Foreign travellers like the bearded stranger buy souvenirs, don’t they? It’s true that the places we took him to had little to buy. The only time he was really interested in shopping was when someone tried to sell him silver and used a Maria Theresa thaler (the traditional currency brought to Yemen by the Turks in the 1800s, and now our silver standard) to weigh out an ounce in his scales. He bought the coin instead.
We had picked him up in Ataq, as a favour to the local Office of Culture : the stranger was trying to get permission to see the ancient Himyaritic site at Shabwa. We agreed with the Culture officials that they could offer us as an alternative, to get him out of town and stop him getting lost in the Empty Quarter.
I and my colleagues were testing radio signals in the region. It meant we had to drive around remote areas and, actually, if the stranger asked about a ruin (like the one at Qataban) we could easily divert to let him wander. We took him to the old British police post on the border at Harib – still the main smuggling route from the north. We found locusts and saw a stuffed leopard, killed in the mountains last year. He handled the guns carried by all the townsfolk around there, especially the SMGs in Nuqub. We watched him chase crabs, the ones we call Abu Maghass, while we did tests on the beach on the way back to Aden.
He noticed that we spent a lot of time in the suqs, the markets, checking out prices. Our country, South Yemen, had just unified with the North which meant that both currencies (our dinars, their rials) were valid – and goods smuggled over the border from the North were much much cheaper. In Nuqub, for example, we filled our LandRover from the back of a Toyota with smuggled petrol: half price.
When we finally rolled into Aden, with the stranger’s Thaler safely in his pocket, the Land Rover was carrying, apart from the radio equipment: 8 full branches of dates, 5 dolls, 3 plastic pistols, packets of rockets from China, three boxes of Blinty bars (which he called Bounty), 12 containers of prickly heat powder for our babies, three suitcases of new clothes and seven boxes of tea.