Playing Swat

Mukalla, Yemen, 1962

Because of the odours and the flies, we rented a house in Buqayrayn, about three miles up Wadi Wasit outside the city gate. The house was made of mud-plastered stone and had been newly whitewashed – walls, ceilings, floors, everything. Separated from its nearest neighbours by about 200 yards of gravel, it sat on a bare hill with splendid views across the date groves of Al Baqrayn and down the wadi to the sea.

It was quite a large house, but spare and boney – grimly utilitarian and very plain. There were four bedrooms and a lounge upstairs and two large lounge-rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor. None of the windows had glass, but they had rough wooden shutters to close against the light and there were punkahs in each bedroom. Most importantly, it actually had a toilet. It was only a long-drop, but at least the business end of it was inside the house.

Flies were the bane of Mukalla. We got a lot of spill-over from the sharks putrefying on the beach, so no matter how many we killed, there were always plenty more. They nearly drove us mad. Although we imported screen-wire from Aden and installed it over every window, clouds of flies always got in somehow.

Despite the screens and the closed shutters, dawn always found the kitchen filled with a grey mist of flies. We could actually hear the insistent droning of their wings without even opening the door. At the dinner table we couldn’t keep the flies off our plates, so even eating was a problem. The flies tended to get mired in our food – especially in sauce or gravy – and would flounder and buzz until we picked them out. We couldn’t even raise a fork to our mouths without at least one fly getting stuck in the food on it. God knows how many flies I actually ate.

Joe and I finally made killing them into a sort of game – called (appropriately) ‘swat’. After sprinkling a few grains of sugar on the coffee table, we would each hold a folded copy of Time or Newsweek* at arm’s length over our heads. On the count of 10 we would bring them down smartly onto the table. Then we would see who had mashed the most flies, wipe the entrails off the paper and have another go.

We actually kept a sort of ‘dead fly tally’ for several months. The single-swat record was 28 flies. The game quickly caught on, and we all played ‘swat’ on and off for the next year. I have no idea how many flies we killed – tens of thousands, I guess – but it wasn’t nearly enough.

One day, grimacing as he wiped little corpses off his copy of Newsweek, Joe looked up and grinned. “Remember,” he said, “Some day we’ll look back on all this and we’ll laugh.”

Below is a video filmed while driving down a street in old Mukalla Town:

*Statistically, Time was a much more efficient fly-smasher than Newsweek.

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