Shabwa

Shabwa, Yemen, 1962

Beyond Ataq, bare sand plains stretched to the three black ridges of Heid el Milh – literally ‘cliffs of salt’. There had been salt mines here since time immemorial. Our next landmarks, they loomed vague and blue against the northern horizon. Three hours later we were among the peaks and cooling off in the depths of an enormous hand-dug salt pit, having lunch.

After helping a Somali miner load his camels with crude bricks of salt, we set out again across the bleak sandy flats, this time toward a whale-back mountain on the border with Yemen. As we passed it, roaring along six abreast at about 60 mph, three Land Rovers sped out from the shadow of the peak where they had been waiting, and waved us down.

As the first drew alongside us, seven barefoot bedu youths in flaming red kuffiyehs and khaki blouses and skirts jumped out and formed a line to present arms. They were our new escort of Hadhramaut Bedouin Legionnaires (known as the HBL*). From the last vehicle stepped the massive bulk of Jim Ellison, NDPO. He had come from Seiyun to lead our escort in person, because of renewed skirmishing between Hadhramis and Yemenis near the border town of Shabwa, around which he intended that we should detour.

We especially wanted to go to Shabwa because of its historical and biblical associations, and we told him so. (Shabwa was the legendary capital of the Queen of Sheba.) Jim reluctantly said we could try, but not to expect too much. Not only, he said, was there danger from guerillas, but the Shabwans themselves were implacably xenophobic.  Whatever we did in Shabwa, he added, we would have to do pretty damned quickly – before they had registered just who we were.

“Don’t, on any account, let the wee lad…” He gestured at Juma’an…”out of the vehicle. He’s too pretty by half. Nekkid as he is, he’d just be bugger-bait.”

Shabwa occupied a substantial tel that was almost the only landmark in a gravel plain as barren as the surface of the moon. As towns go, Shabwa wasn’t any great shakes – two or three hundred whitewashed mud huts with grey thatched roofs. In the brilliant desert sun, it looked ruinous – bleached and hollow as old bones.  Looking at the grim, baked landscape that surrounded it – the temperature had just topped 50C again – I wondered how it survived. We stopped at the well just outside of town. Almost before we got the doors open, a hostile crowd began to assemble. I had time for one quick snap before rocks began to rattle against the sides of the Land Rover and Jim ordered us to “Get the hell out of here!” We got.

Shabwa

Our detour took us between lopsided dunes in the shadow of Milh Mqah (Salt Mountain), then east to a gap in the cliffs at the western end of Wadi Hadhramaut. Far to the north, across an absolutely desolate plain of sand, we could see the three peaks that mark the last British outpost at Husn Al Abr. We stopped for lunch at the edge of the salt mine and – dangling our feet over the edge of the mine pit – ate cold corn from tins and drank mugs of hot tea.

Picking up something from the ground, Jim turned to me and placed a small metallic thing in my hand. “Ye’d never guess,” he said, “That this was a famous battle-ground, would ye? Biggest fight in South Arabia in over a hundred years.”

I looked down at my hand. In the centre of my palm lay a spent rifle shell – about the calibre, I guessed, of a heavy military rifle – something like the Lee-Enfields the HBL troopers (‘jundies’) carried.

“And this,” I quipped, indicating the shell, “shall be a sign unto me…?”

“Ye bet it’s a sign. One of a very great many. There are thousands and thousands of these scattered all around here – thousands.” He scrabbled about in the gravel near his feet and quickly turned up two more shells.

Intrigued, I dug my hand into the dirt next to my bottom. To my surprise, I, too, turned up a pair of shell casings. “God!” I grinned at him, “There really must be thousands of the damned things. When was this great tamasha?”

“About five years ago – winter of 1957, I think. The As Sayaar tribe from the Yemen took exception to our Menhali tribesmen quarrying their salt. After at least a thousand years of peaceful co-existence, they decided they wanted it all for themselves.

“And in…yes, I’m sure in was ’57 the two tribes went to war over it. They fought it out just there,” – he indicated the sand and gravel flats west of the mine – plains as flat as a billiard table and utterly without cover.

“Nine hundred warriors from the As Sayaar slogged it out with four hundred Menhali for five days at a range of less than two hundred yards. The battle was eventually decided not by tactics, strategy, or even casualties, but by logistics. The As Sayaar, who’d been firing about 10 rounds to the Menhali’s one, eventually ran out of ammunition, and had to withdraw, leaving the Manahil in possession of the field. And, of course, of the mine.”

Salt Mountain no longer exists. Over the last three thousand or so years, it has been entirely excavated away in the search for salt, and now there is only a large (100 x 50 yards) pit 40 or 50 feet deep.

“British military investigators later retrieved over 200,000 spent cartridges – not to mention all the hundreds or thousands they missed.” – he opened his hand to show me six or eight more cartridges he’d scrabbled from the dust while we talked – “And would you believe there was only one casualty? Two hundred thousand cartridges fired and only one man wounded? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? One man wounded – and even he hadn’t actually been shot. He had cut his heel on a sharp rock.”

This, I think, goes a long way to explaining the humiliating Arab defeats in the famous ‘Six-Day War’ in 1967. Arab armies are all noise, bravado and bombast, but for the most part they can’t fight worth a damn. Their idea is to overawe their enemies and make them retreat. Killing, per se, is not at the top of their agenda. The Israelis, on the other hand, fought like Westerners. In other words, they killed first and asked questions afterwards.

We paused at the little HBL fort at Bir Asakir – Soldiers’ Well (‘Bir’ is Arabic for well. ‘Asakir’ is the plural form of ‘Askari’ – ‘soldier’) – just long enough for Jim to give the garrison a quick inspection, but he didn’t want to stop there. We pitched our cots 10 kilometres farther down the wadi, at the foot of a conical hill topped by a little abandoned stone fort.

“D’ya ken that wee fort?” Jim asked, waving a meaty hand in its general direction, “Well, about two years since, a chappie saw all th’ caravans passin’ by and decided ’twas a great chance to levy himsel’ some taxes. He’n two other chappies built yon wee fort and made quite a good thing of it too for a time. These lads,” he indicated our heavily-armed escort, “Got t’ him last year. He’s buried somewhere hereabouts.”

As we sat down to eat, Jim nodded at Juma’an, who was curled up by the fire, his smooth skin glowing like bronze.

“Wherever did ye find such an absolutely gorgeous boy?” He asked.

“Juma’an? He came with Abdullah Hassan.” I replied, “He seems to be a sort of dogsbody.”

“Are you sure there isn’t something more to their relationship than that?”

“Not that I know of … but, no, I’m not sure.” It occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly be sure. I’d only known Abdullah about three months and Juma’an less than 72 hours. I thought about it. Somehow it just didn’t fit what I knew either of the man or of the boy. “I don’t think so, though. Why? Does it matter?”

“No. At least not to me,” Jim replied, “But ye’d best get the lad some clothes before ye get to Seiyun. He’ll have half the men in town pantin’ after him.”

It didn’t matter to me, either. So far I had liked them both enormously. But I had to admit that they were practically inseparable. The closeness of their relationship was to raise quite a lot of eyebrows – and may, in fact, have been the proximal cause of Abdullah’s death three years later.

I had noticed the behaviour of the Naib and the Emir toward Juma’an, and I could appreciate Jim’s concern. I brought the up the matter with Abdullah Hassan before bedtime. Finally he agreed to provide the boy with some clothing.

“Anything,“ he said, “we can do to keep men away from him. Something to cover up more of Juma’an and make him less attractive. Maybe some ill-fitting Western clothing.”

For supper we ate nan provided by Jim and a stew made up of chili, tamales, ravioli, Irish stew and spaghetti from our stores of tinned goods. It wasn’t wonderful, but it sure beat sheep’s eyeballs. We broke into our stores of scotch and all got rather maudlin. It was a memorably beautiful evening. Our Bedouin escort sat at their fire singing Arab love songs while a monstrously swollen yellow moon washed the canyon with luminous gold.

*The Hadhramaut Bedouin Legion, or HBL, was a body of young Bedouin troops recruited by the British from friendly tribes throughout the East and West Aden protectorates and used to maintain law and order throughout British South Arabia. Originally there were about 1500 jundies in the HBL. When we arrived and used our more-than-ample funds, a further 1000 troops were raised specifically to protect our white asses whenever we were out in the field.

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