Monday, April 18, 2011

Jezira by Iain Manson

Jezira is a thriller set in the Persian Gulf in 1987.

The action takes place against the background of the Iran–Iraq War, a trial of strength between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. Tension between Sunnis and Shias makes the Gulf island of Jezira a dangerous place, and when Paul Morden accepts a job there, he is sleepwalking into trouble.

In London he might have been depressed, unemployed, penniless and alone; but at least he had been safe. From the moment he arrives in Jezira, danger is everywhere.

Iain Manson has written dozens of articles for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic. The Guardian, Astronomy Now, History Today and The Ring are amongst many magazines which have published his work. He is also the author of The Lion and the Eagle, a nonfiction book about a notorious prize fight of the year 1860.

Iain Manson spent some years teaching in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, and it was there that the idea which became Jezira took root.

What will readers like about your book?
The tensions between Islam and the West have yet to generate the literary expression which the Cold War found in the work of John le Carré. I would like to apply for the job.

Jezira is an intelligent thriller which takes the reader back to the year 1987. It has much to say about mutual misunderstanding between Islam and the West, and about the Sunni/Shia divide which has brought havoc to much of the Islamic world. Readers can expect to be informed as well as entertained.

What is your writing process?
I am not the most disciplined of writers, but when I have formed an idea for a novel, I will normally complete at least a thousand words daily. Because my plot exists at first only in outline, there is always the danger that I will run into a cul-de-sac and have to backtrack. As a result, my first draft can take up to three months to complete, but I always know my destination.

When the first draft is completed, I then spend at least as long revising my work. Typically, it will be at least six months before I decide that I am ready to publish.

What inspired you to write this particular story?
Having worked for years in the Islamic world, I have long felt that an intelligent thriller about the tensions between Islam and the West is overdue. With Jezira I have tried to write one.

My intention is to educate as well as to entertain. It is enormously difficult for Westerners to see the conflict with Islam from the other side, but it will go on until some mutual understanding is achieved.


I’ve already told you you’re not going to believe this. Now I’m going to tell you why. You won’t believe it because you won’t believe Jezira. You won’t believe Jezira because Jezira is different.

Of course, all foreign countries are different. That’s what foreign means. It means different. But Jezira is different in a different way. Jezira, you see, is in the Gulf, and the Gulf is weird. Ask anybody who’s ever been there. Not only that, but Jezira is weird even in Gulf terms, and that’s saying something. The only place that comes even close is Saudi Arabia. When two old Gulf hands get together, sooner or later they’ll get round to discussing which of the two is the more bizarre. Jezira usually wins.

Generally speaking, Westerners have never liked Jezira or Saudi, because laws against alcohol and extramarital sex, while possible to evade, still create problems for anyone wishing to indulge. More generally, the ferocity of religious commitment has always seemed threatening to infidels. A taste of sorts for the area was once cultivated by a few Europeans, but always the oddballs: Thesiger, for instance, or Lawrence, or Kim Philby’s dad. For the most part, Westerners just avoided the place.

Then everything changed, and Europeans and Americans and others found themselves sucked into Jezira like dust into a vacuum cleaner. What happened was oil, and Jezira got rich almost overnight. Some things, of course, stayed the same. The sun was just as hot, the desert just as dry; the men still wore white, the women still wore black; all of them still spoke Arabic; the call to prayer still floated out from the minarets five times a day.

But everything else changed. It was as if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had waved her wand over the island. Mud brick changed into glass and concrete and marble, beaten earth became tarmac, camels and donkeys gave way to American cars. The people had lived in primitive little villages all their lives, and now they found themselves in space-age cities. No wonder their minds blew.

None of it made any sense. Even today, you get the feeling that midnight will soon strike, and everything will change back to what it used to be. For Jezira, midnight strikes the moment the oil runs out, or a cheaper form of energy is found.

In the meantime, it must go on in its present form, a form in which it doesn’t even make proper sense. It doesn’t make sense because all the changes took place too quickly. The things of the West didn’t grow organically, and they were not absorbed by their environment: they were simply grafted on. And the result is something rather like a Rolls Royce with camels’ legs, or perhaps a camel with car wheels.


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