Memories of WAP

Courtesy of OSPA

by Winkle Allen
(written by her son, Hubert Allen - District Officer, Uganda 1955-62- in his mother's inimitable style of reminiscence)
Memories of WAP
Cultivation in the Wadi Yeshbum
Early in January 1947 my husband, John Allen, arrived in Aden, to take up his post as one of four or five 'Political Officers' in the Western of the two Aden Protectorates - WAP and EAP ("Wopp" and "Eep", everyone always called them). Both these protectorates were technically administered from Aden, but they weren't part of the Colony which was quite small - just a couple of peninsulas and a few off-shore islands.

Because of his relative seniority after many years' service in Tanganyika, John quickly became second-in-command, formally promoted to the new post of Deputy British Agent. The very hot and humid climate in Aden was dreadfully exhausting for Europeans, so tours of duty were quite short, and home leaves relatively long. This meant that John's immediate superior, the British Agent - a very experienced Arabist called Seager - was very often away on leave, or taking part in policy consultations in London; and so from soon after he got there John as often as not found himself in charge as Acting British Agent, answerable only to the Governor himself.

I was able to accompany John quite often when he was touring in WAP. It was a truly fascinating part of the world. Most of it was barren and bleak - a lot of it typical desert sand dunes, but much of it very rugged and mountainous - "looking as if giants had been playing deck quoits with atom bombs" was one of John's descriptions. I could quite understand, after spending time in those arid deserts, why the Arabs believe that one of the torments of Hell is dry water to drink! I'm sure, too, that that is why the palace gardens of the great caliphs and sultans always featured fountains and pools or streams of water. In spite of the aridity, however, the volcanic soil in WAP was very fertile, so on the rare occasions when it rained - or in a few sheltered valleys in the mountains which captured moist air blowing in from the sea - the most beautiful brilliantly coloured wild flowers would burst out for a few lovely hours.

Such agriculture as there was seemed very incompetent, with a few pathetic plants poking their way up through a sea of stones. Experts were sent out from Britain to advise, and they persuaded a group of farmers to clear off all the stones, so that their fields could be properly ploughed and seeded: but the result was a disastrous harvest, because - as the 'experts' painfully learnt - all those untidy stones were trapping the dew and retaining the precious moisture in the soil, which was otherwise very quickly dried out by the scorching sun. As John remarked, it's always rash to interfere too boldly with 'primitive' customs.

Memories of WAP
Almakhzan Deflector Dam
Later on, when our daughters were with us, they were fascinated by the method of building irrigation channels, which also seemed very 'primitive'. Early every morning crowds of men and boys would turn up with camels - or occasionally donkeys - each pulling a flat board some 4 feet long by 18 inches wide, attached to the 'saddle' with two long ropes. The driver stood on the flat board until he got to the sand he had to move, and then tilted it at a 45 degree angle, stood on the back ledge of the board and drove forward, scooping up sand. If he wanted to build the bank to left or right he would simply shorten the rope attaching the board to the saddle for the appropriate side and ride along at an angle. Our girls tried it, and instantly fell off - but the men used to hurtle about with no spills and remarkably few crashes into one another.

On the first occasion I went out with John I had an awfully embarrassing time. John had to go off to a village to talk with the local sheikhs, and I was left in camp in the care of a 'GG' (a Government Guard). The GGs were a sort of cross between soldiers and policemen, wearing khaki turbans to distinguish them from the Tribal Guards, who were employed by the various rulers and wore scarlet turbans. After a while I needed to 'spend a penny', so I walked out from the camp to get behind a sand dune. But the GG followed me, so I pretended to be interested in a dreary little desert plant, and then tried to get behind another dune. But there he was - not very close, but keeping me well under his eye. I hadn't any Arabic, so I tried all sorts of gestures, but they made no impression. Fortunately John wasn't very long away, but by the time he got back I was quite desperate!

Women counted for nothing at all in WAP, so I was simply ignored most of the time. If we were having a meal I would sit next to John, but no-one paid the slightest attention to me. Even so, I was always worrying that I might breach etiquette. For instance, I was so scared of using my left hand to eat with that I used to sit on it! I used to suffer agonies of embarrassment trying to pick up things like tinned peaches with my one bare hand: the segments would keep sliding away - it was like trying to catch little fish! At least one advantage of being a woman was that I wasn't ever offered special titbits like raw sheep's eyes to eat. John was, but he discovered that you were allowed to say "Oh, no, that's too good for me. Allow me to pass it to my neighbour, who is more deserving!" - but if you were that neighbour you couldn't do the same again: you just had to swallow it, whatever it was!

Memories of WAP
Robert Mounde
Much my worst moment in WAP was when we were having lunch in a tent one day - all sitting round on mats on the ground as usual. All at once there was a bang, and the man sitting opposite me - Bob Mounde, a cheerful young Agricultural Officer - just fell forward onto the plate in front of me. A government guard who'd been sacked and nursed resentment against the British had sneaked up outside the tent and shot him in the back of the head. He was stone dead, poor fellow. I had to go and break the news to his nice young wife, Eileen, who had a baby. It was awful - horrible.

I wore full skirts and long sleeves all the time, and kept my head covered, except in camp with John. That wasn't really a hardship, because the sun was so fierce that one didn't want to be exposed to it. The loose Arab garments of cotton or silk were eminently sensible. John and the other British officers normally wore uniform on duty (white or khaki shirts, and matching knee-length shorts and stockings) but on their heads they all used to wear the Arab agal and habiyya - a big silk square folded once diagonally and held on the head with a double loop of woven black camelhair: the sort of thing you always see Lawrence of Arabia wearing in pictures. If there were a dust-storm you could wrap up your face and breathe through the silk.

Once when he was dressed like this John paused at a crossroads as he was driving into Aden from the desert late in the evening, and a couple of rather drunk sailors from one of the British naval vessels clambered onto the bonnet of the car and told him to find a brothel for them. John told them what he thought of them, in no uncertain terms, whereupon one remarked to the other; "Eee! Don't these Ay-rabs talk English luvly!"

On one occasion I was able to accompany John when he crossed the Yemeni border to Taiz for discussions with the Imam's regent for southern Yemen, I think it was - anyway, a member of the royal family. I was sent off to the women's quarters with a teenage girl who spoke a little English. The senior wife, a beautiful woman, received me graciously. She gave me quantities of tea made with rosewater and plied me with very sticky sweetmeats. Through my young interpreter I said how sorry I was that we had no common language. The princess spoke to one of her attendants, who went off and brought in a charming baby, which was placed in my lap. Then the princess said, through the interpreter.- "But we do have a common language!" Such a sensitive and moving gesture, I thought.

Memories of WAP
Reve d'Or
As I was about to leave, another attendant was summoned, who broke over me a whole bottle of terribly expensive Parisian perfume - 'Reve d'Or' - a scent of which you'd normally dab on just a couple of drops at most. I was wearing a dress with the fashionable shoulder-pads and of course the scent soaked into these, so that I simply reeked ot perfume! For the next two days John and his fellow officer, Alastair McIntosh, kept dodging round to get upwind of me! They said the stench made them feel sick: I expect it did - but what about me!

Alastair was one of the best of the Political Officers. He was a brilliant Arabist. When 'Toosh' first arrived we were living out in WAP, but John wasn't there for some reason. I knew he was anxious that I should receive the new officer warmly. At about the time he was expected a crowd of Arabs turned up, chattering together rapidly and excitedly. I was a bit worried, so I tried asking a rather fat one, in broken English: "But where Mr McIntosh? Why he not come?" The fat Arab replied in a broad Scots accent: "But I am McIntosh! I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs Allen." In spite of this unpromising start, he quickly became one of our dearest friends.

Aden Map
Aden and Western Aden Protectorate Map, 1950
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


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