Friday, 11 October 2013

Book Post: Writing Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy

I found a sub-folder in my laptop's big mess of writing folders that contained a tiny snippet of text - an idea I'd jotted down at some stage. It was dated early 2004 and the Word doc in contained no more than:
Today I have been alive a little over an hour. The sea is very blue outside the window of my bedroom, which makes up most of one side of the room. The bed sheets are white and crisp, and they feel good.
It was an odd thing to find in 2013 - particularly as Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy starts:
Jason Hartmoor has been alive a little over an hour. He has recovered from his recurring nightmare and turned the damp side of his pillow to face the mattress. He lies, luxuriating in the bright light streaming through the window overlooking the sea. It takes up most of the length of the room. The bed sheets are white and crisp. Every opening of the eyes is a bonus, a thrill of pleasure. Sometimes he tries to stave off sleep, lying and fighting exhaustion until the early hours. It is becoming increasingly hard to push back the darkness. These days he’s lucky to hold out beyond midnight.
The idea seems to have stuck around, no?

The concept of MECAS - the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies - has long fascinated me. Somewhere up there in the Chouf mountains above Beirut was a building that had for thirty years housed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Arabic language school - known to the Lebanese as the British Spy School. Founded by Bertram Thomas, disgraced by George Blake, (taken from Shemlan and arrested as a Soviet double agent) and closed by the Lebanese Civil War, MECAS is an enigma and a minor marvel to me.

The idea of setting a spy thriller around someone who had studied at the school - around the school itself - had long nagged at me. I bought books about the school and sought out memoirs written by people who had studied there, life-long diplomats like Ivor Lucas, whose self-published memoir of his career was to inform Jason Hartmoor's mostly unremarkable diplomatic existence. Eventually, on a misty, rainy spring morning, I travelled up into the mountains with pal Maha and we tottered around the dripping village of Shemlan looking for the school. Or rather Maha tottered, wearing her usual mad heels and complaining that I was responsible for ruining her McQueens as we squelched around.

She found my comment about how she should have worn trainers unhelpful for some reason.

The locals didn't think much of being asked about the spy school by some Egyptian chick with a camera-toting Brit old enough to be her dad in tow. But we eventually tracked it down. I've been back to Shemlan a few times now - the village is lovely and the Cliff House restaurant an absolute delight that is alone worth the journey up from Beirut. It's odd how all roads lead to Shemlan - pal Dania 'Summer Blast' Al Kadi hails from the next village, as did a lady present at the recent How To Write A Book workshop I did for the Hunna writer's club (the How To Publish A Book one is at Dubai's Dar Al Adab on the 2nd November). Choueifat is just down the road, the home of the school that brought Sarah out to the UAE first in 1988. And Shemlan was home to Philip Hitti, the author of 'History of the Arabs' - a book I have long revered.

I had actually started writing Shemlan just before I published Olives - A Violent Romance. The book was shelved, paused about halfway through, while I got publishing Olives and Beirut out of my system. Originally called Hartmoor, the title was quickly changed when I discovered Sarah Ferguson's 'planned' historical novel of the same name was scheduled to publish in 2015. Having sent Beirut bobbing into the wide open sea last year, I took up the reins on Shemlan again earlier this year and finished the novel in a mad burst of frenetic activity, pumped on death metal and alternately smacked down by Arvo Pärt like a twisted druggie shredded by a mouthful of French Blues chased down with slugs of chilled vodka and warm dark rum.

And just in case you're interested, yes - I do know precisely what that feels like...

The story of Shemlan was, from an early stage, fated to travel to Estonia. We went to Tallinn for a magical week a couple of years back and I dragged Sarah across town to the British Embassy so I could photograph it for use in the book later - as it turns out, Lynch never does go to the Embassy to fall out with the ambassador in the final version of the book and so I didn't need the Embassy at all, but you can never be too careful.

Sadly, the other major location for Shemlan was Aleppo and the marvellous C14th Ottoman souk has been destroyed. In the overall devastation the last two years have brought, the loss is a small one, I know.

An odd footnote of interest to absolutely nobody but me is that the Urfalees church of St George's in Aleppo was somewhere you could still hear very early plainchant - the root of all European music lived on in the preserved practice of the Urfalees community. I use the past tense only because I don't know if it - and they - are still there. The little green orthodox church (Estonia is the most secular country in Europe - you don't get a lot of working churches there!) down by the port in Tallinn is also somewhere you can hear Estonian Orthodox singing, a rare and beautiful sound that is not only similar to the haunting echoes of Aleppo, but also the inspiration for Pärt's sparse, spine-tingling music. And it was to the aching soundscape of his 'Fur Alina' I finished writing Shemlan.
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Ghina Hamaoui said...

Im reading now Beirut an explosive thriller which was recommended by a canadian friend and as a beiruti Im so in luv with the novel cuz ita very alive and realistic and. Here im now discovering that the author has other related stories as well!!! Thats great!

Alexander McNabb said...

That's lovely to hear, Ghina - while you're waiting for Shemlan, I feel I should remind you that Olives - A Violent Romance is already available!

Opportunist? Moi?

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