aya’s father when he is promoted as branch manager of the Solibra breweries in Yamoussoukro, and where he will hide the second family he is forming with Jeanne, his secretary. Yopougon aka Yop City is a large popular neighborhood in Abidjan, known for its « maquis » – open air restaurants where people dance after dinner – and its party scene. The braised fish served there is fabulous.

Aya is a 19-year-old girl. She is beautiful and all men are looking at her, but she is serious and stable and would like to study medicine. She is very different than her two friends, Adjoua and Bintou. Adjoua becomes pregnant after sleeping with Mamadou, a good looking boy, but a lazy bum. Her girlfriends help her with the baby while she is working on her dream of opening her own maquis. Bintou is a real party-girl and is not afraid of going to the fantastic Hôtel Ivoire towering above Abidjan’s lagoon to meet in his room Grégoire who just came back from Paris and is splashing out. After many similar love disappointments, she will open a « guys counselling » business called « Dr. Love ».

I really enjoyed this graphic novel which recreated with humor and subtlety the atmosphere of Abidjan’s neighborhoods at the end of the 70s. I liked the fun expressions in the French spoken in Côte d’Ivoire – I hope this has been translated well in English – and which are explained in a glossary at the end of the book. The first two volumes have been adapted in an excellent animated movie. The graphic novel or the movie give a glimpse of life in an African neighborhood far from the usual clichés, while addressing directly but with refinement issues such as forced marriages, the proliferation of « new » churches mainly bent on making money, the sexual harassment of girls at the university or the stigmatization of gays.


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