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  Yemen in the days 
of Imam Ahmed

Some recollections by Ronald Bailey

In 1960, the Yemen was still a remote mediaeval kingdom and I was delighted to be appointed to be the British Representative there, especially as my old friend, Abd al Rahman Abu Talib, was Deputy Foreign Minister. I was instructed to go there by way of Aden for consultations with the Governor, Sir William Luce, and Protectorate officials.

To drive the 100 miles from Aden to Ta'izz by Landrover took a minimum of nine hours. There was first a tarmac road as far as Lahej and then a good fast track. There was no indication where the frontier itself lay, but we always thought of it as a charming little stream with grassy banks, which came as such a surprise after so many miles of desert. The track from there to the Yemeni customs post at ar-Rahida led through a well wooded wadi, where sometimes we spotted a hornbill, showing how close we were to Africa. From then on it was the lorries that made the track.

The Legation driver, al Haj Mahfoud, knew every hazard and rock on the way and skilfully drove us around them, but at no time could our speed have exceeded 10 miles an hour! As the route in those days led over the shoulder of Jebel Sabir, the dominant mountain peak of the area which reaches to almost 10,000 feet in height, there were astounding views over miles of countryside. We always carried two spare wheels and usually had at least one or two punctures from sharp stones, so it was always with some relief that we arrived at the check point outside the Imam’s palace on the outskirts of Ta’izz. While waiting for our passports to be inspected, we could see the lioness given to the Imam by Emperor Haile Selassie looking over the top of the wall. Not long before our arrival, she had been taken ill and as the only vet was on home leave in East Germany, the Imam asked one of the Italian doctors to see what was wrong with the animal. He very nervously diagnosed jaundice and actually managed to give the poor creature an injection, but she died and the Imam had her stuffed and put on the top of the palace wall. In the wall of the palace there was also a bakery, where the hungry could receive a daily gift of bread.

Ambling along the road could be seen a unicorn! It was one of the then five or six Arabian oryx not actually in a zoo. One of its horns was a normal four feet or so long, curving gently backwards. The other had never really grown and was turned over near the head - a bare two or three inches.

The Legation was a large stone building surrounded by a high stone wall with an impressive entrance gate, guarded by five askaris. The ground floor was the office and kitchen area and upstairs the living quarters of the Head of Mission and his family. My deputy was Ken Oldfield and there was Ahmed, the Adeni clerk. The remaining incumbent of the ground floor, Mohammed the cook, always liked to speak French as he had served in the galley of a French freighter which had actually put in to an English port. If Mohammed thought he detected the slightest hint of criticism in one’s voice, he would say: "Moi, grand chef avant tu est ne!" Given the limited resources at his disposal, he cooked us many an enjoyable meal.

To reach the first floor, there was a stone staircase which wound round a square stone central core, on which a long snake was carved linking the two floors - to bring good luck so we were told. Upstairs a great wooden door led into the residence." Here the rooms were each the dimensions of an open railway carriage - over 25 feet long and only just over six feet wide. The width was decreed by the fact that the local trees were stunted, the longest beams which could be cut being only about eight feet long. The two central rooms were combined by using a great arch through which we could put our official dining table. The beams were very irregular and close together, making a very attractive ceiling. The walls were several feet thick and one had the feeling of being in a fortress. The staircase led up on to the flat roof, where there was a small shelter. There we could sit in the evenings and enjoy the stunning views over Ta’izz and the mountains. As the light faded there were dramatic sunsets and we could see satellites passing over, illuminated by the sun until they struck the earth’s shadow.

Ta’izz lay at our feet. Over on our left was a high conical pinnacle surmounted by a fortress. Behind this rose the mass of Jebel Sabir, to which it was linked by a short road. We were never allowed to approach it. It was known locally as ‘hostage castle’. In fact it was a boarding school for the sons of tribal leaders who would eventually succeed their fathers but of course, in the meantime, if any one of these leaders showed any rebellious tendencies, his sons were in the power of the Imam.

At that time, Ta’izz was a traditional Yemeni town surrounded by a wall. The gates were closed at three o’clock Yemeni time, that is to say, as in the Bible, three hours after sunset. Any person out and about outside the town after that time was liable to be shot at by the askaris. Diplomats were exempt, provided they kept on the internal light of their motor vehicle. One of the German Legation staff, who forgot, had his tyres blown out and was arrested.

Most of Ta’izz lived within the city walls, but there was an outside ring of barriers. The Italian Legation was within the walls, but the other legations were on the hill overlooking the town. We were few in number. Only the United States, West Germany, Ethiopia, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China had missions there beside ourselves. There were few other foreigners, mainly doctors and technicians. There were two East Germans, one the only vet in the country and the other a dentist. There were also several Americans in charge of the construction of a macadamised road from Ta’izz to Mocha.

Within the walls, Ta’izz had changed very little over the centuries, except that parts had become depopulated and only ruined walls remained, among which paw-paws and bananas grew in profusion. The minarets of two famous mosques dominate the town. One of the minarets leans somewhat, giving it a dramatic dimension. The western end of the old city was dominated by the house of the ’Amil or Governor, in traditional Yemeni style but constructed only in the 1930s.

Outside the main gate was the bazaar. To our surprise, young unveiled country girls, many of them attractively dressed in brightly coloured clothes, sold fruit, vegetables and other produce of their families’ smallholdings terraced into the hillside of Jebel Sabir. Passing nearby was the only tarmac road in the country. It ran from the Royal residence to the airport, a distance of about seven kilometres in all. For some way up the hill towards the palace, it was lined with small shops, selling everything from tins of Australian cheese to cloth, shoes, clothing, sweetmeats and cigarettes. Originally ‘Abdulla’ cigarettes had been popular in the southern part of the country, but after the Imam’s half brother, Seif-al-Islam Abdulla had been involved in a plot and executed, Gallahers decided to substitute ‘Marcovitch Black and White’ as being non controversial! There were even bikinis and fur coats on display. We later found that the fur coats were imported from Britain via Aden and sold to Russians building Hodeida port, since they were paid in local currency, which they could not take home. As for the bikinis, we could only assume that the menfolk of Ta’izz were appreciative in the privacy of their homes.

The basis of the local currency was the Maria Theresa dollar, known locally as a riyal. These coins, with very rare exceptions, carried the date 1780, but were still being made in various mints, including the Royal Mint. When we were in the Yemen, its current value was a little over five shillings. The riyal was worth forty buqshas, an old penny-sized coin produced locally. As there were no banks, acquiring local money was no easy matter. Two or three of the local merchants kept bank accounts in Aden and would sell riyals against a cheque on an Aden bank, but in general we acquired them from foreign individuals who wished to remit money home. To pay large bills we spread them out on the stone floor in piles of ten high by ten by ten. This made 1,000. These were put in a sack and weighed some 62 pounds or about 30 kilos. Many expensive items from camels to houses were paid for in gold. A locally produced Venetian ducat was in wide use and was worth about seven riyals, while gold coins of all kinds - Turkish gold pounds, English sovereigns and European gold coins were sold by weight.

Diplomats and other foreigners were confined to the town area, except that we could travel without a special permit to Mocha along the new road being built by USAID and, provided we had a return visa, we could travel to Aden. I loved walking and found this restriction very frustrating so I applied to the Imam through Abu Talib for a permit to go for walks outside the town. After some days, to my delight, I received the necessary permission, but it was conditional on my carrying an open umbrella! I was told that this was necessary so that the local people would show me the respect appropriate to my rank! This opened up a new and enjoyable world. My range was about twenty five miles in the day - say twelve out and twelve back. Northwards, towards Ibb, was a natural bridge which provided excellent shade for a rest and the mountain scenery was so dramatic and beautiful. On one occasion I was eating my lunch under a large boulder when suddenly the upside down head of a large baboon appeared. He shrieked and fled. I do not know who was the more surprised - he or I! Large gangs of baboons roamed the countryside eating maize and millet and throwing stones at anyone who tried to interfere with them. There were also gazelles to be seen from time to time and one had to be careful of sand vipers and cobras.

Snakes were extremely common, even in our garden. Our cook was very worried lest our daughter, then aged seven, might be bitten by one and spent much of his leisure time with a forked stick catching them, a sport he rather enjoyed like a fisherman. On one occasion we were giving a film show for our diplomatic colleagues when the generator faltered. I went down to the outhouse to see why. El Haj pointed to the generator and just in front of it was a cobra in a bad temper. The only thing was to call an interval and a quarter of an hour later it had gone away. On another occasion we were giving the Queen’s Birthday party at the Government guest house, since Yemenis were not permitted to accept invitations from diplomats in their legations. I was waiting at the head of the stairs to receive the guests. I could see them arriving, but none came up and I had a sudden fear that some unforeseen crisis in Anglo-Yemeni relations might have hit us. However, one of the servants cautiously came halfway up the stairs holding a shoe and killed a small snake, known locally for rather obvious reasons as Father of Twenty Minutes (a krait?). The guests then poured in and Abu Talib assured me that Anglo-Yemeni relations had never been better. The two young sons of the Imam even came, accompanied by their bodyguard.

The Imam Ahmed was then in his declining years, but every detail of the administration of the country was firmly in his hands. The telegraph enabled him to send instructions to his ministers and governors. No aeroplane of Yemen Airlines could take off without his direct order, with the result that they functioned without any set timetable. DC3s linked the principal towns of the country and there was one connection with Asmara. Later I was able to assist a private Yemeni venture based on Aden to inaugurate a regular service between Aden, Ta’izz, Hodeida and Sana’a. Every visa application had to be referred to the Imam for approval. I had a series of despairing telegrams from the Foreign Office, saying they had failed, despite repeated applications to the Yemeni legation in London, to secure a visa for my wife, so I suggested that she fly to Aden and I would see what I could do. My old friend Abu Talib was completely sympathetic. He said he had taken the application from the bottom of the Imam’s in-tray each day and put it on the top and it always ended up undealt with at the bottom. The only thing he could do was to give me a note to the immigration officer at the frontier. This read as follows "When the British Charge d’Affaires arrives, accompanied by a lady (his wife), you are not to see her." The reason for the Imam’s hesitation soon became clear. On my return I found that once again he was threatening to break off diplomatic relations. To settle the matter, I offered to return to Aden to see the Governor with his new proposals. This time the Imam insisted that my wife should remain in Ta’izz to make sure that I would return and we would not break off diplomatic relations!

The wife of the American Charge d’Affaires ran a small school for young children, both foreign and Yemeni. With such a mixed group it was limited in its educational scope, but an invaluable social asset for them. This occupied their mornings. My wife, Joan, taught the little girls how to knit and sew and was soon besieged by mothers and grandmothers wanting to learn too. In the afternoons she taught our daughter on the Parents National Educational Union (PNEU) system by correspondence. This proved to be excellent and on our return home she slipped straight into the school curriculum. The ladies of the two communist missions, the Russians and the Chinese, used to have periodical coffee parties together but they had a language problem. The Russian ladies could speak French, but the Chinese knew only English so my wife was invited so that she could translate. On one occasion they were discussing dresses and the Russian lady said how much British women spent on Paris fashions. She pointed to my wife’s dress as an example. Joan replied that she had bought the material in the suq and made it herself from a Vogue pattern. They had never heard of these and were astonished.

Although there were no cinemas in the country, the Imam had two projectors -one 35mm and one 16mm. I used to lend him films from our library. He loved those of football matches and was a Liverpool fan. On one occasion I sent him the film of the Queen in India. When it reached the point where the Queen addressed a vast crowd of people in New Delhi, his private secretary telephoned and I could hear the Imam dictating to him what he had to say. "We had a Queen once upon a time and her name was Bilqis." We of course know Queen Bilqis as the Queen of Sheba.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Yemen. It was a pleasant country existence, with long walks, our daughter Rowena riding her fine white donkey, Eeyore, and picnics. On one occasion Eeyore threw her to have a roll in the dust and then took off in high spirits across the countryside. We heard shouts from the fields of "Himar Rowena" and Eeyore was quickly caught and returned. We had not realised how everyone seemed to know Rowena’s name. They were all intrigued by her fair hair and blue eyes.

Our time there was only marred by the fact I had to leave on a stretcher. There was an urgent knock at the door of our apartment at about midnight. This often happened when there was an immediate telegram from London. Somewhat sleepily I opened the front door only to be stabbed in the chest by a dagger. Despite attempts to defend myself, I received numerous wounds and then my wife appeared in her nightie. With one leap she threw my assailant out and pulled in the night watchman, who had tried to come to my rescue, but had a serious wound on his neck. Our lives were saved by the Italian surgeon, Dr. Gasparini and I was then flown to Aden in the Imam’s plane. I was very touched that, when on my way to the airport in the ambulance, all the shopkeepers, whom I knew so well, closed their shops and bowed their heads as I went by. Thanks to a brave wife who never lost her cool and a brilliant surgeon, I am still hale and hearty. My assailant turned out to be a local thug known as "the Bomb". My wife was uncertain whether they had arrested the right man until two bruises were found that showed our pet gazelle must have accelerated his departure as the distance between the bruises exactly corresponded to that between his horns. The exact motive for the attack is not known - it was certainly neither robbery or personal. I gather the man was later released under an amnesty, appointed executioner and eventually murdered.

A diplomat’s life is never dull.

November 1994