East is West

Aden, Yemen, 1962

I arrived in Aden after flying the length of Saudi Arabia in a Middle East Airlines DC-4. It had taken nearly eight hours from Beirut with a brief stopover in Jeddah. I had already flown four hours that day – from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad. It was two in the morning when the scallops of lights along the city’s waterfront flashed below our starboard wing, and in a moment or two the plane bumped to a landing at Khormaksar Airport.

As soon as a flight of stairs had been wheeled up, the door opened, and a blast of warm, wet air flooded into the plane. I had begun this journey on a crisp autumn morning on the high plateau of central Iran, and disembarking in Aden was like falling into a sauna bath. By the time I reached the bottom of the steps my skin was beaded with perspiration, and before I had reached the terminal dark stains were spreading across the back and front of my shirt.

Inside the terminal a few punkahs whirled slowly, shifting the hot, humid air in slow circles and rustling the rubbish underfoot. The immigration officers were as sleepy as I was, and it took only moments to finish the formalities. The city looked deserted. There were little drifts of rubbish by the kerbs, and the widely-spaced street lamps were as feeble as moonlight. The city covered a lot of ground, but there were large expanses of open ground and water, and big steep hills, and even in the dark I could tell it wasn’t really very populous. Parts of the city seemed very new, but most of it looked Victorian – and all of it looked slightly dilapidated.

In the commercial centre of the city, Steamer Point, there was a tatty little maidan (town square) near the waterfront, and the town rose from it into an amphitheatre of spiky hills. We drew up at the Crescent Hotel – a Georgian-style building fronting the maidan. One of the series of arches that ran along the ground floor was lit – that’s where the taxi stopped – and I trudged up the eight or ten steps that led to it. In the lobby were a marble-topped reception bench and a scatter of cane chairs and tables on a polished terrazzo floor. All around the walls were shuttered French windows with fan-lights above them. Illumination was by a single bulb over the reception desk – the night light, I assumed.

Steamer Point and Jebel Shamsun, Aden. Taken from the deck of the Angelina Lauro in 1962.

There was no one about, but a smart ping on the bell marked ‘Service’ brought a sleepy young Arab out of a back room. He swiveled the register around to face me and took my passport. I signed, he returned my passport, then reached under the desk.

“You like dirty magazine?” he asked. They were the first words he had spoken. He put a plain brown envelope on the desk and began to slowly pull the magazine out.

“Only two hundred shillings,” (ten pounds sterling). It was a dog-eared three-month old copy of Playboy. I turned him down.

Playboy was banned as an indecent publication throughout most of the Moslem world. I am reminded of a friend who was transferred from England to Pakistan. Among other things he carefully did was to advise Playboy – to which he had subscribed since it was first published – of his change of address.

When, after two or three months, no copies had arrived in Islamabad, he wrote to complain. Playboy management replied that, although they were sure they had been sent all copies his new address, they would resend the missing copies and would carefully monitor future deliveries.

After two or three further months, Howard – still without his Playboys – wrote again to complain. This time Playboy’s response was less apologetic. They had, they said, kept very careful records and were absolutely certain that they had sent the requisite number of copies to the correct address.

“We would suggest,” their letter ended, “That you look for the source of your problem closer to home.”

Howard searched. And searched. Nothing. Then, after another month, He received an official notification from Pakistan Customs.

”Dear Mr Dalton,” the letter commenced, “This is to advise you that your subscription to Playboy has expired and needs to be renewed.”

A creaking cage lift took me to the second floor. My room – on a corner overlooking the maidan – was spacious and high ceilinged, with a punkah spinning lazily and tall arched windows with shutters. The walls and ceiling needed a new coat of whitewash and the floor was bare wood. There was an enormous bed, a couple of wicker armchairs, a table or two and a huge old wardrobe. It had a white-tiled bathroom with an enormous claw-legged bathtub and mildew stains across the ceiling behind the fluorescent bulb.

An air conditioner had been installed under one of the windows. It was old and it rattled. It had managed to chill the air but had failed to remove the humidity, and everything was dank and clammy. I was no longer sweating because I was hot: now I was in a cold sweat. I took a quick shower, hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the doorknob, and lay on top of the covers to dry off, until I became too cold, then rolled myself into a sheet and spent the rest of the night sweating.

Next morning I threw open the shutters and looked out across the maidan. There were birds singing. My windows were level with the foliage of the few tatty trees, so I looked straight out into a wall of green leaves. This gave a totally false impression of lush vegetation. After a quick shower I had breakfast – eggs, bacon, kippers, steak, toast with jam and cheese, and a gallon of scalding tea.

The dining room had delusions of grandeur – the tables were stiff with starched napery and there was a surfeit of silverware and china at every place. Its windows looked out on the maidan at ground level, and a glance quickly disabused me of any idea that it might be lush. Between the ratty trees – thorny acacias and a couple of spindly banyans – most of the ground was compacted salty grit with a few weeds masquerading as lawns.

When I stepped outside, the Turkish bath was waiting – instant sweat – and this was Aden’s winter! The maidan was roughly triangular, the longest side fronting the sea along a stone-built quay. Lots of flights of stairs descended from the quay to rickety wooden pontoons where lighters came ashore with loads of tourists off the liners that stopped here to refuel.

The hotel and a couple of government offices – including the Secretariat – occupied most of one side of the maidan. Just around the corner was the tallest building in town – a ten-storey hotel known as The Rock. Its name was appropriate: it backed directly against a cliff taller than it was – one of the outlying ridges of Jebel Shamsun.

The third side of the maidan curved gradually and the land across the street from the absolutely flat maidan rose gradually, so that, away from the hotel, the kerb gradually grew higher and higher. It became two steps rising from the street, then three and so on up to six at the far end, where it was truncated by the quay. It was lined with mostly Indian shops and little restaurants in old double-storey Chinesey-looking buildings with fore-and-aft sloping roofs and verandahs with rooms above arching over the footpath.

Most of the shops were deep and narrow and incredibly hot. Their ceiling punkahs didn’t cool anything. Mostly they just redistributed sweat. Some of the buildings were offices of the colonial administration. Others held a variety of commercial enterprises, mostly with Indian names – Sunderji Kalidas and Sons, Bhicajee Cowasjee, J Premjee and Co, and Cowasdee Dinshaw. Bhicajee Cowasjee had knocked several shops together and sold – from separate emporia – musical instruments, general hardware, haberdashery and foodstuffs. They also had a restaurant – the Galleon Grill – described in their adverts as “an intimate, dear little place plucked right from Home and transplanted in Aden for you”.

There were a bespoke tailor, a pharmacy (The English Chemist) two cafes (The Rex and Blue Bay), a general store and two hotels – the Marina and the Victoria. Beneath the Victoria, in a narrow doorway next to Patel’s Haberdashery, a battered little sign had an arrow pointing diagonally up. In copperplate script was written ‘The Victoria Verandah Bar’ (actually it said, ‘The _ictoria Verand _h B_r’). A long dark stairway, smelling strongly of urine, angled up from the street. Just thirsty enough to overcome my distrust of the tatty sign and the odoriferous stairway, I went on up.

The Victoria Bar consisted of a single huge room – very high – with an embossed tin ceiling in serious need of paint. It was held up by lots of spindly iron pillars that looked like metal street-lamp bases. Little drifts of rubbish were being shuffled across the splintery wooden floor by the punkahs. Tall French windows were open all along the front, giving access to a wide, covered balcony overlooking the maidan. I marched straight out through these doors and threw myself into a cane chair by the railing. Even out here there were punkahs, shifting hot, damp air slowly from table to table. Sitting there I could look out over the busy harbour – at the freighters at anchor and the lighters shuttling back and forth like water beetles.

I only wanted a drink, and I hadn’t expected the full lunch menu delivered to me by a dapper little Somali. In well-pressed dark trousers, and a gleaming white shirt and apron, with an immaculate white towel over one arm, he seemed not to belong in this tatty barn of a place. But he did. Like the dining room of my hotel, the Victoria clearly thought itself several cuts above what it actually was.

The menu reminded me that it was early afternoon, so I read my way down it. My eye was instantly caught by ‘Ground-nut Curry with Gentlemen’s Accompaniments’. Wondering what ‘Gentlemen’s Accompaniments’ were, I ordered one.  What they were was nothing special – banana slices, ground coconut, peanuts, raisins, chopped onions, things like that – but they were served with a curry so rich and succulent that my taste buds still tingle with the memory of it. I washed it down with a couple of bottles of beer.

Afterwards, replete and somnolent, I leaned back with a tall glass of Irish coffee and looked out over the harbour. An incoming passenger liner had just passed the mole, and a flotilla of little lighters – trying to anticipate her anchorage point – was hovering anxiously about her. They disturbed only one quadrant of the harbour surface, and the sunlight, reflected and refracted from their intersecting wakes, was painfully brilliant. Otherwise the harbour was as flat and bright as a mirror.

This, I thought, was the perfect time to orient myself. Knowing that Aden was a major port on the southernmost point on the Arabian Peninsula, my mental picture of the city had it facing south over the sea. But that wasn’t how geography worked. The city actually faced north, looking across Bandar Tawahi toward the stony deserts of the mainland sultanate of Lahej. The plains of Lahej rose slowly northward to the foothills of the mountains of Yemen, but they were 60 or 70 miles away and – through the humid, dusty air – were seldom visible. Bandar Tawahi was about 10 miles wide and 30 long, so, looking north from the waterfront, the mainland coast was invisible.

Ignorant of all this, I looked out across what I took to be the sea, and my mental compass automatically set that direction at ‘South’. Happy with that, I finished my coffee and resumed my walk. It didn’t take long for me to realise that something was seriously adrift with my orientation. The sun moved the wrong way all afternoon, and by teatime, while the western sky turned green and then purple, the sky in the east went the colour of brass.

Swollen and shimmering, the sun burned its way into the eastern horizon. When it disappeared the sky turned to gold. Like all tropical sunsets, it was brief. It dimmed quickly and in a few minutes almost the entire spectrum – yellow and red through green and blue to indigo – had drained away across the horizon. There was a brief flare of a deep incandescent violet, then blackness. The night sky was gorgeous. It was a desert sky and there were a gazillion stars – all spectacularly large, some of them very close – set tier on tier above the city and its mountain.

Next day I got up at dawn and took particular notice of the sun. It was a perfectly ordinary dawn, except that the sun rose in the west. Well damn! I had been afraid it would. Damn, damn, damn! There had to be something I could do about this – or so I thought. But apparently there wasn’t. For the next four years I tried to get my head around the problem, but I could never make it come right. So from that day on, my directions were always 180 degrees out.

Eventually I got used to having the sun rise in the west and set in the east. Nobody else did – but then nobody else had to. In my four years in Aden, I never met another person who suffered from my particular affliction. Curiously, the minute I set foot on the mainland of the Arabian Peninsula, my compass instantly reoriented itself so that, except for the city itself, my sense of direction functioned quite normally.

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