Reaching Mukalla

Mukalla, Yemen, 1962

It was late afternoon by the time we left Ghayl Ba Wazir, juddering west along a wash-boarded gravel road, dragging pillars and clouds of dust into the gathering twilight. Against a flaming sunset, the fortress towers of Al Hibs and Ash Shihr loomed huge and vague behind veils of incandescent dust.

We stopped for tea with the officers of the little RAF outpost at Riyan. There were eight or nine young Brits there, sort of ‘camping-out’ in half-a-dozen Nissen huts beside a dirt airstrip. It was incredibly hot in the mess. The ceiling punkahs gave hardly any relief – they only redistributed the humid air inside.

No planes were based at Riyan. The young soldiers were mostly air-traffic controllers whose main job was to man the corrugated iron control tower. Aside from the occasional RAF Bristol freighter bound from Aden to Salalah in Dhofar, the only traffic was the twice-weekly Aden Air Dakota bound to and from Ghuraf, which always stopped to refuel, and would pick up and drop off passengers. Riyan was a ‘post of extreme hardship’, and they were rotated out of Khormaksar in Aden to serve six-week tours of duty – and they had a huge supply of duty-free booze. Though our intentions were honourable – we actually did stop only for tea – they insisted we stay for dinner. When we discovered their booze supply, we all got mildly tiddly in the officers’ mess.

West of Riyan was a range of steep-sided little mountains. They had black cliffs that swallowed all the light from our headlamps, and we seemed to be driving blind as the road switched back and forth across them. To make matters worse, we found ourselves entangled with a large flock of fat-tailed sheep – preposterous beasts that looked not like sheep, but like small-headed beetles stuck onto very long legs. The name describes their enormous tails, perhaps eighteen inches across and shaped like a thick round cushion three inches thick covered with wool. Rich in accumulated lanolin, the grotesque afterpieces served the same functions as the camel’s humps: in good times they stored food which in bad times they fed back to the sheep. The tails swung from front to back when the sheep moved, seeming to ‘goose’ the animals on their way, so that they walked in a series of little jerks. I supposed that was why their bony black faces always wore looks of faint apprehension. As I sat watching the huge bustles bounce up and down I speculated on how the beasts managed to copulate. To this day I don’t know.

The actual road ended in the date groves at Buqayrayn, three miles from Mukalla. Turning left, we ploughed through deep, soft sand down the gorge of Wadi Wasit to the coast. There, beside the sea, we found Mukalla. We arrived just after 9pm and the city gate was shut and locked.

Mukalla was technically a walled city, but it relied mostly on the thousand-foot cliffs of Qarat al Mukalla – the mountain behind it – for protection. The city wall was more formality than fortification. Fifteen feet high and made of whitewashed mud plaster with neither loopholes nor machicolations, it extended only from the mountain to the sea – a distance of less than 200 yards. In the middle of this wall was a sort of bastion – a white-plastered cube pierced by a single arch with double wooden gates on both inner and outer faces. Three of the doors were still in place, held together by rusting iron studs, but one of them had come adrift from its top hinge and leaned out over the roadway. Still, the remaining functioning pair was closed and bolted at sunset each day. We arrived at Mukalla just after dark only to find the city gate shut and locked.

Mukalla from Google Earth (click to enlarge)

Several caravans were waiting to enter the city at dawn. Their camels had been unloaded, and the drivers were chatting or sleeping around little fires. Belching and roaring, the hobbled camels lurched and staggered amongst the fires, casting long spidery shadows. We soon convinced a guard to let us in. We were, we said, to be guests of the sultan, and we were expected. Somebody would have had left instructions, we insisted. Nobody had, but the guards let us in anyway.

A pair of vast mock-Georgian mud buildings – the Sultan’s palace on the right and the Residency on the left – faced each other just inside the city wall. The town was so narrow here at its western extremity that the grounds of the palace backed onto the beach and those of the residency onto the slopes of Qarat al Mukalla.

The royal guesthouse – where we stayed for the first couple of weeks – was within the grounds of the Residency. It had about a dozen spartan bedrooms and a dirt-floored parlour sparsely furnished with overstuffed couches that puffed clouds of dust when anyone sat down. Illustrated quotations from the Koran hung from the walls in dusty gilt frames. Overhead was a blue, white and purple chandelier eight or ten feet across which looked like a porcelain octopus. Only one of its eight bulbs actually worked.

A western-style bathroom had been installed in 1901 especially for the visit of a minor female member of the British aristocracy. It consisted of a tiled room with a shower rose in the middle of the ceiling. In the room overhead was a barrel – filled manually with warm/hot/cold water as required – which connected directly with the shower rose.

The shower installation was a model of simplicity. There were no valves or controls – nothing but a peephole in the bathroom ceiling beside the shower rose. The peephole had been cut so that the operator upstairs could look down into the bathroom. That way he would know when to pour water into the tank. As far as we could discover, the aristocratic guest never knew of this curious arrangement. We only found out because when we were showering the moiya-wallah, pouring water into the tank upstairs, would chat to us through the hole.

There were, unfortunately, other guests – hundreds and hundreds of voracious bedbugs – in the Sultan’s guesthouse. By the middle of the first night we were all awake and scratching. And cursing in several languages. Only Joe was able to make light of it – he was able to make light of anything. “Someday,” he said, “We’ll look back on all this and we’ll laugh.”

Yeah, well maybe. At the time, nobody seemed to take much note of his remark, but, as events were eventually to prove, we all remembered what he’d said.

Alf Layla Wa Layla
Next morning I climbed up to the roof to take a look at our new home. I’d thought Mukalla might be an anticlimax after the long trip. It wasn’t. The first thing I noticed was the spectacular theatricality of its setting. A mountain – Jebel Qarat al Mukalla – rose a thousand metres almost directly from the Gulf of Aden, its ramps of tawny sandstone tapering back above black cliffs. The city of Mukalla was squeezed onto a narrow ledge between the mountain and the Gulf of Aden – a vast expanse of cobalt-coloured sea streaked with silver.

About two miles long, the town was nowhere more than a couple of hundred yards wide. On the south side of the town, stone buildings rose directly from the sea. On the landward side, whitewashed towers extended up the scree-slopes as far as the lowest cliffs.

There were three or four mosques, each with a tapering cylindrical minaret, but most of the buildings were simple square towers of different heights with rows and rows of shuttered windows. They had all been mud-plastered and whitewashed, but patches of white had fallen away to expose the mud underneath. From a distance the dark scars looked like holes. This made the whole town look sort of porous, as though it was made of sponge.

At the east end of town a knuckle of black volcanic rock – connected to the mainland by a sand spit – gave shelter from the prevailing wind during the southeast monsoon. The municipal government offices were out there, located in a vast, crumbling mud palace that looked like an old sand castle.

A crooked stone mole extended from the side of the headland just below the qadi’s (mayor’s) office to enclose a shallow basin where small boats could shelter. Dhows stood offshore and freight was ferried ashore by bum-boats and lighters. Between high and low tide marks, dhows under repair were propped stern-to on thickets of poles, exposing their steeply raked poops. Flocks of sheep or goats, waiting to be ferried offshore, sheltered in the shadows of their high square sterns.

The main catch of the local fishermen was shark, and the beach fronting the town was used to dry them. Most days, thousands of shark carcasses would be drying there. During the southwest monsoon, the stench of rotting fish permeated every corner of the town, and the flies in the souk were unbearable.

The local Arabs had long since given up trying to do anything about the flies. Many had fly whisks made of camel tail-hairs, which they flicked languidly about their faces, but kids always had flies clustered around their eyes and mouths – attracted, I guess, by the moisture – and, in general, they simply ignored them. Eye diseases, especially trachoma, were endemic, and lots of locals were blind in at least one eye.

Almost none of the houses had even rudimentary toilet facilities. There were a few long drops and that was it. They didn’t need a sewage system – so the qadi explained to me. They had the sea. Everybody did his or her business outdoors.

Each morning the men of the town would defecate squatting in companionable groups along the beach between high and low tide marks. They would greet each other gravely, “Shiftum?” (“Has it moved?”) and reply, “Shiftum Allah” (“God has moved it.”). The expectation, I guess, was that at high tide, the sea would carry their excreta away. But in practice, the strand line was almost always marked by lots of little piles of shit. Ladies, I understood, had their own beach.

On the east side of the sand spit was the cemetery – so full that the dead already lay buried three-deep. A high stone wall had had to be built up to contain it. An elegant two-storey arcade, built against the cemetery wall, was the centre of a thriving souk, which spilled westward out into the maidan and across it to the beach.

It was the only place in town that seemed to ever be crowded. By day it was sort of a food market. Under a cascade of tatty awnings were heaps of desiccated-looking vegetables, and eviscerated goats swinging slowly on brass hooks. In the evening, food-stalls would appear along the beach – rows of rickety little tables and cauldrons of boiling fat. They sold mostly Arabic ‘junk food’ – samosas (triangular pastry envelopes filled with spicy meat and/or vegetables, and deep-fried), spiced fish cakes, and battered chilli peppers so hot the fumes alone could seriously damage your nose.

There was only one street in Mukalla. There were lots of crooked little lanes about as wide as a laden donkey, but only one street. Known as ‘New Road’, it extended from the qadi’s office at one end of town, to the city gate at the other. There were no footpaths, no gutters – no anything. The street, a tawny sea of dust, lapped against the feet of the buildings along it on both sides.

There were lots of pedestrians – kids in futahs and bright shirts rolling hoops and playing ball in the dust, and a scattering of adults in gallabiyas and burkas, the latter floating like Daleks on invisible feet. There were cyclists, and flocks of sheep and goats on their way to the port. But not a lot of wheeled traffic – donkey carts, a few Land Rovers, an old Bedford lorry, and two or three little Fiat cabs.

The little cabs were a surprise. Mukalla seemed neither large enough nor modern enough to have cabs. They were nothing fancy – no top light or anything, just a sign saying “TAXI” painted on the doors. Then I noticed that the word painted on their doors wasn’t actually “TAXI”. It was “IXAT”. I looked at three or four of them, and they were all “IXATs”. It turned out that a local entrepreneur had been much taken with the taxi service in Aden. Not slow to recognise a new business opportunity, he had imported the Fiats and set up a service in Mukalla. In Aden he had bought a “TAXI” stencil, which he brought back with him, and he had hired a local plasterer to transfer the word onto the cars themselves. Since neither plasterer nor owner could read English, neither of them was aware that he had painted the signs with the stencils back-to-front. Nobody else seemed to notice either – or maybe it was just that nobody much cared.
The number of foreigners in Mukalla varied between about eight and 22, almost from day to day. Permanent residents included the Resident Adviser and his family, the manager of the Eastern Bank and his wife, the commandant and four or five British officers of the HBL, the Chief Fisheries Officer, and the Northern Desert Political Officer (NDPO) and his assistant (ANDPO)52. These last two were almost always away on field duty in the desert. There were eight of us, but we were never all there at once. Most usually four or five of us would be in residence at any one time.

There was absolutely nothing – at least nothing in a Western sense – to do in Mukalla. There was, of course, the souk, which was interesting to visit two or three times. There were only two little shops in the town. One sold cigarettes, soft drinks, matches, sugar, salt and spices and a few bolts of cotton material from Manchester.

The other shop sold perfumes, eau de cologne and various toilet waters. It had a limited variety but huge stocks of each item – up to fifty or sixty bottles of each of four or five brands of eau de cologne, and twenty or thirty bottles of, I think, four perfumes.

There were no cafes in town, although the food stalls that appeared in the souk and along the beach near the palace about sundown did a roaring trade in Arabian junk food. I don’t know whether most families ate at home or not, but the whole town seemed to be on the streets after dark. There were no clubs, no cinemas, no nothing. To fill in the long hot afternoons and evenings, we played a lot of bridge and canasta – and, of course, ‘swat’. We also read a lot of books. But mostly we drank.

In Mukalla, Sharia law was strictly – if superficially – enforced by local imams, so officially no one ever drank in the sultanate of Qa’iti. Statistics, they said, proved it: Mukalla imported no alcoholic beverages. This, I guess, was true, but there were quite a lot of drunks in town all the same.

What Mukalla did import was staggering quantities of eau de cologne and various toilet waters – and these were what the people drank. People actually skulked around the streets nipping at perfume bottles.

Arabs need a little less personal space than westerners do, so they tend to stand too near when conversing. At close range, the eau de cologne on their breaths could be absolutely overpowering. It shut your bronchial tubes right off – like inhaling the spray directly from a perfume atomiser. I could never imagine how they were able to drink enough of the stuff to get drunk – or how they were able to breathe afterwards.

All of us expatriates had large quantities of smuggled booze, and it was these supplies from which we nipped. The government knew we had it and left us alone, as long as we didn’t damage the morals of the locals. We drank frequently and heavily – ordinarily we would be invited out (or have guests in) for drinks three or four times a week and most of us fell into bed most nights more drunk than not.

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