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Oil, water, money and death in Yemen

12th May 2015 - Paul E Hardisty


The Abrupt Physics of DyingIn The Abrupt Physics of Dying, an engineer working for oil company in Yemen find himself taken hostage, caught up in a ruthless struggle between opposing armies, controllers of the country's oil wealth, Yemen's shadowy secret service and rival terrorist factions.


This gripping debut eco-thriller is largely based on the experiences of its author Paul E Hardisty. Here he explains how Yemen has become an unwitting battleground for conflict between the West and Islamic militants.



It is often said that the worst war is that waged between brothers. Once again, Yemen is descending into civil war. It is a tragedy. But it is nothing new. Yemenis have been fighting and dying for a long time now, decades. The roots of conflict in the Arabian Peninsula are as ancient as this beautiful, unforgiving land: a toxic brew of religion, oil, water, money, power, and centuries of foreign meddling.


My new novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books in London, is a literary thriller set during Yemen’s last civil war, in 1994. The book’s main character, Claymore Straker, is an engineer working in Yemen’s nascent petroleum industry. As the country descends into chaos, he comes face to face with a situation that challenges his carefully cultivated detachment, a distance born of his harrowing experiences fighting in the South African Army during the Border War of the 1980s. His day of reckoning has come. He must decide: fight for the lives of his friends and the poor villagers he has come to know and respect, or turn his back, do his job, collect his pay and get out.


I've had wonderfully enthusiastic reviews: such ‘totally gripping’ (Peter James) and ‘an exhilarating white-knuckle ride’ (Crime Book Club). Sarah Ward at Crimepieces even compared the book favourably to Terry Hayes’ bestseller I am Pilgrim. I'm glad, because I have tried to create a thriller respectful of the places and people it portrays, as real as I could make it, but still fast, breakneck, with as much detail and meaning beneath the surface as the reader cares to delve into.


Much of what I describe in the book, the places, the fundamental technical issues that spark the crisis, are real, based on first-hand experiences I had while working in Yemen with the oil industry in the 1990s and 2000s. So much so that a colleague who’d just read the book emailed me from Kenya a few weeks ago and asked me what it felt like to commit professional suicide (he’d worked in Yemen with me for a while). I answered that right now, I don’t think anyone in Yemen will be paying much attention.


I first went to Yemen in 1990 with the UN, right after the First Gulf War. In retaliation for Yemen’s support of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia had just expelled over a million Yemeni workers. The capital, Sana’a was a seething mass of angry unemployed youths. Within weeks I came face to face with what this kind of unrest does. The café I was in one evening was bombed. One moment you’re sitting there drinking your tea and the next the whole front of the place disappears in a hail of glass. Over the following months and years I was lucky enough to fly, drive, and walk across much of the country, discovering a place unforgettably beautiful and painfully cursed. And what I learned was that Yemenis, the vast majority of them, just want to be left alone.


But this is a hugely strategic place, and Yemen will not be left alone. It sits on the southern doorstep of the biggest oil producer on the planet, guards the entrance to the Red Sea. The Ottomans were here, the Egyptians, the Brits, the Soviet Union. Now the country is a proxy battleground between the West and Al Qaeda, frontline in the struggle between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. A place of shifting loyalties and uncertain alliances, of deep faith and vast desolate landscapes. This is the place where Claymore Straker must come to terms with his past, and find the courage to be the man he was always supposed to be. In that, he’s a lot like most of us.


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