Lines in the sand – day one

Northern Mahra, Yemen, 1964

A landscape of desiccated plains – cliff and gully country rising to the gypsum monoliths of Jebel Habshiya – northern Mahra was barren, rocky and useless. It was hard to cross and easy to defend. Its 2000 or so inhabitants were pathologically xenophobic Bedouin of half-a-dozen tribes. In their seamed and pitted landscape of brilliant light and dark shadows, they were masters of ambush.

The British yoke lay lightly on Mahra. In the northern half of the country, their control of the only two wells – at Sanau and Habarut – gave them the last word in any serious disagreement with the Bedu. But, unless Bedu actions impinged directly on their interests, the Brits left them almost entirely alone. And British interests in Mahra had previously been almost non-existent. But once my company got involved, the boundaries of British interests expanded and began to blur. Our interests were supposed to be their interests. But when our surveys took us through the territory of the difficult northern Mahra tribes, the colonial administrators’ instincts were to not ‘rock the boat’ – in other words, to let us pretty much fend for ourselves.

The HBL fort at Sanau

But it wasn’t quite that simple. We had paid a lot of money to the sultan for exploration rights, and we had paid a lot of money to the British to arm and train 1000 Hadhramaut Bedouin Legion (HBL) troopers, whose only duty was to protect our interests. We didn’t reckon they were doing their job. Oh, they were protecting us, all right – but only by keeping us from doing our job.

Our HBL escort – though nominally under our direct control – had been instructed by their British masters to minimise conflict with the Bedu, and to protect our white skins at any cost. So safety became paramount and in its interests we had always to back away from confrontation. Our actions were always constrained by theirs, and after more than six weeks of skirmishes, we had barely penetrated the margins of Mahra.

In many ways, the Bedu had my sympathy. Tough, gritty little people, who lived in the arse-hole of the universe, they were poor in ways we couldn’t even imagine. Their culture was one of continual and violent conflict – it had had to be – because in the Sahra as-Shumal there simply wasn’t enough of anything to go around. They had only one possession – the desolate land on which they grazed their flocks of goats and sheep. Their land was their life. They defended it desperately, and the penalty for trespass was death. They didn’t quarrel just with us. They fought and killed each other over trespass too.

Mahra landscape, from Google Earth. (Click to enlarge)

So we had spent weeks trying to ‘talk’ our way across Mahra. We had argued and we had negotiated – with the Beit Za’abinat, with the Rawashid and with the Beit Sumada. We had cajoled and we had tried to bribe. We had tried everything short of violence. Nothing! The Mahris simply weren’t interested. They had said “No!” and that was enough.

The HBL had the muscle to overpower any tribe individually – and probably all of them collectively – if push came to shove. Everyone knew that. But everyone also knew that the British considered force to be the very last resort. To the HBL, getting us out – which was what they wanted – was more important than getting us in, which was what we wanted.

We were tired of talking. We were tired of negotiating. We were tired of procrastination. We’d been there, done that. We wanted the colonial authorities to draw a line in the sand so we would know where we stood. Someone needed to say to the Mahris, “Enough!”

The mullazim in charge of our HBL contingent had orders from Mukalla that he dared not disobey. But now the sands of his patience – like ours – were finally running out. We were rapidly approaching the ‘very last resort’. At least we thought so, and he thought so too. But his masters in Mukalla remained unconvinced. So we put our heads together and concocted what we thought to be a very clever ploy. Force might still be ruled out – was absolutely ruled out, in fact. But ‘coercion’ – which the Brits had neglected to forbid – remained an option. On one thing we and the mulazzim had finally agreed – that it was time to exercise that option.

Day one
Across the wadi lay the land of the Beit Sumada. ‘Mahris’ we had called them before – subjects of the Mahra Sultan of Qishn and Socotra – but now we were learning. Mahris were a polyglot people, speaking a harsh dead tongue, clicking and guttural, decimated by blood-feuds – arrogant, ignorant, proud.

“Certainly you may enter my land,” the Sultan had said, “Are they not my people?  They will do as I say!”

But Issa Bin Ali Ibn Afrar did not know ‘his’ people. Secure on his island fortress of Socotra – the ‘island of dragon’s blood’ – the tiny gnarled ruler had never visited his sprawling mainland domain.

“Now go, and disturb me no more, for we are occupied with affairs of state!”

Supported on either hand by his vizier, and the royal executioner, he tottered unsteadily toward his little mud palace. He scowled, turned and rasped, “Be welcome! Go!”

It had all seemed so simple then, but now – four months later and a thousand miles from Socotra – scanning endless miles of empty ochre hills, we wondered. It was noon. The sands of Wadi Armah rippled with heat mirages. Ghost lakes flickered and vanished across the wadi floor and the distant yellow hills glowed sullenly. We were squatting, tired and dirty, in the rectangles of shade beside our vehicles, munching stale crackers and spooning warm tuna from tins. Our escort of HBL jundies, oblivious to the dry gritty wind, had killed a young goat and were chatting animatedly among themselves as its juices sputtered in the fire.

“But you don’t know them,” Abdullah Hassan was saying. “The Beit Sumada have no leader. Their muqqadams are weak and no man can speak for the tribe!”

Suleim, warlord of the Beit Hamada (left) and Hamid, his brother-in-law.

“Then we must speak to Suleim,” The mulazzim replied, “He may not be a muqqadam, but his voice carries much weight. He is even now in this wadi, some distance to the south, and he will speak with us.”

I knew we would need Suleim’s support. The Beit Sumada could muster some two hundred fighting men, and had already resisted two attempts to penetrate their territory.

“Send two trucks to find him and try to bring him to us.”

The goat had been dismembered: the mulazzim was munching at a half-cooked haunch. “We will camp here,” he said, “There is no cover for attackers and that (he gestured at a nearby hillock) can be easily defended. I have only 30 men – not enough to penetrate farther – and reinforcements should arrive here tonight.”

I peered at the hill with distaste. It provided no cover for attackers – that much was certainly true – but it also provided no shelter from the searing winds that swept out of the hills. The half-erected tents were billowing in the rising gale and I could hear the boys cursing as they fought the heaving tent poles erect. Ghostly tendrils of fine sand whispered across the baked clay flats and the head-dresses of the legionnaires streamed in the wind as they fought to erect a stone fort atop the hill.

A legionnaire approached me. He was very young, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, small even for a Bedouin, very light-skinned and almost startlingly handsome. He saluted smartly, then announced, “I am to be your guard.”

“How are you called?” I asked.

“I am called ‘Amri’,” he answered, “For I am of the tribe of Awamir.” He glanced over my shoulder, then stiffened to attention. Turning, I saw the mulazzim approaching.

“The defenses are ready,” he said. “Do you wish to see?”

We followed him up the hill. I was impressed when I got there. A room-size enclosure of boulders and cobbles had been built, with four-foot loopholed walls. On the earth lay several sleeping pallets. A fire had already been kindled, and a battered tin pot gurgled companionably.

“Amri!” the mulazzim barked. “Chai for the rais.”

“There,” he said, pointing to a hill half-a-mile distant, “Is another guard-post, and there – and there, and there.” Atop each neighbouring hill his men had erected other smaller versions of this command post. “And a guard will patrol the camp throughout the night.”

Two hours later we were sitting cross-legged on the ground-sheet in my tent, eating boiled goat and rice. Suleim was speaking (he always seemed to be speaking), “No, I will not come with you to Wadi Ma’abur. I will send instead Hamid, the husband of my sister. He can speak for me.”

“But,” Abdullah interjected, “it is you that we want. We will pay you well. We wish to be ‘on your face’.” (He referred to the Bedu custom that if a man put you ‘on his face’ he guaranteed your safe conduct and was honour-bound to kill the man who killed you if anything untoward should happen).

“I will not put you on my face! I can tell my people to let you pass, but some are young and angry. If only one shoots, there may be death, and even all of these,” he waved broadly at our lounging soldiers, “Could do no more than avenge you. But I will be left with a blood-feud that could devour my people. I have said that you may enter, and that is enough!”

The argument continued into the night, but Suleim remained adamant. We were not ‘on his face’ nor were we likely to be. Finally he agreed that if we were fired upon he would enter the wadi with us and speak to the Bedu.

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