Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I just watched this film and didn’t quite know what to make of it.

I usually enjoy films like this; sweet and romantic, with vivid imagery and significant conversations.

This one fell a little flat, somehow. Maybe it was because I grew up in the Middle East. One of my closest friends at school was Yemeni. I was submerged in the Arabian culture, and even met plenty of bedouins.

The thing that stands out about these people is that they are intrinsically tough, but a lifestyle of riches and ease has made them softer. Their natures are harsh, but they are the most generous, warm and hospitable people I have ever met. The desert folk are certainly not as affectionate as, say, the Lebanese or the Syrians, or even the Moroccans. However, they have a charm of their own, a charm which is years of strife in the heat and strong family connections and a deep sense of self-less generosity.

Salmon fishing in the Yemen is a story about a sheikh who wants to bring salmon fishing to his people in Yemen, a scientist who strongly opposes the absurd notion of taking British salmon to a torrid country, and the young woman who works for the sheikh, and plays a large part in persuading the scientist (Dr. Alfred Jones) to help make the project happen.

Essentially, this is a love story. The story of a scientist in a dead-end marriage, a young woman who has promised herself to a British soldier whom she barely knows, and a sheikh intent on changing his homeland to make it better for his people and join the tribes together.

Growing up in the Middle-East, the whole tribe thing was very much a real situation. My husband, who also grew up there, bore the brunt of it. He went to an all-boys government school, populated by the sons of bedouins, and if you looked a certain way, or talked differently, you were bullied. If you were friends with a boy with that particular surname, then the boys of another surname would harass you and attack you. He was called ‘Bush’ because he was white, and came from England, and the boys hated ‘Bush’ because Bush bombed other countries. He had to survive by mocking them and their ways, and learning how to fight. Only when he fought them, was he accepted as their equal. It was ultimately tribal, and small boys learned from older boys who learned from their parents.

On the girls side, it was less violent and more catty. It was more bragging about how many princesses they know and who’s mother was friends with which princess. If a girl was from a revered tribe, the other girls would treat her royally. For me, it was disgusting, and I wanted no part of it. For that, I was made to feel like a ratty little girl from the slums who sweats. Ugh, how could she sweat?! How undignified. Look at her, let’s ignore her because she is not as pretty as us and her hair is not straight. Look at her uniform, and my goodness, she uses the same school bag every year?! That was honestly the reason why a lot of girls shunned me or looked down on me. They all followed fashion trends when it came to accessories and because my parents were British and working class, they didn’t see fit to waste money on a new bag when I already had a perfectly useful one. So while all the other girls had their gleaming, satin trim Lulu Catty bags, I walked in with my square pattern, solid bag coloured a drab brown.

Of course, as I grew older, and my little enemies became my very close friends, because bags no longer mattered and deep down, these girls were wonderful and had deep, understanding personalities. I am still in contact with a few of them and they are some of the truest friends I have ever had. I learned that tribal feuds were very real, but also not as nuanced as the days of yore because everybody’s lifestyle had changed.

The point is, of course, that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen portrayed a glorified and unrealistic Arab sheikh. Even when they were speaking with each other, I had to laugh. Every man had a different dialect, and some were speaking Standard Arabic, which is like Shakespeare to desert-folk. They only use it for poetry and when they recite the Qur-an. Literally nobody, ESPECIALLY not a bedouin, speaks like that. I know I am nitpicking. I know. But for me, it dimmed the magic of the story somewhat.

Then we move on to the story itself. The plot was actually wonderful. It was a story of survival, faith, a merging of cultures, acceptance and ultimately, of course, love. If you took the love equation out of it all, the story would have been magnificent. However I think the filmmakers tried way too hard. They romanticised the sheikh to an absurd level. I found it hard to buy his character, namely because it was a version designed to fit the Western ideals of good and bad. It wasn’t true to Yemen or the Arabs.

I felt there was no chemistry between the lead actor (Obi Wan in the prequel series! Ewan McGregor) and actress (Emily Blunt, who is brilliantly beautiful, I have to say). I didn’t see why they had to fall in love, they basically had nothing in common and certainly nothing real to talk about. Blunt’s character was grieving for her army boyfriend throughout their ‘courtship’, so falling for Dr. Jones seemed vastly inappropriate and exceedingly uncomfortable, especially when her boyfriend was miraculously found alive. Dr. Jones said some dubious things to him, and it really didn’t go down well for me or add to his character. Not to mention that he was already married!? I didn’t like how he left his wife, sending her a text saying ‘it’s for the best.’ That was cruel and harsh. If there had been a real reason to be so horrid, it would have made sense, but to me, marriage is sacred, and one could at least make a show of trying, rather than scarpering at the call of the first attractive young woman. It was ridiculous and cheap.

To be honest, I didn’t feel invested in the story. The dialogue was dry and tried too hard to appeal to emotions, ultimately failing to convince me of anything.

I heard this film was based on a book, but frankly I have no interest in reading it. Who knows, it might be brilliant, but I just didn’t buy it. I hate that sometimes other cultures are ‘Westernised’ to fit into the Western ideal or understanding. They are romanticised and made to seem ethereal and magical, when in reality they are just other people living their lives just like we are.

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