“Aden is a filthy place with boring architecture, no attractions to speak of and can be missed.” Thus my expectations were set. But from the moment the minibus crossed the causeway onto the peninsula this city seemed totally out of the ordinary, particularly for Yemen. Aden does not have the famous high-rises of the desert or the incredible labyrinthine old city of Sana’a. But just off of the major Europe – Asia shipping routes for five centuries, Aden has been left a quirky cosmopolitan port-city, one that has seen better times.
The heart of town is the center of an extinct volcano – appropriately enough called Crater. 500m cathedral spire peaks form a crescent around the Arabian Sea, virtually closing Crater off from the mainland. Beyond the peaks is one of the best deep water harbors in the world, direct access straight through to the open ocean. So, of course, the British attacked it.
Under administration from Bombay, Aden established itself as a desirable stop for replenishing fresh water and refueling on the 3 month trip from England to India. By the 1950s it was second only to the port of New York and the biggest free trade zone in the world. Those were the days.
In 1967, Aden swapped British soldiers for Soviets and it wasn’t until the collapse of the Communist government in 1990 that it had true autonomy. The Sana’a government quickly embarked on a plan to reinvigorate the port, ploughing hundreds of millions into creating the most modern facilities in the world. Now if only they could stop the bombings. First the USS Cole was famously blown up as it refueled in 2000. Even more damaging to business was the bombing of the French Limburg in 2002. Yemeni hospitality it is not, and Aden has collapsed.
The empty streets of the old port, Station Point, are now like a despairing nod to the heyday of fifty years ago. There is an eerie ghost town feel to the hodgepodge of decaying buildings, a curious mix of Indian and art-deco. The narrow streets designed for high-density living have the air of Hong Kong’s Mong Kok, missing only the masses. The faint remains of Rolex and Elizabeth Arden ads leave the disappearing fingerprints of more rollicking times.
In some small corners Aden still manages a few feeble gasps at the fast and footloose. By Yemeni standards at least. On my own little investigation of a rumored “nightlife” – a novelty for Yemen – I came face-to-face with the underbelly of Aden. A port smack in the center of a region of war and famine, the destitute and the dregs of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Arabia get dragged through here at one time or another. And they all seem to congregate at the Sailor’s Bar. The 1960s style sign outside had collapsed but a weary old Qat-chewing man beckoned me inside with a nod, assuring me it was still open for business. Could I resist a peek? The 14-year-old bartender awakened from his slumber, cracking open one Qat-stained eye, at the ready for an order. In the alcohol free land of Yemen, this wasn’t the place for a Fanta.
“No whisky, only gin.”
He pulled one from a handful of half drunk I bottles and poured me a small little glass, which I took to a table to sip. To my left, a rowdy group of old Yemeni men shouted at each other, looking vaguely drunk. To my right, half-veiled women called over to me from the corner. Probably Somali refugees looking to make a buck. I pretended I didn’t see them, didn’t understand them, and turned awkwardly towards the water. As I watched the sun set behind a lone Turkish tanker, I felt pretty depressed.