THE YEMEN 1957
The Yemen, to which I was posted immediately after the Suez catastrophe, was a very different part of the Arab world from the Egypt of Nasser. Cut off from the mainstream of Middle Eastern affairs and protected in its mediaeval fastnesses by the rugged terrain, it was to most foreigners a closed book, which for those fortunate enough to enter it, opened up into a remote, pastoral mediaeval kingdom. The mountains of this southern tip of Arabia, which catch the monsoon rains from the Indian Ocean, give it a more moderate climate and greener valleys and terraced hillsides, than its more barren Northern neighbour Saudi Arabia. Careful terracing and channelling preserves the soil and the rainwater, producing abundant crops on fertile land. The main crop should be coffee, for which the height and the climate is ideal and to the particular brand of which Moka gave its name, but unfortunately for the physical and financial wellbeing the Yemenis prefer to cultivate the spindle tree, whose tender shoots make up the narcotic qat, a debilitating drug which is much appreciated for the visions of grandeur it induces.
In 1957 the country was important, both strategically for its control of Bab el Mandeb, the straits commanding entrance to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, and politically because of the Imam Ahmed’s irredentist claims to Aden, now greatly inflated through its notion that after the Suez debacle Great Britain was no longer powerful enough to resist him. The border with the Aden Protectorate was in uproar as rival tribes fought and skirmished for this or that part of barren wasteland or useless crag. Dissidence was fomented in Aden and the Protectorate albeit in a somewhat desultory fashion, and when the going became too hot for them, the dissidents would be brought up to the Southern capital Taiz, to add colour to the scene as they strolled around in their gay turbans and short girly skirts reminiscent of Evzone warriors, and to put up a show of strength before me as H.M.’s Representative by playing football all day long just outside the Legation gate. Only they weakened the intended impact every time the children or one of us went out by insisting on our taking part in the game.
The perpetual feuding was, however, only one of the Imam’s preoccupations. Ahmed was the all-powerful potentate of a mediaeval kingdom hardly touched since Mohamed’s day; he was his own Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Treasurer, and the officials who did the real work were merely his deputies. His over-riding concerns were keeping his mountain fiefdom the closed book it had always been, and trying to guarantee the continuity of the dynasty, which was being badly shaken by the refusal of the Zaidi tribal chiefs, led by the imposing and redoubtable Naib of Ibb, to accept the Crown Prince Badr as heir to the throne. None of this was immediately apparent as we entered his realm, and it seemed to us that the Imam had such an iron grip on his country that he would be able to quell any opposition. All too soon his hold was to be shaken to its foundation, as the ferment of the Egyptian revolution swept through the Arab world, even to the closed society of the Yemen, introducing new and heady Arab socialist and liberalist ideas, subverting some of the Imam’s most influential advisers, and introducing as its inevitable accompaniment a strong Soviet influence, which took advantage of the backwardness and troubled state of relations with Aden and the Protectorate to insinuate itself, the Egyptians acting as handmaiden, and foster a Palace revolution as close to the Imam as the Crown Prince himself; an amiable and likeable personality, but far too naive to see through the machinations of the pro-Egyptian, pro-Soviet faction. An added reason for this point blank refusal of the conservative Northern tribes to accept him.
The daunting natural barriers which make the Yemen so remote hit us as soon as we had left Aden and the last row of wooden shacks, all selling qat, before the everlasting sand and boulders of the Protectorate took over. It was only 125 miles from Aden to Taiz, but it generally took us 12 hours to negotiate in the Land Rover, and only then if we had crossed the deepest ford by 2 p.m., when the morning’s rains high up in the mountains would come gushing down and transform it for several hours into a swirling, impassable torrent. Stunted tamarisks and the odd chameleon were the only relief from the sand drifts and rock-strewn river beds, and only after several hours of purgatory in the searing heat and moonlike landscape did respite come as we began to climb up the cooler valleys and rough mountain tracks in the Yemen itself. Then the occasional gazelle leaping across our path, or the man-shy troops of baboons, chattering their curses at being disturbed, and shepherding their young to the safety of the hills, would herald our approach to the higher, cooler altitudes. The Land Rover driver had to be a very devout Moslem to endure, year in and year out, that monthly return journey. Having made the pilgrimage to Mecca, our driver Haj Mahmoud Ali Seif was just such an intrepid, imperturbable character, without fear for the many unknown hazards on the way. He simply followed what the Koran ordained, and wherever we might be at the six prescribed prayer times of the day, stopped the Land Rover, rolled out his prayer mat, and facing North to Mecca knelt in prayer to Allah. Thus fortified, he would accept, unquestioningly, any tribulations that particular journey might throw up. He also had a wife in Aden as well as in Taiz, which gave him as good an incentive as any for putting up uncomplainingly with the intervening discomfort.
The sun was setting as on that first journey we reached the track’s highest point, and rounding the bend began the descent into Taiz. The view was breath-taking; the sun’s dying rays were throwing their last golden glow on the white walls of the tall mansions outside the city ramparts, and bringing them out in sharp relief against the green terraced foothills of Djebel Sabr and the inky black raincloud capping its summit. The Yemenis are just renowned for the skill and fine workmanship of the masons, and the imposing houses we were now seeing, some six or eight storeys high and built with hand-cut blocks of multi-coloured stone, bore witness to the high standard of their craftsmanship. The Yemenis must need all the floors, for they love to build themselves these lofty dwellings, often perched precariously on a mountain crag or the tip of a steep precipice, no doubt for reasons of security. The upper floors are reserved for the women, the ground floor for the menfolks’ afternoon sessions devoted to chewing qat and smoking the hubble-bubble pipe. This is where I did most of my negotiation, with the Foreign Minister (Deputy) or the Crown Prince, a fascinating but disconcerting experience at the best of times as they chewed their qat and at crucial moments transferred their gobstoppers of the stuff from one cheek to the other.
The influence of the Jewish craftsmen from the closely-knit Jewish community, which once lived there before the Imam agreed to send them to Israel, is perpetuated in the ubiquitous motif of the Star of David, which the Yemens’ craftsmen continue to this day to incorporate in the designs of the fanlights over the doors and windows.
We dropped down through these arresting outskirts, entered the gates of a walled enclosure, and had arrived at the Legation which was to be our home until the Imam decided otherwise. Only two storeys high, it had been solidly built of the same hand-hewn stone blocks, and looked very attractive as the sun picked out the distinctive colouring of each stone. The living quarters were on the upper floor, and from there and the flat roof we had a magnificent panorama spread out before us: the white houses and minarets of the walled town nestling at the foot of Djebel Sabr, the impressive homes of leading personalities climbing up the steep slopes, and to the Northwest the range of rugged precipitous cliffs reaching out to the far distance and pointing the way to Mecca, which had millions of years ago been part of the rift out of which the Red Sea was formed. Our devout servants could not have wished for a more inspiring sight as each evening at sunset they rolled out their mats on the raised parapet of the artesian well and facing the direction of the rift and Mecca, said their prayers to Allah.
Even the rocky garden of the Legation compound was terraced because of the incline on which it was built. Euphorbias and poinsettias were growing there in wild profusion, and our first gardening chore was to provide as much colour as possible from the seeds of sun-loving plants we had brought with us. The zinnias, cosmos, arctotis and gerberas loved the climate and merged well with the exotic sub-tropical shrubs we imported from Kenya – plumbago, brunfelsia, acacias, gold mohar and solanums. It was a major feat timing their delivery from Nairobi and planting them before they could dry out. The nursery supplying them required a ten day quarantine period before lifting and despatch, the RAF courier service from Aden to Nairobi and back flew twice a month, and we took the courier to Aden once a month. But at last they had arrived in Aden, and our good-natured and lovable assistant Ken Oldfield, whose untimely death we still mourn, set off to bring them back. After all that planning, there was the inevitable hitch. He could not find the plants anywhere. I swore they had arrived, and asked him to look again. At last he found them – behind the piano in the RAF officers’ mess! The nursery had bundled them together in a large round ball with elongated stem entirely covered in sacking, and someone had thought they were a new type of African banjo or bass for the band, and stuck them in a corner where he presumed they belonged. Even so, over half survived to give us lasting pleasure. To make a lawn, we dug out clumps of creeping grass from the wadi and set them just below the would-be lawn’s surface. At first the effect was of stepping stones, then of a huge spider’s web, but very soon with the copious rains the clumps shot out more and more spiky tentacles, until the ragged appearance was replaced by a lush, springy carpet, which, however, required frequent rolling to keep the clumps at an even level. Our roller was an oil drum filled with water, which we pushed up and down, with difficulty, envying all the time the cricketers at home who had it so much easier.
There was a sprinkling of Europeans there whose friendship we greatly valued, and with whom we shared our leisure hours in mutual entertainment. The Italian doctors at the Government hospital were the most numerous contingent, some 30 in all. They were overworked with all the cases on their hands, Bilharzia for instance was endemic, spread through the infected water troughs blocking the doors of the mosques, through which the faithful had to pass to wash their bare feet before saying their prayers. The doctors were particularly overstretched whenever there was an outbreak of smallpox or other virulent disease. But they found time to entertain us back in their own homes, and delighted in regaling us with all the varied pasta dishes imaginable, washed down with delightful Italian wines, the likes of which we had never dreamed existed. Amadeo Gillet, the Italian Chargé, was a staunch friend and ally, particularly when the going got very rough for us, for he had made a friend of the Imam during the war by his exploits in escaping from the British in Eritrea and fleeing to the Yemen by Arab dhow, disguised as an Arab. A handful of Swedish pilots and a few German telephone engineers from Siemens made up the European representation. The latter had been given the almost impossible task of installing an automatic telephone system of some 250 subscribers. The trouble was that they never got to the end of their travail, for they had to do the manual labour themselves, and just as they seemed to have finished, the Imam, obsessed with his security needs, would demand yet another long and arduous extension up the mountain side, to yet one more loyal chieftain. Reliable reports have it, apocryphal as it may sound, that when the exchange was finally completed, it was immediately put out of action by a wag who rang up as many subscribers as he could, to say that their wives were deceiving them. The exchange is alleged to have been jammed with all the irate recriminations which flew back and forth, and just gave up the unequal struggle. No doubt the ladies of the harem were closely guarded by the little boys who had not yet reached puberty, and who lived in the harem, where they acted as scouts for the husbands. But if any interloper had wished to try it out, the disguise was there ready-made in the disfiguring black or brown cowl and tent-like cloak with which the women covered their faces and bodies down to their ankles, and in the stout shoes worn indiscriminately by men and women alike as protection against the sharp flints strewn all over the terrain.
The greater part of Taiz is the walled city, a reminder of one-time marauders and wild animals, and the gates are still closed and barricaded at nightfall. We would go there only when we must to buy in provisions, for the narrow alleyways would be teeming with beturbaned menfolk who did not miss the chance to catch a glimpse of the blonde, unveiled English woman, who had the temerity to venture into the suq to help the cook choose the best cuts of fly-covered meat, a thing their own women, veiled in the deepest purdah, would never do. But we were intrigued by all the unfamiliar sights and sounds, and loved the freedom of being able to move about without let or hindrance.
The market-place in Taiz was a staging post between Aden and Mecca for the many faithful from Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia who made the pilgrimage overland, a gruelling, thirsty form of self-torture from which some would never return. Before attempting the long stage across the burning Tihama Desert, the camel drivers would make sure their camels could survive, and have enough water in their humps for any emergency, by force-feeding them, that is stuffing large bundles of fodder down their unwilling gullets. I can still hear the sound of their belching and raucous bellows as they protested against the indignity.
Manacled prisoners would be let loose in the daytime and left free to wander about and talk to the passers-by, presumably as a deterrent to other would-be evildoers. With ankles chained together, they could not have got far, and were herded back to prison at nightfall.
The savage punishments of Islamic law were rigorously applied, and an execution would be the occasion of a public holiday. The spectators would flock to witness it, some taking their sons with them, perhaps to be dipped in the blood of the victim to discourage any propensity to crime. Fortunately a rare event, it would be carried out by the sword, on the football field, in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and for years we had a grim memento of one such occasion. The son of our Palestinian interpreter Selim was a crack photographer, and he had contrived to take a photograph from behind the executioner just as the sword had swung through, the head was falling, and the body beginning to topple. Mr Selim was so proud of his son’s photographic prowess that he decided he would make it up into a Christmas card for his dear friends the Kemps, now declared persona non grata and in a new post as remote and unpredictable as the Yemen. The card did reach us for Christmas, a sheet of official blue paper folded neatly into two with the photograph stuck on the front and the laconic greetings inside: “To my dear friends Mr and Mrs Kemp, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”. With typical Arab insensitivity, he had not realised the incongruity of the message nor of sending it to us at that particular time. But it was indeed a brilliant piece of photography, and so unique that it has disappeared long ago, just like Henrietta’s photograph of the Indonesian muleteer buried in the sand sea of Bromo. Only this time we were not sorry to lose so gruesome a reminder of the severity of Islamic Law.
We were free to move about as we wished, only there would usually be one of the Imam’s bodyguard hovering nearby, recognisable for his round black turban and short blue skirt drawn tight at the waist by the wide embroidered belt holding the broad-bladed ceremonial dagger, or djembia, which is worn almost as part of the national dress. We would pick wild gaillardias or red hot pokers, relax on the soft grassy banks of the wadis, practice archery in the shade of the tamarisk trees, or climb the low slopes of Djebel Sabr to admire the views, and also the skilful way in which the water had been channelled through the smoothly plastered conduits into the storage cisterns. Our leisure hours were fully occupied, but we needed a change from time to time, and did not then jib at the exhausting courier run to Aden, where we could cool off in the sea – but only in an area securely staked and fenced off against the sharks. Air trips to Sanaa eight thousand feet up were very welcome for the change to a reinvigorating coolness, and even cold and snow in winter. The high buildings which are the proud legacy of the Yemani mason are more numerous and closer together there, and with its many fine mosques make an imposing sight from the air. The open-stall bazaars exhibited all the familiar Oriental merchandise, bronze and silver trays, inlaid tables, ivory and so on, and the garden produce, above all the luscious grapes, were all the more succulent for being grown in the cooler climate. The Republican Government made Sanaa the capital when it came to power, which is perhaps a logical acknowledgement of the great influence of the Northern tribes and of the waning commercial importance of the links with Aden, now largely replaced by trade through the port of Hodeida. The Western Embassies are now more numerous, and hopefully find as much to occupy their leisure time as we did, especially if the new roads built by the Russians and Chinese make possible a variety of excursions into the surrounding mountains.
The Imam Ahmed was a ruthless old tyrant; he had to be to run the country and keep the tribal chiefs under control. But there was also a kindly side to his nature. He showed compassion, for instance, when an English wife he loved fell ill and homesick, and out of her depth in the harem’s intrigues, and finally agreed to let her go home to her family in Cardiff (where there is a large community of Yemeni émigrés). He also had a certain dry sense of humour. He would for instance reward anyone he thought had served him well with heavy bags of Maria Theresa dollars, those worthy, weighty crown pieces struck expressly to satisfy the Yemeni’s love of tangible wealth, and the only currency in vogue in the Yemen in my time. Of course the beneficiaries of his munificence were much too overloaded for an air flight out, and would have needed more than one camel to take the bags out by road. And so they invariably ended up giving the hoard back to the Imam, with profuse thanks for the thought. I met him once when a Senior Foreign Office official came out to finalise Crown Prince Badr’s state visit to Britain. He received us in a long night shirt and night cap, for all the world like the portrayals of Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, except that the shirt was gathered up round the waist by a bejewelled belt shot through with gold thread and holding the traditional ceremonial djembia, the hilt of which was also studded with gems. His warm hospitality gave the lie to any impression of his being a Scrooge at least on this occasion.
By the end of 1957 Egyptian and Soviet influence had gained a firm hold in influential court circles and among the urban élite. Egyptian revolutionary ideas, broadcast over the air to the point of saturation, spread like wildfires among the upper classes, even to the ladies of the harem. Egyptians were brought in to replace Palestinian teachers and advisers, and both Crown Prince Badr and the Imam’s brother Hasan courted Egyptian support for their rival claims to the succession. The Russians used two Arabic specialists, the Sultanovs father & son, from Azerbaijan, to gain favour with the Crown Prince, and Soviet tanks were assembled along with much other military equipment in the port of Hodeida for the unlikely purpose of deployment over impossible tank country against the Protectorate. Neither the Crown Prince nor the other leaders close to the newcomers seemed to realise how dangerous the situation was becoming. The Imam, however, was fully aware, and tried to halt the course of events by proposing to us a settlement of the conflict over Aden and the Protectorate similar to the status quo agreement which his father the Imam Yehia had made in 1934. Only this time he asked in return that the Crown Prince might make a State Visit to Britain, to boost his prestige among the tribal chieftains. The mission began well and showed every sign of being a success, but failed in the event through the intrigues of the opposing pro-Egyptian camp and the sudden intervention of the Russians with the offer of 50 million roubles worth of aid to build a road from Hodeida to Taiz (2). Neither the prospect of a settlement with us over Aden nor the scale of American offers of aid at that time could match such massive aid, and it was left to the Chinese, then in open hostility to the Russians, to cap the Soviet offer with an aid programme of 60 million dollars to build a road from Hodeida to Sanaa. The Yemenis thus succeeded in playing off the Chinese against the Russians, if not the Russians against the Americans.
I was declared persona non grata – then promptly invited on the Crown Prince’s return to a banquet to celebrate his successes! We were sad to have to leave a country and people we had come to like so much, but the banquet, which I had been persuaded against my better judgement to attend, gave me the chance to sound a note of warning. The newly-appointed Soviet Chargé d’Affaires had been learning Arabic, and to show off his knowledge repeated to the Crown Prince a well-known alliterative Arabic proverb: “Al gar qabl ad dar” (“Choose your neighbour before your house”). The Soviet press was there in full flood with cameras clicking and light bulbs flashing everywhere. The opportunity was too good to be missed, and so I invented and equally alliterative phrase, and chipped in with: “Ay nam, wat taswir qabl at tazwir” (“Yes indeed, and photography before deception”). The whole concourse dissolved into laughter, and the little boy at the end of the table who was there to spy for the Imam slipped away and rushed off to his master to report what I had said. My warning was to prove all too prophetic.
On the death of the Imam in 1962, the Egyptians moved in to occupy the country and install a most unpopular regime, hated as much for its colonial rule as for its ubiquitous intelligence system. The Crown Prince fled to the Northern tribes and led them valiantly against the invaders and their puppet Sallal. The war dragged on for five years, but it was an unequal struggle in spite of the loyal support of Saudi Arabia. The new roads built with Soviet and Chinese aid enabled the Egyptians to move up their arms and equipment very quickly, and the fight took on the guise of a war between a modern regular army and guerrillas. But at last the more moderate Republicans succeeded in ousting Sallal, and in 1968 signed a concordat with the Royalist supporters of the Crown Prince. Soviet influence remained until they backed a rebel leader who was crushed, and the Republicans turned against them. Since then they have returned to the conservative regime they are most familiar with, following their traditional ways of life, and maintaining a political balance between the Army, the powerful Northern tribes and the educated urban élite. There is no secret police, nor pressure to change their customs, such as removing the veil, for doctrinaire or ideological reasons. Freedom has returned to enable the traders and merchants to pursue their affairs without interference, and the ordinary Yemeni to live his simple life according to the tenets of his faith, and the customs and traditions he has inherited from his forefathers.
2. On the 25 January 1958, Zaidi tribesmen allegedly attempted to overthrow the Imam, the British became the scapegoat. Oliver Kemp, the British Consul, dejectedly wrote to London saying: “It now seems probably that the Imam will accept the Soviet loan and open a Soviet legation”. London chimed in with the observation: “Whatever the truth about the origin of the plot the effect will be detrimental to the efforts of the US to establish any sort of a position in the Yemen” (R.C. Barret, The Greater Middle East and the Cold War: US Foreign Policy Under Eisenhower, p. 56).