Letter from Aden, Republic of Yemen
Aden is a grubby, not to say nondescript, town. Trash piles litter the streets, colored plastic bags blow along the gutters. The peeling buildings were knocked about a bit in the recent civil war. Furtive feral cats lurk in shadows, scavenging what they can. But down at Steamer Point there is a wonderful vestige of one hundred and thirty years of British rule, which ended thirty years ago. This is the Customs House, an airy, stone building which long ago greeted passengers arriving by tender from ships anchored out in the deep harbor. The foundation stone proclaims it was laid by HRH the Prince of Wales in 1919. One can picture the bustling activity as white-uniformed officials directed the colonials on their way to the Indies or Africa. Aden, of course, was a bunkering port after a transit of the Suez Canal and Red Sea. Bronze plaques are still on the walls to assist the visitors; “Embarking Passengers” it says over the iron-gated portal leading to the dock. The Customs House provides a meeting place for a few Arabs to gossip the day away and chew the fat in the shade. More visions of this faded outpost of empire were conjured up by an old photograph in the offices of the fuel company, it was entitled “The Union Castle Line” and showed the liner Windsor Castle at anchor, “Sailings to East and South Africa” was underneath. Ah, those were the days. Now the harbor is only visited by freighters and the odd wandering yacht. There’s talk of cruise ships visiting Aden, although what the tourist would do ashore is somewhat of a mystery. There are some very ancient water storage “tanks”, actually dammed-up gorges, in the hills behind Aden. An inscribed stone erected in 1895 reads that the tanks were discovered in 1854 by a Lt. Playfair. They were built by an unknown ancient people and were full of stones and debris when discovered. The British Army put them back in working order. Altogether the tanks hold twenty million imperial gallons of water, we are informed. The water is only used now to irrigate a small botanical garden at the base of the hills.
There are only two shops that would be of interest to the casual tourist, one sells Arab curios, Berber jewelry, Indian shawls, that sort of thing, but the other is a priceless gem. This is the Aziz Bookshop. It is located about two hundred yards from the Customs House, set back under a deep verandah, it has no windows. The stock consists of an eclectic collection of second-hand books and old stamps. Most of the books are paperbacks, once acquired they are lovingly restored and kept until sold. I picked up a copy of “Six Men” by Alistair Cooke, the covers had been reinforced by glueing to thin cardboard and all the pages stitched together with catgut. A yellow penguin book caught my eye, AWhile Rome Burns@ by Alexander Woollcott, published in 1937. I flipped through it, the pages were brown and brittle. On the fly leaf was written, “P. C. Smyth Aden 10.7.38”. I read it out loud to the proprietor, an elderly Indian. “Oh yes”, he said, “Mr. Smyth, he worked for Cable and Wireless”. It seems at this shop every book has a story besides the one between the covers. He went on to tell me he had worked at the shop since 1946. His great grandfather had come to the Aden Protectorate from India in its British heyday, he was very nostalgic about the old days. He had a nice display of Aden colonial stamps on the counter. They all had the likeness of Edward, George or Elizabeth in one corner. I mentioned I was a student when Elizabeth was crowned, I was taking final examinations around about Coronation Day. He immediately fished out a sheet of 15 cent Aden Coronation stamps, dated 2nd June, 1953. I dropped into his shop on several evenings and bought a few more books. Since we sailed from Aden I’ve begun to get the feeling that the Aziz Bookshop exists in another time and if I could go back and step through that dimly lit door I could buy a stamp, stick it on an envelope and when the letter was delivered it would be franked at a time when the British ran the world and the sun could safely trace its daily path through the sky.