A capital city is in the grip of a plague. Husbands and wives are divided by glass screens in quarantine centres, weak from coughing fits, while the empty, desolate streets are guarded by angry, twitchy soldiers. As an opening chapter in a debut novel it's compelling stuff and if it feels like a scene from a dystopic disaster movie, that was exactly the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser's intention for his new book Land of No Rain, recently translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright.
"You must know the British film 28 Days Later," says Nasser with a laugh, explaining the plot of Danny Boyle's enjoyably gruesome post-apocalyptic horror movie from 2002. "Well, that was the spark. I thought it was really powerful to see this great city almost deserted, chaos everywhere, and how the survivors coped."
To continue the film theme, the plague outbreak is actually something of a Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" in Land of No Rain. Nasser admits that it is only there to send the exiled protagonist, Younis, back home to the fictional Arab country Hamiya, where military commanders rule before handing power down from one generation to the next.
“This is a novel about exile, and what happens when you go back,” says Nasser. “Younis seems depressed in a way – he’s not sure about his country, what he fought for all those years ago, his relationship with his now-dead father. Were all the things you face in exile – pain, suffering, nostalgia – worth it, he asks.”
Nasser says that his novel’s intriguing device – Younis is divided into two, the man who stayed behind and the man he becomes in exile – explains his own life. Amjad Nasser is a pen name he gave himself after leaving Jordan for political reasons in 1977 (“very few people know my real name,” he whispers). After stints in Beirut and Cyprus he moved to London, where he has lived and worked for 25 years.
“Exile is strange. Although it’s often a result of being forced to leave, it gives you a chance to reinvent yourself. Suddenly, you can do things you never could before: I could be more experimental and adventurous in my writing, for example. So it can be a liberation. I mean, I could go back to Jordan now – and I do. But I can’t always feel the Jordanian in me. I’ve become a creature of exile and I love London. I don’t feel a stranger here.”
Land of No Rain isn't simply a thinly veiled attack on Jordan, not least because Nasser says it's vastly different now. Hamiya is an amalgam of different Arab countries – Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.
"The old regimes are fighting to the last drop of their people's blood and it's so unbelievably sad," he says. "I'm optimistic for the long-term future, but less so right now. What I would say is that politics isn't the most important part of Land of No Rain. I hope it's also read as a work of literature, as a chance to explore the life of this exiled man."
Nasser dispenses with the kind of straightforward narrative structure hinted at in that first intriguing chapter. Instead, Land of No Rain becomes more thoughtful, exploring the passing of time and the imagination.
“Sometimes your best writing about a place comes when you’re away from it, when there’s a distance,” he says. “Memory is like the biggest book you can ever refer to. Maybe, when you’re exiled, you open different chapters than you otherwise would.”
• Land of No Rain (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) is out now