Observations on the Baboons in the Garden of the “Bostan” Restaurant (Part One)

[Note: These observations were first published in 1991 in Yemen Update and are archived online. The “Boston” has long since disappeared, but memories live on.]

It was a bright and breezy Friday afternoon in Sanaa. Having only recently arrived to the Sheba Hotel, I decided to forego experiencing the haute cuisine available in my room or at poolside for a Lebanese repast at the “Bostan Restaurant”. This Levantine oasis in Yemen is located only a stone’s throw away from the great wall of the Chinese Embassy on the road that parallels Zubeiri Street. On the sign outside you are welcomed to the “Bostan Tourism Restaurant”, although the astute diner will note that on the menu cover this metamorphoses into “Boustan”. (Perhaps the menu cover was printed in Paris? The French seem to love adding the letter “u” to words that can be perfectly well pronounced without: when I see “Bilquis” my tongue utterly fails).

The Bostan or Boustan is in fact a rendering of the Arabic term for garden (Did you ever wonder why Arabs smile at mention of the Celtics playing in the “Boston Garden”?), which is quite appropriate in this case. There is a lovely arbor-embellished garden dining area, which is definitely the place to head for. If you enter in the main dining room, which is usually empty except for unknowing tourists with a lack of curiosity to explore inside, keep on going out the door in the back left. You have a choice of entering another dining area or bearing left of this to the garden dining area. (The rest rooms, by the way, are off the garden area past the falcon cage…).

The tables are set with clean white tablecloths. Bright red napkins folded accordian style are placed in glasses at each setting. The waiters, clad in matching red jackets, are most courteous, although difficult to find when there are more than a few customers. The cuisine is more-or-less Lebanese with a variety of mezza hors d’oeuvres, including tabouleh, hummus, babaghanuj and lahm bi-‘ajin. The standard meat fare is there, accompanied with chips or rice. For a drink you have the range, but I suggest the fresh lime juice (sweetened to your taste) to avoid tasting something out of a can.

It was June 1991, but the last time I visited the Bostan was in February 1990. At that point the master chef was Monsieur Sherbil, who has since moved to Rabat where he has opened up a seaside Lebanese restaurant. Sherbil had been associated with several restaurant ventures in Sanaa since the early 1980s. I first met him at “Candles” (Shumu’), which lasted only a short while around 1984; this restaurant was located near the junction of the Ministry of Agriculture Road (now Kuwait Street) and the Wadi Dhahr Road (also known as the Ministry of Justice Road). After this he moved on to more meager quarters in the “Ghadir Tourism Restaurant” on a street behind the tea garden diagonally across from the Sheba Hotel. It was a bit cramped (to say the least), but the food was quite good in those days. And there was, unfortunately, little competition in the genre. Later came “Le Baron” which transmuted into “Abu Nuwas” (not to be confused with the night club at the M√∂venpick Hotel in Aden or the banquet room in the Sheba Hotel and whatever other locality Abu Nuwas might have slept in); my only memory of “Le Baron” is that of ill-trained waiters serving “Ma Ling” canned peas from a far too dainty-looking serving plate.

On this particular Friday I was relatively early and so I had the pick of the place. I chose a table underneath an arbor of green raziqi grapes. My table was on a raised terrace next to a long row of trees and flowers. It appeared to me that this area had not been watered in recent memory as several of the flowers looked a bit parched. I almost ordered water just to give them a bit of a drink. What amazed me was that someone had planted three lightbulbs in the soil. I stared at these for several minutes wondering what would eventually sprout up. The wattage was not clear, nor the place of manufacture. It is altogether possible, at least in my mind, that some of the bulbs imported to Yemen from eastern Europe may in fact contain seeds and be capable of producing flowers. Perhaps the same thought occurred to one of the waiters. Having just arrived, I did not yet have the courage to ask.

A Yemeni family was dining further inside. An added attraction for families is that there are several cages of animals on the side of the garden. In one is a peacock, although I doubt there is room in the small space for it to fully display its feathers. Since I had been here before, the management had added a falcon and a mongoose. But the main attraction, verified by the giggling children, was the pair of baboons. The chatter and play of the baboons focused my attention for the entire meal. It was obvious that a proper (i.e., male and female) pair had been chosen for family fare. The male was no more than two-and-one-half feet high, and the female slightly smaller. It appears that the Arabian variant of Papio hamadryas is of smaller stature than his East African cousins. Although, in this case I think the Bostan’s apes are on the juvenile side.

One of my first acts, even before ordering, was to walk over and greet this pair who were destined to be, through no fault of their own, a major part of my dining experience. The cage was a virtual prison cell: six feet high, barely six feet long and not quite three feet wide. A couple of sticks propped at an angle between the sides and a couple of chain swings provided the fixed entertainment potential for the baboons. A rusty can of festering water (I could readily discern the algae) was placed inside the cage. No doubt my two friends would eventually feed on the remnants of my meal and countless others. (In some ways, it was probably a better set-up for them than a zoo.)

Despite the bleak reality of their cage, my simian friends were making the best of it. But it seemed unsporting of a higher evolved form not to relate to their cousins by name. I asked each of them, half suspecting a reply, but only a quizzical look could be returned. So it seemed best to give them each a name, at least so I could talk about them on a more personal basis. After all, we were dining together in the broader sense. Somehow “Flo” and “Eddy” popped out of my mind, and so I dubbed them for this Friday afternoon. Both Flo and Eddy were playful little devils and rather well accomplished acrobats for the limited space available (it reminded me of trying to dance on a very crowded dance floor). We exchanged views on the weather (quite hot and dry this year), restaurant life and the like. At least I felt as if we had broken the ice.

As I sat coursing through my meal the garden area began to fill up with families. The enterprising owner had set up a swing for children near the cages; it was as close to MacDonalds as one might get in Sanaa. This play area was quite a melting pot: Yemeni, German, Chinese children all oblivious to the linguistic Babel that separated them. One boy in particular had engineered a clever game with Eddy. He placed his foot near the cage and encouraged Eddy to untie the lace. Within ten minutes the deed had been done by a resourceful Eddy. (To be honest, I was more amazed at seeing a seven-year old stand still for ten minutes than at the dexterity of Eddy.) It occurs to me that this may be the first recorded observation of an Arabian baboon untieing a boy’s shoelace; perhaps this is a first in the whole field of primate studies. As luck would have it, Flo immediately grabbed the lace and bounced off (not very far, as you might well imagine). She had been ignoring Eddy most of the time, but clearly lace had been on her mind. Well, not exactly lace in the feminine sense. Flo spent the next twenty minutes trying to slurp up the lace like a strand of spaghetti. I doubt if anything that day was more frustrating for Flo than this useless spaghetti look-alike that could not be chewed or swallowed (try as she might). The young boy stood by in admiration at his deed and was totally oblivious to the fact that his shoes now flapped clown-like as he walked back to his table. I wonder when the parents would realized that the lace was missing.

What started out as a leisurely lunch observing baboons was evolving more into a play in which the main characters were my fellow patrons. The behavior of Flo and Eddy, restricted as it was forced to be, made sense in the ultimate scheme of things. They were on the inside trying half-heartedly to get out. We, on the other hand, were already on the outside and presumably able to know better (at least according to relative brain size).

Daniel Martin Varisco

Part Two to be continued