x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A hub of history in Yemen

The port city may be hot and dusty, but Aden's rich historical interest lies in the people as much as the place, finds Scott MacMillan.

Sira Castle stands vigil over the harbour next to the district of Crater in Aden where Yemeni fishermen have docked their boats.
Sira Castle stands vigil over the harbour next to the district of Crater in Aden where Yemeni fishermen have docked their boats.

Yemen's port city may be hot and dusty, but Aden's rich historical interest lies in the people as much as the place, finds Scott MacMillan Although it's 7pm, opening time during Ramadan, the shutters are still rolled down over Ching Sing, a Chinese restaurant in the Ma'alla section of Aden, the dilapidated port in southern Yemen. "Is it just you?" asks Jameel Shina, the co-owner. "Come in and sit down. Staff's not here yet. Because it's Ramadan." He's lived in Aden since the age of two, but Jameel, the son of a Chinese seaman, moves quickly and speaks in the short, hurried manner typical of his native China, while his half-sister and business partner, Nargis Shina, who lived in Louisiana for years after marrying a US Marine, speaks English with a slow southern American drawl. They're an odd pair, but somehow utterly typical of Aden.

A captivating city of rugged travellers' tales if not overt beauty, Aden still hosts a bizarre cultural mash-up, a reminder of the days when it sat at the crossroads of the world. Ching Sing, opened by the father of Jameel and Nargis in 1963, is a fixture of the culinary and social scene. The city's characters start to trickle in, filling the seats under the restaurant's red lanterns: Western expats, Chinese employees of a local cement plant, seafaring workers on Chinese fishing vessels, and a bespectacled man whom Jameel greets as "Roger the Dodger".

Poor Aden. For centuries a stopover for cargo and passenger traffic between Europe, India and Africa, it was colonised by the British from 1838 to 1967, as it provided a vital link to India, the jewel in the empire's crown. But it was never a favourite of global wayfarers, even when it was home to 30,000 Europeans. Here's Vita Sackville-West, the English author, writing in her 1926 travelogue, Passenger to Teheran: "In due course we came to Aden, which of all outposts of empire seemed to be the most forlorn and disagreeable. ... I would as soon throw myself to the sharks as live in that arid, salty hell." The French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived here briefly in 1880, calling it "a terrible rock, without a single blade of grass or a drop of good water." In Sun After Dark, Pico Iyer's collection of travel essays, the author passes through in 2001 and can't get away soon enough from what he calls a "Biblical wasteland".

Built in the dusty crevices of an extinct volcano, Aden sits in the badlands at the end of the world, or perhaps the beginning, as it's also the supposed burial place of Cain, the first murderer. Despite its macabre connections it was also the Dubai of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both loathed and loved, a global entrepôt swarming with expatriates from all corners of the earth and a duty-free shopper's paradise. As late as the 1950s it was still the second-busiest port in the world after New York, but after the British left, the port fell into disuse, and Aden is now better known for bordering the pirate-infested waters of the Arabian Sea and as the site of the USS Cole bombing in 2000. A city of about 800,000, Aden hosts decent beaches, notably in the area of the Gold Mohur hotel on the peninsula's outer coast, but the teeming Arab city of today is nothing like British postcards from the 1960s depicting clean and orderly streets. Chaotic souqs bustle beneath the hot, barren slopes, with vendors hawking fresh vegetables and qat, the leafy stimulant endemic to Yemeni life. A wayward character reminiscent of one of the world's greatest ports still lingers. I've come to see what remains of the Aden of old. Jameel Shina takes a break from fixing the fridge to tell his story. "My father came here during World War II," he says. "He got stuck here. He was a simple seaman, not a captain or anything. Just a simple seaman." Later, I sit with Nargis, who describes at length her days at a local Catholic school, growing up surrounded by foreigners in a mixed Muslim-Buddhist-Christian setting. In the 1960s, fighting broke out between British forces and multiple insurgent groups inspired by the Arab nationalism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Neither side seems to have conducted itself particularly well in this conflict, for the insurgents targeted both soldiers and civilians - not to mention one another - while a 1966 Amnesty International report accused the British forces of torturing prisoners. There are few reminders today of the fight for independence, and some Adenis can even be heard saying life was better under the British. Richard Viner, one of the former residents I tapped for information about the old days, recalls a hair-raising incident from his youth in the 1960s, when his father was a British battalion commander. "I lived in Aden as a teenager, and was present when a grenade was thrown into a kids' party, killing a young girl," e-mails Viner, who is now an entertainer living in North Wales. Years later, he went back and visited Crater, the district thus named because it sits in the crater of Jebel Shamsan. "I revisited Aden after 45 years and made it a point to go to Crater, where I know most of the anti-British feeling came from in those days. After a couple of days, I met a man that was with others that threw that grenade that night. We sat and talked about the old days, and he told me that there were three other grenades to be thrown. When he realised their targets were children, he stopped the others from being thrown." Viner says that on his return, he was made to feel welcome everywhere.

In July 1967, Crater became the site of what's since become known as the "last battle of the British empire". A pugnacious but apparently insubordinate Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell (or "Mad Mitch" as the British press soon dubbed him) reoccupied the district with a Scottish regiment after a mutiny of local police killed several servicemen and forced the British out. Mitchell imposed what he called "Argyll Law", but his strong-arm tactics to restore order didn't last long, as the British left Yemen for good in November 1967, leaving behind a sweltering town that soon fell under Soviet influence.

Crater is still abuzz, if not exactly hurling forth hot ash, lava and grenades. As night falls on the qat souq in front of the municipal market where Souk At-Taweel turns into Az-Zafaran Street, hawkers trade banter beneath bare light bulbs, their cheeks stuffed with the masticated green leaves. Crater boasts none of the musty Victorian magnificence of, say, Mumbai, nor can one discern any distant strains of "Scotland the Brave" as played by Mad Mitch's Highland bagpipers. Neither is there overt animosity toward outsiders. "USA Obama!" people shout when they hear where I'm from. Crater spreads up and down the slopes of Jebel Shamsan, with the empty cisterns of the Aden Tanks beckoning above. One of the city's most impressive sites ("vast pits of unknown antiquity and Dantesque fearfulness," Sackville-West called them), the tanks were discovered by Lieutenant (later Sir Lambert) Playfair in 1854. Filled with rubbish and debris at the time, they were later excavated by the British, who are said to have held lavish receptions here. One tries to imagine the clink of glasses echoing off these brooding walls.

Far below on the Corniche stands Crater's most visible Western artefact: a Pizza Hut. The building's red roof is faded like a child's toy that's been left outside for too many seasons, the architectural oddity about as suited to Aden's searing sub-equatorial sun as the pale disapproving countenance of Sackville-West.

For most British former residents, the heart of Aden was at the other end of the peninsula, in the Tawahi district, where a statue of Queen Victoria still watches the traffic pass in stony silence. Aden's Crescent Hotel, like the Cecil in Alexandria and the Baron in Aleppo, belongs to the class of hotels that evoke an era of travel when luggage was measured by the crate, not the kilogram. But no porters or boat-weary travellers are found here, for the Crescent sits locked and empty, the slats on the shutters falling off, a crumbling relic guarded by gun-toting soldiers and concrete barriers. Though there's a newer Crescent around the corner, nobody there seems to know if and when the original will reopen.

Past the Crescent, Aziz Bookshop (open 8am to noon and 4pm to 8pm) is faring slightly better, but only just. The owner, Medhat Kahim, son of the late Aziz who opened the shop in 1946, says business is almost non-existent. The shop is stacked with mementoes from days past, such as frayed paperbacks, stamps and catalogues. An old book of 18 postcards, one of only 10 left, costs $20 (Dh73). Old Aden retains its dignity in the district of Steamer Point, at the far end of Tawahi, where the road runs along the embankment overlooking the natural harbour. Behind the bricked archways of the port building, constructed in 1919, masts of sloops and catamarans tower offshore. Passenger boats can be rented at $30 (Dh110) an hour for group cruises around the harbour, from 8am to noon and 3pm to 6pm.

But perhaps one would be better off spending the time getting to know some of the characters hovering around the port building, like Mohammed Hussain, the harbour master. A half-Malaysian, half-Yemeni ex-seaman, he shows off snapshots of his sailor days stored in his camera phone: pictures of himself as a young man in a bunk of a Greek ship in the 1970s, or on New York's 42nd Street in 1982. Or one might run into Henok Takele, a refugee from Ethiopia who now works as a cook at the priest's residence of the local Catholic church. Takele takes me back to the 150-year-old church compound, where I meet Father Vargis John from Kerala, who makes dry jokes about his mainly Indian parishioners not showing up for service. The world still comes to Aden, it seems.

Perhaps to some, Aden will always seem like a barren rock from the dawn of man. But those who dig beneath the surface see something more akin to an ancient roadside diner. The highway's been diverted and the long-haul truckers no longer stop here, but the coffee's still brewing, as it has for millennia. Amid the ghosts of past clientele, an eclectic crowd of regulars still props up the counters, each of them with a story that's unlike any in the world. travel@thenational.ae