Globe & Mail
- TORONTO — "It's dangerous up there," said the man from Government House. "We don't think you should go. The country is in turmoil. Nobody knows what's happening. The last plane that flew from here just vanished.
"You could be robbed or taken prisoner. They throw people in dungeons, you know. You might," he grinned, "even get beheaded."
He was talking about Yemen. Not the Yemen of today, with its five-star hotels in the cities, tennis courts and fitness centres, supermarkets and package tours (although the occasional tourist gets kidnapped by tribesmen).
This was the Yemen of 1962, when there were no hotels, no tourists, not even a road to the capital, only a rocky track for trucks and camels. Flush toilets were unknown. So was paper money — you had to carry a sack of Maria Theresa thalers, big silver coins first minted in Vienna in 1741. And the few foreigners allowed into the country needed the personal permission of the ruling Imam.
The man from Government House was leaning across the bar of the Rock Hotel in Aden, the British colony a few hours south across the desert from the forbidden country. He was talking to six frustrated foreign correspondents itching to get into Yemen, where the Imam had just died and his son had been toppled by a revolution that ended 1,100 years of monarchy.
(The six were all Brits except me, a Canadian. I was sharing a hotel room in the Rock with the correspondent from The Observer, Kim Philby.
This was the same Kim Philby who disappeared from the Middle east four months later, turned up in Moscow and was revealed as Britain's "Third Man," the most famous spy the Soviet Union ever had. But that's another story.) For days we had been sending telegrams to the leader of the revolution in Sana'a and at last we had a reply: we could cross the border into Yemen.
So, despite the warning from Government House, we hired a big Land Rover and its driver and set off for the Land of the Queen of Sheba in darkest Arabia. With us we had a newsreel cameraman from Jordan, thank God; he spoke Arabic, which none of us did.
It was six hours of jolting along dusty tracks, with half-joking forebodings about the Yemenis throwing us into a scorpion pit. We lurched past little stone forts, softly plodding camel caravans and lines of women carrying kerosene tins of water on their heads. The car boiled beneath the embroidered blue quilt that covered its hood.
A few more kilometres of rocky wadis and mud villages and there was the dreaded frontier: It consisted of a single plank across the track, balanced atop a wooden crate.
Beside a row of thatch-topped tea houses stood an antique armoured car and a barefoot Yemeni army sergeant in a sarong, underwear shirt and turban. Two ballpoint pens were tucked beside the dagger in his belt.
The jig was up, we thought. But the sergeant cried a cheery "Ahlan" (welcome), leaned into the car to shake hands with all of us, ignored our passports and waved us through.
Down we drove into a scene of unveiled women working in lush fields, blindfolded camels turning slowly around the water wells, startling bright flowers, men on donkeys or on foot, every one of them carrying a rifle or a musket, and no army patrols. Not a sign of the revolution. Too easy to be true, we thought, and we were right.
Forty-five minutes later we bounced into our first village, through a great wooden gate into a rock-walled courtyard. As we entered, the gate swung closed behind us. A crowd of squatting tribesmen picked up their rifles, tugged at their turbans and formed a straggling line that looked ominously like a firing squad.
Then they all smiled and chanted "ash al sha'ab" (long live the people), clapping to the beat. The crowd grew so thick we couldn't get out of the Land Rover. By the time we scrambled onto the hood to take photos, much to the distress of the driver, who said we were soiling his quilt, they had produced banners with pictures of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yemen's new revolutionary leader, Abdullah al-Sallal.
We were taken to the village chief's quarters, a Russian burp gun hanging from a peg on the wall, filled with tribesmen in a mild state of euphoria from qat, the narcotic leaves that just about every man in Yemen chews by the hour. One of them produced six bottles of Pepsi Cola and the chief said welcome, he had never seen a journalist before, what countries were we from and where, please, was Canada — which at the time wasn't a bad question.
After a cursory search of our luggage in case we were carrying guns, we were sent on our way. The demonstrators, who really had the chant swinging by now, climbed into a truck and followed behind us for the next two hours, singing and waving their banners in villages where we stopped for ceremonial greetings.
(It was about then that Kim Philby muttered, "My father would have hated this." Philby's father had been one of the truly great desert explorers of Arabia. "He never managed to get into Yemen and here we are, riding around like bloody tourists.")
Innumerable glasses of tea later, we rolled to the top of a hill and there was the stone city of Ta'izz, with the palace of the old, late Imam. Soldiers were carrying crates of Russian rifles from a palace vault. One unearthed a crate of South African brandy from a box marked "Korans." We wandered through the buildings. The Imam's white mare was in a stall at the gate, nickering in bewilderment. Manacles hung from nails in the walls. The crown was half falling off the wooden throne. A few soldiers flopped down on the seat, thumping their submachine guns on their knees and shouting, "Long live the republic."
It wasn't much of a palace — half stone and half mud brick. We'd heard that the Imam had an electric train running around the edge of his bathtub. There wasn't even a tub; the bathroom was a green concrete cell with two cold water taps and a wooden bucket. In the kitchen was cheap tin tray bearing a picture of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
In another room, cupboards held some of the monarch's curious personal effects: a half set of dominoes, a broken toothbrush, a box of Chicklets and a hair dryer for his beard. It must have been the simplest royal residence of the 20th century.
This was where the old Imam Ahmad bin Yahya, Commander of the Faithful, had died in his sleep, having survived half a dozen assassination attempts (Yemenis believed he was bulletproof). For 14 years he had ruled by the sword. Opponents were executed in public; his two brothers were beheaded. Some said he followed his father's policy of keeping the tribes in line by locking up the chieftains' elder sons as hostages. Some Yemenis called him "Ahmad the Devil."
(Others called him "The Big Turban," but I found a turban in his bedroom and tried it on: it was too small.) That evening we met members of the new cabinet. They put us up in a royal guest house, infested with bugs and protected by guards who spat qat juice on the floor and sang all night. After breakfast (tinned cheese), we tipped the guest house servants with the big Maria Theresa silver thalers and drove in a truck to an airfield. Parked beside the runway was a row of antiquated Soviet Yak fighter planes, their wiring eaten away by rats.
The cabinet produced an old DC3 with an Egyptian crew and we took off for Sanaa, Yemen's capital. The trip supposedly took three days by truck but 45 minutes by plane. So, when two hours later we were still circling over mountains and plateaus, we knew the Egyptians were lost. When they finally spotted Sana'a they landed downwind by mistake; the plane bounced 200 metres off the end of the runway, hurtled over an irrigation ditch and crumpled to a standstill in a plowed field. Trucks full of tribesmen, all bristling with guns and bandoliers, many with bundles of qat under their arms, raced to greet us.
They loaded us aboard and drove us through a gate in the mud wall surrounding the capital. It was an amazing sight — an entire town of miniature skyscrapers, five or six storeys high, all made of mud, their windows outlined with white arabesques. Henna-stained donkeys trotted in the alleyways past tumbledown bazaar stalls. Women in bright-coloured veils the size of tablecloths clustered around a water pipe. Soldiers with Soviet submachine guns strolled among barefoot tribesmen in ringlets. The trucks pulled up outside one of the few stone buildings in town, an old palace swarming with troops and Egyptian officers — headquarters of the revolution.
On the front steps a man in a suit introduced himself as the deputy chief minister, and would we come upstairs for lunch. This was at a long trestle table covered with oilcloth and cold spaghetti. Minutes later a scruffy, bearded army officer sat down among us, his chest hair protruding from where an army officer's tie usually is. "When can we meet President Sallal?" we asked, and our host said, "This is General Sallal," pointing to the officer. We dropped the spaghetti and scrambled for our notebooks.
"The revolution is a success," the general told us. But 200 metres away the plundered wreckage of Dar al-Bashayir (the Palace of Good Tidings), residence of the new Imam, Mohammed al-Badr, suggested that the monarch may have survived. Only the top floor of his five-storey palace was destroyed by tank shells, we noted. It turned out later that the Imam had slid down a toilet chute and escaped to rally royalist tribesmen in the northern mountains. The resulting civil war lasted for years. (Mohammed al-Badr himself had lasted only a week on the throne. He died peacefully in England in 1996, the last Imam of Yemen.) The mood at republican headquarters, however, was triumphant, if chaotic. Gen. Sallal's office was jammed with beds for Egyptian officers.
They added seven beds for us. Otherwise there was almost no furniture in the building, no place for anyone to work. Three Arabs in business suits perched on a window ledge, designing a flag for the new republic. Tribal chiefs sat on the floor sipping tea.
After two days, Gen. Sallal offered us an airplane to take us to Aden. We refused to fly with the Egyptian pilots. He gave us the Imam's old personal plane, an Antonov with a Russian crew. And off we went, racing for the colony's Cable and Wireless bureau at Steamer Point, where we could send our stories.
In Ta'izz, the new Minister of Industries (of which Yemen possessed none), had told us the republican regime aimed to pull the country out of the 13th century. "He was wrong," Gen. Sallal said before we left.
"It is the 10th century here."
David Lancashire is a retired Globe and Mail reporter and editor. For 20 years, he was an Associated Press correspondent in the Far East, Middle East and Europe.