Novelist Paul Hardisty writes about Yemen; A country he knows and loves.
Yemen: A Land Beautiful and Cursed
My new novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books in London, is a literary thriller set in Yemen during the 1994 civil war.
I first set foot in Yemen in 1990, a few months after the end of the first Gulf War. Over the following months and years I was lucky enough to fly, drive, and walk across much of the country, discovering as I went a place both unforgettably beautiful and painfully cursed. In Yemen, physical beauty surrounds you: vast deserted coastlines, emerald wadis strung like gems under towering blushed cliffsides, sand river deserts, hand-sketch mud brick villages rising from the sand like mirages.
Here is a place where the real Arabia lives on still, in a tented encampment tucked into a narrow tributary of wadi Hadramawt, or in the stonework villages in the hills to the south of Sana’a. Home to some of the proudest, toughest, most faithful, loyal and hospitable people on the planet.
Back then, things were pretty bad. Saudi Arabia had just expelled over a million Yemeni workers, mostly young men, in retaliation for Yemen’s support of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sana’a, the stunning pre-Islamic capital, was choked with angry, unemployed youths.
The work I was doing there, for the UN, revealed steadily worsening water supply problems in this, one of the driest places in the world. The analysis I did at the time predicted that the area would run out of water sometime between 2010 and 2020. Sadly, that prediction has turned out to be accurate. Water stress is one of the underlying causes of the deepening conflict now unfolding.
There have been some significant oil discoveries in the country over the last couple of decades, notably in the Masila region in Southern Yemen. Control of that oil wealth was one of the reasons for the civil war between North and South (Shi’a and Sunni) in 1994. Back then, the Zaydis from the North, supporters of President Saleh, took Aden and won the war, re-unifying the country.
But Yemen has never really been at peace. Foreign powers have tried for centuries to subdue the place, and have died there in their thousands. The Ottoman Empire, the Egyptians under Nasser, the British, the Soviets, and now the Saudis. The irony here, of course, is that if you ask them, most Yemenis just want to be left alone.
And as is always the way, in all of this, it is the people who suffer. Water shortages affect everyone. The oil is running out now, too, and only a handful of powerful Yemenis have benefited from the short burst of wealth that flowed from the deep reservoirs.
Development metrics put Yemen near the bottom worldwide. Over 90% of Yemeni females are illiterate. The average Yemeni woman has nine live births over the course of her short lifetime. She is chattel. Half of the country’s population is under 14 years of age – a demographic time-bomb waiting to go off (and a big reason why Saudi Arabia has always feared Yemen so). As much as half of family income (and much of the country’s precious water) goes to qat, the narcotic leaf chewed almost religiously by much of the population (male and female). There is no functioning central government, in the way we would understand it in the West – outside of the two main cities, Sana’a and Aden, tribal law rules. Roads are few and treacherous. And to top it off, Yemen is one of the most heavily armed places in the world.
As Yemen descends into a new phase of tortured anarchy, I can’t help but wonder about the decisions that have led them here. Is it determinism that governs? Can individuals decide, and in that deciding affect the course of events? Or, as so many believe here in a nation that until the 1960’s was known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen – the Kingdom that depends on God – is it simply fate, the will of Allah? Oil and water, faith and nihilism, loyalty and betrayal – these are some of the themes that the book explores, here in one of the most beautiful and cursed places on the planet.’