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  Book review

Aden: Porte Mythique au Yemen:
The Mythical Port of Yemen

by Jose-Marie Bel

Amyris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1998. Pp.127. Illus. Hb. 20. ISBN 2-7068-1360-1.

This glossy, mini-coffee table publication in English and French is, perhaps, best described as a pot-pourri of literary and pictorial images of Aden. It is divided into two parts. Introducing the first part, which is illustrated with old engravings and recent photographs taken by the author, Monsieur Bel declares his wish ‘to enable travellers, dreamers, those who are nostalgic ... to share the singular and thrilling history of this city ...  and to rid [Aden] and this region of the cliches that have so long been applied ... and to unveil them as if they were playing a part in an illustrated fairy tale ... This book is the expression of a love story.’ Such sentiments strongly influence the author’s free-wheeling account of Aden’s historical development, his impressions of the city in the early 1990s, and his reflections on the French poet Rimbaud who worked briefly for a French trading establishment in Aden in the 1880s. Significantly, it was the restoration of the house where Rimbaud lived in Crater which helped to ‘bankroll’ the author’s sojourn there in 1993-4, when he was involved in turning La Maison Arthur Rimbaud into the short-lived French Cultural Centre (p.45).

The second part of the book is more satisfactory than the first, in that it provides an intriguing assembly of varying images — engravings, photographs, postage stamps and picture postcards, many of them in full colour as well as monochrome — coupled with quotations from a large number of authors over the centuries, from Ibn Battuta to Andre Malraux. Some 64 picture postcards, mainly from this medium’s heyday c.1880-1920, form the substance of Part 2, with a smattering of later examples — mostly of Aden itself with a trio of Lahej and one of the municipal garden at Sheikh Othman. Despite the author’s complaint about the lack of modern picture postcards, I have been told by recent visitors to Aden that quite a selection are, in fact, on sale in hotels and shops.

As a keen collector of Aden’s stamps, of material relating to its postal history, and of local postcards, I was amazed to read on page 58 that the author was offered in June 1998 an English postcard of Aden ‘worth 850.00’! Someone must have been trying to take him for a ride; in any event he is wrong to say that collecting old Aden postcards is an expensive pastime. The rarest in my experience are those with Dhala’i postmarks from the short-lived (1903-07) sub-post office at Dhala’ in the Amiri state on the border between erstwhile British and Turkish Yemen. Edward Proud in his Postal History of British Aden (1985), a book extensively used by the author, valued Dhala’i examples at the equivalent of 100 on covers or postcards.

On page 56 Monsieur Bel gets into a muddle when he states that ‘a Bolognese, Ludovico Di Varthema, made an engraving of Aden in 1508’ and names the person who drew a view of Aden in 1581 as ‘Georg Braun Hogenber’. The engraving to which he is doubtless referring is the one which he illustrates on page 20 (with a later Dutch copy above it). This comes from the famous collection assembled in Cologne by Georg Braun (the narrator) and Franz Hogenberg (the engraver) entitled Civitates Orbis Terrarum. The engraving was in the first volume, published in 1572, and had been based on the description written by Varthema recounting his visit to Aden in 1503. Braun explained this in his narrative which is printed on the back of the engraving. This fact, however, would not have been known to the person who chose to copy the mounted engraving displayed in the old Aden Museum in the Tawela Garden in Crater for the pictorial issue of stamps (E.A.20/ denomination) of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

A few of the other errors and misconceptions which sadly litter this work include the myth of Abel’s tomb above Crater Pass; the so-called Turkish fort on Sira Island; the modern guide-book nickname of ‘Little Ben’ for the Hogg Clock Tower above Steamer Point (erected to commemorate Brigadier-General A. F G. Hogg, Political Resident and Commander-in-Chief 1885-1890); ‘King George V Quay’ instead of the Prince of Wales Pier — which (like the Clock Tower) is properly named in the author’s maps and commemorated not George V but his father Edward VII who called at Aden on his way to India in 1872. I was saddened, too, to see that among his comprehensive array of postcards he chose to include three of dugong corpses on page 89.

Despite my strictures, I enjoyed seeing many old ‘friends’ in Monsieur Bel’s book, and would commend it to readers more for its many interesting and delightful pictorial images than for its text — which should be taken with a large measure of Aden’s only indigenous product — salt! I would, moreover, submit that Theodore Monod, who wrote the Preface, should not be taken too literally when he says on page 7, ‘l’ouvrage dont nous disposons enfin ... sera desormais indispensable ... [et] deviendra certainement rapidement un classique local.’