It seemed like any other town in Yemen. Nestled in a valley between spectacular 3000m jagged peaks, one main strip was packed full of every conceivable means of transport. There was a maelstrom of mini-buses with no doors, pickup trucks stuffed with toilets and sinks, and wagon-loads of Qat pulled by camels getting the odd whack from a turbaned trader. On either side of the road shopkeepers shouted the availability of the usual array of perfume and spark plugs. Just another rush hour in the town of al-Qaeda.
Remarkably I found – or was found by – perhaps the only English speaking al-Qaedan. He reassured me that this was a safe and friendly, just unfortunately-named little town. “Osama bin Laden is not welcome here.” I breathed easier.
“Our name is a big big problem for us” he explained to me in earnest. “Everyone thinks al-Qaeda. You want to send money here, you must write ‘to al-Qaeda.’ This money will never arrive. We now use a code name. You understand code name? We call it al-Sayen and we know that this really means al-Qaeda. Maybe we will officially change the name, this is better I think. If George Bush finds out about us the Americans will drop bombs. Better change the name, I think.”
I left the friendly al-Qaedans behind and traveled on to Ta’iz to visit the palace-turned-museum of the Imam Ahmed. His family ruled Yemen like kings for generations until he met a “premature and unnatural death” in the 1960s. Given his legendary wealth, I might have expected opulent reception halls leading to exquisite tribal treasures and fantastic Arabian baths. What I found was the most incredible collection of 1940s kitsch I’ve come across.
There were no signs in English and only Arabic-speaking guides. So I was on my own with figuring out what sort of a man the Imam Ahmed had been. An obsessive collector, his rooms were full of knick-knacks, everything from etch-a-sketches to toy trains. Lest we infer any endearing child-like innocence, he also amassed enough weapons to fight a small war, with machine guns and samurai outfits. The human-sized mirrors and scores of magnificent costumes suggested a bit of vanity, along with rooms full of perfume jars. They say he used to bathe in it. Though he had banned cinemas from the Yemen of the time, the Imam had his own 1940s home entertainment center, now with dusty old film reels strewn about. After the delights of the day, an electronic bed would gently rock him to sleep at night, probablycomplementing his drug-induced trance. An eccentric man indeed, and not tough to spot the seeds of a revolution.
I look forward to returning to Yemen 30 years from now to see what treasures the current President Saleh has amassed. Something must be happening to Yemen’s half a million barrels of oil per day.