Raffles Reads: Red Sea Spies

By Shaun Loh (21A01A)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: ★★★★☆

At first glance, Red Sea Spies by Raffi Berg sounds like yet another Bond wannabe plotline. A remote Sudanese coast in the ‘80s. A new luxury holiday resort catered to divers. Undercover spies disguising as hotel staff, but actually working for the Mossad—the Israeli secret service. 

Yet, the book, based on a true story, traces an unprecedented operation that helped evacuate thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had been languishing in refugee camps, giving them safe passage to Israel. Written in collaboration with operatives involved in the mission, endorsed as the definitive account and including an afterword from the then Mossad director, this is a gripping, never-before-heard tale of a top-secret operation. Excluded from the Jewish history books, Spies is a tale you won’t want to miss. 

Balancing the thrilling action of the plot with factual accounts of long, forgotten histories of the marginalized Ethiopian Jews, this book serves not only as an exhilarating piece of espionage non-fiction, but also an insightful historical critique of anti-Semitism and the Jewish state. In particular, the documenting of narratives of the Ethiopian Jews sheds light on their ambiguous origins. One such narrative is the classic romance story of the Jewish King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. This tale originates from a 14th century Ethiopian chronicle known as the Kebra Nagast, which tells of a visit by the Queen of Ethiopia, otherwise known as Sheba, who was tricked by King Solomon into having sexual relations with him, from which she bore a son, Menelik. The story tells that years later, Menelik stole the Ark of the Covenant and moved to Aksum, where most of the Ethiopian Jews are found today. 

Additionally foregrounded with the common history of the Great Man in Israel, whether it be Prime Minister Golda Meir (first Israeli female PM!), Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon, Spies also reconciles these well-known Jewish leaders—and the well-known events that occurred during their tenures—with the covert happenings at the Red Sea Diving Resort, ultimately bestowing the operation much historical significance that goes beyond its entertainment value. 

Needless to say, this book is not a non-fiction snooze fest for those only interested in the dramatic mechanisms of an espionage set-up. Berg manages to illustrate the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day activities of the operation on the resort, teleporting the reader onto the Sudanese sand with the Mossad agents. He also describes with great lucidity the relationships between the individual Mossad spies and the Sudanese police, the odd recruitment process for new “hotel staff” (they must know how to dive!), and the (clichéd, but true) use of a female spy to assuage suspicion, reminiscent of the classic Bond girl. 

Unfortunately, this sheer amount of detail occasionally reduces the story to a mere chronological list of events, bogging down the pacing. This pushes the text into a more diegetic medium of narrative, taking away the potential dramatic value of such a stimulating chronicle. Nevertheless, Berg must still be credited for his efforts to spice things up. Real, coloured photographs were included to highlight the various features of the operation, such as the Mossad agents, the picturesque resort, dubious license plates of Sudanese vehicles in which the Israeli spies escaped. Berg’s insertion of these valuable images serves a fantastic dual purpose of historical documentation and visual spectacle.  

One particular close-up of a gorgeous Ethiopian Jewish woman intimately captures the intricacies of her frowning forehead, her rich brown skin, and her Star of David necklace, offering a pause on the plot and forcing the reader to identify—and most importantly—recognise, the existence of the figure central to the story: the Ethiopian Jew. 

All in all, Red Sea Spies is not a spy thrill, nor is it an exotic historical account for the history aficionados. Ultimately, it is fundamentally a narrative of rescue and emancipation of one of the most discriminated ethnic groups in history, discriminated not just by virtue of their nationality, but by virtue of their skin colour too. Considering the context of the George Floyd protests against racial injustice today and the seeming impossibility of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, the relevance of Red Sea Spies has not dwindled with time. In spite of its glossy cover, the book is most certainly not for casual fiction readers. Instead, it is the categorical, behind-the-scenes account of an unparalleled operation written for the spy fan, the history buff, or the fervent humanitarian. 

"Raffles Reads: Red Sea Spies", 5 out of 5 based on 5 ratings.

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