This week, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was officially replaced as President of Yemen after 34 years in power. As always when I see news reports coming out of Yemen, I am reminded of the couple of years I spent there in the mid-1980s.
When I arrived in Yemen, Ali Abdullah had only been in charge for 5 years and he was still calling himself Colonel in the style of those other, more famous Arab revolutionaries, Colonel Qaddafi of Libya and Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
Like Qaddafi in those early years, Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh sported an Afro hairstyle whereas now, like many of us, he is rather thin on top.
Yemen was still two countries in those days. South Yemen, known universally as pee-dry (Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen) was a ‘socialist paradise’ and closed to foreigners except those from their Communist allies. I lived in North Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic – a beautiful, rugged, mountainous country where the proud, conservative and independent locals tolerated foreigners provided they were in the country to give money away, which most of them were (NGO types). I was one of the small number of expats in the commercial sector, working for an international bank. We were also giving money away but our borrowers did not always grasp that we expected to get it back again, with interest!
I was living in Taiz, North Yemen’s second largest city after the capital Sana’a. At about 4,000 ft above sea level, the city had a moderate climate by Arabian standards – cool and damp in winter and hot and dusty in summer. The Saber Mountain (9,860ft) provided an impressive backdrop to the city.
Life in Taiz was interesting and eventful though rarely easy. The bank, with its four expat staff, was the main social hub for the town’s tiny foreign community and our parties were always popular due mainly to our seemingly limitless supply of booze. Alcohol was not obtainable in Taiz and most people who wanted to get hold of some drove down to Mocha on the coast to buy a couple of smuggled bottles and conceal them somewhere in the vehicle in order to avoid detection at one of the many army check posts en route.
The bank however had a unique arrangement with a senior official in the Governor’s office whereby we would be provided with a ‘smuggling permit’ thus enabling us to openly buy and transport smuggled booze in bulk. The only stipulation was that the alcohol was to be for our personal consumption or for our invited non-Muslim guests and of course not for re-sale.
The procedure was that we would let the official know what we wanted and he would provide us a letter in Arabic with all the necessary logos, rubber stamps and signatures instructing the security check posts to allow our Land Rover to pass unhindered with 60 cases of Heineken, 20 cases of Gin, 20 cases of Whisky and 10 cases of Vodka or something similar. As far as I am aware the important official never asked for anything in return other than a small overdraft which, by virtue of his standing and income, he would easily have been able to obtain anyway.
I made 3 or 4 of these ‘booze-runs’ during my two years. They were always memorable events. We would drive from Taiz to the tiny port of Mocha (sometimes spelt Al Mukha or Mockha) on the Red Sea coast, a journey of about 2 hours stopping at half a dozen or so police or army check points along the way.
The name Mocha of course is famous for the coffee which used to be grown in the Yemeni mountains and exported through its busy port many hundreds of years ago. Sadly, Mocha had been in steady decline ever since and by the mid 1980s it was difficult to imagine a more desolate, sand-blown and decaying place. There was certainly no sign of coffee. Yemen was still growing some, mostly for domestic consumption in the watery and cardamom-laced brew, kahwa, which was an acquired taste but, I found, a good cure for hangovers and stomach upsets (both of which were frequent events).
By the 1980s, Mocha was only famous for booze. It was said that dhows would ship the stuff across the Red Sea from Djibouti and that it would be buried near the beach pending sale. Burial under baking Arabian sand did not make for ideal storage conditions – wine, on the rare occasion they had any, was almost always undrinkable and we would often open sealed beer cans and find them half empty or flat. Still beggars couldn’t be choosers!
Our Land Rover must have been well known to the booze peddlers and as soon as we approached the village, one or more young men would come sprinting towards us from out of the shadows. On our last visit, the fastest guy leapt on to the Land Rover’s running board while we were still moving and shouted for us to drive on. Somehow he opened the passenger door, climbed in and ducked down out of sight and urged us not to stop. Whether he was hiding from other smugglers or from the authorities was not clear. Once outside Mocha he squeezed up on to the front seat and directed us to pull off the tarmac onto a track leading in the general direction of the sea.
He guided us for 10 minutes or more over the bondu, skirting sand dunes, across rocky gullies and eventually coming to a stop in a shallow depression where the roof of our Land Rover would not have been visible by any passing busybody.
The smuggler’s companion, who had gone ahead on his motorbike, was waiting for us here and we got out and started negotiating using our basic but effective Arabic skills.
Fee birra? Aiwa, fee Heineken wa Orangeboum. Fee Gordons Gin? La, mafee Gordons, fee Gilbey’s wa Beefeater. Qum Faloos? And so on until we had placed our order for the quantities specified in our smuggling permit.
Then the guy with the motorbike went off to collect the items. We waited and waited and about 45 minutes later a Toyota pick-up arrived with some boxes in the back. There were four of five Yemenis there altogether, all wearing their jambia (curved daggers) and a couple of them armed with Kalashnikovs. It did cross our minds that here we were, three Brits, in a remote piece of desert, with a pocket full of cash to pay for the booze, and a Land Rover which must have been worth something, face-to-face with a bunch of armed smugglers. They could have just taken our money and vehicle and left us there – or worse. But then again, why would they want to do away with their number one customers? Our fears were needless – the transaction went off smoothly and we were soon on our way back towards Taiz with 600 bottles of spirits and 1440 cans of beer. Our ancient Land Rover, which had dodgy suspension at the best of times, was literally leaning over to one side under the weight of our semi-legal cargo.
We showed our permit to the first few army check posts and they waved us through without any problem but at the next check point we had a hitch. The officer-in-charge had obviously never seen one of these permits before (not surprising as nobody else had one) and was clearly in something of a dilemma. If he let us through and it turned out that our permit was a fake he would be in serious trouble. On the other hand if he prevented us from continuing and the permit was genuine he could also be in big trouble.
He ordered a soldier to get into the Land Rover and escort us to National Security HQ in Taiz. There was no space for the soldier and he had to perch, with Kalashnikov at the ready, on a box of Smirnoff immediately behind us guys in the front seats.
We drove on to Taiz and he directed us in through the gates of National Security’s HQ fortress. We were somewhat concerned at this stage. National Security was the name of Yemen’s all-seeing secret police force and their HQ was sometimes known as the ‘fingernail factory’ in reference to one of their reputed interrogation techniques – extracting finger nails (probably an exaggeration). We waited nervously in a gloomy passageway from where we could see soldiers eyeing our purchases through the windows of the Land Rover. Thankfully our detention was short lived. Presumably a phone call had confirmed the authenticity of our permit and we were allowed to go home with our goodies. Our excitement for the day was over and of course we had plenty of refreshments to soothe our nerves.