Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries


Comings, Goings and the Left Behind: Aden, 21st March 2008
March 21, 2008, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Yemen

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Once Aden was the happiest of places. Or so thought the Greeks, who had the luxury of being able to pass by. They called it Eudaemon, supposing it and its environs to be endowed with all that life requires.

In the late classical era, Aden was the main rival to Alexandria as the trading entrepôt between the Mediterranean and India. Diodorus Siculus wrote in the 1st century BC of Eudaemon being visited by “sailors from every port of the world, and especially from Potana, the city which Alexander the Great founded on the Indus river.”

However, by the time of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which was written in the first century AD, the city seemed to have fallen on hard times – the result of a good sacking by the Romans. The Periplus was the Greek maritime way of knowing how to get around, where to harbour, where to re-supply. Or where not to. The first kind of travel guide, in a way. It records Eudaemon thus:

Eudaemon Arabia was once a fully-fledged city, when vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those of Egypt did not dare sail to places further on, but came only this far.

In the middle, then, of a convenient trader’s hiatus. Reason enough for a city; to be the chandlers, store-men, bookkeepers and postmen for generations of transient seafarers. Fortunes made notching up commissions on goods bound for some other place. In this case, spices moving westwards to Europe, and later, manufactures eastward to Asia. But everyone in some way a passer-by, on their way to somewhere else.

There is plenty of evidence that in later years some prosperity returned to the port of Aden. It is, after all, one of nature’s more spectacular sheltering places: A wide crescent with a narrow mouth, and a ring of muscular volcanic shoulders that protect from wind and interior marauder.

Aden’s occupancy of the mid-point on East – West trade routes meant that by our medieval period, fame returned. In 1421, the Chinese emperor decided to send two treasure ships as tribute. The Chinese geographer Ma Huan described this imperial envoy in his admirably comprehensive Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores.

All of this is, of course, wilfully obscure. Modern day Aden is hardly mindful of any of that, as if to suggest that history unwinds itself in long cycles, which often disappear themselves without trace. The Ottomans, Portuguese and Omani seafarers that dominated the Arabian coastline from the 16th to the 19th century have scarcely left anything behind in Aden to remember them by.

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Aden’s extant form is the work of a yet more distant power: The British. The casus belli that allowed them annex the city seems flimsy from a distance, but the motivation certainly was not. Aden was to the British of vital strategic importance, lying roughly equidistant between the Suez Canal, Bombay and Zanzibar, three nodes of the Empire. The prevalent marine technology of the mid 19th century called for ships to be refuelled with coal at suitable intervals. “Steamer Point,” on the south western tip of al-Tawahi, under the looming old volcano, was such a place.

From 1839, Aden became a pivot for not just British but most seafaring life in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. So much so that in the infamous case of the Patna steamer, the ship which Joseph Conrad’s fictional Lord Jim deserts, it is to Aden that the stricken boat is towed, and from where justice is dispensed.

For a hundred and twenty eight years, the British military and its accompanying civilian bureaucracy occupied Aden. They built the town in that slightly twee style that is supposed to be a home from home, and can be found everywhere from Cape Town to Hong Kong Island. Although, I doubt there has ever been a town in England that looked like Aden.

British servicemen that served in Aden do not, I have found, generally have much positive to say about it. One entry from a veterans’ forum on the subject reads like this:

It was filthy and it stank but I have many humorous memories of it, like the time in 1967 when terrible storms broke and the whole place flooded (well it did need a wash). I saw a skeleton float by me which had supposedly been washed out of its grave with a thick piece of shit sticking out of its mouth just like a cigar. I think the situation was quite desperate .

In the end, the British were shooed away by the local population. Following the “Aden Emergency” of 1963, forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the rival Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) (People’s Front of Judea, anyone?) became increasingly effective at harassing the British troops. One member of the 3rd Anglian Regiment remembers:

Often we would have a firefight with terrorist gunmen and from this position we could effectively defend the sandbagged tower of Juliet, which had a GPMG [a machine gun] mounted on it. One particular night, late on, there was an almighty explosion. A Blinderside rocket had been fired at the tower.(I still have a piece of fragment that I picked up the following morning). Immediately the section in the building returned fire with a GPMG and SLRs [rifles]. The terrorists continued firing Kalashnikovs for a short while and then disappeared into the night. Luckily nobody was hurt, but what I do remember was the devastation that was caused by one rocket. Another lesson in what it was like to be on the receiving end of Communist hardware!

The British eventually left on 30th November 1967, rather ignominiously. The day has since become a national holiday.

But walking around al-Tawahi and Sira (then known as Crater) today, it seems like nothing whatsoever has happened in the town since the last squaddie left. Well, actually, the most significant thing for the health of the port was the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 by al-Qaeda. One sort of terrorist morphs slowly into another. Inevitably, the money leaves.

And now? From my notebook:

The Great Harvest lying empty off Steamer Point. The shabby-looking Astoria disgorging tourists. Business doesn’t seem to be all that brisk at “Sanaa Towers” cafeteria. The boys behind the grill hoot at the few tourists that have just got off the Astoria. Mostly they are ignored. A long time ago, would Aden have been prim, neat and tidy? Anyhow, the ships don’t stop much now. Counted three calling at Steamer Point in two days, although more lurk at the container port on the other side of the bay. Great Harvest is flying a Yemeni flag, despite the glorious Chinese-sounding name.

Around Crater, it is like a Welsh village that was bombed and never properly rebuilt. A very 19th Century Methodist-looking town hall. In perpetual renovation. The Department of Antiquities must have been some vast colonial hotel or ministry. At the fish market, the boats ride the breakers, and the men look like they’ve just come in from Africa. A young man came in off the rocks with his flippers in hand and the mask on his head, carrying three bright squid purposefully towards the market. I hope he gets a good price for them.

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The Astoria has sailed. Aden did not detain its inhabitants long. Gold Mohur Club: A beer in the sand, abayas in the surf. The Great Harvest looks as if it is preparing to move. It sailed.

In the market, at Tawahi, after prayers, all the market boys come out to play. Billiards. Cooking chicken gizzards in chili in the street. Serving them from a wheelbarrow. The air is hot, greasy, salty, exhausting. In the tourist restaurant now, groping for a breath. This is a sultry hole, isn’t it? Where some sort of past remains present, if perhaps only as proof of ineluctable decay.

Decay. The lack of everything. But, the beach. There’s even Russians on the beach. There’s a sense of fun here, at least for leisure life. At least for some of them. But are also, by repute, slums full of recent arrivals, beggars, prostitutes. Last night, at the Sailors’ Club, no prostitutes – proof that there can hardly be any sailors there anymore. Just flirtatious local girls who lifted their abayas so that their boyfriends could take pictures of their arses. Empty, low lit and without any sense of impending entertainment. Some solitary figures chewed Qat by themselves. Wonder what sort of existential wonderings Qat engenders. Maybe the opposite. Maybe it banishes them.

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At Sanaa Towers cafeteria, I ran into Mr Adams. Mr Adams, dark, weathered, semi-naked. Claimed to have been half Irish. He wouldn’t explain it. There were, of course, scattered around the old corners of that empire, countless orphans, most dead but some still surviving, born to unknown fathers, from an Irish, or Welsh, or English regiment perhaps. Sons of squaddies in an imperial army.

Maybe Mr Adams was one of these. Then, he told me that his father had gone away when he was a child, perhaps to “Somali Land”, perhaps to Europe to fight against the Germans in the second war. He didn’t know for sure. He’d applied to the British Foreign Office, but they didn’t know what had happened to him either.

Anyhow, there’s his ageing progeny, hanging around Prince Charles Pier in Aden in a Hawaiian shirt and a Yemeni loincloth. Makes me think of Kimball O’Hara, Rudyard Kipling’s “little friend of all the world” who set off on a fantastical voyage through British India on the urgings of his long absent Irish regimental father. Unlike Kim, however, Mr Adams Jnr is staying still, watching the ships coming in and going out again.

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I like this wide format that you’re using on the photos. Very innovative. Any chance of you posting them a wee bigger though? The aging eyes you know, sonny. Just arrange it so that ol’ dad can click on them and get a 700+ pixel wide version would you? Get a look at them little fishies close up!

Comment by MC

“One sort of terrorist morphs slowly into another”

Are you seriously equating between the south Yemen independence movement that helped get rid of British OCCUPATION and al Qa’eda?!!

Comment by Eman

No. That’s why I said one SORT of terrorist morphs slowly into another.

Comment by jeff black

Oh. We thought you meant that one sort-of terrorist was morphing into another sort-of terrorist, like they weren’t that terrifying really, you know, they were just sort-of… well. Seems silly now but at the time it made good sense.

Comment by MC

Forgive my ignorance of English but I don’t understand your jokes around the word “sort”.

Anyway, Jeff, you really need to read and quote other stuff than colonial, white man’s writings. I don’t like your mini-Aden history, its very eurocentric, reading it one thinks Aden only existed in relation to European powers. You are good in Arabic try and get books that talk about “Bilaad Al Yaman Al Sa’eed” and that discuss Yemeni independence struggle in the north and the south with terms other than “terrorists”, “insurgents” and “extremists”.

Comment by Eman




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