Letters from Oman
by David Gwynne-James
Blackwater Books (BwB), 2001. Pp. 288. Illus. with 92 photographs, 8 maps. Glossary, Notes, References. Bibliog. Hb. £22. 50. ISBN 0-9539206-1-5.
The title of this book belies the fact that its first two chapters (29 pages) relate to Aden. The book, well produced and handsomely illustrated, is based on letters from the author, then a young British Army officer, to his fiancee whom he was to marry in 1965; they were written during his three months’ Arabic language training in Aden, November 1962—January 1963, and during the following two years which he spent in Oman on secondment to the Sultan’s Armed Forces. The book is largely concerned with the author’s service in Oman.
This review focuses on the two Aden chapters. In his introductory remarks the author reveals that he spent ‘an exciting six months’ as a rifle platoon commander in operations in Dhala in 1958. These culminated in an assault on Jebel Jihaf — the massif overlooking Dhala — to relieve the Government fort at Assarir which, with its small garrison and a visiting British political officer, had been besieged by local and north Yemeni tribesmen. Readers may share this reviewer’s regret that the author did not meet his fiancee — the inspiration of his letters — until after this tour of military service, otherwise he might have added substantively to his Aden narrative. Perhaps the most interesting part of this are his descriptions of the topography and bustling multi-ethnic life of the colony, and his visit to the Federal Regular Army (FRA) camp at Mukeiras, near the border with the fledgling Yemen Arab Republic, to practise his Arabic language skills on friendly and amused FRA soldiers, some displaying photographs of President Nasser inside their tents.
The author was bold to attempt to distil from three disparate sources a summary of Aden’s history in twelve pages; but he lacks the sureness of touch to escape certain pitfalls. Readers conversant with the area will question some of his judgements of cause and effect e. g. ‘by the early 1930s fresh water from wells in Sheikh Othman made possible Aden’s recovery into a flourishing town’; ‘the new state of Saudi Arabia, clearly intent on extending its frontiers. . . prompted Britain to appoint Political Agents to approach the rulers of the various tribes throughout the Eastern and Western Protectorates as ambassadors and advisers. . . ’ And there are some factual errors: the Tahirid dynasty not ‘the Mongols’ succeeded the Rasulids (p. 11); British ships first arrived at Aden not in 1551 but in the early seventeenth century (p. 12); the British wanted and took Aden in 1839 because of its prime location as a coaling station on the Suez-Bombay route; they occupied Perim (in 1857) to pre-empt perceived French designs on the island; no steamer was coaled there until 1889.
Part of the appeal of letters written with no thought to future publication lies in their spontaneity, and these convey, in a lively and readable manner, the detail and atmosphere of a young man’s encounter with an area of the Arab world which he, like many others, found of absorbing interest.