Was the bearded stranger really from Britain, as he said he was? He hadn’t heard of Captain Haines, Mr Daly or Colonel Moffat. Well, he said he thought Captain Haines had died after capturing Aden in the 1830s, but I didn’t mean that Haines. Moffat ran the British troops where I was brought up and Daly had been the one who told me why I should wear trousers and shoes, not my sarong and sandals – and he had been insistent about not wearing my gambia, the traditional Yemeni dagger. The colonial administrators felt insecure about the daggers and guns we traditionally carried.
The bearded stranger was in the shared taxi I drove from Aden to Mukalla. He’d come along at 11am, the 4th passenger to sign up. By 3pm there were 8 passengers and they agreed to share the cost of the 9th seat so we could leave. There were the usual collection of passengers. Women in the back; the trader we called al-Hindi (the Indian) even though his family had been Yemeni nationals for several generations; and a bedu we sat next to the stranger because no-one else wanted to be near him.
Its 635 kilometers to Mukalla. I thought ten dinars was expensive but the stranger said it was half the cost of getting from London to Heathrow airport by taxi! He paid with brand new notes, rials from the North, not our own dinars. When we went through the police posts I just signed the stranger as ‘Sadiqna’, our friend, but no-one was checking for travel permissions this week. The sun set before we hit the coast again; we crunched the crabs which were always scuttling across the road at Burum and we arrived at Mukalla at 2am.
There hadn’t been a free hotel room in Aden, which was why he travelled to Mukalla. There wasn’t one in Mukalla either, until I got Omar at the police station to call the hotel. The night porter opened the gate and let the stranger sleep in the lobby. Since Daly, Haines and Moffat left in 1967 we hadn’t really seen any Brits; just Russians and the like. But lots of us older people remembered Brits fondly. Our strongly Marxist country, South Yemen, had formed a Union with North Yemen the week before which had allowed the stranger, ‘sadiqna’, to enter the country; but the country’s hotels certainly weren’t ready for travellers yet.