An update to this. After the release of the novel and film below, the Yemen had sadly been consumed in civil war for some years when I wrote this; I decided not to make reference to it at the time, because it’s not relevant to the story and also because it’s all too often true that countries like the Yemen only get attention because of bad news stories, which is a trap that this story doesn’t fall into, and I wanted to reflect that. I decided to go with the writer’s intention, which was to highlight aspects of life in Yemen that rarely receive attention in the West. But in respect of the many victims of that conflict, I’ve now decided to put these comments in as well. Civil wars are always tragic and even more so when they’re being fought as proxy wars by other powerful countries. Our condolences go out to everyone who has been affected by this conflict, and I hope that the article below may help to re-present this troubled country in a better light once more.
Adapted from Paul Torday’s successful novel, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2011) has an interesting example of a mentor character – someone who takes this often-vital story-character archetype into territory I’ve not seen in a film or novel before. (For a good introduction to the Mentor archetype, see Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY.)
The story of SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is a gentle comedy about the seemingly laughable idea of introducing salmon fishing to the highly arid country that is the Yemen. The driving force behind this unlikely venture is a rich local Sheikh, who when we finally meet him, says to our skeptical protagonist (geeky fisheries expert Ewan McGregor) that:
Sheikh Muhammed: You think I’m mad?
Dr. Alfred Jones: No, your excellency. I…
Sheikh Muhammed: Of course you do. I would question your judgement if you did not.
(Quote from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1441952/quotes/qt2204392)
Until we get to know him, it’s easy to assume he is. But the madness and comedy in the story really comes from the other characters who make up most of the story (no surprises here, but they’re all quirky and partly satirical British characters). These other characters (McGregor, Emily Blunt’s British Government bureaucrat, and several members of the Government itself) have the kinds of quirky personalities and life challenges we’d expect of a British middle-class story like this – in their different ways they’re all bottled up in their lives by their own personalities. But the Sheikh is driven by a positive desire to improve his country forever – what looks like a foolish self-indulgent vanity project on a vast scale is really an extension of his existing successful dam project.
The two projects together will improve people’s lives and shelter a proliferation of nature for generations to come. As a (good!) Muslim, he can relax in the knowledge that all of the goodness that results from this venture throughout the future will give him blessings: not something the film ever needs to say out loud. The sheikh prompts the main characters to have faith – and by the end of the film, he shows them that they have indeed been relying on faith without realizing it. He’s an interesting modern twist on the mentors we see in endless “follow your heart”, “journey of self-discovery”stories (such as EAT PRAY LOVE, which gives us a more stereotypical mystical old-world mentor to set off the protagonist’s quest to make her life more meaningful).
While the Western media generally presents Islam as an “issue” wherever it encounter it, the relaxed and almost totally implicit presentation of it in the Sheikh’s character in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN is refreshing, and the effect that his relaxed faith has on the others is too. We also see “bad Muslim” characters – small-minded local rivals who set themselves against the Sheikh’s plan because they fear it will bring Western values into their country. Twice they try to kill him, but the Sheikh persists because of his faith in the mission he believes in.
As well as fitting the Mentor archetype, he is also a ‘catalyst’ character – he is the agent that brings about change in others, even if they are reluctant to and would choose not to. Every positive change effected in the film would bring more blessings the Sheikh, now and throughout the future. Compared to how most movies present Muslim characters (which, unfortunately, is a trap that the film’s falls into with the villains it inserts into the story), this is definitely refreshing. Like Kristin Scott-Thomas’ dry Government Press Officer, the Sheikh’s role is definitely among the best reasons to watch this gentle 2011 movie now.