Adens Own Daddy Cool


“How did that song go?” he asked.

We sat in the back of the taxi, in forty degrees of heat, not quite believing our ears. Selim had just declared his love for Tina Charles. In this dusty bowl, populated by men – and the occasional woman swathed from tip to toe in black – the last subject we expected to be discussing with our driver was 70s pop.

I trawled my memory. Snatches of the disco diva's number one hit drifted in and out of my mind. Then suddenly I had it.

“Oh I love to love, but my baby just loves to dance,” I sang.

"Oh, I love to love, but there's no time for our romance!" everyone gamely joined in.

Beaming with delight, and la-la-la-ing along with us, Selim leaned his battered old estate car into the next corner. We only knew the chorus, but it kept us amused for the next few minutes.

This was our third day since arriving from Eritrea, through the Bab el Mandeb — aka "The Gate of Tears" – into Pirate Alley. Aden was a welcome stop on our nerve-jangling voyage. We had about two weeks to re-stock, re-fuel and prepare our yacht for the final leg of the 4500 mile passage from Turkey to India. For the first time since dropping the hook, Selim had lifted the sombre mood, and we were singing at the top 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 appeal has faded: her façade is crumbling and she's let herself go. Nowadays the only thrill she gets is from her afternoon fix.

'Qat' (pronounced somewhere between 'cat' and 'gat') is Yemen's drug of choice and biggest oppressor. Unlike the majority of his compatriots, 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.

Deviating from the tourist trail — although few tourists visit Aden any more— Selim showed us "crazy place". Every lunch time this covered market buzzes with the sale of leaves. By mid afternoon red-eyed users lie sprawled on rusty old charpoys lining Aden's pavements.

"Look at that idiot,” said Selim. He nodded at the car next to us where the driver sat with a bulge the size of a small mango packed into the side of his cheek. “Americans only made it to the moon, but he thinks he is flying to the sun.”

Selim peppered the drives with potted histories and anecdotes, ensuring our errands were always illuminating. When we paid his three-dollars-an-hour fare he seemed embarrassed that he had to make any kind of charge at all. He shoved the money in his pocket without looking at it. We always overpaid. When it came to teasing, no subject was taboo, not even our anxiety about being taken hostage.

"Look, pirates!" he said once, 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 made an iced fresh lime juice of such lip-smacking-thirst-quenching flavour it put our western fizzy drinks to shame. Sitting at a Formica table, we guzzled from frozen glasses, 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 proudly showed us a photograph of his younger self, standing stiffly to attention in a brown wide-lapelled suit. Standing next to him, Selim's Saudi Arabian father stared sideways out of the photo, and seated serenely between them both his Tanzanian mother looked straight into the lens.

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 winked at me in the rear view mirror.

"He's crazy like a fool," we sang.

“What about it, Daddy Cool?”

L Cleere

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