Guns and Almond Milk
By Mustafa Marvan
Interlink Books 
ISBN: 978-1623711054
234pp.

Centred around war, Guns and Almond Milk offers a raw glimpse into the complexities of human experience amid chaos.

It is a fast-paced, unrestrained thriller that delves into the brutal realities of war and the various reasons individuals choose to get involved in certain situations, whether as medical personnel and teams, soldiers for war or insurgents. At the same time, it is a reflection of stark themes such as remorse and atonement, occasionally peppered with humour and sarcasm.

The vivid descriptions of a medical team’s journey through Yemen’s desert, facing danger at every turn, gives a clear picture of what a war-torn country goes through, especially at the grassroots level. The tense moments and the element of suspense keeps the reader hooked. Throughout the story, there is a sense of urgency and vulnerability, leaving one eager to unravel the characters’ fates amid the relentless cycle of war injuries.

Especially with everything going on in the circuit of geopolitics, Guns and Almond Milk emerges as a resonant read. The novel’s narrative reflects largely on the harsh realities faced by Yemen’s youth, highlighting the human cost of conflict.

A novel provides a gripping exploration of the complexities of war in Yemen, and captures the raw experiences of humanitarian work on its frontlines

The book is a first-person narrative account by the author Mustafa Marwan, though he has been given a fictional name in the story. Mustafa is an Egyptian professional, an aid worker, educator and author. His academic background spans pharmacy, public health and management. With over 10 years of involvement in humanitarian efforts, he has worked in numerous conflict areas globally, including several nations during the Arab Spring, witnessing both their peaks and troughs.

The novel begins with Adam Elraey (a name given to him by his Egyptian parents to integrate religious elements into English culture after immigration to the UK). After his father gets into a fight with some skinheads who call him a “dirty Arab Muslim”, and is eventually arrested, Adam is brought to an orphanage, where he is adopted by Mike and Ruth Archer. Adam becomes Luke Archer and grows up to become a doctor, who works in various conflict zones and faces numerous challenges both professionally and personally.

The narrative is presented from his perspective, detailing his experiences, reflections and interactions with others in the midst of the chaos and dangers of war-torn regions. The head nurse Anne, a Swiss emergency doctor Rachel, and French surgeon Emmanuel (fondly called Manu) — and the youngest in the lot — are all part of his humanitarian team.

The story, oscillating between early to mid-2000s and present day in Yemen, follows this medical team travelling through Yemen’s desert to Aden’s only functioning hospital, facing both the perilous roads and a high-speed race.

They encounter a tense checkpoint guarded by soldiers, which is abruptly destroyed by an explosion. The team continues their journey, reaching the hospital, where they treat various severe injuries. A poignant moment unfolds with a young soldier determined to return to battle despite a fresh wound — a harsh reality faced by Yemen’s youth.

“Something is very wrong with the youth in this country,” Luke muses. “They shove themselves in harm’s way as though they’ve never heard of death — or life. Most of them have the faces of the too young, and the eyes of the too old.”

A parallel story takes place in the early 2000s, where Luke reveals his struggle with fitting in when his family immigrated to the UK. Refusing alcohol and reluctantly trying weed, the narrator recalls his complex identity crisis and painful past.

The bullying intensified post-9/11, complicating his school life. Despite offers from a drug dealer and a radical religious group for protection, he chose to stay independent, navigating his hardships alone. He meets Erkhart, a retired venture capitalist with a fascination for psychedelics and an interest in palmistry, sparking a friendship and revealing a hidden room in his home.

Meanwhile, the medical team members reminisce about the good old days of Yemen. The country had fertile land and historical resilience. Now, despite its rich past, Yemen is plagued by malnutrition and war, and pondering over the balance of power and the inevitability of conflict.

The control over Aden is maintained by the Golden Belt Brigade, headed by Gen Mansour Rahimi, a hardcore militant supported by Gulf countries, and largely disconnected from the reality of Aden. He is “the precious puppet of foreign powers, who has never walked the streets of Aden, but only observed them from the balconies of his big estate or through the bulletproof glass of his armoured car.”

He also controls the hospital. The team decides to make a risky trip to their residence for essentials; they find that the streets are desolate, and tension is high; their residence has been ransacked. While returning to the hospital amid heavy shelling, they witness a car explosion.

In the midst of a hospital under chaotic attack, Luke narrowly avoids being shot by an assassin. He encounters Max, who has taken over the care of the hospital in Rahimi’s absence and is commandeering the hospital with his men. Max establishes a command centre in the hospital, forcing the medical team to stay while promising to protect them and organise resources for their survival.

Luke orchestrates a daring plan to raise awareness of their captive situation by contacting the media. Facing uncertainty and danger, they negotiate with the attackers to secure a ceasefire. Manu suggests a bold approach, involving threats of Nato airstrikes. Luke, uneasy but resigned, decides to proceed. After a failed negotiation with the attackers, a chaotic showdown ensues.

Guns and Almond Milk describes Yemen as a “time capsule of ancient land surrounded by forgotten mountains. A land where the political system is an endless game of musical chairs. Reasons for fighting are abundant, and war is the only pastime for people who are excited to kill and not afraid to die.”

The constant tension and relentless cycle of war injuries might overwhelm some readers, making it a challenging read. But by and large, the novel succeeds in portraying the urgency and vulnerability inherent in humanitarian work amid war, leaving a lasting impact on its audience.

The author brings a personal and professional depth to his experiences. Luke emerges as an exceptionally multifaceted character, possessing numerous layers and a captivating back story, offering significant insights into his current personal circumstances.

The author skillfully dispenses information gradually throughout the book, enhancing the reader’s engagement and understanding. Anne, shaped by the challenges and nightmares she faces due to the mission’s difficulties, is resilient and dedicated to her duties. Amid the chaos of war, Manu’s pragmatic approach and philosophical discussions provide a contrasting perspective on aid work. His dismissal of the idea of saving the world and his moments of reflection offer a more grounded view of their mission. Max, with his commanding presence in the hospital, illustrates the intricate and often morally ambiguous nature of our survival as humans.

In general, the novel goes on to show the underrated work of those working at the frontline during a war. And it becomes all the more relatable with the world fraught with ongoing wars in Palestine and Ukraine.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency. She can be reached at
sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2024

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