The British in Aden: Oral history projects record  memories of colonial times [Archives:2001/02/Reportage]

January 8 2001

Karen Dabrowska
An oral history project recording the memories of Yemenis and British people who lived in Aden during colonial times will ensure that both colonizers and colonized are given the opportunity to tell their side of the story and provide a balanced account for posterity.
The British occupation of Aden, which lasted from 1839 – 1967 left a mixed legacy. Although the period of colonial rule ended in violence, the British bequeathed an impressive bureaucratic infrastructure which the local people continue to admire. Many Yemenis speak affectionately about the British and the British who served in Aden look back fondly on those years.
The London-based Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) proposed the oral history project after a British parliamentary delegation visited Yemen in 1996. Support was forthcoming from both the British ambassador in Yemen and the Yemeni ambassador in Britain.
Maria Holt, CAABUs Special Projects Officer and Chris Morton CAABUs Administrative Officer who served with the British Army in Aden during the 60s, have already interviewed 30 British people – diplomats, employees of BP and the Aden Port Authority, medical personnel, teachers and British wives – about their experiences in Aden. One former British soldier admitted that if he were a Yemeni he would be throwing bombs at the colonizers.
We have an interview with the last British official to step on the plane in 1967, Morton told The Yemen Times emphasizing that the British interviewees still have an underlying passion for Aden. There are feelings of great affection for Aden. I remember saying I wanted to returned when I got back to England.
The next step is to conduct roughly the same number of interviews with Yemenis in Aden.
Holt is determined to present all sides of the story. We hope to correct distortions. The British have strong memories and I am sure the Yemenis will have strong memories and their perspective is bound to be very interesting. We are recording their views. It is a non-judgmental exercise and we will not be reaching any conclusions about who is right and who is wrong. We want to find out what life was like on a day to day basis during the colonial period.
CAABU is co-operating with the British Empire and Common-wealth Museum in Bristol which is conducting an oral history project for the entire British Empire. A final report will be produced and the BBC may make a program based on the interviews.
Maria Holt was CAABUs information officer between 1990 – 96 and is currently completing a Phd on Islam Women & Violence at York University. She has published a book on Women in Palestine and has written extensively about women in the Arab world, especially Lebanon and Yemen.
Chris Morton served as an officer in the Royal Oman Navy between 1980 – 86. During the 1990s he worked as a development officer for the South African Rugby Union, developing rugby in the black townships.
CAABU was formed after the 1967 Middle East war, when a questionnaire revealed that 98 per cent of the British public had no knowledge of the Arab world. There was a clear need to present the Arab perspective and thus advance understanding between the Arab and British peoples.
CAABU has sympathy for the aspirations, achievements and rights of the Arab peoples, especially the Arabs of Palestine. The council believes that a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would open the way to rapid development and social progress for all countries of the Middle East.
Any Yemenis interested in taking part in the oral history project are very welcome to contact Maria Holt at: [email protected]