The following review appeared in the Irish Examiner on the 9 June 2018.
Yemen is a country mysterious to most Westerners. Its under-reported war where Saudi Arabia, Iran and their proxies inflict famine and violence on its populace North and South, shows no sign of reaching a resolution. This is the story of one Yemeni’s escape from the early stages of that deadly and pointless conflict, but more pertinently is shows him breaking free from the divisions and prejudices that cause such conflicts in the first place. Al-Samawi grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sana’a Northern Yemen – an area dominated by Shia moslems. His father was a senior figure in the medical establishment and despite being physically handicapped after a childhood stroke the author grew up to be a smart and curious young man. Cut off from sport and the usual pursuits of healthy teenagers, he finds solace on the Internet and in Facebook particularly. A sympathetic English teacher gives him a copy of the Old Testament and on reading it and researching the subject further, he discovers that his view of Jews and other non-Moslems is a partial and incomplete one. Through Facebook he establishes dialogues and makes friends across the religious divide, including many Jews.
In the course of his narrative we get behind the shutters of the restrictive world of the Moslem family. A girl in school daringly allows him to snatch a glance of her face when she briefly pulls aside her niqab. His parents find out and, after briefly considering marrying them off, terminate the relationship when they discover her family is poor. A cushy job and a suitable bride are arranged by his father and he settles into family life. You are struck by his absolute filial obedience to this authoritarian father. Even later, at the age of 26 and with a full-time job, he’s asking his permission to leave the country on a business trip.
Al-Samawi maintains his ecumenical interests and is soon attending conferences abroad for the promotion of racial and religious harmony. This leads to tensions at home and some creepy anonymous phone calls accusing him of being a Zionist spy. Ironically, as it transpires, he seeks safety by moving from his home in Sana’a to Aden to escape his accusers and to protect his family.
Shortly after he arrives in Aden, normal life in Yemen begins to fall apart. The Houthis, an extreme Shia group in the north depose the president and threaten to engulf Aden which is a Sunni stronghold. They are resisted by Al Qaeda on the ground and by the might of the Saudi Air Force. Al Samawi finds himself trapped in a small apartment with his food and water supplies dwindling. He dare not risk the Al Qaeda road-blocks because his name, his fair-skinned appearance and his accent all mark him as a Shia.
The core of the book involves his efforts to escape from this situation. He had built up a network of contacts through the Internet and manages to alert these friends to his plight. Indian ambassadors, American congressmen, high-ranking officials in international agencies, and sympathetic business men all cooperate in efforts to extricate him. Plans involve planes, helicopters, and boats and there are many false starts and dashed hopes before he manages to get out. The story is told in a naïve and breathless style and there are times when you wonder at the veracity of the whole thing. It seems astonishing that amidst the breakdown of civilized life in Aden he always managed to have an Internet connection. Also, there are two incidents involving encounters with Al-Quaeda that seem unconvincing. However, overall it’s an absorbing story and a window into a dangerous and exotic world. Al-Samawi now lives in the USA but his book concludes on a note of anxiety as he worries about the fate of his parents and family back in beleaguered Sana’a.
John P. O’Sullivan