You Can’t Always Get What You Want…Pt2
Aden ranks as one of the strangest places I’ve been to in some time, and took me by surprise at almost every turn. Firstly it’s the landscape. The main part of Aden is called Crater, so called as it’s literally built on the crater of a long dormant volcano. Looming high above the city are great spools of volcanic rock, lending the place a yen of otherworldliness, almost as if one might be on a different planet. Legend goes that Cane and Abel actually founded the settlement originally. Either way it’s natural harbor has made it a desirable acquirement for several rulers across the centuries, be it various Yemeni Sheikhs, the Portuguese, the Ottoman Empire and then finally the British until their exit in 1967. Maybe it’s the weight of history that gives the place its slightly curious air.
Seaside or seaport towns, for me, always seem to have a somewhat melancholy atmosphere because of their enforced state of flux. People always seem to be preparing to leave or waiting for something to come in on the ocean tide. And Aden certainly felt no different. In fact, another thing that gave it it’s peculiar edge is that in many ways here was a town which you might find almost anywhere in the Middle East, but somehow squeezed into the decaying infrastructure of the last serious vestige of the British Empire.
Clearly at its height, it must have been a bustling place, with a thriving international community engaged in the ebb and flow of trade. Rimbaud had stayed here during one of his forays, and the comedian Eddie Izzard had also been born here. In 1954 Queen Elizabeth had stayed in the grand looking Crescent Hotel, that sits just across the square from Queen Victoria Garden. A grim statue of the plump monarch still sits in the now chained up park surrounded by plastic palm trees. The Crescent lies empty and now seems to be part of a military area. A soldier brandishing a gun made it clear that photos were not welcome. It’s a place that can only seem to dream of the echoes of its past. The old talk fondly of its previous glories. The young study and graduate, but can often find no work, opting instead to chew qat and play dominoes on the Corniche in the warm evening breeze.
After a non-descript breakfast, myself and friend and fellow traveller Vic, headed over to Al-Tawahi, the site of the old Steamer Point, where boats loaded up on coal, water and supplies en-route to India. As well as being an area of interest, according to the guide book, I had been tipped off that this might be a place to find records. We ended up at an antique store, full to the brim with artifacts from Aden’s past, presided over by a certain Mr. Al-Qubati and his sons. A couple of organs (The Roman Catholic Church round the corner appeared to have been bricked up long ago) projectors, typewriters, cameras, piles of sea shells, coins, stamps…all things that I suppose people traded in as they left. The few records he had weren’t in great shape, but were a curious collection of Cuban, Russian, Indian and Yemeni discs. He promised he could get some more for me tomorrow from a friend and after chatting with him and his son for a while, we continued on our amble round.
A mock ‘Big Ben’ was set up on a hill overlooking Tawahi. Cats squabbled in a trash can at its foot. A man with a large gun tucked into his belt greeted us we wandered around the quiet ‘Tourist Pier’. The only recommended bookshop was locked up and lifeless. Sensing that the slightly effusive guide book might be somewhat out of date, myself and Vic decide to go to the place, where, other visitors to Aden had warned us we would spend the bulk of our time – the old Sheraton, now known as the Gold Mohur.
Set next to a pleasant beach, and again, surrounded by that ever present volcanic rock, the hotel also felt somewhat at odds with its surroundings. But to our excitement, it served beer, a real rarity in Yemen, so we settled down to lunch and a couple of cold glasses of Heineken. I ventured out later for more record scouring, but came up with very little. My initial anticipation of finding a broader selection of Yemeni music than I had encountered in Sana’a appeared to have been misplaced.
The next day Vic and I decided to check out a couple more tourist highlights before going back to the shop in Tawahi. This entailed the famed ‘water tanks’, a form of ancient reservoir, apparently rediscovered in 1854 by a glorious sounding son of Empire, named Lieutenant (later Sir Lambert) Playfair. We also made our way to Seera Castle, which boasted a great view over the Gulf of Aden, as well as period graffiti carved into its stucco interior. One read ‘David Blake and Joan Rodie 11/6/62’. A more recent addition stated ‘Fuck Bush SHARON Terrorist’.
Prior to climbing up to the Castle, we went past the fish market which had just received an astonishing catch of various sharks. A young man dragged a bloodied shark corpse across the tarmac before hurling it into the back of a truck filled with ice. One of the fishermen, noticing our inquisitiveness, offered to pose with some of his haul, and sat astride one shark whilst cradling a recently deceased hammerhead, as one might a docile pet. He then demanded money and became increasingly agitated, so we offered a few hundred rial and left, before the commotion attracted too much attention.
Back at the shop, the man had been true to his word, and he produced a small box packed with 45s. To my slight disappointment there were almost all Indian, but I decided to go through them all anyway, out of politeness if nothing else. One of the first I dropped the needle on, quickly proved my initial reticence incorrect.
On the Soundway compilation ‘Sound of Siam’ we had included a great track called ‘Fai Yen’, which stylistically had more in common with Bollywood music, although it was sung in Thai, and was part of an old Thai movie soundtrack. To my amazement, this Indian 45, (also from a movie) appeared to be the original. It had exactly the same backing track, but with a different vocal take in Hindi over the top. This implied there must be some sort of trade connection between the Bombay/Bangkok movie industries in the 70s, which I would have to investigate further. Needless to say, it was odd to find this missing link in southern Yemen. I’ll post both versions when I get home.
In addition, there were some lovely ghazals, and a killer track by Asha Bhosle, so it was a nice little haul in the end. Mr Al-Qubati and his son were lovely, and even threw in a few more records for free. I left them sat outside their shop in the afternoon sun after bidding them farewell and thanking them for their help. The father seemed content to dwell on his memories, but I hope the younger sons can keep this fascinating shop going.
Whilst Aden was not really how I’d imagined, it begged the question as to what other idiosyncrasies and experiences might be had elsewhere in this unique country. Nothing is quite what you’d expect, and it seems cocooned in it’s own strange timelessness as the world continues to turn outside.