An English Girl in Yemen – Tanks and Guns

On a warm, muggy night in Aden, midway through dinner, we lost power and found ourselves in complete darkness.  My host, Yazid, told me it was a regular event and went to the kitchen by the light of his phone and returned with some candles.  I suddenly heard what sounded like fireworks outside in the street.  I knew it was gunfire.  That too was a pretty regular occurrence, made more frightening by the blackout, but Yazid didn’t flinch from his food.  Guns are simply an everyday part of life for Yemeni men.  He told me that tensions were rising as the Hirak were preparing for a separatist demonstration that weekend.  Yazid would normally take part, as an important member of the movement, given his father’s credentials as a tribal leader.  But on this occasion, he would stay away. 

The Cisterns of Tawila

The following day, not to be deterred by the rising tensions, we visited the famous Aden Water Tanks, otherwise known as the Cisterns of Tawila, located in Crater, the oldest part of Aden.  Crater, exactly as its name suggests, sits in the crater of a now dormant volcano, and was the site of the original port.   The streets were very quiet as we drove across town.  There was a nervousness in the air. 

Talk of trouble in the North of Yemen spreading this way was a hot topic.  A Zaidi Shia tribal group called the Houthis had already taken over much of North Yemen and were now moving in to the capital, Sanaa.  I’d wanted to visit Sanaa but it was far too dangerous now.  Even Yazid didn’t travel there.  As a southern Yemeni, he would be at high risk in the capital.

The Cisterns were a series of enormous tanks, hewn from Aden’s volcanic rock and were designed to collect rain water to stop the city from flooding.  Originally there were 53, reduced to 13 during renovations by the British in the 19th century.  The combined capacity of the tanks was said to be an impressive 19 million gallons.  

Their origins are thought to be pre-Islamic, built more than 1500 years ago by the Himyarites who were known to have used water tanks and irrigation in other areas.  The tanks were mentioned in manuscripts dated 7th century AD and were rather ingeniously lined with a natural cement made from volcanic ash, giving the tanks an impermeability to retain water for lengthy periods.

Yazid, Ahmed and I spent some time there exploring these enormous, now mostly empty, cavernous reservoirs.  It was a searingly hot day running up and down the stone steps of the cisterns.  Fortunately, I wasn’t wearing my black abaya and hijab, since we were at a deserted tourist site and it was felt that it would be safe enough for me to remove it there.

Tensions rise at Aden Mall

On the way home, Yazid decided to stop at Aden Mall.  He had bought an iphone from there the day before and got it home only to discover it was a fake.  It didn’t even have a slot for a sim card!  I was confident he would get his money back. 

When we arrived, the car park was almost empty and all but one of the entrances closed. Inside was just as deserted as outside and many of the shops were closed, anticipating trouble from the impending protest. 

But the phone shop door was open, the lights were on and there was someone inside relaxing in the corner, chewing qat.   Yazid asked for a refund on his expensive dummy phone but the guy barely raised his head, gave a half smile and continued to chew, claiming it was indeed genuine.  I was furious. 

I held up my own iphone and said “This is an iphone”.  I held Yazid’s phone in my other hand and said “This is not an iphone!” 

I put them on the counter and made him look at them so he could see the difference.  He looked, then he shrugged, and continued to chew.  Now I was really angry.  I got louder in my protestations.  This was an outrage. 

I demanded Yazid’s money back and started shouting at the guy “mishkela kabiiir !!”, meaning “big problem!”…. the only way I knew in Arabic to register my fury.   

Yazid looked nervous.  The guy said he didn’t have any money to give, and began to get aggressive.  Yazid pulled me away, as he saw the situation escalating and he clearly knew there was no solution.  No trading standards here, and the police had other things to think about.   

On that note, Ahmed had remained at the coffee bar on the ground floor and I saw the police were talking to him as we descended the escalator.  It was clear from their body language that the situation wasn’t good.  He told us that they were advising us to leave.  Yazid was having none of it and sat down at the café, insisting on staying, and wouldn’t budge. 

I then heard the distinctive sound of gunshots outside and realised that it may already be too late to get out safely.  Ahmed grabbed Yazid and yanked him up out of his defiant seat, crying  “Yalla! Yalla!”. 

After establishing the immediate coast was clear, we made a run for the car. Ahmed drove at speed, chastising Yazid, who didn’t seem at all concerned.  He simply turned up the radio and sang along to drown out his friend’s choice words.

Afternoon coffee and cake

My days in Aden flew by in a blur.  Afternoon coffee and cake in a different hotel each day had become part of the routine. I felt for the staff as they had almost no guests at all and were scratching around for things to do. 

When we arrived, after a quick mirror on a long stick passed under our car to check for explosives, they were thrilled, and fell over themselves to please our every whim.  We were treated royally.  We played pool, smoked shisha, drank a lot of black coffee and ate far too much cake.  

The Mercure Hotel, where we spent one of those wonderful afternoons, would be destroyed just a few months later. The Houthis finally entered Aden in March 2015 and levelled much of the city, with half of the buildings severely damaged. The district of Khormakser, in which the hotels we visited were located, was particularly badly hit. They were met with a strong resistance both from the Southern Movement, in house to house fighting, and from the Saudi Coalition in a counterattack from the sky. This would signal the start of a war that is still ongoing today, and led to the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world.

Sira Castle

There was one big sight left to see: the mighty 11th Century Sira Castle, embedded into a volcanic island outcrop, close to Crater and in a prime defensive spot in the Gulf of Aden. It was built as a military post and fortification, not as a residential castle and was apparently still being used by the Yemeni army, though there was little evidence of that during our visit. At the top there was an entrance to explore inside. It was dark so I used my iphone to guide the way up the stairs and into the rooms, peering out through the narrow arrow slits and defensive chutes in the thick stone walls.

The castle, though a genuine architectural treasure, was covered in graffiti and its canons missing or damaged. It was in desperate need of attention and, unlike the cisterns, there was nothing to explain the history. The real reward for the hot sweaty climb in 32 degree heat was the view over Aden and the coastline. The emerald waters of the Gulf of Aden broke against the jagged cliffs below and the old district of Crater stretched out into the haze.

The fascinating geology of this important corner of Arabia was easier to see from such a high vantage point and clouds were building ominously along the top of the mountainous crater walls. Perhaps a portent of things to come. I was enjoying the breather up there, away from the growing tension in the city streets below but I was anxious not to hang around too long. I knew that protestors would be out in force that evening and I didnt want us caught on the wrong side, AK47s in the boot or not!

With the radio turned up and Ahmed’s foot to the floor, we made for home. As we crossed over a roundabout, we had the inevitable collision that I’d been expecting since my arrival. Yemenis drive as crazily as they live, which is not without its attractions but can have the odd downside.

Both cars stopped in the middle of the roundabout and everyone, except for me, got out. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Certainly in the UK, these things are often not pleasant encounters, particularly involving young men of their age. No numbers changed hands, no insurance documents came out of the glove compartment and there was only the merest cursory glance at the damage.

Cigarettes were offered and lit and they appeared to be chatting and laughing! They stood for five to ten minutes engaged in banter and a fair degree of hilarity, then all got back in the cars and we drove off again. Yazid looked at me and simply said “Mafi Mishkela!” No problem.

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