Final Flight From Sanaa
by Qais Ghanem, Baico Publishing Inc., Ottawa (email:firstname.lastname@example.org), 2011. Pp.ii + 253. Pb. $15. ISBN 978-1-92694512- 5.
This is Dr Ghanem’s first novel, but perhaps should be read chronologically after his second book Two Boys from Aden College, which is also reviewed below. Both books have an over-arching sub-textual theme.
Final Flight from Sanaa was presented by the author at a well-attended British-Yemeni Society meeting on 9 February 2012. He started by highlighting the good fortune which he and others had had in their secondary education in Aden Colony. A government scholarship to study medicine in Edinburgh foreshadowed a successful career and a fulfilled life in Canada where he settled some forty years ago. He returned to Yemen’s capital in the early 1980s to serve amongst Yemenis but became disenchanted with a system which rewarded connection rather than merit, and returned to Ottawa. Much of the backdrop to the novel is based on events he witnessed or experienced during his four year sojourn in Sanaa. He admitted that parts of the book were likely to be considered controversial by some, but he was willing to take that risk if it helped to promote a debate over issues of Muslim women, their place in society and human rights.
The author seems to be speaking for many aspiring young men in the Middle East who had long ago left home for higher studies abroad. Many who wished to fulfill their promise to return to serve their homeland, found themselves met with indifference if not actual rejection by post-independence governments. In this context Dr Ghanem, who is an accomplished poet, paints a sharp and almost prophetic picture predating the then unexpected Arab Spring, and more so the recent upheavals in Yemen by quite a few months. His intricate narrative about a Yemeni doctor called Tariq Hakim, traverses continents and cultures, criss-crossing between Britain, Canada and Poland, Denmark, Germany as well as Kuwait and Yemen. It offers a variety of insights into the human condition from a purely sexual encounter in Denmark to the cultural reflex behaviour of a foreign student in Edinburgh, to Hakim’s narrow escape from death at the hands of a jailor, and an extremely tragic rape story.
The book reminded me of other Yemenis like Hakim who had left a happy childhood in a different Yemen, returned to serve but only to find a clash in their souls between what they wholeheartedly adopted of western culture and the realities of Yemeni culture and tradition in governance, tribal habits, male and female sexuality and societal attitudes of the time. Indeed this book should be read in the context of a Yemen of the early nineteen eighties when Hakim served in Sanaa. It would be very interesting if the author were to write a similar story from today’s perspective especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring where it was and is being led in Yemen by the new Yemeni woman as much as by the young Yemeni man. Ghanem seems to say that by leaving home one undergoes change forever and one may wish to repatriate that ‘enlightened’ change. But by now home is an imagined country of origin that no longer exists. So perhaps he is seeking to change Yemen through the medium of a challenging and outspoken book. He tells his story in easy flowing prose and dialogue. In its existing English version, however, it may not reach the wider Arab readership it deserves.