I was supposed to set an example. Voluntary Service Overseas was in its second year in 1959 and two of us were here on a pound a week plus keep, to be examples. Nineteen-year-old examples. A year before university, you’ll have a wonderful experience. It was, too.

The students in Form 2A were not what I expected. To start with, half of them were my age or older, one or two were married and had children back in the protectorates, some were even taller than I — six feet, two inches from Eastbourne, Sussex. From Eastbourne Grammar School to Aden College.

My students were Adenis, Hadhramis, Jews, Indians, Yemenis, Somalis. Lots of stories about the Somalis: One Somali could beat up ten Arabs; I heard a row in the corridor and found two of them killing a whole gang of Adenese, that kind of thing. Many stories, not least from those colonial teachers who had been working in Somalia before coming to the college. How good it had been, the people proud and straight as a die, not like these buggers. Others who had worked with Sudanese (wonderful people) thought themselves the pick of the colonial bunch. It was, in any case, all finished really, the end for all of us in this extinct volcano of a place. Army punishment station and so it bloody well was, the Crown Colony of Aden and the Eastern and Western Protectorates.

Form 2A. I wore the uniform. White, short-sleeved shirt, white shorts (made by the local tailor, six pairs), long white socks, black walking shoes, Omega seamaster on the left wrist. Washing to the dhobi all the time until eventually I didn’t bother so much, rolled the socks down, wore the shorts orange-brown from the dust and sand for a week and was reprimanded by the headmaster for letting myself go, looking a mess. Furious and humiliated, and then the boys, my 2A boys, told me I should have more self-respect and keep my clothes clean. “Because you are my friend now as well as my teacher so I will say as is true, isn’t it?”

That sentence I copied down on July 9, 1960, not long before going back to that awful country, England, when I so wanted to stay here, and wear the Malaysian style longi, the belt, the white cotton turban, and just be with them. “Was there much love in England? How much did we pay for our wives? Could we talk about beauty and love? What was my impression of the sea?” And, on one occasion in the majlis of the sultan of Wahidi, “If you speak the truth to us, that is good. And if you lie we shall know.” I wanted to stay.

Fawzi, Sami and Hafiz in the school library; a huge argument, them laughing and disbelieving: Of course I thought they should have independence, but were they really ready, I mean, able to take on the responsibility? (I had been taught well in Sussex.) Shouldn’t we stay longer to sort of help? Not being ready for independence myself, I couldn’t imagine it for others, any more than I could really imagine “colonialism.”

People said that the Residency in Mukalla had its gin brought in by the lorry load. Archie Wilson said my friend Bob had “gone round the twist,” wore bedouin sandals made of old tires, a longi and the filthiest kefiyyeh in the peninsula. Bob arranged to have a local squabble up country solved by pulling out the guards and allowing the rebels to fire on the empty fort. All very satisfactory, except that the RAF were mounting a big mission to teach the buggers a lesson and hadn’t bothered to tell Bob, who, after all, was only the local political officer. They were pissed off to find the trouble over when they had already spent thousands on logistics and preparations.

Archie said that the way to get the Arabs’ respect was to be larger than life and a bit of a character. He had a monocle, was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, spoke bedouin dialect with a public-school accent you could cut with a knife and made damn sure he kept it that way. He said the local intelligence officer had gone alcoholic after a friend had had his head splattered all over the wall by a bullet through the window one night.

I was devoted to 2A. They did maps and essays and drawings and plans of ships and castles and pictures of Nelson and the Victory and we pinned them all over the classroom walls so that we would have a real exhibition to show the minister of education and all the other forms. Britain’s defeat of Napoleon. C. S. Forester for “O” level examinations. We did crowd scenes from Julius Caesar and the rehearsal scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The governor, His Excellency, came with his staff and his lady. The school play, God, what a play it became. Onslow was the producer, though I got a credit, and he camped his way outrageously through it all, reducing me to hysteria, filling me up with brandy to the disapproval of Basumbol who was playing Bottom, and with great care producing the funniest mechanicals ever. He held poetry readings, cultural evenings, ran the British Council library, dispensed a lot of whisky, and introduced me to an unhappy BP executive who tried to seduce me by playing side 10 of Furtwangler’s recording of Tristan and Isolde and telling me about his own suicide attempt. Onslow was totally honest and generous. His driver would take me back late from rehearsals and talk about sex and women and their prices in Sheikh ‘Uthman.

We never dared go there for that, Mark and I. Sami asked us to go along with him and the lads, but virginity and terror of unnameable diseases kept us mumbling excuses. We could walk round Sheikh ‘Uthman, though, and you couldn’t do that a few years later as a Brit without regretting it. Didn’t bother us in 1960, even at midnight after long talks sitting on rope beds in the college dormitories getting devoured by bugs, or in cafés being patiently taught just a little more politics. I couldn’t, just couldn’t imagine it would ever come to violence. Used to have quite baffled and anxious sessions long into the night with Sami and Hafiz, and never conceived of what was to happen in Crater town only a few years later when our brave lads went in and taught the bloody terrorists a lesson, as the English papers put it.

“Voice of the Arabs” was the problem as far as everyone in the staff room was concerned: Sawt al-‘Arab min al-Qahira. Nasser was the demon, and all those cultural clubs in the towns of the protectorates, they were bloody Nasserite, all right. Uneasy, squirming feelings penetrated me, feelings of somewhere having been lied to, of being guilty for something, feelings obscurely centered on the white shirt, white socks, white shorts and black walking shoes.

We were popular at parties for a while, not least because we didn’t know the gossip and anything was a revelation: “You get drunk quicker in the tropics. Women age fast here, the sun dries out their skin. They’re all homosexual, the men all hold hands.” The clichés and the gossip and the precariousness, of oh-God-where-will-we-go-after-this, under the fans or in the rare and sticky air conditioning, made for immense tedium and bitterness.

There were the parades for Her Majesty’s Birthday, of course, and Her Majesty’s regiments were everywhere in barracks and jeeps and at guard points. Never give a lift to the Scots; they’ll razor-slash your back seats just for pleasure. When they arrived, 40 were in chains — in chains really — and the first thing they did was all go over to Little Aden and beat the Life Guards to a pulp. Animals, the Scots.

Perhaps the most rebellious thing we did, without even thinking about it, was to go and swim in the public pool with the boys. The water was said to be filthy and germ-ridden — all sorts of objections. But mostly it just wasn’t done, that was the point: simply that white boys don’t swim with brown boys and black boys. I made up for it by equally blithely playing tennis at the club. And how we relished the chances to go to the Gold Mohur swimming club, no Arabs allowed because they would only stare, look at the ones up there on the hill above with the binoculars. It isn’t racism, we said, we are quite happy to admit them when they bring their women.

At tennis it was all “boy, bring me a lime and lemonade.” It was only when I heard that command from the mouth of a 9-year-old to a Somali in his sixties that the enormity of it hit me hard enough to be angrily and self-consciously aware of my own shabby, indolent demands. It was a lovely drink, though, lime and lemonade, after three sets in the sticky afternoon heat with Arthur Charles, the speaker of the Assembly. He played in long white socks. He was assassinated later in the troubles. My other partner had killed an Arab kid on the causeway road late at night. No lights on, the broken-down lorry in the pitch black and the boy guarding it, hanging around by the tailboard in the dark, difficult to see there at the best of times, and Danny’s car took his head off.

The English headmaster we stayed with for a few months was somehow elegant and what I imagined public-school headmasters should be. He had had to be a witness at a hanging; no alternative, in his position. He had been in World War II, but said he couldn’t sleep properly for nights after the execution. We played Richard Tauber and Gilbert and Sullivan records at his house, followed him round his golf course — smooth sand fairways, furrowed sand roughs, pitched sand greens. I seethed with resentment at English privilege, English accents, and wasn’t quite sure whether I was cheater or cheated. We ate whatever his cook, Ahmed, produced — greasy meat and rice mostly, I remember — and drank bottles and bottles of Aden water, with its heavy brackish taste half disguised by limes and lots of sugar. “That’s why their teeth are so good, it’s the salts in the water.”

We taught extra literacy classes in the evenings for 15 pounds a month and worried terribly whether we shouldn’t give the money to the school library. We were volunteers, 1 pound a week; wasn’t it wrong? But in the end I bought an Agfa camera and Mark a Grundig radio.

The protectorates changed everything. The Resident in Mukalla bet me a case of gin, a true colonial wager, that I would want to stay despite my early rantings about the colony’s utter barrenness, the untrustworthy people, the claustrophobia. He won, because the Hadhramawt dazzled me. It was the most pure experience I’d ever known. The tall houses, the sayyids, the glittering air, the palaces of the al-Kaf millionaires, the castellated fortresses of Azzan, the wadis’ deepest green set to a razor’s edge against gray stones. The impact of all this on me preoccupied me in a curious mixture of dissolution and total self-absorption. I had never known such happiness.

The Sudanese teachers in Ghayl Bawazir, where Mark and I taught for Christmas vacation, could not have been more unhappy. That terrible gasping roar was Ahmad, a grayish yellow drinker’s color, vomiting up the bottle of neat gin or whisky he had put down at our usual afternoon session. “We are surrounded by these awful people,” the Sudanese would groan, “these bedouin and these villagers who hardly speak recognizable Arabic. There is nothing to do, we are going mad with isolation and frustration.” But Mark and I could swim in the pool of the government guest house, and eat with the visiting Resident.

That New Year’s Eve we spent in the qahwa by the great gate of the village and under the ramparts of the protecting wall, singing all the English songs we could think of to the other customers, and showing them how to dance the Scottish reel. They invited us to their dance: sacking over the street, paraffin lamps to light the quiet gathering. The men danced with slow, precise steps, their longis worn almost to the ground. The bitter coffee tasted awful, and I never did realize that you had to waggle the cup discreetly to stop them pouring you another one, so kept on getting refills. The night was utterly clear. I remember those skies and their measureless depth, the mountains black against their greater blackness.

We traveled greedily, devouring hours and hours by Land Rover, petrol lorry, Federal National Guard truck, DC-3, anything that moved and anywhere they’d let us, to stay with families of the students. It was halfway through an exhausting desert, mountain, and shore drive up the coast, on a beach at five-thirty in the morning of a sweltering July, that Archie Wilson gave me my life instructions. After our brief five-hour sleep by the Land Rover, he left the shaving water, boiled up for him by his driver and poured into a canvas bucket, for me. But I couldn’t be bothered to stroke off the light fuzz from my very fair cheeks. “No, thank you,” I said, “I needn’t bother.”

He looked quickly and firmly at me. “Never let yourself go in the desert,” he said. Suddenly I thought I understood. I went to Oxford to read Arabic, put maps and photos of the protectorates all over my walls, lived for letters from 2A, and always swore I would go back.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "Memories of a Sentimental Education," Middle East Report 130 (February 1985).
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