Monday, 16 February 2015

The Most Blessed and Tortured Country on Earth

Today’s guest blog is by debut novelist Paul E Hardisty.  Canadian by birth but a resident of Western Australia he is a university professor and Director of Australia’s national land, water, ecosystems and climate adaptation research programmes.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying, my new novel just published by Orenda Books in London, is a literary thriller set in Yemen, a little-known country clinging to a barren windswept swath of the Southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

I first travelled to Yemen in 1990, a few months after the end of the first Gulf War.  Things were pretty bad then.  Yemen had supported Iraq in the war.  Saudi Arabia, its larger, richer and more powerful neighbour, had supported America’s “coalition of the willing”.  In retaliation, Saudi Arabia had expelled over a million Yemeni workers, mostly young men.  Overnight, the beguiling capital city, Sana’a, was choked with people.  Unemployment, violence, social disturbance and water use exploded. It was right about then that I was asked by the United Nations, God willing, to travel there to help with chronic and worsening water supply problems in and around Sana’a.

What I found was startling. Not only was the shallow aquifer, on which the city had depended for water over millennia, completely contaminated and unusable, but the deep aquifer (containing centuries-old water, pure and sweet) was being pumped so hard that levels were starting to drop alarmingly across the basin.  My analysis at the time predicted that if nothing changed, Sana’a would run out of water sometime between 2010 and 2020.
Between then and now there have been significant oil discoveries in the Masila region in Southern Yemen, a major civil war in 1994, terrorist attacks against US warships, violent political upheavals, and steadily worsening economic and social conditions.  Things haven’t improved much, if at all.  The people of Yemen have seen damn-near none of the oil wealth.  Most of it has been syphoned off by local despots and international business interests. If you go with conventional development metrics - things you can measure and put in a report - life is hard.  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, plain and simple. Half of the country’s population is under 14 years of age – a demographic time-bomb waiting to go off.  Outside of the two main cities, Sana’a and Aden, the government has little control and tribal law rules.
Yemen is also one of the most heavily armed places in the world.  Recent estimates suggest
there are as many privately-held weapons as there are people in the country, a high proportion of them military-style automatic weapons (such as the ubiquitous AK47).  And with the weapons and political instability come violence – vendettas, tribal conflicts, terrorism, hostage takings.  It was on a trip to a notorious arms bazaar outside Sana’a one night that I started thinking about Yemen as a setting for a novel that would explore ethics, corruption, violence and the exploitation of the poor in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

Claymore Straker, the protagonist, is (inevitably, I suppose) someone I might have been, had decisions and circumstances been different (except that he’s braver, stronger and gutsier than me, better looking, and a lot more screwed up).  I do the same work that he does.   The situation he encounters working for the oil company in Yemen is based on several experiences and situations that I faced working there back in the 90’s.  It’s been ten years in the making.  I guess in the end, the thing that impelled me to write this is that Yemen is the most starkly beautiful place I have ever seen.  Vast deserted coastlines, emerald wadis snaking under towering blushed cliffsides, sweeping deserts, ancient mud brick villages rising from the sand like pre-islamic mirages.  It is home to some of the proudest, toughest, most faithful, loyal and hospitable people on the planet.  And now the oil is running out, and so is the water, as predicted.   Blessings and tortures evenly distributed.  And all the people of Yemen really want, all they have ever wanted, is to be left alone.  This is their story. 

You can follow him on Twitter @Hardisty_Paul).

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is by Paul E Hardisty (Orenda Books, £8.99)

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