Shops in Crater in the 1960s

[This is the second part of a reflective essay on the author’s upbringing. For part one, click here.]

by Samira Ali BinDaair

Back to the roots

The return to Yemen came sooner than we expected in the last phases of British rule in South Yemen. Being young, my brothers and I managed to adjust quickly to our new life and whereas I had enjoyed riding bicycles and climbing trees in Africa we found new forms of entertainment like riding gari gamal (camel carts) and others. Quite often when we went shopping in Crater we were suddenly told to get to the floor as the bullets passed over our heads and while my mother looked worried, to us it seemed like a cowboy film. It was the exchange of fire between British soldiers and what they called “Snipers” but what the Yemenis called “freedom fighters,” There were many checkpoints then especially at the “Aqaba” and the golden highlanders with their Scottish kilts and red caps were a common sight in those days.

As adolescents we were filled with nationalistic ideas of independence, although I dare say without necessarily understanding the historical antecedents of British rule nor all the political implications of the struggle then. As soon as we went to Abyan beach in Khormaksar, we became children again as we played with the waves collecting seashells and chasing the sea gulls, forgetting all about revolution. Alas we had weaved dreams bigger than the half pennies in our pockets.

The convent school I went to in Crater Aden was a completely different version of Yemen and I still remember the kind sister Serena who had taught me how to play the piano,contrasting with the life within my grandfather’s cousin’s stone house in Sheikh Abdulla street in Crater with its old fashioned structure. His wife would sit in the afternoon in her elaborate sitting room, chew qat and smoke the mada’a (waterpipe). In those days it was shameful for young girls to chew qat or smoke in contrast to what is the case today when qat chewing has crossed the age barrier across the board. It was common practice for labourers after a long day toiling in the sun then to rent wooden beds with rope bases, which I dare say were more durable than the elaborate modern concoctions which fall apart at a slight increase of weight. People slept on rooftops on hot summer days and no one ever entered anyone’s home unasked in those days of strong neighbourhood ties.

I remember looking forward to Abu Khameer (a sweet pastry) every morning or Abu Lawz (the peanut man), to whom we would lower a basket tied to a rope from our fourth floor apartment in Ma’alla, putting the money which he would take and place the peanuts accordingly. Abu Ruti (the bread man) was another example of simple shopping for whom my mother would leave money at our door and he would leave the bread in the basket. Amazing! Now one is afraid of leaving one’s home for too long lest one returns to find it emptied of its contents. Yes, life in Aden then was a strange mixture of simplicity of life and sophistication as products came to Aden port from all over the world. We would go to Tawahi and eat fish and chips British style and then go to the Baba Sikirim (ice cream man) and eat a very special and traditional ice cream made from the thick cream of fresh milk. Yet when we went to Bureika for picnics on the beach or to Sirra for makhbaza it seemed more like the Yemen I had always imagined.

Solace in books

Within the murals of Miswat Library I found a sanctuary which took me away from the mundane world into dreams of the world beyond Aden and Yemen; faraway lands that I could only read about. Life became hard in the early days of independence as the era of shortages began. The British had developed Aden as their base but the rest of the country was left as it was, excepting some parts of Hadhramout, in the famous political euphemism of “non interference in internal affairs.” With very little assistance from outside, an empty government treasury and a brain drain due to some malpractices on the part of revolutionaries, it became a different Yemen. However, it was my father’s earlier encouragement that had kept me going and gave me the impetus to transcend the difficult circumstances long after he was gone. With my brother’s support and encouragement, I continued to study out of school and work. Eventually I managed to get a scholarship and go to university. As I look back today, we certainly worked hard and capitalized on our experiences, all of us finally managing to accomplish in our different paths what we never dreamt of at the time. There is an Arabic saying : “The hit that does not kill you strengthens you.” After my first degree I settled in the United Arab Emirates, where many members of my family had settled by then. When I first went to the UAE it was nothing but a lot of hot desert sands and although over the years it developed into the metropolis it is today, my childhood dream of Yemen never left me.

When I came to Sanaa for the first time for a meeting of research centers for which I worked in Abu Dhabi, I had yet to see a different version of Yemen. The people at the Markaz al-Buhuth (Yemeni Research Center), headed by Dr. Abdulaziz al-Muqalih and the late Ahmed Hussein al-Marwani (whom I had already known from Abu Dhabi) were very hospitable and I felt a sense of warmth and a real sense of connection. Our trip to Hajja and lunch thrown by the governor at the Ghamdan hotel, as well our trip to Shahara bridge within the backdrop of misty cool mountains, completed the picture of an exotic paradise for me.

Here in Sanaa my husband met old school and university friends, although he was not at first keen on the idea of returning to Yemen chasing an old childish dream. But I wanted my children to grow up with a strong sense of identity and belonging and I could see the potential in the future. As I looked at the plans of the house we were going to buy and the vast landscape of sand and nothing but sand, I did have fleeting moments of doubt but I relentlessly pursued my dream of the return. Years later my husband was offered a job with what was then Yemen Hunt to be part of the team for establishing the Training Center and we finally returned and made a life for ourselves in this fascinating city.

to be continued