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  Book review

Cool for Qat: A Yemeni Journey: Two Countries, Two Times

by Peter Mortimer

Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 2005. Pp.239. Illus. Pb. £9.99. ISBN 1-84018-946-0.

Peter Mortimer was commissioned by the Customs House Theatre in South Shields to write a play based around the Yemeni seamen’s riots in that town in 1930. He knew nothing about the riots and nothing about Yemen. With a Travel Award from the Arts Council, he went to Yemen in 2004 to gather some background on the people about whom he would be writing. This book is an account of the just under three weeks which he spent in Yemen gathering that background, interwoven with some factual information about the riots in South Shields.

Cool for Qat is more for those who have never encountered Yemen before than, for example, members of the British-Yemeni Society. It would give the former a small taste of the country, which might, hopefully, whet their appetite for more. Mr Mortimer skims across the surface of Yemeni history, and only touches on the country’s magnificent scenery during his bus ride from Taiz to Sana’a; but instead of looking at the scenery, as had apparently been his intention, he watched the film Predator which was being shown on the vehicle’s TV system! However, he does describe the plastic bag problem well, and we do get some feeling for the countryside although one longs for more.

Like the author, I had never heard of the Yemeni seamen’s riots, so I hoped to learn something about them from this book. But I felt that I had only gained a superficial knowledge of their causes and effects. Racial tensions and unemployment in South Shields were obviously factors but the spark which triggered them eluded me. For a comprehensive appraisal the reader will need to look elsewhere.

The title of this book leads one to expect some in-depth discussion of qat-chewing and its effects, but it appears to have been chosen more as an eye-catcher. The author’s knowledge comes from the qat-chews which he experienced during his short time in Yemen, and from no further research. We are once again told that qat tastes like privet – I am always surprised by the number of those who seem to know what privet tastes like!

Where the author does come into his own is in his description of the warmth and hospitality of the Yemeni people. He was completely taken aback, as all of us are, by their kindness and generosity, without which he would have been unable to travel around the country to the extent that he did.

As the author himself says, he is no travel writer. His book offers a highly personal account of his short visit to Yemen. But he was obviously captivated by the country and even more so by its people, and we must hope that his book will entice others to get to know them too.

Heather Henderson