François is a psychiatrist by training, so it’s no coincidence that the hero in his first venture into fiction is a Candide-like young practitioner of that profession who becomes dissatisfied with his life and goes off round the world in search of the meaning of happiness…
“Dancing on the heads of snakes” is how President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen describes the near impossibility of governing his country. He should know; he’s managed to cling on to power by keeping up the dance for the past three decades.
The challenge is certainly considerable: Yemen has been a united country for only 20 years and it’s far from certain that it will remain one. Tribalism make governance a tricky business at the best of times as does poverty: around 40% of its rapidly growing population live on $2 a day. The country’s oil and water supplies are both dwindling at an alarming rate. It’s relations with its northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia, are strained.
And since the failed suicide bomb attempt on a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, Yemen is once again in the full glare of international attention as Al-Qaeda’s home base on the Arabian peninsula.
British journalist Victoria Clark, who was born in the city of Aden in the south of Yemen when it was still a British colony, returned to the country in order to try to get to grips with Yemen’s complexities.
As she says in the introduction to her book, “Yemen manages to challenge and scramble the logical progressions and neat narratives that westerners prefer to deal in”. Her book avoids those pitfalls, succeeding in doing justice to the country’s troubled past in prose that has all the immediacy and pace of high-quality reportage.
In our interview, she tells me about the challenges of enabling western readers to understand the situation in Yemen, and why it is so important that we should do so.