SENSE OF PLACE
by Arthur Kerns
This week the International Thriller Writers featured in their Roundtable the topic, “What are your favorite countries for settings?” A sense of place is important to many writers. The mystery writer Martin Walker is due to sign his latest novel at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is noted for bringing the world of the Dordogne region of France alive in his stories.
This month Diversion Books will release my novel The Yemen Contact. The action takes place in Sicily, Italy, but mainly Yemen, the mysterious, largely unknown country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. There amongst the rugged beauty of an ancient land nearly every man carries an AK-47. The surroundings definitely keep my protagonist, Hayden Stone, on his toes while he tries to save Western Civilization.
Tarim in the eastern part of Yemen
I recall flying into Sana’a airport back in 1999. The airport handled both commercial and military aircraft. Parked off the runway sat vintage Russian MIG-15 fighters, droopy-winged four engine Ilyushin transports, and derelict helicopters lined up in rows more for a toothless show than ready combat. Taking a deep breath I could taste the dust.
The drive to the capitol, Sana’a, takes a little less than an hour on a good day, one without traffic jams or police checks. I never enjoy the ride from the airport: it doesn’t pass my romanticized image of Yemen. Garages, machine shops, and ramshackle eateries line the tarred road littered with trash. Some of the buildings had been interesting to look at years ago, but now had fallen into a form of suburban decay. Dust and diesel oil hang in the air.
My hotel, the Taj Sheba, in downtown Sana’a never seems to change and is the reason I stay there and not at other hotels that Westerners frequent.
The city always looks busy, not too loud, and from the front stairs of the hotel you look out and beautiful buildings surround you. A calm, tawny setting brushed by dusty, wood burning smells. Along the street women pass by fully covered in black robes accompanied by men in tribal attire, their ornate daggers, the jambiya, tucked in their belts, many have AK-47 Kalashnikovs slung across their backs. This is the Sana’a I know.
That night after an unremarkable dinner, an occasion during a previous trip came to mind and prompted me to leave the hotel. I walked along the busy street, turned into a narrow dark lane toward the old city, and passed a souk dealing in vegetables and fruit. At the open square I had visited years before, I stopped.
Before me I viewed a moving magical, fantasy world. Dim light bulbs, candles, and propane lamps hanging from carts and trailers revealed in a soft glow Yemenis standing and sitting around their makeshift stands that displayed their wares. The voices and calls were not harsh, but at once earnest, happy, and argumentative. The locals ignored me and left me in peace to take in the scene.
The angular multilevel buildings surrounding the square reflected the yellow glow from market lights. The structures twinkled colors from stained glass windows, some which were large, many small and all in various round and oblong shapes. They were haphazardly positioned on the building facades.
I looked up at the sky and saw the sharp cold stars. The last time there I remembered my colleague, Richard, say softly, “This is the closest you’ll ever get to the Arabian Nights.”
Shibam in the Wadi Hadhramawt
Due to the present war and turmoil the country is off limits to travelers. I hope my novel, The Yemen Contract, can provide a look into this forbidden world.
For me a book’s setting is very important, a character itself, that not only serves as background tapestry but something for my characters to take into consideration as they travel through the story.
Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. He spent a year studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) his award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, was released in June 2016.
See more in author’s website, www.arthurkerns.com