Seiyun, Yemen, 1962
Clean-shaven and plump, Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri – the Sultan of Kathiri – was in his mid-40s. A pleasant, rather ordinary-looking man, he was often seen strolling about in the town, or even having coffee in the souk. He had a royal car – a 10-year-old Opel Kadet – and a uniformed chauffeur, but Seiyun was small enough (population about 20,000) to make driving largely unnecessary.
Born Bedu, he hadn’t been raised to be king – his father had been suddenly thrust onto the throne by the unexpected deaths of three senior members of the family in the siege of Mukalla in 1947, when Kathiri soldiers managed to seize the walls of the Qa’iti capital before running out of ammunition and being forced to retreat. Frankly, he preferred to be outdoors. He never wore shoes, and often held his diwan (audiences) in the maidan (town square) where anyone could speak to him. So nearly everyone in town knew him personally.
By tribal tradition he was more father-figure than ruler. His power, although nominally absolute, was actually severely limited by the British.
Unlike his neighbour, the Sultan of Qa’iti, he had no British resident adviser peering over his shoulder and meddling directly in affairs of state. This reflected both his relative unimportance in the British scheme of things and their perception of his ability to rule.
The sultanate of Qa’iti was considerably larger and richer than Kathiri, and its sultan was eccentric almost to the point of lunacy, so an adviser had been put in place to keep things in hand.
But there simply weren’t enough capable British advisers to go around. Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri was known to be a reasonable – and reasonably competent – administrator, so the colonial authorities left him pretty much alone. This was both a good thing and a bad thing. He got to make his own decisions, but he also had to figure out how to fund them. The sultanate was peaceful and, by local standards, prosperous, but it had only 40,000 inhabitants – many of them penniless Bedu – so there was a minuscule tax base and money was a perpetual problem.
For the most part, the sultan’s overheads weren’t anything to worry too much about. His standing army had only 50 men. For defence he could call on the British-funded HBL. There were hardly any roads to maintain in the sultanate, no water or sewage systems and only a rudimentary electric power grid in Seiyun. The British – through the Hadhramaut Pump Scheme – maintained the irrigation system in the wadi. They had also built and staffed a hospital and 17 schools. Maintenance of the palace was the sultan’s biggest headache. Like any other 300-year-old mud building, it required more-or-less constant repairs, and its recent face-lift had nearly bankrupted the royal exchequer.
I knew the sultan to speak to – we nodded when we passed in the street, and sometimes he would enquire as to the state of my health – but even in his little scheme of things, I was pretty unimportant. My company, on the other hand, was not. We had negotiated for months with the sultans of Qa’iti, Mahra and Kathiri to obtain petroleum exploration rights within their territories. Finally each agreed to accept an annual stipend of 400,000 EAS (East African shillings – 20,000 pounds sterling – payable in cash. For the Kathiri and Mahri sultans, this was practically the only cash income they received.
When we flew to the island of Socotra to pay the Sultan of Mahra, our Dakota crashed on landing. There wasn’t a road to the royal capital at Hadibo, so we rode the 20 kilometres on camels and then had to spend several days ‘camping’ in a derelict mud hut. The sultan, “communing with the royal cattle”, was unable to see us. In the end we had to give the money to the royal executioner, who refused to give us a receipt.
The Sultan of Qa’iti insisted on payment entirely in Maria Theresa Thalers, so we had to charter a plane just to fly the crates of coins to Mukalla. When we got there we found the royal audience chamber ankle-deep in pigeon dung. The sultan, high on something, was barely aware of our presence.
Hussein Bin Ali Mansur Al Kathiri, on the other hand, threw a banquet for us in his great palace in Seiyun. The biggest building in Arabia, it dominated the city like a ziggurat. Parts of the vast mud building – which was rumoured to have a thousand rooms – were 300 years old. The royal gate, flanked by round machicolated bastions, led to a colonnaded courtyard.
Behind the court, the main tower, about 40 yards square, soared six storeys above its pediment. Three further tiers stepped back and up in a thicket of decorative white spires. Circular bastions at each corner tapered upward to hemispherical domes, and there were arched blue panels – like eyebrows – over each window. The whole palace had been newly plastered and whitewashed, and you could see it from miles away, floating – insubstantial as a mirage – above the date palm groves.
Close up, the palace looked its age. It had been patched and fixed up again and again, and it showed. Mud is like that. Treated well, it is amazingly durable, but its surface ages quickly. Rammed earth buildings are made of a mixture of mud and straw. When exposed to the weather, the surface of mud wears off, leaving thousands of little bits of straw sticking out, and it gets sort of ‘furry-looking’ – so new mud never looks like old mud. Inside the ten-foot-thick walls, parts of the palace were close to derelict.
The ground floor had originally been the stables, and it still smelled strongly of animals. There were hardly any windows, and it was bloody dark. There were a few bare bulbs suspended high in the gloom, but they didn’t so much illuminate as glow against a firmament of shadows.
The stairs were in the middle of the palace and right-angled their way up a sort of dark shaft – six steps, turn right: six steps, turn right, and so on. Not only couldn’t we see anything, but the treads – also made of mud – were worn down in the middle almost through the risers, which made it difficult even to feel our way. But we eventually stumbled up to the second floor.
The banquet chamber – about 20 yards square and full of fat pillars – occupied about half of the second floor of the palace. The floor was of whitewashed mud, and the ceiling of shallow mud-brick vaults between beams made of whole trees. There was a pair of mismatched ‘crystal’ chandeliers, the larger of which hung nearly to the floor.
Along one wall were about a dozen papier-mache washbasins – “for washing hands after dining,” the sultan explained. These were regarded in local Arab circles as ultra-chic, and he was very proud of them. I later got a good look at his chandeliers. They were actually made entirely of plastic.
Chrome kitchen chairs covered in gaudy plastic were lined up around the other three walls, alternating with little formica-topped tables of several shapes and sizes (plastic and chrome furniture was immensely popular with wealthy Arabs everywhere.
They were also into plastic gewgaws in a big way. Plastic salt and peppershakers were popular, lava lamps were ‘in’, and cheap plastic curtains hung in many an audience-chamber). On the tables were drinking glasses, bowls of roasted pumpkin seeds and sudani, some violently salty pickles and pots of a rather nasty paste made of dried dates.
Until everyone had arrived, we sat in the chairs making small talk, munching sudani and cracking pumpkin seeds with our teeth – none of us was game enough to try the pickles or dates – while servants offered us rose-water, orange soda, sarsaparilla, Coke and 7-Up. Since the Koran expressly forbids alcohol, all Moslems are – at least publicly – teetotallers, so beer, wine and spirits are never served at banquets.
Quite a lot of Moslems in the neighbouring sultanate of Qa’iti drank enormous quantities of toilet water and eau de cologne. I don’t know if the Kathiris also did this.
In the middle of the room, on a dozen or more old Persian carpets, other servants were laying out the banquet. There were about 40 or 50 guests. As was normal, we sat cross-legged around the edge of the carpets and ate with our fingers.
Food was served on large brass trays – several trays of each dish – laid out on the carpet in such a way that each guest could more-or-less reach every dish. There were lots of pilafs, several kinds of chicken, trays heaped with chunks of boiled mutton, three or four whole roasted goats stuffed with dates, some little charred, boney-looking things (grilled quail I think), and several unidentified curries. There were also lots of samosas, deep-fried chillies, side dishes of chutney and pickles, and – under every guest’s plate – great crisp slabs of nan.
Eating Arab-fashion requires practice and – in some cases – strong nerves. Food is picked up and carried to the mouth by the fingers of the right hand. In Moslem countries, where toilet paper is not used, the left hand is used to wipe and/or wash the bottom and, therefore is regarded as unclean. There is a natural desire to use both hands, but using your left is unforgivably gauche anywhere in the Arab world. For things like curry, pieces of nan are torn off and curved between the fingers to form a sort of crude spoon. For the pilafs, rice is pressed together into firm balls and then placed directly in the mouth.
There were servants making the rounds of guests during the meal with ewers of warm rose-water and bowls so that each guest could wash his hands whenever he wished. We ferangis tended to quickly have grease dripping from our elbows, and we needed to wash our hands a lot. Our hosts, on the other hand, seldom needed to wash until the end of the meal.
I had already mastered the art of eating with only one hand, and I was doing pretty well until Arab hospitality began to assert itself. Arab banquet etiquette is for the host to personally serve particularly delicious morsels onto the plates of his chief guests.
At previous Arab feasts, I had been offered – and had managed to choke down – sheep’s eyeballs, fatty shoulder-blade of ewe and half-raw gazelle heart. At least today I knew I was to be spared these. My boss was here – and his boss from New York – so I was too far down the pecking order to have to worry much about those particular items. I might, I knew, be offered some lesser delicacy.
The Sultan himself laid a pair of sheep’s eyeballs on Jim’s plate one at a time, gripping each delicately between the tips of thumb and index finger as though presenting jewels for inspection. I had warned Jim that this was likely to happen – if not tonight, then soon. Still, he wasn’t ready for it (I don’t quite know how you get ready for sheep eyeballs even if you know they’re coming). He tried to smile his thanks, but managed only a feeble cheek-twitch and a blush. He had guts, did our Jim. He quickly picked one up, bit it in half, and chewed and swallowed desperately. His eyes popped and he gulped a lot of air, but he got it down.
Sheep eyeballs are about the same size, shape and colour as an average onion. Curiously, they are also much the same crunchy texture, but bursting with mutton-flavoured oil. Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s the idea that’s repugnant.
John Shipman, 24-year-old director of the Hadhramaut Pump Scheme, got the shoulder-blades. An old hand at this sort of thing, he never batted an eyelash. He just picked one up and began to tear strings of mutton fat off the bone with his teeth.
As one of the lesser guests of honour, my morsel came not from the sultan but from the vizier. I didn’t actually see what he had chosen. He leaned forward, picked something off a tray of meat and – with a theatrically extravagant flourish – laid it on my plate.
“Tfadl’, he smiled, “Enjoy” (literally ‘please’).
I smiled back – whatever it was, it smelled dreadful – “Alef Shukr, ya sidi” – “A thousand thanks, oh excellent one.”
At first I had absolutely no idea what the vizier had given me. I knew it was the inside of something, but the inside of what? Keeping my smile in place, I turned it over gingerly with one finger. After a moment I thought I recognised it. I looked again. I did recognise it. My smile started to wilt. My morsel for tonight was a goat nostril – complete with hair. It was about five inches long: the goat had had black and white spots.
Trying not to shudder, I picked it up from my plate as etiquette demanded, and stuffed one end in my mouth. It felt like the business end of a hair brush, and tasted like shit. I blocked off the back of my nose and chewed rapidly, hoping to quickly dispose of the damned thing. But it was not to be. I quickly found that goat nostril is nearly as indestructible as it is disgusting. I gnawed at – and gagged on – the thing for what seemed to be a very long time, while trying to smile at the vizier, who was watching my efforts with great interest. Waves of nausea rose to the back of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow and dared not spit.
Still trying to chew and smile at the same time, I desperately tried to think of some ‘innocent’ reason – ie not disgust or nausea – to take that damned thing out of my mouth.
Finally, I thought of one. Goat grease, running down my arm from the un-chewed end of the nostril, was about to drip off my elbow. Still gnawing, I gestured frantically at a ewer-bearer. When he bent over me, I had an excuse to lay the goat nose back on my plate. I stretched out both hands and he poured warm rose-scented water over them and offered me a towel. By the time my hands were washed and dried, the vizier had been distracted, and I was – at least briefly – free of his attention. Now, how to get rid of the damned thing?
There’s not an awful lot you can do to tactfully dispose of a goat’s nostril – especially in the middle of a feast. For a few minutes I shoved it around, trying to hide it under some pilaf and curry, but neither of these seemed likely to be successful. My meal had cooled, and my plate had become a grey disc of congealed fat with lumps of meat and rice sticking out of it. With only one hand I could neither pick it up nor break it up enough to create a hiding place.
Finally, when I was pretty sure nobody was looking, I managed to palm the nostril in my left hand and closed my fingers over it. I kept it there until almost the end of the feast, while trying to eat normally with my other hand. I finally managed to slide it inside the overlap between two carpets behind the vizier. I’m sure he knew I had somehow disposed of the nostril, but he was much too polite to ask. I had banked on that.
Toward the end of the meal, satisfied guests produced the loud chorus of a capella belches that Arab meal-time etiquette demanded. There had been an awful lot of greasy food, and lines soon formed at the little hand-basins, where soap was available.
When we were all more-or-less clean, we sat back down. Platters of orange and watermelon slices were brought around, and little glasses of scalding Turkish coffee ‘sa’ada’. Turkish coffee comes in three strengths. ‘Ziada’ (roughly ‘a lot’) is usually absolutely saturated with sugar. ‘Masbut’ (‘just right’) is pleasantly sweet. ‘Sa’ada’, on the other hand, means ‘without’ (ie without sugar) and it is as bitter as gall.
When the sultan rose, the party was over. Just like that – no ceremony or anything. He just got up and strode out the door. Everybody got up, and we all trooped down those dark stairs and out into the night.
We had probably eaten less than a third of the food on offer. This I knew to be intentional: the servants were traditionally entitled to any leftovers. Tonight I reckoned they were going to have to earn them. The banquet room carpets were a mess: there grains of pilaf, crumbs and pieces of nan, little gobbets of mutton fat, stains from spilled drinks, and bones of sheep, goats and birds.
And, of course, a goat nostril. It took me several days to get the last stray hairs out from between my teeth.
The Sultan’s Palace in Seiyun in a recent video on YouTube: