I’m just back from ten days in Yemen and Oman, and a very mixed bag of experiences.  I went there as one of a group of four UK crime writers to lecture on the ship “Spirit of Adventure” (I tried to persuade them to give the ship to me as a thank-you prezzie, but all I got was this lousy photo…)

They wouldn’t even give me this boat…

When I told friends I was going to the Yemen, the universal reaction was “you must be nuts.”  Well, I believe in trying to take a balanced view of risks in life:  I tried to work out how many people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Yemen in the past six years.  On Oct 12th, 2000 17 US sailors were killed in an attack on a US warship in Aden harbour.  Since then there have been a number of attacks on Western owned oil installations, some kidnappings of foreign nationals and one Norwegian sailor murdered in Sana’a, the capital. 

On the British Government’s website giving foreign travel advice is the following warning on Yemen. 

There is a high threat from terrorism.  Indiscriminate attacks, including against Western and British interests, and places frequented by foreigners such as hotels and restaurants cannot be ruled out.

There have been a number of terrorist incidents in Yemen in recent years, most recently on 15 September 2006 when oil installations near Ma’rib and al-Mukalla were attacked in simultaneous terrorist suicide operations that resulted in several casualties.

British nationals visiting or resident in Yemen should consider whether their personal security arrangements are adequate.  You should be particularly vigilant in places frequented by foreigners.

Al Qa’ida continues to issue statements threatening to carry out attacks in the Arabian Peninsula.  These include references to attacks on Western interests, including residential compounds, military and oil facilities, transport and aviation interests. 

Scary stuff.  But if you actually count the number of people killed and injured in terrorist atrocities in Yemen in the past six years, it less than those who have been killed and injured in the UK.  Ergo, it is actually more dangerous to stay in London than to go to Yemen, Helen and I decided, and off we boldly went, split infinitives and all.   Author David Roberts, also on the trip, took the same view. Although with his grammar being definitely more scholarly than mine, his infinites were intact.  As were those of fellow authors Keith Miles (AKA Edward Marston among other names) and Judith Cutler (see “team pic”) 

Four Crime Writers go wild in Oman!

However, deciding to go to Yemen and actually going were to prove two very different things.  Because I had to go via France for the Prix Polar International award, I missed the start of the cruise, which was in Jordan, and had to join the ship in Yemen.  The travel agents of my French publishers found a flight on Yemen Airways to Sana’a, the capital, an overnight stay and then a 6.30am flight to the port of Hodeidah to join the ship.  However when we turned up to collect the tickets, our journey very nearly ended before it began.  Well-meaning she may have been, the lady travel agent shouted hysterically at Helen and myself, telling us there was no way she was going to allow us to travel to Yemen, did we not realize how dangerous it was?  We would almost certainly die! 

I was more concerned about the perils of flying on an airline I had never heard of than the actual risks on the ground, and after some lengthy negotiation we finally signed a whole sheath of documents absolving the French government from responsibility for us and agreeing we would not sue the travel agency if we were kidnapped or murdered or worse. 

Then with our confidence at a somewhat low ebb, we arrived at the hotel my publishers had booked us for the night.  And as if to pour oil on troubled waters, we found ourselves in the worst, gloomiest, pokiest and rudest managed hotel not just in Paris, but probably the entire planet.  If you ever go to Paris avoid it by a million kilometres.  It is called “Hotel Andre Latin, 52 Rue Gay Lussac – and, no pun intended, you will surely rue the day you go there…  We checked straight back out and into the eye-wateringly expensive (but worth every cent) Four Seasons George V.  Bliss!  And we ate a fab dinner with my wonderful French editor, Christel Paris and Dead Simple’s brilliant translator, Raphaëlle Dedourge in Ze Kitchen Galeria Restaurant (www.zekitchengalerie.fr t 01 44 32 00 32) instantly my new favourite restaurant in Paris.  Modern, buzzy, friendly and very seriously brilliant food. I got so drunk with relief at escaping from Hotel Andre Latin that I cannot remember the details of what I ate, but at some point I tasted sensational mussels and lobster – so good I can still remember them! 

In fact from the moment we walked out of Hotel Andre Latin everything looked up.  Business/First on Yemen Airways was a real surprise.  Both aircraft we went on were almost brand new.  The staff and the service from check-in all the way through were a delight and the food was among the best I’ve ever eaten on a plane.  OK, no alcohol, but on day flights I can live with that.  The rubbish American carriers, like Continental, American and United should send their staff on Yemen Airways to get a training in how to do service properly. 

One difference flying on this airline to any other that I’ve been on was the route information given on the screens during the flight.  Every few minutes it would tell the direction and the exact distance to Mecca.  4,034 kilometers on the last occasion I looked…  And there were no hand-luggage restrictions on flying carpets…