Letter from Aden

Letter from Aden

by Bill Hayton

Originally published in Middle East International, 3 July 1998

AT THE SHOP under the arches where the steamers used to arrive, the Indian shopkeeper sells mementoes of the Cold War: souvenirs of British colonialism and Socialist realism. He has run the shop since 1948, his father before him opened it in 1927. Then it stood at the entrance to the world’s biggest duty-free store, visited by every passing ship. Now, though, his only customers are passing yachts, one a day in a good week.

These days Aden is right off the tourist track. The four-by-fours speed from Sana'a down to Ta'izz and back again or across the desert to Hadramawt in search of more exotic fare. But the former southern capital is still charming though the whole place has the air of being stranded, as if everyone should have got on a boat long ago

Perhaps the beaches along the Golden Mohur hold the key to a tourist revival, certainly some northern business people think so. All the old hotels, whose glory faded under state ownership, are in private hands now - though nobody knows who sold them to who, or for how much, or where the money’s gone. The Crescent is fantastic. The first purpose-built hotel in the country, it has been here as long as the souvenir shop. Now, though, its front gardens contain the local branch of the Political Security Office, keeping a watchful eye on the restive southerners.

On the first floor of the hotel is the Queen’s Room, where “Mrs Windsor” is said to have stayed in 1954, although Buckingham Palace apparently denies it. A tour of the room reveals her portrait on the wall, and a copy of the Qur’an by the twin beds. Across the road, the Rock Hotel hasn’t fared so well. It is being renovated in stages; the lift and the bedrooms are done, but they’re still fighting the civil war in the bathroom. And though the bar has fantastic views around the whole bay, what look like bottles of Becks turn out to be alcohol-free.

From Steamer Point, both sides of the road towards Crater are lined with tower blocks that look like they were built by the Russians but were in fact quarters for British soldiers. Beneath the balconies of the last block is the Ching Sing - possibly the world’s best Chinese restaurant. The almost blind doorman leads us in to an interior which seems unchanged since the withdrawal from east of Suez. The lobster and crab and oriental vegetables which appear from the back room are reason enough to add the port to your itinerary.

My quest to find out why Adenis are unhappy with unification takes me further around the bay But the local party boss of the League of the Sons of Yemen fails to provide any answers. A bearded young man with a stern demeanour, he will only read to me from a prepared statement phrased in the most general terms. When I ask him to give me specific examples of their grievances, he leaves the room with his mobile phone only to return and tell me that he is not authorised to depart from the script.

They are more forthcoming at al-Ayyam newspaper. Its office is next to the football ground where, in 1995, crowd trouble at an Aden-Sana'a match ended up with at least seven southern supporters killed by the security forces. Things seem quieter now, but what Adenis really don’t like is the feeling that they are being marginalised and dispossessed. I am told that 26 of the 33 departments of the local administration are headed by northerners. But what do they want to do about it? Some say they would prefer British rule. I apologise and say Tony Blair doesn’t want to turn the clock back that far. Continuing around the bay, past the airport with the wreckage of the southern air force still lying on the tarmac, is the Seera brewery. Or at least the building is still there. Unfortunately it has several holes in it where the zealots from up-country fired their RPGs at it in 1994. Try taking photos and an agitated security guard will chase you away. It no longer refreshes the more secular population, and it is unlikely to appear on the government’s list of reconstruction projects.

By contrast, the oil refinery at the far end of the bay in Little Aden seems to have fully recovered from the events of 1994. Surrounded on three sides by beaches, it is the place where locals who cannot afford the private beaches come to play. It is also the only place in the whole country where I see teenage girls bare-headed. A whole gaggle of them walking along the sand carrying a blaring cassette recorder. Not something you’d see in the city, where the northern veil is worn almost universally, something the taxi driver laments - we don’t want “ninja women” in this town, he says.

From the beach we climb to the look-out post high above the refinery. It is sweltering even at ten in the morning. But the view back across the whole bay towards the hotels of Steamer Point is worth the sweat. The little white buildings are dominated by the enormous bulk of the rock behind them, its skyline bristling with antennae and Cable and Wireless’ huge satellite dishes and its shore punctuated with once chic residences. How long before a James Bond film is set here?