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A VOYAGE BY DHOW
Back in my early days my interests in photography and foreign languages, particularly Arabic, came to the attention of a Rex Stevens of the Colonial Office. In the spring of 1937 he called on me to enquire whether I might be interested in a journey to the Yemen, which until then had been hardly visited by Western travellers, and of which little was known.
Having succeeded in awakening my interest, Stevens passed me on to the Foreign Office, where an official outlined the drawbacks to a small expedition of the kind he had in mind. Such unsolicited incursions were regarded by the country's suspicious and xenophobic rulers as espionage, to be punished by chopping off the offender's head. 'So far only two Englishmen have travelled in the country. There are no roads as we understand them. There's no electricity and you will be unable to eat the food. I would strongly recommend a further discussion with Stevens before you commit yourself.'
When I saw Stevens again, he shrugged his shoulders. 'These men are professional pessimists,' he said. 'Do you still feel you might want to go ahead?' I told him I did. 'In that case you must meet Ladislas Farago,' he said. 'He'll be coming along.'
'Didn't he write that book about Abyssinia?'
'He certainly did, and if you haven't read it I've got a copy here.'
Stevens fumbled in his briefcase and brought out a copy of Abyssinia on the Eve, which at that moment was in all the bookshops. 'It's the most extraordinary book of its kind I've ever read. Absolutely riveting. Farago's a remarkable man. Anyway, why don't you join us?' Stevens said. 'You'd find it of immense interest, I assure you, and full of amazing adventures.'
'I can imagine,' I said.
In the end it was decided that I should meet Farago if that could be done, and later that day I took a phone call from Stevens to say that this had been arranged for the following Friday.
This gave me a couple of days to read the book, and I settled down to an account of the extraordinary year Farago had spent in Abyssinia.
Farago was a journalist who worked for the Associated Press. He was Hungarian born; a great miser and bluffer. I found him flamboyant and unreliable. A couple of years earlier he had been sent to Abyssinia on the eve of the Italian invasion. There he had discovered a country that had never freed itself from the Middle Ages—nor had it wished to do so—ruled by Haile Selassie, its emperor, and a tiny aristocracy which enjoyed total power. In Abyssinia, they had even dispensed with prisons. If a man killed another the nearest armed guard would execute him on the spot, and there were buffalo-hide whips and branding irons ready in the street to be used on minor criminals. Proven liars were scourged, and debtors chained to their creditors. Slave markets existed in the remoter towns, and Farago described naked slaves of both sexes being exhibited for sale.
On the Friday, as arranged, the meeting with Ladislas Farago took place in Stevens' office. My first impression of Farago was favourable. Reading his book I had been carried along by a robust sense of humour and now I was impressed by his modesty—highly commendable in a successful author. It was evident that he had experienced considerable relief at being able to put Abyssinia behind him at last. In his view nothing in European history had existed to compare with the tragic condition of the poor in that country.
So had he finally turned his back on the place? Stevens asked. Farago raised his eyes to the ceiling. 'I have no plans to go back,' he said.
Stevens turned to the Yemen project, which had clearly been under discussion before my arrival. 'So, Ladislas, I can take it you're quite happy with what's suggested?' he asked.
Farago laughed. 'I have to do something for a living. Who do we see about all the details?'
'No one but me, I'm afraid,' Stevens said. 'We're dealing with a closed country. There's no one we can talk to except a number of Bedouins who trade across the border. We know nothing of what goes on at the top, which is what interests us. We're starting from scratch.'
'When do you expect we'll be making a move?' I asked.
'As soon as we can. Sir Bernard Reilly, our man over there, is giving us a letter for the King and I've managed to fix up passages on a dhow from Aden. The first thing we do when we get there is see the skipper—he'll ask us to sign a paper saying that we believe in God. Be another week or so before they collect all the passengers and we can set sail,' Stevens replied.
'Things move slowly,' I said.
'They do, but you soon get used to it,' Stevens told us. 'The only port in the Yemen is Hodeidah. It takes five to fifteen days to get there, according to the weather. What happens next, heavens only knows.'
'And once again, what is the objective of the expedition?' I asked. It was a question which produced one of Stevens' secret smiles.
'The answer,' he said, 'is that we will gain valuable information. You will busy yourself with your camera, and Ladislas, I'm sure, will write another excellent book. Just think of the photographic possibilities. It's still illegal to take photographs in the Yemen. Did you know that?' he asked.
'No, I did not.'
'Something to do with the Prophet's ban on graven images. Which being the case, you'll want to get shots of practically everything you see.'
Little remained to be settled after that. Stevens spoke to his travel agent, and a week later we boarded the SS Llansteffan Castle. We reached Aden in nine days.
Aden was then one of the great destinations of the world. Sitting in the middle of the trade route to India, it was of immense strategic importance and had been ruled by the British since the 1830s. A constant, almost uncontrollable, influx of travellers poured through it, as if through a cosmic filter, from all parts of the Eastern and Western worlds. Newcomers passed through a climate of bewilderment, frustration, hope, relief and despair before finding salvation in the neutrality of a hotel.
Though we had arrived late in the day, the heat was still intolerable. Fortunately the Marina Hotel to which we had been delivered possessed a roof terrace on which beds were lined up ready for the night. From this point there was a distant view of what we were assured was the last of the 'Towers of Silence', with vultures flapping over it round a corpse abandoned for disposal. The mutterings and squawks of nocturnal animals destroyed any hopes of sleep and I got up and moved down to the bar, which was still open. Here I was instantly approached by a courteous young man who handed me a visiting card engraved with his name, Joseph, and his profession: Senior Officer's Pimp. We talked for a while of his occupation and he assured me that Aden City and the smaller towns of the Protectorate possessed in all 8,000 prostitutes, and that those under his protection were not only of exceptional beauty and charm but had the education necessary to be included at reasonable prices in any family party. There were a few who could perform tricks at such gatherings, even causing the guests' enemies to disappear and be seen no more, although they naturally demanded a higher fee.
Stevens was soon busy making our arrangements. After a visit to Sir Bernard Reilly, the Governor, he was handed a letter to the Imam Yahya—at the time on the verge of official recognition as the Yemeni king. Sir Bernard hoped that our visit might do something to improve the somewhat flaccid relationship between Britain and the Yemen in recent years. Obtaining our permit, however, proved difficult. Money could provide a variety of entertainment in Aden but when it came to taking a dhow to the Yemen even financial solidity came second to religious faith.
We were soon assured that, by the greatest of good fortune, a dhow had just arrived in port that would serve our purposes. It would shortly be taking cargo for destinations on the Red Sea, including Hodeidah. Unfortunately it had run into a storm on its way from Al Mukalla, necessitating repairs involving an uncertain number of weeks. We were taken to inspect it and welcomed on board. It bore the name El Haq (Truth), and had been somewhat nonchalantly berthed in an angle of the waterway. It smelt of bad breath, and a man in a yellow jacket of the kind in compulsory use where outbreaks of the plague were suspected was splashing the deck with disinfectant from a can, while another had withdrawn to a corner for evening prayer. The inflated corpse of a dog drifted past on a sluggish current. The dhow was smaller than expected and would have been much improved by fresh paint. It was impossible to ignore the massive, roughly carpentered chair in its surrounding cage, known in Arabic as 'the place of ease', which would be hoisted high in the air over the waves as soon as the ship was under way.
This safe area on a coast elsewhere unprotected from the weather had assured the wealth of one of the most prosperous purely maritime cities on earth. Yet making our way back to the urban centre we found ourselves on streets in which two or sometimes three buildings had been squeezed into gaps left where one had fallen. The old white houses down by the port were splashed by mud thrown up by vehicles driven at top speed, and first- and second-floor windows dribbled slops into the street. Held up in a traffic jam there was no escaping the sight of a group of children who had gathered to stone a three-legged puppy trapped in a doorway. Aden was on its way to becoming the capital of the Middle East, but outside the showpiece of its centre, burdened with wealth as it was, there was something about it that was repellent and cruel.
By the end of the sixth week of our stay, we had become very familiar with the situation in Aden. Investigating the city, we had, worryingly, identified many Italian soldiers in mufti, though Ladislas assured me that they had been drawn there by the presence of a singular attraction. This was, in fact, the best-kept brothel in the Mediterranean, with a complex of charming and spotless chalets said to have been designed by a lapsed Roman Catholic priest, based on a vision of Paradise that had drawn him to the place. It was heavy with the perfume of the jasmine plants that trailed over all the houses, and ruled over by a dazzling young lady of fourteen named 'Halva' (Sweetness), who made no charge for her services for suitors who presented themselves with an acceptable poem. But we had also soon become aware of the presence of many secret agents, and there was no longer any doubt in my mind, and certainly none in Farago's, as to the immediate purpose of our presence there.
This had been instantly confirmed when, on the spur of the moment, I had visited Stevens in the lodgings he had taken to escape the noise of the hotel. He had put aside a map he had been studying but it was clearly one of southern Yemen, showing an area encircled in red ink. A whisky bottle close at hand may have accounted for his immediate frankness. He shook his head. 'Really it's all a matter of who gets there first—the Italians or us,' he said. 'Everybody realizes that something has to happen. Any leads on the situation? I suppose it's early days.'
'I wasn't sure how urgent this was,' I said. 'I talked to a man who could be useful yesterday. Belongs to an organization called the Whisperers, based in Lahej. He could find us a professional guide and bodyguards if necessary.'
'Good,' Stevens said. 'No chance of a trap, I hope?'
'I doubt it,' I said. 'It's something the Arabs don't seem to go in for.'
'What's special about Lahej?' Stevens asked.
'It's practically on the border, and half the population are Yemeni refugees. They'd be on our side.'
'And you feel like going there then?'
'Why not? Better than hanging about in Aden.'
'Well don't get yourself killed,' Stevens said.
I was pleasantly surprised that it should be possible to take a taxi to Lahej, although I noted that the driver wore a gun, tucked into an armpit holster. We covered a few miles through Aden's slatternly outskirts before reaching an open road flanked by the muted outlines of the shipbuilding yards of prehistory. Lahej came rapidly into sight, surrounded by shining oases. The initial brilliance of its surroundings proved on closer approach to be something of a deception, for the town itself was subject to dust storms, its buildings being pallid with a greyish powder that stuck to its walls. Worst of all, the palms grouped by the hundreds in its open spaces released cascades of dust at fairly regular intervals when shaken by gusts of wind. A touch of fanaticism in its religious observances kept the citizens of Lahej more frequently at prayer than elsewhere in southern Arabia. They fasted, made donations to the poor, nurtured the sick, dressed without ostentation, played nothing but religious music, and had outlawed the gramophone. With all that they contrived surely to be the most friendly and companionable people it was possible to imagine. I had hardly released myself from the taxi when a passer-by pushed himself to the front of the small crowd that had gathered, and proceeded to offer me, using a simplified form of his language employed in conversation with foreigners or children, the hospitality of his home. I had already been warned of the almost embarrassing kindness of these people so I was able to excuse myself with a reasonable amount of grace. I then hastened to take refuge in one of the town's inns, in which Bedouin and their camels were lodged without distinction, before someone else, seeing me at a loose end, could implore me to become a guest in his house.
I was to spend two days in Lahej, enchanted by the rigidity of its customs. It was immediately clear that this was the great playground of the desert, and that these people of Bedouin origin remained Bedouin at heart and were the prisoners of pleasure. A man at the inn had told me, 'Parties go on all the time. We're addicts of them. If a man sells a few sheep he's likely to join with a friend and they hire a tent. It holds 200 people and they put it up in two days. Often it's for a wedding and everyone is invited. I could take you to a party now, and they'd rush to grab your hand and say "Ahlan wa sahlan" (Your very good health).'
The next day was a Friday, when the Sultan accompanied by his numerous family and the nobility of this minuscule realm walked in procession to pray in the mosque. I witnessed an inspiriting scene in which the Lahej army, composed of about one hundred British-trained soldiers, marched both to the rhythm of native drummers and to the music of the only saxophone permitted by the religious authorities to be imported into the state.
In the evening I was invited to a party attended solely by men, at which the chewing of khat—the leaves of a mildly narcotic plant—was general, although this produced only a mild hilarity. A number of the guests had visited the barber earlier in the evening to have themselves cupped and a few arrived still wearing cows' horns covering gashes on various parts of their bodies. No disquiet was evident when, despite the illegality of photography, I used my spy camera to take pictures of this weird effect and other scenes likely to be of interest to Stevens. But my use of the camera—never seen and hardly even heard of—aroused interest and speculation in Lahej. 'I'm making pictures for the people back home', was my reason given, whether or not understood.
Lahej was within 300 miles of one of the greatest of the earth's total deserts, but it had a temperate climate and substantial rainfall. A guest at the party told me that this was due to the mountain range to the north, the beginnings of which were almost within walking distance. He offered to take me in his camel cart into these mountains, and we set off together the next morning. The distance was covered at a remarkable pace and within two hours we found ourselves in a flowering landscape.
We were now in the forbidden land of the Yemen, passing through countryside watered by mountain streams and covered with a profusion of green vegetation. It was too early in the year to enjoy the summer maximum of this scene, but on all sides the aloes and tamarisks, date palms and banana trees protruded from among flowering aromatic shrubs. My friend, Said Hamud, was a man of education who stressed the fact that the climate of his land, although a part of Asia, was more like that of a country lying far away to the north by the waters of the Atlantic. In winter, he said, there were stiff frosts within fifty miles of Lahej, although no snowfalls. A little later, in season, I was told, these mountain flanks would be clothed with jasmine, clematis and wild briar, as well as—incredibly enough—with bluebells and forget-me-nots. The more accessible valleys had already been cultivated with coffee beans, and fruits of all kinds. My friend pointed out the monkeys in the trees, and as a lover of birds I was delighted to identify the hoopoe and the golden oriole. A pre-Islamic Arab writer had said of this country that, 'Its inhabitants are all hale and strong; sickness is rarely seen, there are no poisonous plants of animals, nor blind persons, nor fools, and the women are ever young. The climate is like paradise, and one wears the same garment all winter.'
Excerpted from A Voyage by Dhow by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 2001 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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