"Don't know why, don't know how
I can't stand this place Sanau...
Prefer Al'Abr - this Bedou jabber-
They Just keep talk, talk, talkin' all the time ..."
Surely one of the best positions a young man in the late 1950s could find himself
as a Political Officer working In the Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP) was
an appointment as 'Assistant Adviser Northern Deserts' (AAND). The Resident
Adviser and British Agent at Mukalla, headquarters of the EAP, headed a small staff
of political officers - known as 'Assistant Advisers' to reinforce the perception
that they merely 'advised' the local rulers to whom they were appointed - to bring
these petty potentates headlong into the modern age. AAND by unique contrast
in those parts had direct responsibility to keep the peace along the vast Saudi
border, from the Oman to the Yemen, days of driving from Mukalla. It was about
1,000 miles from end to end via the meandering tracks that skirted the Empty
Quarter, the % million square miles of sand desert, a portion of which was in the
EAP. In this fastness there were five water-holes.
AAND tried to visit each locale regularly, but his schedule was invariably dictated
by reports of tribal skirmishing, arms smuggling, blood feuds and the like, so it
was a peripatetic existence: a short-wheelbase Landrover with a 3-litre engine
and sand tyres, accompanied by a 25 hundredweight Bedford 'pick-up' truck with
balloon tyres; a barrel of petrol, a barrel of water; a tent and a sulky cook; plus a
section of local soldiers and a 'Desert Guard' (an auxiliary, recruited from the area
to be visited, as guide and liaison).
The British had built romantic-looking, if squalid, little white forts to garrison
each waterhole at which the local Bedouin - men-folk, women, goats, camels
and sheep - clustered. There were a few 'tube-wells' drilled by the oil-prospecting
company and to these also the local tribes were drawn. When the oil company
moved on in its prospecting, maintenance of the pumps was left to individuals -
hastily trained In the workshops hundreds of miles away in the Wadi Hadhramaut,
up to five or six days travel over bumpy tracks. When a tube-well pump seized up,
as they always did, the reports of the deaths of hundreds of animals (invariably
exaggerated) spurred AAND to transport relief mechanics and their spanners, to
ensure early repairs.
At each fort there gathered the local tribal leaders, malcontents and petitioners.
In some locations where the tribes maintained reasonably cordial relations with
AAND, long discussions in the evening were a delight, stretched out round the
campfire, the camels gurgling and roaring In the background and the vivid canopy
of stars overhead. At other locations it was not such a pleasure, where the locals
constantly pestered and importuned over matters of tribal grievance, old quarrels
lovingly resurrected each time AAND came into sight.
The fort at Sanau was particularly noisome, both for the local quarrelsome
'parishioners' and for the quality of the water, believed to contain 25% magnesium
sulphate. The smell from the well could be caught down-wind from a long way
away. Here it was necessary to keep the vehicle permanently on call; AAND would
feel his insides churning, requiring a hasty move to behind the nearest sand-dune.
This was quite impractical on foot, because the petitioners would follow him, even
while he squatted. So the vehicle was there to be hastily jumped into and driven
to a private distance...
Each fort was in radio contact with Mukalla, but AAND was without, so there
were periods when he was completely out of touch with the outside world. Tribal
fights could start, camel raiders from the Yemen could sweep in; very often the
crisis solved itself without the outside world being aware of what was happening
at the time. On other occasions, prompt signals ensured back-up in the form of
extra troops, or even a fly-over by the RAF based in Aden, to remind AAND he
was not really alone.
It was a good life - for a period. Left too long and AAND could suffer from
'Desert Madness', the 'Cafard' beloved of PC Wren In his Beau Geste novels
of the French Foreign Legion, when the sufferer saw his fastness as the most
isolated place on earth for an expatriate marooned therein. Mukalla was aware
of this: an earlier colleague had started behaving strangely and one day sent an
'Operation Immediate' signal to headquarters - a degree of urgency intended for
major emergencies. All the signal said was 'BEDOUINS ARE BASTARDS.' The
political officer was relieved and sent on leave. AAND was advised not to misuse
the signal priority and merely to add on the end of a routine signal 'FIGGIS WAS
RIGHT (the name of the original sufferer from Cafard). Mukalla would then know
AAND needed a break.