Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back in South Africa--again! (1986)

South Africa (1986)

“I’m searching for the spirit of the Great Heart
Under African sky” [1]

A poster supporting the South African forces on borders., Capetown, 1984.
As we approached the Botswana/South African border point at Pioneer Gate, I broke out in a cold sweat. I was in the back of Philip and Regine’s bakkie or pickup. I was travelling with them plus their two children, Marc and Naomi, along with my travelling companion Klaus. We had all met up in Zimbabwe and were now heading through South Africa to go visit the mountain kingdom of Lesotho but first we had to get through Botswana and  South African customs.

Friend Robert Parkinson with the original t-shirt, 2013.
 ‘We should wear the UHURU t-shirts under our other shirts,’ I said nervously to Philip, ‘because I don’t think the South African border guards will strip search us, do you?’

Philip looked dumbfounded. I had already given him one of the shirts, but I still had a few of the controversial t-shirts left in my pack. My friend Mark Holmes and I had made them in Canada. They were silk-screened t-shirts with politically-charged slogans on them, i.e. UHURU, which means ‘freedom’ in Swahili, in broad red letters along with Africans punching the sky with AZANIA and ANC banners fluttering in the background. It was such an explosive topic and politically-charged message that I was earlier assailed by some undercover Kenyan CID man whilst waiting for a bus in Nairobi.
UHURU t-shirt

I was able to get away with a stern warning that time but this was the racist apartheid regime of South Africa that we were entering—quite a different kettle of fish, so to say. After a brief conference in the pickup with Philip and Regine, we realized that if a SA border guard found them in my travel bag that we could all be put in the hoosegow. We did not want that to happen just yet, so Philip pulled our bakkie or pick-up off to the side just before the Botswana border post.

I flicked open the tailgate, jumped out and rummaged through my backpack for the potentially troublesome t-shirts. If nothing else, it was a good excuse to stretch our legs and to put on some shorts as it was starting to heat up.

Philip copied me and removed his shirt.

 ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘they are looking for weapons or other subversive contraband and not for t-shirts.’

Maybe I was bit a tad paranoid but you never knew in RSA what with Afrikaner border guards and all.

Marc, Regine, Philip and Naomi, Klaus, 1986.
I put on three Uhuru t-shirts underneath. Philip just had to cover up the one shirt. We felt like such scofflaws as we cleared Botswana customs and crossed no-man’s land and drove up to the South African customs. We were such a motley crew; the dark-skinned and hulky-looking Philip, the thin very white Regine, hirsute Klaus, hippie-looking me and the two kids who were of mixed ethnicities. The Afrikaner border guards must have wondered what kind of a family we were. They could not figure out if it was Klaus or me who was married to Regine and had one of us adopted the kids. As Philip noted later—maybe they thought he was our manservant or that I was the long lost hippie cousin from Canada.

Waiting in the queue at the border guard’s office, I suddenly remembered that I had to get my South African stamp put on a separate piece of paper. I had to be careful about getting any kind of South African stamp in my passport, especially since I would be travelling overland north of here later on. I had not really thought this part out, as my passport would show that I left Botswana at the border post of Lobatse. Any immigration or custom’s officer north of the Limpopo would know that I had crossed into the racist state of South Africa. Nevertheless, I would take my chances with this. Moreover, because we were en route to Lesotho, the RSA customs guys gave us a ‘transit visas’ which meant we had only 48 hours to get through RSA as quick as possible. This seemed fair enough as we did not want to dally to long in the ‘racist regime’ anyways. I needn’t have worried as we sailed through the customs without any hassle.

 I do not think the Afrikaner border guards realized that I was sweating buckets from wearing the three t-shirts underneath my outer shirt. Usually at airports, someone sweating profusely is usually a dead giveaway that something is amiss. Maybe my Canadian passport fooled them into believing that it was just the weather affecting a Canadian from colder climes. I was also sweating because I was afraid I would get the family into trouble. At any rate, as we left the RSA border post Marc and Naomi spontaneously started to sing the outlawed national anthem of the ANC—“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”.
Marc Dineo and Naomi (Nangi), 1986.

I suppose Marc and Naomi were used to singing this at their school in Binga, Zimbabwe. The song touched an emotional chord within me and my eyes welled up under my sun glasses. I did not want the others riding with me in the back to see this. I knew and loved this song, but more importantly I was back in South Africa where just a year earlier, I had a tumultuous breakup with my South African fiancée. The mere crossing into the South African frontier brought back such bittersweet memories.

I do not think the rest of our group knew how cathartic this part of the journey was for me, crossing this border was like crossing my personal Rubicon. Actually, it was hard for me to believe I was actually back in South Africa but at least this time with friends. It seemed, therefore, quite fitting, if not ironic, as I joined Marc and Naomi in singing this banned song in a country, in apartheid South Africa, where it was deemed treasonous to do so. It felt like the right thing to do!


*           *           *


From my diary, a newspaper clipping and quote
 from Desmond Tutu, 1986.
"The world is not anti-South African.
     It is anti-apartheid and anti-injustice."
Our route through South Africa was lined with occasional police checkpoints, which were typically manned by white police officers who were on the look-out for “terrs” or terrorists no less. They would stop us, and then upon looking in the car and seeing that Regine was white, they would just wave us on perhaps because most of us were European and besides we had Zimbabwe plates no less. Quite often, we would see Africans just hunkered down alongside the road begging for rides, chewing on grilled corn cobs and sometimes they would get a lift with another African driving in a bakkie. I was quite shocked that one of the small towns we went by was called Kaffirlaager meaning ‘a place where Africans lived’ which seemed strange as this was Africa after all.

At any rate, I usually sat in the cramped quarters of the covered bakkie where Philip and I would have heated, yet funny conversations, about any subject that we could agree to disagree on. One time, whilst we were having one of our zany talks, Regine almost went off the road or maybe it was a near miss, but at any rate, being in the back of the covered pickup we were tossed to and fro like manikins. After we righted ourselves, and sat back on our pillows, Philip, an excitable guy any time, screamed at Regine, ‘JESUS CHRIST WOMAN, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?’

We all howled in the back and then I took it upon myself to mimic him ever after, which was enjoyed by everyone, even Philip laughed too.

Our big extended family traveled on the blackened road, through verdant farmland, African village kraals and then eventually tired of driving, we pulled into a caravan park on the outskirts of Rustenburg— naturally, it was full of Afrikaner families. We must have looked like a mixed tribe ourselves with Philip, Regine and their kids, along with bearded Klaus and hippie-looking me. We washed up, changed our undies, dressed up in casual wear and decided to treat ourselves to a meal on the town. After being stuffed in the bakkie all day, it was good to stretch our legs and see the town, possibly find some Italian fare.

The Afrikaner Hotel

We went to a fancy Italian restaurant that was run by an Afrikaner bloke and the staff was an all-African. As this was during apartheid and with Philip and the kids considered as ‘coloured’, we were naturally led by the African staff to the area reserved for “Blacks Only”. Unaware of what was really conspiring, we were oblivious to all this segregating crap and stopped following the waiter and instead headed to the cooler outdoor terrace as we had been cooped up inside a pickup all day. As we stepped out onto the terrace, we did not realize that this was a “Whites Only” area.
"White's Only and "Blacks Only "entrances to coffee shop, railway station, 1984.
The ‘African’ guy tried to guide us back to “Black’s Only” area. We protested to the maître d’ but to no avail and we started to create a bit of a scene, so to say. Out of the blue, an older, stern-looking Afrikaner guy came and I thought that there would be a ballyhoo and we would be escorted off the premises or told to go to the “Black’s Only” area. We just told this guy that we did not want to cause a problem but we had been stuck in a dusty bakkie all day and just wanted some fresh air which the terrace offered. We fully expected him to tell us to shove off and I was bracing for his retort.

‘Ach listen man,’ he said in a thick Afrikaner accent, ‘this is my hotel and restaurant and you can sit wherever the bloody hell you want to!’

We were all quite taken aback yet relieved at the same time. In further conversations with him, he turned out to be quite a ‘liberal’ by South African if not by the Afrikaner standards.

‘Jah, I don’t like the way apartheid rules are enforced. Ach man, I don’t really care what colour you are. Sit wherever you want.’

He said as much in Afrikaans to his staff and they nodded approval.

I suppose he would not have been such a bad guy to work for in apartheid South Africa—quite refreshing actually, maybe there was hope for this country after all.

Earlier in the day, we had created quite a scene when we went in to buy groceries at a super-market. It was all-quiet on the southern front whilst we were negotiating the aisles looking for sustenance: spices, coils of boerwors,  boxes of South African wines for Regine and I, a crate of Castle beer for KH, fresh veggies, cans of pilchards and other cheesy comestibles. After all we were in “the Land of Plenty” and the shelves were stuffed with Swartzkat peanut butter, Auntie Oum’s fattening Rusks, lovely jars of Marmite, homemade bread, shanks of beef and lamb, and big roundels of fresh cheese.

"Whites Only" beach near Cape Town, 1984.
A brouhaha ensued when we went to pay for the blame things. Being a mixed bag of nationalities and colours we gave no heed to the looming apartheid crisis that would befall us. Naturally, we just went to any cashier to pay our bills and we would sort out how to divide the cost later on back in the caravan park. As we approached the ‘White’s Only’ cashiers, one of the cashiers motioned that we should use the tills at the end of the row of cashiers. Turns out that these ones are reserved for “Blacks and Coloured Only” and since we had mixed or ‘coloured’ kids and adults that we would have to use this. Philip, Regine and the rest of us were oblivious to the signage that noted the “White’s Only” cashiers and we just waltzed up to the nearest till regardless of colour, creed, religious affiliation or sports team to pay for our goods. There was a momentary uncomfortable pause and then without a to do we just loaded our foodstuffs on the counter and proceeded to pay for it while other staff and South Africans looked on aghast. Seemed quite painless and no animals or humans were hurt during the making of this event.

                                             *                         *                        *

Whilst setting up my sleeping arrangement in the back of the pickup, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was playing on my Sony shortwave radio. This was the year that Paul Simon’s ‘discovered Africa and its musi and all of a sudden people were talking about the African musicians who had backed up Simon on this album. I thought it was a bit of a sell-out and remember reading an earlier issue of London’s “Time Out” and how reviewers prattled on about how great Simon was to ‘discover’ these unknown South African musicians. It was a crock as these South African musicians had been around for many years and it was partly because they were living under a repressive, racist regime that kept these ‘black’ artists in the dark. [2]

The album was a bit insipid in that Simon went so far as to have an Ethiopian Christian manuscript as the front cover which had nothing to do with the music or the musicians of South African. The Zulu devotional singers from South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, were the featured artists who actually had more to do with the album’s success than Simon’s whiney voice. Moreover, the main musicians were also from South Africa, from a group called Stimela. [3] While I was traveling in South Africa, and because of the constant fear of retribution for having visited the ‘racist regime’ once I headed back north, I referred to RSA as “Graceland” in my correspondence and my diary—just to be on the safe side especially since there would undoubtedly be numerous police/army checkpoints north of the Limpopo in the Frontline States.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"By sea or by air--it's your choice."

Yesterday was from hell. Moving day from my old flat, shifting stuff to Dubai to be later sent to Kenya. The day before, the Indian chappie came to assess my stuff. I had asked him if we should do it over two days but he declared—“No. The guys will come in early, wrap and pack everything and then we will be in Dubai by lunchtime.” That seemed straightforward enough, as that was his business. I had already packed away the huge JVC stereo, Sony TV, kitchenware, clothes and other things. I also dismantled the cumbersome computer desk and TV/stereo stand, the kid’s shelf, my bookshelf, dining room chairs, the kid’s bed and the king-size bed.

The three lads arrived, armed with rolls of bubble wrap, rolls of cardboard packing material, a rusty tool box, and some plastic weave stuff to make a gunnysack. They took a look at me in my ankle cast and told me to relax and they would pack everything. They work was as fast as they could, but it was a daunting task. The problem was in the process of dismantling the wooden stand/computer desk/beds into smaller sections it made for more work. If we were just shifting from one apt to the next we could have taken the whole thing but now these guys had to break the wood into different packages.

Even though they worked at a steady pace, time went quickly. I was worried we would not be on the road at noon. I kept phoning my friend MK at Salihiya cargo to ask her when she took her lunch break. She said she was off from 2pm to 4pm. I originally found out about Salihiya from my Kenyan-Somali guy at work—Shafie. I was always having trouble with Kenyan customs at the airport and with excess baggage fees imposed by Emirates Air. Shafie told me to send stuff through Salihiya, a Kenyan-Somali-run company out of Dubai. I wondered how they got around customs and duty especially if they flew into Kenya, but these clever chaps flew direct with Emirates into another international airport in Eldoret—circumventing the nasty customs.

As the time ticked past noon I phoned her again. She told me that I would have to go to their warehouse because of the size of my shipment and assured me that they did not take an afternoon break. I had never been to the warehouse so I was unsure where it was. Never mind, MK assured me, I will text you the details. Everything was moved out into the hallway to be shunted on the elevator. I was left sitting on my stool as the last goods went out the door. All that was left was me, my mountain bike, two suitcases, and my old mattress that I decided was not worth shipping. Dust mixed with bits of ripped cardboard, flakes and larger pieces of styrofoam laid strewn all over the flat, two dusty carpets were all that was left. Vultures were hovering outside my door as I had left behind a humongous wardrobe, a love seat, mirrors, an unused trash can, a pail with cleaning liquids and other discarded knick knacks. 

The sun was setting as the lads finally loaded up the truck, which was driven by an older Pakistani guy. It was 6:30pm when we finally got going. Having driven this route ad nauseum over the past 7 years, most of the time I was dozing in the ADNOC bus or paying attention if I was driving. Funny but, I swear I saw things I normally wouldn’t pay attention to, new signs, men jogging beside villas, and a number of pretty Filipina gals. As we drove over the new Maqtak Bridge, I saw the huge gleaming domes that were the Sheikh Zayid Mosque complex on the right and I looked down on the oldest bridge that was built before this was officially the UAE.

Our vehicle was the slowest vehicle on the road—maybe 70kms/hr max—we didn't overtake anyone. I was trying to doze off but was awoken by faster cars honking as they passed us on the shoulder—now I knew we were slow! This pervasive heat was starting to get to me especially with the trucks inadequate a/c. The words –“You will see a light in the darkness and you will make some sense of this…” Well I certainly hoped so!
We had already been driving for an hour when I woke up just as we passed a huge sign telling us the distance to the various gates in Dubai. Our destination, Mamzar Gate, was still another 65 kilometers from where we were on the sandy outskirts of Jebel Ali.

Dubai on a Thursday night, the start of the weekend here, is not the time to be driving through Dubai especially on its busiest artery— Sheikh Zayed Road. It is busy most of the time but tonight it was chock a block.

I gave Muhammad the phone number for the warehouse. I thought something was amiss when he didn’t understand the Arabic of the warehouse guy—Abdul-Aziz (AA). Muhammad said the guy must be Russian. Knowing that most of the shipping staff was Somali, I found this slightly off-putting—didn’t bode well.
I read the text message from MK again and it just said—“Salihiya cargo warehouse is in Mamzar gate no 8. Contact person Abdul-Aziz.” We drove on past, Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, past the series of malls, Ibn Battuta, Emirates Mall and just for confusion sakes, the Mall of the Emirates. Could not see the old landmark Hard Rock Café as they shut down many years ago. As we drove over Maktoum Bridge towards Deira, we were now in the heart of the Dubai emirate. Nevertheless, I had no idea where we were heading except that it was in Hamriya, wherever the hell that was.

We got to Hamriya area and Muhammad tried phoning AA again for directions but he didn’t answer. We got lost looking for Mamzar Gate 8, so Muh went around the traffic circle and pulled off into Mamzar Gate 1. I panicked and phoned MK as it was 8:50 pm and she would be closing the downtown office at 9:00 pm. I told her we couldn’t reach AA on the phone. She mentioned something about a mosque and told me to try AA again. We continued on to the next circle then did a u-turn came back to our first circle. Muh phoned again barking directions into the phone as we drove around the traffic circle 7 times –I was getting slightly nauseous as we drove up to the next circle then pulled off.
After 5 minutes, AA pulled up alongside us and led us off towards Mamzar Gate 8. It was actually the next circle but you would be hard-pressed to find it as we had to go through the circle then do a quick right turn off the road, drive past a mosque and after a left turn, there, hastily scribbled on a piece of cardboard was Gate #8. Unlike Gate #1 with a proper sign, police checkpoint, barricade and metalled road, here was nothing but an unlit dirt road with no security.

We pulled into what looked like a makeshift, run-down chicken-wire fence depot. I’m still looking for what I would call a warehouse. No a/c here and everything would be fried in the midday sun, including the workers. This was more like a shotgun shack. Crikey—now what? We were quickly surrounded by a motley crew of unshaven Pakistani guys in sweaty shalwar kameez, a few bare-chested Somali guys and other swarthy types who were lugging around various bulky-looking packages for shipping.
Muhammad and I stood around in +100F balmy night air as the Pakistanis guys unloaded my 25+ pieces. The Somali guy AA yelled at his charges to unload my shipment. He even had to roust them from the nearby trailer. Yelling, measuring of the boxes, items stacked high on the huge scale then weighed. The sweat was running down my back as I quickly soaked everything I was wearing. I talked with AA as my shipment was being weighed, debating over whether they should go by air or sea. 
"It's your choice," he told me." 
“Whatever is the cheaper way,” I yelled at him. It was agreed that the heavier ones would go by sea and the lighter ones by air.
Off to the side were three African guys, probably Somalis, who were busy making wooden crates for TV boxes. Finally after everything was weighed, AA barked for a calculator, then with some convoluted method involving inputting the boxes dimensions he could determine the volume they would take on the container. By sea would take a month, by air, they would be in Nairobbery the following Friday!

AA took the SONY TV box over to the Somali guys to get crated. “You will have to work out a price with them,” AA winked at me.
“100 dirhams,” the one guy said.
“No way, I only paid around 40 dirhams at your downtown office,” I said.
“What is your last price,” the other guy said.
“That’s my last. I ain’t paying 100,” I said.
They wouldn’t come down and I wouldn’t go up, so after much haggling, it was agreed that the TV wouldn’t be in a wooden crate. AA said it would be okay to send it in its original cardboard box by air.

It was 10pm when we got back into the truck’s cab and Muhammad turned on the a/c—we were both soaked. I was surprised when we finally got back to Abu Dhabi at 12:30 am that there were so many people out and about; cafés were still crowded, KFC, SFC, Tim’s, the Automatic Restaurants, and the shwarma joints were still going strong. It was well past my bedtime, I took a shower, hit the hay at 1 am, but it felt like I had been on an overnight flight as I collapsed into my bed. I’d had enough!

Being a nomad for most of my life, packing and moving has never been stressful but this time, I did feel deflated from the whole experience, perhaps because I had been in Abu Dhabi the longest--7 years! Now on to my next adventure--hopefully not a demented one!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Last tango in Zabid, 1999

Last tango in Zabid, 1999.
Iskandar Mawz Mosque, Zabid
Zabid, and especially the Tihama, had been my first real experience in Yemen. I had spent almost four months here in 1996 as a site supervisor on a dig. I was excited to be going back there. As we got closer to the town of 10,000 people, there was no mistaking Zabid’s skyline with the bleached minaret of Iskander Mawz Mosque as the highest point and landmark.
In a translated account of Ibn Battuta, an Islamic traveller who had visited Zabid during his peregrinations in the fourteenth century, he reported:

Zabid is a distance of forty farsakhs [one hundred and twenty miles] from San’a and after San’a the largest and wealthiest town in al-Yaman. It lies amidst luxuriant gardens with many streams and fruits, such as bananas and the like… The town is large and populous with palm-groves, orchard--in fact, the pleasantest and most beautiful town in al-Yaman. (TMS 2000:84)
Looking south from the Citadel.
That was then but this is now. There was the same old nondescript hole of an entrance into the town, one of the four gates that still remained, we were welcomed with blowing sand. We fought through this entrance with a flock of grubby goats and a caravan of camels overloaded with enormous bales of cotton. On the way in, I did notice something new—an advertising sign for the Zabid Guesthouse and restaurant. Even though this was three years after my initial visit to Zabid, the town was still off the tourist map so to say. [i] Unlike Ibn Battuta’s 700-year-old account, I saw no evidence of luxuriant gardens, streams or orchards, just a dusty old town falling into decay despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was probably a safe wager to say that on this day I was the only ajnabee in the town.
We stopped opposite the old Citadel at a familiar site—the small shaded teahouse on the main square that I had frequented on my previous sojourn. Back then, it was the trees and shade that attracted me and our dig crew to this place, especially on hot afternoons and our days off when you would find us relaxing in the shade with fresh cool fruit juices, and chatting with curious local urchins. Often we came to get a lime mixer that we would later add to our sundowners back in the privacy of the Citadel.
I left Khaled to park the vehicle and went directly to the Citadel, wondering if there was anyone there who still might remember me. I noted that the Bab al-Kebir that led into the Citadel’s interior had a fresh coat of whitewash. I followed the dusty track lined with over-grown thorn bushes until I got to the old iron gate that secured the archaeological site and museum. But it was locked and no sign of a watchman. The place looked abandoned.
I was just about to give up when I heard voices coming from the old kitchen. I peered through the wire fence, I saw coming from out of the kitchen, a familiar face from the past. It was Muhammad, the son of Ahmed, our dig’s general handyman. Hoping he remembered me, I shouted out his name.
He looked at me oddly at first as if he was trying to figure out who I was and, more importantly, how I knew his name. It was time for a bit of my Arabic. In the best accent I could muster, I asked him:
‘Muhammad, wayn baba?’ (‘Muhammad, where’s your father?’)
He still looked dumbfounded.
Ana, Emerson,’ I said. (‘I’m Emerson.’)
Suddenly from behind, I heard a voice yelling at me. I turned around to find Jabbar, the Citadel’s guide, and Muhammad’s father, Ahmed (the handyman). Dressed of course in the traditional Tihama futa, Ahmed looked thinner than I remembered, but he was still wearing his oversized Sammy Davis sunglasses. He must have recognized me because on his face was a wide grin revealing a few more missing teeth and his cleft palate.
Kef halak habibi?’ (How are you my dear?) He asked.
Tamam,’ I said. ‘Al hamdulillah.’ (Fine, thanks be to God.)
Showing off the little bit of English he knew, he asked: ‘How is you?’
‘I’m fine. Kwayiss!
I stuck out my hand to shake his but instead he grabbed and kissed my wrist as a sign of respect. Then in usual Yemeni fashion we hugged. From a large clutch of keys, he took one and unlocked the gate. Once inside, I gave Muhammad a hug and couldn’t help but notice that since I last saw him in 1996 he had grown up to be as tall as his father.
We went to sit down at one my favourite spots to relax—a low plaster bench now thankfully in the shade outside the mudbrick kitchen. It was a godsend to meet these chaps and catch up on old times.
Wayn mudhir?’ (‘Where’s the mudhir?’) I asked.
Sana’a,’ said Ahmed, then he mentioned a common acquaintance, Johnny Al Bayti, a student whom I had met in the Islamic Archaeology course at the University of Toronto a few years back. Johnny was a Syrian-Canadian who had worked on the dig for years but had skipped the year that I was there because of security issues on the proposed coastal dig where he was to do underwater archaeology. As his Arabic was fluent he had now become the mudhir’s second-in-command.
Wayn Johnny, Muhammad and Abdul Habib?
‘They are here but on the coast,’ said Jabbar in excellent English.
‘When are they coming back?’
Inshallah,’ Jabbar said. ‘They should be here soon.’ In this culture “soon” could be tomorrow, next week or next month.
Then Ahmed interjected that they were expected back that very day.
‘When will the mudhir get here?’ I asked.
‘Maybe this week or next,’ said Jabbar. He probably had no idea when the mudhir would show up but was just being polite.
It would have been nice to see the old gang again but unfortunately, I did not have time to hang around. Our ‘programme’ had us continuing onto Ta’izz where we would stay tonight. I briefly considered spending the night here back at my old perch on top of the kitchen roof, but here in the Tihama where life usually moves slowly we were doing a whirlwind tour and time was ticking away. If we didn’t get going after this unscheduled stop, Khaled would be kicking his heels outside the Citadel chomping at the bit to get going. I decided to let him chomp. It was that old pecking order thing again.
Fatini, the cook with Carl
I took a closer look at the Citadel. It was definitely dustier and dirtier than when I had been here three years ago. The romance was certainly gone. The exterior of the old kitchen now resembled a jail complete with iron-barred windows, all of them shuttered and locked tight. The Citadel had been in a desperate state when the mudhir initially came fourteen years ago in 1982 to undertake a restoration using as much original material and traditional building techniques as possible.
Perhaps the reason the place looked so unkempt was because it had been dormant since the last dig season almost nine months ago. Walking through the dusty dining area, I could scarcely believe that this was the place where we’d had so many raucous and delicious mid-day meals that our pirate cook Fatini had lovingly prepared for us. Because there was no fresh air circulating now, there was a definite pong to the place. I poked my head into the kitchen where I used to cook breakfast for myself and the occasional dinner for some of the Yemeni staff. Egads, but I would not want to be cooking here now. Sadly, it now seemed quite grotesque and extremely unsanitary. Unfit for habitation actually.
Since my last trip, fluorescent lights had been installed inside and outside but their presence detracted from the mediaeval atmosphere of the place. This alteration in the ambience was due to more than the mere presence of the fluorescent lights—the whole place looked dilapidated: palm fronds were missing from the roof of the mudhir’s pottery yard, discarded sherds littered the terrace, and where Carl used to do his meticulous conservation of artefacts there was a thick layer of dirt.
Carl with the garden
A highlight of working here in 1996 had been the garden that the mudhir had planted. It had been a small oasis hidden within the confines of the dusty old Citadel. Back then, there were tall eucalyptus and papaya trees, a few banana palms, fragrant bushes of basil, and some nasturtiums, which I enjoyed nibbling. Every day Kathy and I would recline on wooden benches in the shade to take our siesta and get a reprieve from the dragon’s breath that blew in from the Red Sea every afternoon along with the occasional sand storm. Alas, most of my beloved oasis was disappearing before my eyes and with no more papaya and bananas to eat, I wondered if the huge fruit bats still flitted in the garden at dusk.
‘Ahmed,’ I asked, as I motioned to the spot where the papayas once stood. ‘Wayn papaya?
Finich,’ said Ahmed. ‘Mafi papaya! Finich!
Leish, mafi papaya?
Mafi faloose,’ he said. ‘Karaba kitheer.’ What he meant was that it cost the mudhir too much money to irrigate the papaya trees and banana palms which together would consume a considerable amount of water during the nine months when he was back in Canada. At first, Ahmed had earned some pocket money from the papayas, that is, if I did not eat them first, but now, as he settled down for his afternoon sheesha, he just seemed to accept his fate calmly, the characteristic of fatalism so common amongst the believers. Some things never change, Inshallah!
In the garden, I went for a stroll down memory lane. Many an afternoon—to get away from the blinding glare of the sun shining on the whitewashed buildings, and the oppressive heat of my trench outside the Citadel—I relaxed on a Tihama bed here in the cool shade. Then the garden had been lush with papaya trees, banana palms, and nasturtiums, now, other than some towering eucalyptus trees and a few scrawny bushes, nothing was growing out of the bare earth. It had not taken the good old days long to disappear.
My old sleeping quarters.
With the pervading heat plus the threat of catching malaria at night, I discarded my romantic notion of sleeping in the Citadel for the night. Not having packed my trusty old mosquito net was the clincher, but for old time’s sakes, I did go up to my old sleeping quarters on the roof of the kitchen to take some photos that I could compare with my shots from 1996. From this vantage point, I could barely see lower part of the Iskander Mosque as the eucalyptus trees were blocking the view.
Working in the Citadel in 1996 had meant so much to me at the time but I also remembered that it was a turning point in my life. My mother had died after a prolonged bout of pancreatic cancer only two months before I joined the dig because it seemed like a good idea to get away the all the grief I had felt back home in Toronto. At the time, I also knew that I probably would not pursue a career in archaeology. I’d had my fill of academia; the dig had its ups but mostly downs because of the irrational edicts of the mudhir. Without a doubt, this mudhir was the worst guy I’d ever worked under on a dig. Obviously, depending on your position in the pecking order it has its faults. As it happened, within a year, I would be back in the Middle East, but as a teacher of English as a Second Language and finally be making good money to be able to afford a trip like this one to Yemen. As an archaeologist I was always as poor as a mouse in a mosque!
Looking out over my old bailiwick, I felt I was cheating my memory by leaving after only a few hours. As much as I wanted to stay there, I still wanted to get the hell out of there. I bid the staff farewell, and headed back for the last time, perhaps, through the whitewashed Bab el-Kebir and there was Khaled waiting for me at the tea-house. I was licking my lips thinking about of the fruity cocktail mixes that we used to drink here on sultry afternoons chit chatting the time away, so I asked the tea-shop owner, ‘Mumkin mix? Cocktail?’ (Maybe mix, cocktail?)
Mafi cocktail,’ said the owner. ‘Khalas!’ (No cocktail! Finished!)
Apparently, since my last time here things had changed.
Just as we were leaving the place, Ahmed dashed over to say that Johnny, Muhammad and Habib had indeed just arrived at the citadel. Khaled rolled his eyes at another last minute delay. I hurried back to the Citadel for a quick reunion with my ‘Yemeni boys’.
Muhammad still had the huge Cheshire cat smile and Habib was his usual quiet self. Their shabby appearance had not changed a bit but their English had improved dramatically.
‘How are you?’ I asked
‘We are fine and you?’
Kwayiss.’ I said.
They both laughed at my Arabic.
Johnny was still the same lanky dig rat that I knew from our days at University of Toronto. We chatted a bit and then headed off to the newest watering hole in town—the Zabid Guest House whose advertisement I had seen on entering the town.
The Zabid Guest House was the place in town to cool off and relax in the shade of an expansive barasti roof. This guesthouse was a welcome addition to Zabid’s meagre social scene. It was not around when I was last here. It even had two pool tables that Johnny told me the ‘boys’ would shoot pool after a day’s dirty work on the dig. I was a bit surprised to see women with uncovered hair working here.
‘Who are these women?’
‘They are local women.’
‘What are they doing here in the guesthouse?’
Winking and giving me a nudge, Johnny said slyly, ‘You know.’
It did indeed look like one might be able to flirt with some of the Tihama gals that were working here, or at least that was what Johnny intimated to me but in this conservative society, I found it hard to believe!
Over cold soft drinks, Johnny and I talked at length about the state of archaeology, Muhammad and Habib were able to join in as they had been studying English at the American Institute in Sana’a. We discussed the pros and cons of archaeology as a career and Johnny asked me why I had left archaeology.
‘Because I couldn’t get steady work,’ I said. ‘I was tired of waiting for contract work on the West Coast in British Columbia. Instead I did a TESL certification course and soon found full employment in Korea then six months later did a runner to UAE.
‘Besides I’m a Near Eastern archaeologist,’ I said, ‘and if I worked on the West Coast, I would be at the bottom of the pecking order, I’d have to start all over again learning a new material culture of Canada’s First Nations.’
I told him how once my friend Serge and I had worked on another friend’s dig in northern Ontario near Temagami where after a mere foot of digging, I had hit the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. There were no historical levels here to interpret, unlike a site northern Syria in 1992, where we excavated a multitude of occupation periods and destructions levels to a depth of more than five meters and we eventually dug down to 10,000 year-old Neolithic layers. Johnny sympathized with my plight.
Johnny told me all about how he was trying to persuade IMF officials to part with their money for various reconstruction programs in the Citadel and the adjoining Iskandar Mosque. I wished him luck on that as that seemed an insurmountable task.
We had just gone outside the guesthouse to say our final goodbyes when unexpectedly we ran into our old night watchman, Misgagi. He hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw him in 1996. Johnny then told me that Misgagi had lost his baby girl during Ramadan, which must have been difficult for him and his wife. In watching the ease with which Johnny could converse with these locals, I realized that, as a site supervisor, he had one huge advantage over me: he could speak fluent Arabic and I couldn’t.
On reflection, maybe Johnny and I were living in a make believe world of archaeology. I always hoped that I could make a living at it but, in reality, without a PhD, most digs lasted only four months, and thus one was forced to constantly live from dig to dig. Despite that, I always loved the time I spent on archaeology in the Middle East and missed that bohemian lifestyle. To me archaeology never seemed like a job, but a passion. It was never difficult to roust yourself each morning to work on a dig. At a lecture I was giving on archaeology, someone once asked me what was the most interesting object I had ever found on a dig; my answer: ‘The next thing I uncover.’
Finally, we bade each other farewell, promising to keep in touch, which, unfortunately, we never did. [ii]
When I got into our baking vehicle, Khaled floored it out of there.