“Tina Charles… I loved her very much!”
We sat in the back of the taxi not quite believing our ears. In this dusty bowl populated mostly by men, or groups of women covered from head to toe in black, the last subject we expected to be discussing was 1970s pop.
“How did that song go?” he asked.
We trawled our memories. I grabbed at snatches of the disco diva’s number one hit drifting in and out of my mind. Then I had it.
“Oh, I love to love, but there’s no time for our romance!” everyone obligingly sang back.
Selim, beaming with happiness, accelerated his battered old estate car into the next corner, and joined in the singing. We only knew the chorus, but it was enough to keep us all amused for the next few minutes.
Aden was a welcome rest on our nerve-jangling voyage to India. This was our third day, and we were still shell-shocked after our sail from Eritrea, through the Bab el Mendab — aka “The Gate of Tears” — into Pirate Alley. We had about two weeks there to re-stock, re-fuel and prepare ourselves for the final leg of our 4500 mile voyage from Turkey. For the first time since dropping the hook Selim had lightened the atmosphere and we were singing at the tops of our voices.
Since ancient times Aden has been a strategic port on the east-west trading route, but after the withdrawal of the British in the late 1960s, decades of civil strife have left the city pock-marked and dishevelled. Like a once desirable woman, Aden’s beauty has faded and her façade is crumbling. She’s let herself go and nowadays the only thrill she gets is from her afternoon fix.
‘Qat’ (pronounced somewhere between ‘cat’ and ‘gat’) is the country’s biggest oppressor and national drug of choice. Unlike the majority of Yemenis, Selim does not partake in the daily ritual of leaf chewing.
“Ninety percent of men chew qat every day. They spend their money on this stupid drug and leave their families hungry,” he told us.
Taking us off the tourist trail — sadly, few tourists go there any more — Selim showed us “crazy place”. Every lunch time this covered market buzzes with the sale of leaves of increasing desirability to red-eyed users.
We watched men with bulging, hamster cheeks sitting around or scurrying off with their afternoon delight. “Look at that idiot,” said Selim, pointing at a driver in the car next to us. He had what looked like a tennis ball tucked into the side of his mouth. “Americans only made it to the moon but he thinks he is flying to the sun.”
Selim’s father comes from Saudi Arabia, and his mother was born in Tanzania. He showed us a photograph of his younger self, standing stiffly to attention in a wide-collared suit, alongside his proud Arab father and serene African mother.
He peppered the drives with potted histories, anecdotes and jokes, ensuring any errand became a joy and a learning experience. At the end of our journeys Selim took his three dollars an hour without counting it. He always looked embarrassed. We always overpaid. We discussed our fear of piracy with him, and he even made jokes about that raw subject.
“Look, pirates!” he said, as we passed a bedraggled group of Somali refugees, “They are smiling at you, but wait till you are back at sea!”
He introduced us to a shop in Crater which makes an iced fresh lime juice of such lip-smacking-thirst-quenching flavour it puts our western fizzy drinks to shame. In 40 degrees of heat we guzzled from frozen glasses at a Formica table, while Selim explained how his country prospered under communist rule: women discarded the jilbāb, children went to school and work was plentiful.
“We were happier then. The Russians sent me to Moscow to study engineering. Now we are back to the old ways, and I drive a taxi.”
He winked at me through the rear view mirror. Despite its frailties Selim is relentlessly upbeat about his country. As we headed down another dusty road, he steered us from Tina Charles to Boney M, his penchant for disco music echoing his nostalgia for better times.
“He’s crazy like a fool”, we sang.
We met Selim in the spring of 2010. Since then big changes and unrest have affected Yemen. We no longer have his contact details, but we hope this universally liked man is safe and still bringing happiness to everyone he meets.
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