Two Boys From Aden College
by Qais Ghanem, iUniverse, Bloomington (www.iuniverse.com), 2012. Pp. 306. Pb. $14.78. ISBN: 978-1-4697-9626-0.
This book is fiction inspired by real life characters and locations. Aden College, a real place that hardly features in the story, is worth knowing about.1 The measured dialogue tells a story of two characters, Ahmad and Hasan, who represent contrasts in educated Yemeni youth between the late 1960s and late 1980s. In migration for higher education these students encounter cultural challenges and acquire knowledge and experience well beyond university degrees.
Ahmad and Hasan started as close childhood friends but ended as enemies. As undergraduates in the United Kingdom both took their studies seriously; Hasan read law and Ahmad studied medicine. Hasan adhered to his religious beliefs, praying five times a day and remaining teetotal. However, hypocritically, he had extra-marital affairs, and extorted money from his hapless father-in-law. In contrast, Ahmad adapted well to his life in Scotland and was the more likeable and honest character. Unconstrained by religiosity he enjoyed alcohol, relished sex with women, and experienced love and rejection.
Both returned to Yemen but escaped to the West from the harsh Marxist regime which then ruled the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). After obtaining further qualifications, Hasan and Ahmad, like many technocrats from PDRY, ended up in Sanaa. Hasan adapted well, held high office in government and accumulated wealth through unabashed corruption. His wife, Ahmad’s sister, gave him blind loyalty. The friendship ended on the altar of Hasan’s corruption and Ahmad’s uncompromising ethics. Ahmad refused to falsify his forensic findings on the murder by a high-ranking government official of a thief and a no-body (and the father of a prostitute named Haleemah).
Through a multitude of characters, the author explores, perhaps uncompromisingly, topics of Yemeni politics and cultural norms of the day, and saves his sharpest criticism for corruption in high office. He criticises the deliberate misuse of Islam, and comments on the disadvantaged status of women in Yemeni society of the period. In an erudite dialogue between Ahmad and young Haleemah we hear the voice of a prostitute in a land where she is a useful pariah. She has the final word on those who killed her father, denied her justice and used her services, yet still despised her. She warns Ahmad about a plot to kill him, and he flees to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Whilst Hasan lived in the West and returned to marry and hold high office, Ahmad seemed to be trapped by his wish to ‘give’ of his talent to his imagined Yemen. The author’s portrait of an angry Ahmad with an unwavering adherence to medical ethics, and uncompromising views on aspects of Yemeni culture would inevitably lead the reader to believe that he will not fit into the society which he had returned to. Given his declared attachment to and longing for Ann, who rejected him for another woman, and his preference for the West and its values, Ahmad seemed relieved to leave for a place where almost certainly he would face similar dilemmas, but where he could still serve in Arabia and meet the new Yemeni woman. A typically arranged encounter between Ahmad and a modern young Yemeni divorcee, Meethaq, convinced him that he could possibly have a wife with whom he might hope to share a more enlightened relationship.
Life in Yemen has changed since, yet much of the story remains relevant today. Through well-crafted dialogue the author is urging his country of birth and its people to move on further towards a different and more enlightened way of life where justice, equality of both genders and political freedom should be fundamental human rights for all citizens.
Two Boys from Aden College deserves a much wider readership than its title would suggest that it will attract. It will resonate with many who migrated to find work or who received life-changing higher education abroad and could not return or returned but could not adapt to their home of origin. It is a good read. Words flow easily in a narrative which urges the reader to question existing attitudes on a range of political, social and gender issues.
- Aden College was a secondary school at the edge of the south Arabian coastal desert. It produced the South Arabian English-educated male elite, many of whom were sent abroad for higher education. 1967 brought the end of British colonial control of the area. Many Aden College alumni served and shaped Southern Arabia’s post-colonial history. Of those who studied abroad a few did not return to Aden, but a fair number returned to try and fulfil the dream or duty of contributing to the advancement of their home and people. A substantial number did not succeed in adapting to the new post-independence socio-political and economic realities let alone the incessant uncertainties of recurrent conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, and therefore escaped and re-migrated. They, in the main, settled, adapted and prospered in Europe and North America or in the oil-rich Arab countries.