Ghayle ba Wazir, Yemen, 1962
It took all morning to repair the vehicle – the snapped axle was the least of its problems – so I decided to walk down the camel trail to the oasis below where the tops of coconut palms showed above the rocks. I walked alone down the trail to the oasis below and up the twisted valley where a spring gushed from a cleft in the cliffs. Carefully guided from terrace to terrace, this flow had nourished a microcosm of paradise in a desolate landscape.
I trudged up the little valley, threading my way past enormous polished boulders and jumping stagnant pools arrowed by fleeing frogs. Date and coconut palms crossed fronds over the path and latticed silver diamonds of sky. Damp moss squelched underfoot. Cotton trees glowed in the patchwork sunlight.
I heard the clatter of falling water, and the laughter and shrieks of children at play. Rounding a last smooth wall of rock, I found myself at the spring. A smooth cliff of glowing stone rose abruptly above the valley floor, split by a single angling cleft where water leapt clear of the wall and into a shaft of sun. Below lay a great dark pool of green water, rimmed by giant boulders, with spears of reeds and stalagmites of moss rising from the bottom. Four towering coconut palms leaned together across the pool, drooping tresses of vine over the water, and a row of slender betel palms rustled and rattled beside a mossy stream.
A group of small boys was doing cannonballs into the pool, splashing an old washerwoman kneeling beside the pool. The old woman screamed and threatened to no avail, as she retreated, half-drenched, from her laundry. On the other bank, an old man sat against a stone, surrounded by a half-circle of teen-age boys.
This tableau froze as I appeared – all eyes turned toward me – only the frogs in the pool, not realising in their dim way that their terror was over, still darted frantically from rock to rock. As I stood, hesitant, beside the pool, the old man rose, smiled, and beckoned to me. “Ahlan wa sahlan!” He called, “Welcome” as I picked my way across to the boulders where he sat. “Ismak?”, he asked (“Your Name?”). He seemed to realise that my Arabic was, at best, rudimentary, and limited his conversation to single words. “Gail”, I replied, giving it the guttural Arabic pronunciation “Ghayl.”
His eyes widened. He beamed, then laughed aloud, revealing a red mouth of betel-stained teeth, “Ghayl! Ghayl! Ghayl!, Ha Hoooo Hooo! Ismi Del Abed!” (“My name is Del Abd”), “Ghayl, Del Abd! Haa Hee Hee!” He leaned forward and said something to the kids around him. The boys instantly joined in his laughter and, although I failed to see anything particularly funny, their laughter was so infectious I soon found myself laughing as hard as the rest. Del Abd quickly noticed that I hadn’t got the joke.
“Affadal” (sit), “I will explain,” Del Abd gestured me to a stone. “Hinna Ghayl,” he patted my knee. (“This place is Ghayl”), “Ghayl ba Wazir“. I, of course, already knew this – I had read the village’s name on the map. But I managed to look surprised.
“Enti Ghayl. Hinna Ghayl” (You are Ghayl. This place is Ghayl). The similarity of its name to my name, however, had previously escaped me. This time my look of surprise was real. “Enti Ghayl ba Wazir” (“You are ‘Ghayl Ba Wazir”). He roared with laughter, pounding my back with his fist, and the boys all cheered and clapped. I was quite unreasonably pleased. “We will call you ‘Ba Wazir’”. I felt as though I’d won something – like Del Abd had awarded me a prize. Well, maybe he had.
Del Abd’s name reminded me of something. ‘Abd’ means ‘slave’ in Arabic and is a common part of men’s’ names – as in Abdullah (Slave of God), Abdulqadir (Slave of the Merciful), Abdulmejid (Slave of the Teacher) – all meaning ‘the slave of God (Allah, in Arabic). God, according to myth, has one hundred names, three of which are listed above. Moslems know ninety-nine of these names. Only the camel knows the one hundredth name. This is why the camel wears such a supercilious look on his face.
“Salim!” he gestured imperiously to one of the boys and spouted a torrent of Arabic. One of the boys quite literally leapt up the trunk of the nearest coconut tree. He simply walked up the almost vertical trunk on all fours, holding with fingertips and toes. Reaching the top, he settled himself amongst the branches, and coconuts began to rain down. “Bas, Bas!!” (Enough), the old man screamed, “Bas, Bas!!” Finally, apparently feeling that his prowess was sufficiently demonstrated, Salim descended and rejoined the circle. The coconuts were passed around and the boys took out their hook-pointed jambiers and began to remove the heavy green husks. As they worked, they chattered and laughed among themselves, smiling and casting coquettish glances at me.
The husks removed, they deftly topped the nuts, leaving the stem as a sort of handle. Offering me one of the crude cups, brim full of translucent milk, old Del Abd raised his cup and solemnly intoned, “Bismillah (God be with you) Ba Wazir” and we all drank. By some natural magic the milk was cool and after a morning of hard climbing with no water, a wonderful tonic.
The little boys had gone back to their swimming, and the old woman, still wary, was left undisturbed to beat her laundry against the rocks beside the pool. The sun hung just over a notch in the mountains behind us, and long undulating bars of shadow lay across the water. A breeze sprang up from the valley and the fronds overhead rustled. With gestures, I asked whether the betel palms – trees with impossibly tall slender trunks – were, in fact, just young coconuts (I hadn’t then learned the difference).
“Abdullah!” Again Del Abd gestured. Another boy sprang up onto one of the slender trunks. Like a monkey he scampered up about thirty feet, then braced himself and jumped across to another trunk and clambered up another ten feet or so, the slim trunk leaning far out of the perpendicular beneath his weight. Then he leapt again – and again – from tree to tree! None of the trees could bear his weight for long, and they swayed and bent like whips. He was like some forest sprite, slim and brown and agile – leaping and balancing and leaping again. At last he reached the top of one tree and rode it nearly to the ground. Seizing a handful of the yellow, date-sized fruit, he slipped off just before the tree rebounded upward, landing neatly on his feet. He ran back and stood before us, panting and perspiring, but grinning – obviously quite pleased with himself.
“Tayib! Tammam Jib’al”, I muttered almost under my breath, rather afraid that my atrocious Arabic might not mean what I thought it meant (Good. Everything’s great) and hoping that if I muttered nobody could be sure just what I had said, “Tayib.” Abdullah beamed, salaamed deeply, then whipped off his futah and threw himself into the pool in a flat dive, scattering a flotilla of somnolent frogs and re-inundating the old lady. After a single irate moan, she spat, “Allahu Akbar!”, gathered up her still unfinished washing, and stalked off down the path, her damp clothing slapping wetly against the rocks
Abdullah returned, handed the wet nuts to Del Abd (who promptly began cracking them with his teeth) and sat down, still naked, to dry off. He looked so obviously cool that all the boys promptly shucked their futahs and jumped into the pool. They laughed and splashed and ducked one another with great glee as old Del Abd finished cracking the nuts, then reached into a fold of his futah and withdrew a roll of kola leaf and a canister of what I later found was lime paste.
Del Abd finished rolling the leaves, lathering them in the lime paste, bit off a chunk of betel nut, inserted it with a flourish and handed it to me.
Luckily, I still remembered from India how the stuff must be chewed. If it is chewed too fast, you swallow some and become violently ill; if too slowly, the lime paste will burn off half the skin in your mouth. My memory seemed to pay off. As I chewed and spat redly without apparent discomfort, young Abdullah touched my shoulder, “Tayib! Tammam Jib’an Ata’alim” (Good, very fine. You are learning). So my Arabic had been right after all – he had praised me with the same words I had earlier used to him.
Enough rolls were completed for everyone, and for some time we chewed and spat in companionable silence (it is rather difficult to talk and chew betel nut at the same time – not only does it make you salivate until you nearly drool, but it also partially paralyses the tongue). Then Selim fetched another round of coconuts, and we all drank. The boys’ bodies had, by now, dried; but none chose to get dressed. Instead, each took up his futah and wrapped it, turban fashion, around his head.
Following this, with much goading, I tried climbing one of the palms, managing to reach the dizzying height of ten feet before I lost my grip and fell heavily into a flooded terrace. So it was that I made my departure, muddy and dripping, laden with half-a-dozen coconuts strung on ropes across my shoulder, and escorted by a garrulous old man and a dozen naked boys wearing their clothes on their heads.
When I turned to the path back up the cliffs, Del Abd waved and called out, “Ma salaama Ba Wazir, Ma salaama”, (‘Goodbye’ – literally, ‘with peace’). Even after he and the boys had disappeared around a corner I could still them chanting “Ma salaama, Ghayl Ba Wazir, Ma salaama, Ghayl Ba Wazir”.
Back in camp I told Howard and Martin about the curious coincidence of finding an oasis called “Ghayl”, and related some of Del Abd’s conversation – especially the bit about “Ghayl Ba Wazir”. Howard’s eye brightened immediately, “Well,” He said, “If they can call you ‘Ba Wazir”, we can go them one better. Remember ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? Why can’t you be ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’? It’s got a really good ring about it.”
He grinned, stood and raised his coffee cup as for a toast. Martin and Joe joined him, raising their cups. “To ‘Ba Wazir Of the Hadhramaut’,” Joe got the giggles, “And ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’ you shall be”. And ‘Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut’ (‘Ba Wazir al Hadhrami’ in Arabic) I became. As soon as Ahmed and Abdulqadir had been told the story, they relayed it to our HBL troops, and before we went to bed, the young bedu soldiers were already addressing me as ‘Ba Wazir’. It caught on, and after a few weeks everyone called me ‘Ba Wazir’. I liked the sound of it. I still do.