Northern Mahra, Yemen, 1964
Dawn next day was a bleary affair. A sand-laden wind moaned among the tent ropes and the tents bucked and heaved. We sat in the bleached dawn sunlight after a breakfast of eggs, chips and sand, and waited … and waited … and waited. The hills, golden at dawn, faded to grey as the sun and the heat mounted. Little drifts of sand rose in the lee of chair and table legs and spread over the ground sheets in the tents.
I was peering at a large fly floundering in my coffee when Amri approached.
“They come,” he said.
“Suleim’s people?” I asked, carefully removing the fly from my cup. I flicked it onto the sand and ground it under my heel as I rose. Peering into the low sun I could see something moving – something incredibly distant and tiny.
“And their flocks.” Amri added, “It will take some hours yet, I think.”
We’d decided that they’d make good hostages to make sure Suleim behaved himself. So we were waiting in camp until they arrived. Once they were firmly in our hands, we could move out.
“More like several days,” I thought. I drank the coffee in a single gulp, grimacing at the sight of the residue in my cup and wondering what had been left there by the fly.
Three hours later we entered Wadi Ma’abur. The hills beside the wadi rose two or three hundred feet above it. They had been undercut to form a series of overhanging ledges on either side. The wadi floor was narrow and crooked, full of thorn bushes and enormous boulders. Hamid, long-bearded and horse-faced, was nervous as a cat. Suleim, it seemed, had more faith in him than he had in himself. Behind us, in another Land Rover, were eight soldiers. With us were the mulazzim and the omnipresent Amri.
It was an hour before we saw our first Bedu – a woman. She waved us to a stop and came forward. Her face, like most Bedu women, was unveiled.
“I want water,” she said without preamble, “Suleim said that you would give us water. “Ha’at!” (Bring it to me.)
She was astonishingly pretty – her features fine and even, her skin a deep chocolate brown. Ahmed, our Somali chief driver, leaned across the mullazim and whispered conspiratorially, “I like that woman. A few bars of soap and a bottle of shampoo…”
The reference to soap proved that Ahmed was a thoroughly citified Arab. Then we got a whiff of her. Her body odour was, as my maternal grandmother would have said, enough to puke a dog off a gut wagon.
“Perhaps,” Ahmed added, wrinkling his nose, “A lot of bars of soap.”
Amri hustled forward, took her goatskin water bag, filled it and handed it back to her. She accepted it back without comment. Then she turned to the mulazzim, “I do not like for you to come here. Go!”
“It does not matter to us what you like,” the mullazim retorted. “Suleim has said we could come and, in any case, we are more than you!”
“Yes, but are you more than they?” She gestured toward the hills. “They also do not want you to come.”
“They? Who? I…Allahu Akhbar! The Beit Sumada!”
Thoroughly alarmed, I peered into the sun against the hills. Scattered about behind boulders, and on the crests of adjacent hills, I could see their silhouettes. Perhaps twenty of the Beit Sumada had hidden themselves in positions covering the wadi floor. Now they were showing us their strength. Curiously, my first emotion wasn’t fear – it was perplexity. “How,” I wondered, “did they know we were coming?”
“Tell them we come in peace! Tell them we have permission from their sultan and from Suleim!” The mullazim fairly shrieked at Hamid. I don’t think he was so much afraid as mortified because he had blundered into an ambush. Having had time to think about things, I was just plain scared!
Three of the Beit Sumada met Hamid at the foot of the hills and they squatted together on their haunches. For perhaps three-quarters of an hour they conferred, while I looked up into fifteen or twenty rifle muzzles, wondering how many were, as Suleim had said, “young and angry.”
At length Hamid returned. “They say they have no sultan. They don’t care what Suleim says. He has no authority here. If he wants to talk to them, let him come here. They say that if we do not leave at once, we will never be able to leave.”
“Tell them,” the mulazzim said, “That we will return tomorrow with Suleim for talks.”
He turned to me, “Now, let’s get out of here before they change their minds!”
All the way back to the first bend of the wadi, my back itched uncontrollably. I would have scratched it, but that wouldn’t have done any good. The itch was up there in the hills.
We found Phillip Alfree – captain commanding the garrison at Sanau – one of two little HBL forts in Northern Mahra (the other was 150 miles east at Habarut) – in camp that evening. He’d driven down from Sanau to give us his appraisal of our attempted penetration of Beit Sumada country.
Phillip even showed us a copy of his latest cable to Aden. I was tremendously impressed with the elegance of his English. Only years later did I discover that ‘mitigate’ was entirely the wrong word. The sending of this cable turned out to be a fateful decision. It was to bring the Brits’ ultimate weapon into action
“Penetration of Mahri territory beyond Wadi Armah at this time,” it said in part, “would seriously mitigate our and company’s aims. I counsel patience.”
He spent a lot of time that evening talking on the radio to what I thought was HBL HQ in Mukalla.
We had another interminable conference with Suleim. At length, he announced, “I am not going to Wadi Ma’abur tomorrow or any other time. I do not wish to go. You are not ‘on my face’! I say you may not go to Wadi Ma’abur and disturb my people.
The mullazim attracted my attention, tipped his head sideways toward the Mahri, and winked. Then he rose and faced Suleim, and for several minutes they stood nose to nose in silence. Then the mullazim hissed, “I think you want very much to accompany us to Wadi Ma’abur tomorrow. I think you would not want your family to go to the prison in Mukalla.”
Clearly, coercion time had come.
Suleim blanched visibly. There was quite a long pause while he brought his facial muscles under control. Finally he managed, “Ah! I was but joking!”
He did not, I noticed, smile.
“Of course I will accompany your people. At what hour do we make our departure? – after morning prayers?”
“After the morning prayers.” The mullazim and those of his troops within earshot were trying not to grin. “I, too, joked, but it is good that you wish to go with us.”
The thinly veiled threat was clearly evident – even to me. “After the morning prayers, we go to Wadi Ma’abur.”
Later we had another conference, this time without Suleim.
“Tomorrow,” the mullazim announced, “we go as today – only a few. But the troops in camp will be prepared to support us with Bren guns and the mortar if we have trouble. The radio vehicle will remain out of sight behind us, but within hearing. If any firing occurs, they will call reinforcements from the camp. Help should be able to reach us in about an hour.”