Recollecting Aden

By Ethan Chorin

Yemen Update 44:(2002)

It's January, 1998. The U.S. and Britain are set to bomb Baghdad for the second night in a row. Ramadan, the Islamic month of atonement, is fast approaching. Many wonder if the West will risk heightened Islamic rage by continuing the barrage over the Holy Days.

Having spent the previous nine months on a Fulbright researching the development effects of investment in Aden port, I am leaving tonight for home, via Amman, Jordan.

I loiter on the curb for a few minutes, under a large sign in Arabic that reads "Departures", marveling at the savagery of the midnight heat.  Around me, twenty red-faced Englishmen. Together we stare into a crowd of jambiyya and Kalashnikov-toting Yemenis, who, under different circumstances might have offered us cigarettes or sticks of a Spearmint-gum knock-off. "They say we'll be in for some fireworks on the flight", someone quips.

Once on the plane, the atmosphere is singularly giddy. On everyone's mind, escape to calmer ground. As the plane gathers speed and the undercarriage absorbs shock from potholes large enough to throw the alignment of a Cadillac, I recall how, in 1994, at the time of the last North-South civil war, this flight had almost been hit by a missile.

The better part of the day I had spent at the Pearl Hotel, perched precariously on a rocky promontory along a single-lane road, midway between Tawahi town and the Gold Mohur Club, popular in the 1960's as a watering spot for British colonial officers. There's never anything going on at the Pearl. Ever. Never any guests, never any children playing, never a blaring radio. At this time of year, there's not even surf.  Just the hollow sound of the wind, and a blazing sun. Every so often, a languid breeze knocks over a broom, or one of the six plastic deck chairs that rest gently on the tiled surface. The sun and wear have twisted their frames to such a degree that at most three legs touch the ground at any time. The breeze isn't sudden; there's no force to it. When it encounters an object of resistance, it as if a negotiation must ensue between the air and the chair. The object queries: will I drop, or skitter forward a few paces? When I hit the floor, should I make a noise, or will you cushion me? Fifty meters below where I now stand, an azure sea laps at the sides of a hundred sparkling aluminum cans.

Saleh, one of four Palestinian handymen in permanent residence, pushes his large head and shoulders out from the shadows, walks over to the edge of the verandah, from which one can see the curious rock formation giving the inlet its name, Elephant Bay. As usual, few words pass between us. Saleh stands and stares ahead with me, out over the flickering forms scurrying over a small fleet of wooden sambucs, setting invisible fishing nets with buoys. Farther and farther out, the line separating the sea from the sky, the aqua from the ochre, becomes less and less distinct.

Saleh's posture radiates sadness. He doesn't want to talk about how he ended up here, in Yemen, at the Pearl. It is possible he worked in the Gulf, in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia as a day-laborer. The Gulf States expelled many Palestinians as punishment for the support lent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by Yasser Arafat, once Iraq invaded Kuwait.  Unable to return home, to Gaza or the West Bank, most wound up in farther-flung parts of the Arab world, 'open' countries like Yemen, which didn't much care where one was from or what one was up to. In addition to Palestinians, one can find many Iraqis.

Something makes me think at one time Saleh cared for someone: "It was one of the happiest and saddest moments of my life," Saleh tells me, "the day it finally sunk in that I was stuck here, on this rock," gesturing to the crumbling white stucco face of the hotel. "I decided then to make the best of my life here. I married a Yemeni woman, and we have a small child. My life is here now.  It doesn't matter what was. It's gone, 'out there somewhere'," he says, flapping his hand now at the setting sun. "I must go where Allah leads me. If it is truly His will…"

A bronzed torso pokes out of the kitchen and says something approximating "Grub's up", to which the crowd nods and groans in feisty approbation. Much of the meat in Yemen is imported on rafts from Somalia and Ethiopia for local consumption and for transport overland to Saudi Arabia. There's a moonlit scene for you.

The price of lunch is a tirade. The conspiratorial litany never changes; from the deserts of Tunisia to the duty-free shops of Dubai, the Arabs' problems are attributed to the Elders of Zion, Jews in Hollywood, Jews and Clinton…Suddenly, I am very conscious of how well I represent the forces my companions now perceived to be aligned against them: I am an American. I am half-Jewish. I am mobile, free to come and go as I please.

Later in the evening, Saleh and I spent half an hour picking out a good dinner fish from a haphazard collection of marine extracta, laid out by kind, color, and cut on rocks by the beach. Orange Roughy, a small fleet of squid in a puddle of their own ink, a lobster, several large tuna; smaller, multicolor fish which, alive, would look at home in someone's aquarium.

"I hope you return," Salah pronounces, almost a non-sequitur, as we pass a group of ten kids playing soccer in the street with a makeshift ball. "For Allah can take you like that." (Snaps his fingers), "bi-lahza [in an instant]"

Aden is no stranger to violence: The Brits were kicked out of Aden by South Yemen rebels at gunpoint in 1967; infighting among the communists spilled much blood in the mid 1980s; in 1994, the North invaded Aden, pursuant to an ill-cemented Unity agreement between North and South Yemen. The Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, linked to Al-Qaeda before the organization became notorious, announced recently it would kill any British or American citizens it found lingering in Aden and its environs.

Four years later, the security situation in Aden remains precarious. In 2001, the USS Cole was bombed by agents-provocateurs using speedboat full of explosives. More recently, the same technique was used to torpedo a French tanker. The U.S. is again poised to strike Iraq. Amidst all this chaos, the more positive developments are hardly ever mentioned. Aden, slowly but surely, is becoming a major container hub. New jobs are being created, old bombed-out buildings are being replaced by modern hotels, optimistically awaiting businessmen and tourists, absent since 1967. Some two hundred fanatics aside, all that most people here in Aden want is to get on with life, and out of the headlines.

Ethan Chorin received his Ph.D. in Agriculture and Resource Economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 2000.  He lived in Yemen on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship during the years 1999-2000. This is an excerpt from an upcoming book on Yemen and the Middle East, entitled "Aden/Arabia The Search for Identity and Collective Consciousness in Yemen and the Middle East."

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