The British are back in Aden: All is Forgiven… But not Forgotten! [Archives:1997/47/Culture]
Adel J. Moqbil, Yemen Times
Thinking that Queen Victoria’s statue will be put back in its old place in a Tawahy public garden, one of my Adeni friends was quite indignant. “It’ll be unfair to those who suffered and died for the country’s independence. His anger was only assuaged by the fact that the statue was put in the garden of the newly opened British Council in Aden, out of public sight. Another friend said that, “compared to the French, the British colonialists were quite civilized, they did not torture or kill indiscriminately.” Well, this is debatable since the British forces used airplanes to bomb rebel tribes.
The recent visit to Aden by a delegation of 80 British war veterans and ex-servicemen has aroused a lot of interest and some resentment among the people of Yemen. One of those visitors is Mr. Stephen Day who worked in the Aden government form 1961 to just before independence in 1967. He then became a diplomat working in the Foreign Office in London until his retirement 3 years ago. Now he is partly working in commerce but more in cultural and educational activities with the countries of the Middle East. I had the little chat with him.
Q: In what capacity did you work with the Aden government? A: I was a political officer in the Western Aden Protectorate mainly in the area of Abyan, and also in Lahej and Dhali’. I was the last British agent and assistant High Commissioner for the Western Protectorate and advisor to the Federal Government that collapsed in September, 1967.
Q: Did you still have any connections with Yemen after your departure? A: I had dealt quite a lot with Yemen when I was in the FO in London for a period of about 4 or 5 years. In 1986, when the civil war broke out in the south, I was in charge of the emergency unit in the foreign office that evacuated 1600 people using HM Yacht Britannia. So I followed events in Aden very closely and I have many friends from Yemen from the north and south. But I have never actually been in the north. It was very emotional coming back because I came with my wife. She and I met in Lahaj. We were married there. We had a wedding in Zanzibar and also a wedding in Aden. My daughter was born there. We always regard her as being Yemeni.
Q: How do you feel about the re-unification of Yemen? A: It was a dreadful mistake to cut Yemen in two. When captain Hanes moved into Aden, he never had any intention of cutting it away from Yemen. He always saw it as the natural port of Yemen and the economic center to the benefit of all Yemenis. It was one of these historical accidents that produced the border which in turn caused all the problems. To see now Yemen reunited makes one very optimistic about the future.
Q: Looking back, how do you see the British presence in Aden? A: When we left in 1967, we had done some good things. The economy was in good shape. The Abyan scheme where I worked for 6 years was a very successful agricultural scheme. The communists, in my view, had achieved almost nothing. In fact, in many cases they have destroyed what we left behind. I never believed in communism in the Arab world. I think it is entirely incompatible both with Islam as a religion and the natural commercial talents of the Arabs, especially the Yemenis. To try to turn Yemenis into communists always struck me as madness.
Q: In 1963 Arab nationalism was at its peak and people looked to the British as colonialists who were occupying their land. How did you feel about that? A: In 1963 I was 25 years old, the same age as most of the Arab nationalists. I had every sympathy for them. If I had been an Arab I would have been a nationalist. I have no doubt about that. But I tried to explain to them we did not want to stay in Aden. We wanted to leave. We wanted to grant independence and help develop its economy. That is certainly what I spent 6 years doing. We were not in Aden to make a profit. There was no profit to make. We wanted to leave, but in good shape. Unfortunately we failed.
Q: What do you think about the acts of violence then? A: All of us there suffered one way or another. Despite that, we left with great respect for the arabs of the south. They were not all against us. All my life there was spent with arabs, and I came out alive because I had many arab friends. I never had a British bodyguard. I was defended by arabs.
Q: How do you see Aden now? Has it changed a lot? A: Frankly, not a lot. But it has a great potential. It was for hundreds of years one of the great ports of the world. It was still a great port in 1967 when we left. It has the potential now of becoming once again a major economic and commercial center. I am very confident that this will happen.
Q: How did the people in Aden receive you? A: With tremendous warmth. It was really very moving to see many of our friends in Aden, Abyan, and Sanaa. I had many telephone calls from people who read in the newspaper that we were here. It is wonderful to see how they have managed and how their children have been educated.
Q: How did the young people react to the visit? A: They were very friendly. Wherever we went we had a very warm welcome by the local people. They realized we had come back as friends not as colonialists. Those days are over.
Q: Has anybody expressed any sort of hostility or resentment? A: Not a trace of it. We had only warmth and friendship.
Q: Do you remember any particular incident or anecdote from your stay in Aden? A: The major memory was our wedding in Zanzibar. This was given by the local Arab population. We had 2000 to 3000 guests. There was dancing and a big feast. Our friends in the RAF flew over the area, performing acrobatics. The funny thing was that we had to have our Christian wedding in Aden the next day. At the end of the wedding they carried us back to my house. Then my mother, future mother-in-law and my future wife left to Aden. All the Arabs came rushing and saying ‘what happened? Why has your fiancee left already.’ I said I still had to have my Christian wedding and they said ‘now you are married you can’t lave her.’ There was a terrorist campaign against me. Sawt Al-Arab* particularly targeted me personally. So we had the wedding inside an army camp in Aden.
Q: So what was Sawt Al-Arab saying about you? A: I was then an advisor to the Fadhly Sultan, Ahmed Bin Abdullah in 1965. He had run away from a conference in London to Egypt, declared his support for Nasser, and declared that his state was no longer part of the Federation. I was the advisor in that state. So Sawt Al-Arab was then beaming propaganda to that state and me in particular. But they were not successful. Nothing actually happened.
Q: Don’t you think that Britain should have ensured the future of the colony before leaving? A: I can only say that we tried. It sounds like a lame excuse. But we really did try very hard. We were very fond of the country. Some of the political officers worked very hard against all the risks to try and bring development into the interior because Aden had progressed very substantially. The problem was to develop the interior to produce an equilibrium in the country. That was our aim, to work as hard as we could. Eventually because of the politics, against a background of extreme confusion in the Arab world together with the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, we simply lost control and no longer had the ability to improve the situation in the country. So we left. I don’t think we had any other alternative. All of us involved regretted having to leave the country in that state. That was on our conscience and still is but we could not have achieved more in a country where we were responsible for 135 years of history. I think that we should still acknowledge the same about Palestine. We had and still have direct responsibility in Palestine and Aden and we should not forget that.
Q: Would you like to add anything? A: I think it is important to convey to the British public how much Yemen has changed and progressed and to let them know that they are welcome here because Yemen is not regularly in the British news. There is a lingering uncertainty about that. ___________________ *Sawt Al-Arab (voice of the Arabs) is a radio station broadcasting from Egypt. During the 1960s and the rule of President Nasser, it used to broadcast pan-Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist propaganda.