A Tale of Life and Death in Yemen . . .
Thelma Jacqueline Straw
My international intrigue novel, CRY FROM THE EMPTY QUARTER, is based on a real trip to Yemen—always fraught with danger—which I took several years ago.
As part of a Canadian tour group of about sixteen experienced travelers, I explored Yemen in a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers, each with its own armed driver. From day one, we were told to stay together—never be separated from the rest of the group, because, at that time, warring tribes would kidnap tourists to negotiate with the government. Men were more at risk than women. So even in the midst of chaotic outdoor markets we were always all aware of the location of the rest of the group.
The mandate to stay together was constantly emphasized. In fact, on day two as our caravan wove through a narrow road between two cliffs, I could see men on the top signaling with mirrors to those on the other side. Our local guide in the lead car leaned out of the passenger window from the waist up, and motioned urgently for the rest of the cars to keep up.
In Sa’da, Yemen’s northernmost province, we toured the ruins, had lunch and were just emerging from a gift shop in the center of town, when a gunfight erupted on the street. We quickly sought cover back in the shop.
The situation in Sa’da and its environs on the border of Saudi Arabia was thought to be so dangerous, that we were stopped at an Army road block just outside of town. Our local guide negotiated with a high ranking official for at least an hour, as to whether we could return to our hotel in Sana. Stuck in the sweltering cars alongside a ditch, a young soldier gazed in at us every fifteen minutes or so. When he looked my way, I didn’t know whether to smile or look scared, since his camouflage uniform resembled the skin of a giraffe.
Finally, we got permission to return to Sana, but only if we were accompanied by soldiers driving a flatbed truck with a 50 millimeter howitzer aimed over and around our cars.
Trips into the desert, The Empty Quarter, an expanse of sand almost as large as Texas, required the services of a Bedouin guide who, in his own vehicle would ride ahead to “interpret the sand” and plot a safe course for us.
The morning of our trip, our cars were loaded with provisions—hard boiled eggs, water, pita, a couple of watermelons—before dawn. As the sun rose, we pulled into a gas station and a lanky, white-robed Bedouin, with a mop of dark curly hair and a gap in his front teeth, stepped out of his car sporting a rifle slung over one shoulder.
“Ah, the Bedouino,” our driver said, using the term his last group of Italians had used. The Bedouino surveyed us with a wolfish glare, climbed back into his car and motioned to us to follow with his loose white sleeve blowing in the wind.
Soon after we entered the desert, the Bedouino tore off like a bat out of hell. In the distance I saw a truck and heard numerous gun shots. I was ready to hit the floor of the car. Surely there were enemies ahead. But no. He had missed the qat truck, full of green leaves that the natives chew for a narcotic effect. He was signaling the driver to return so he could buy his daily supply.
With a cheek full of the qat, he sped off again. In an effort to keep up, we jounced and bounced and careened through the sand. It was hot, gritty and flat.
Bathroom breaks were no problem for the men, who simply turned their backs to the crowd, but the women stood in a circle to hide one of their own.
Around noon we came to a Bedouin camp that was set up for modern caravans crossing the desert. They had cold sodas and a large, colorful, open sided tent with long rectangular pillows around the perimeter. The tent was positioned so that the desert breeze cooled the air. It was delightful, despite the fact we were totally exposed to drones or roving bands.
The Bedouino disappeared to “relax” with his girlfriend at the camp while we ate, enjoyed the time out of the bouncing vehicles, bought jewelry and knick knacks from the Bedouin women until it was time to go.
Of course, we got stuck in the sand and while two of the drivers tried to dig out the car, our driver put a tape cassette in the car tape player and to the Arabic strains of a song that sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks do Arabia, they danced in the sand. A kind of Arabic do si do.
We approached Sana as the light was growing dim. It was a race to reach the safety of the city before dark, and the government had shut the cell phone towers down in order to gain control over some problem or another. So our communication was cut off.
In my novel, CRY FROM THE EMPTY QUARTER, my protagonist, Omar, an Arab American, becomes obsessed with going to Yemen to donate money for a school. He and his wife Sara, also an Arab American, become estranged over this decision, because she feels getting involved with the people in a country as unstable as Yemen, is not something you dabble in.
When he lands in Sana, his allies turn into enemies and he is used as a pawn by his uncle, Mustafa, whose son has killed a boy from another tribe. Omar, unaware of the feud between his father and his uncle, is caught in a trap where he will be handed over to the other tribe in an eye for an eye exchange. In many cases, this exchange is forgotten for a large sum of money.
Omar is forced to call Sara to bring the ransom money and he asks her to bring his friend Ali, whose family is from the same area of Yemen, to accompany her on her rescue mission. Not only is she is angry at Omar’s naiveté, but also, she dislikes Ali. And, it turns out Ali’s family is involved in this tribal feud as well.
When Sara and Ali get there they are instructed to deliver the money, in cash, to destinations that are constantly changing. In the meantime, Omar and his kidnappers are traveling to locations dictated by Mustafa and his minions. Every journey involves a road block, cell phone outage, missed messages, off road travel, bad food, distrust, fist and gun fights and culture clashes.
This harrowing and, at times, terrifying trip made such an impression on me, that it gave me the impetus to use the setting as a major character in my novel.
Because you know, folks, I couldn’t make this stuff up!