Almost everything I’ve known about Yemen was gleaned from Paul Torday’s rather entrancing novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a tale told almost entirely via a trove of emails and official memorandums mined from the absurdity of its central theme. There is no salmon fishing in the Yemen – as Yemen’s tourist board had to warn would-be holidaymakers after the book was made into what might have been a rather gluey British film comedy.
This was in 2012 and the Yemeni tourism industry went on to warn about the dangers of travelling in much of its countryside, for all that it was named by Greek geographer Ptolemy as Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia) for its benign climate. Yemen’s tourism official said it was unfortunate that the EU was advising against travel to Yemen, “which we think is excessive.” However, he had to admit that “some places are very hospitable but I wouldn’t advise people to go to certain places at this time.”
I mention all this only because it highlights the thoroughly subjective but compelling way we relate as individuals to the narratives we are watching on the world stage.
Against the backdrop of the Middle East’s appalling fog of entangled colonial arrogance, regional political and religious ambition and internecine wars, one has to find some sort of personalising reference points, in the same way that chance conversations with an articulate Afghan taxi driver or an intelligent young female scholar from Iran will bond us to people and places hitherto unseen and unknown.
We ‘get’ their humanity as other self-realised fragments of an all-encompassing, unknowable but ineffable Universe. In our heads, it’s the opposite of feeding an internal and lonely sense of self that has to be constantly vigilant for its own gain in a competitive world of scarcity.
In our minds, we literally make heaven or hell of it all.
Statistically, global democracies are pretty much divided evenly if you consider that Hillary Clinton, having failed to encompass the power that Bernie Sanders was harnessing, still got more votes than Donald Trump. However, much of the rest of the world is slipping into the anarchy of modern arms dealing, despotism and desperately vulnerable civilian populations.
Since the Yemen conflict escalated, Britain and the US have both made highly advantageous arms deals with Yemen’s blockading neighbours, the Saudis.
It’s a long time since we have expected much of a moral compass from the United Nations with its convenient veto from the arms-manufacturing Big Five and the shifting sands of national sovereignties.
Not to mention the frustrating, Cassandra-like doomwatching of New Zealand’s three decades under the yoke of Rogernomics and neoliberal doctrine.
Within weeks of our new government being formed, Australian journalist and commentator Peter Fitzsimons is provocatively declaring that New Zealand has leaped ahead of Australia in a number of key areas, making kiwis looking like “sophisticates” in comparison.
And we’re watching our own head of government – the same Jacinda that quite a few of us can claim to have had morning coffee with only a few months ago in Oneroa’s main street – stepping calmly into the world’s political and moral vacuum. Then we were discussing our own social problems, child poverty and the housing that her own generation was unlikely to ever own.
Now, on the world stage as our head of government, she is pushing for ethical solutions to Australia’s Manus Island refugee horror story – including triaging the situation with meaningful money.
“We believe we have a role to play as members of the international community and as neighbours to Australia, to offer our support in finding a resolution to this situation.”
Prime Minister Ardern is also talking tough at the Asia Pacific summit where Canada’s Justin Trudeau sought her out in Manilla with particular regard to the two country’s “different but similar challenges and approaches “ on indigenous issues.
He said the New Zealand and Canadian governments share common values on climate change, foreign policy and progressive trade. Indigenous issues were, he said, an area where “obviously we have a lot of work to do. You have, and I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
It’s a long time since we have seen our small-island ethos of social justice and global conscience reflected back at us from the world stage. • Liz Waters