On Not Coming of Age in Arabia- The British Yemeni Society, Neo-Colonialism, and the Calculated Distortion of History
Mr. Julian Paxton’s review of my Aden memoir, Coming of Age in Arabia, on the British-Yemeni Society website, is a small but significant example of the innate schizophrenia and desperately bankrupt state of post-Blair British Near Eastern policy and attitudes. While the Yemen Ambassador to Canada, Dr. Abdulla Nasher, welcomed my book, Mr. Paxton, the “honourable” secretary of the Society, saw fit in a hastily contrived review to put me in my place as an outsider, an opportunist, and a generally untrustworthy witness to Aden’s colonial history. Of course, when I first informed Paxton by email of the book’s existence he gushed all over me; it was only when he actually dipped into it (I don’t think his review justifies the verb “read’), that he turned and ran for cover. We can’t have these non-Arabist colonial nobodies (and a born American at that) doing dirt on our colonial history, can we?
I’m afraid, though, that Mr. Paxton is out of his depth in attempting to scuttle Coming of Age of Arabia , which has been called (by more competent authorities than he) “the best book I’ve ever read on a British Colony,” and “the best memoir of my time on South Arabia.” It’s not only academic experts on the British colonies, or people who shared part of my experience of Aden or of British colonialism, who have testified to the value of my book. Coming of Age in Arabia was favourably reviewed in the Toronto Globe and Mail , and was recently the runner-up in the 2006 City of Ottawa-Carleton non-fiction contest; it finished second among over 100 entries even though it has no central connection with Ottawa, Canada, or contemporary Canadian experience, and the judges deemed it “a wonderful book.”
Paxton attempts to dismiss my evocation of life in Aden, and to discredit my critique of British policy, by characterizing COAIA as a wild, self-indulgent, inaccurate account by an outsider who had severely limited knowledge of the wondrous doings of the British administration and of South Arabian politics and culture. He also seems to trot out the traditional British suspicion of “art” (see the writings of Ford Madox Ford, among many others), quoting with implied scorn my statement that I would use some of “the techniques of fiction” to make my story vivid and take the reader into the reality of life in the colony.
Mr. Paxton has completely missed the point, and I think his is a carefully calculated miss, with a clear political motivation. He wrote the review looking over his shoulder, or under his vest, at the aims of the “British-Yemeni Society,” whose object is to create an atmosphere of sweetness and light between the colonizers and the modern Yemen that has absorbed the former colony, and to avoid, if possible, any reference to the dark days when the sterility, cruelty and absurdity of British policy in South Arabia were plain for all to see. (Michael Crouch’s memoir of some years ago was also treated rather stringently by the BYS–there was that rather indiscreet reference to British torture of prisoners– but because he was a member of “the club,” a Cambridge man, an Arabist, and so on, and because his account did not go all the way, and target colonialism itself as an evil force, they let him off rather lightly).
Mr. Paxton’s “review” reveals its complete inadequacy in two main areas, literary and political.
Mr. Paxton quotes with apparent disapproval my statement that I will use some of “the techniques of fiction” in my narrative. This is naïve on his part, and shows his lack of knowledge of trends in post-World War II mainstream writing. For many decades now, fictional and non-fictional narrative techniques and styles have been drawing closer. Non-fiction is often written in dramatic form and with strong metaphorical emphasis, while some fiction incorporates such material as news headlines, diaries, journals and photographs. There is nothing devious about attempting to create a vivid “literary” narrative in order to evoke the actual experience of an era.
Moreover, my book is far from the self-indulgent rambling tale that Mr. Paxton suggests. In fact, COAIA is consciously based on some well-tried literary techniques and traditions.
One of these is the notion of the American “innocent abroad,” which exactly fits my hero as he follows a path from brave insouciance and naïve enthusiasm to cynicism and collaboration with the colonizers. When the young vice consul arrives in Aden he is open, spontaneous and idealistic, quite confident in his values, and responds with shock and moral fervour to the corrupt “old world” society he finds himself thrust into (a world that includes the American Consul Crawford). In my book, Ali Esmail plays the role of Jim to my Huck Finn. However, as in the Henry James world, the central character both exposes the corruption, and is to some extent tarnished by it.
In order to achieve this structure it was necessary to create a structure of “double consciousness.” In the narrative we hear an older, somewhat cynical and wiser voice describing the experiences of his younger self, a character he both admires and is–to some extent– embarrassed by, because of the young man’s absurd “innocence” and later moral defection. This kind of narrative appears in a great many successful literary works, and most of my readers have found that I use it quite skillfully.
Thus my book is not, as Mr. Paxton suggests, an ex-post-facto justification of my Aden life and a parroting of currently acceptable moral condemnations of colonialism. The condemnation was there from the first, along with the enthusiasm and naiveté, and did not emerge thanks to any “doctoring” performed by memory, or as a function of a repertoire of “literary tricks.” After the book was published, a friend sent me a box of letters I had written him from Aden (complete with original stamped envelopes!) I was almost afraid to open these, fearing my younger self would make a liar of me. In fact, the letters, which I had not seen since I wrote them, confirmed the fervour and idealism of the young man I depict in the book, and provide ample evidence of my younger self’s moral outrage in the face of the corruptions of colonialism.
Mr. Paxton also implies that my book should have dealt with only events that I directly experienced, that I should not have included an account of the collapse of British rule in Aden and the disasters accompany it. This is ridiculous, since the dramatic structure of the book points everywhere toward the catastrophe at the end, which I believe I report accurately, with skills honed by many years of successful research. Biographers or historians who may have been personally associated with their subjects over a period of time are not necessarily more to be trusted than those who had no contact with them at all. In my book I try to be truthful to my personal experiences and also to be true to the historical record. The duel-to-the-death at the conclusion of Hamlet is not the most psychologically trenchant or incisive part of the story, but the drama would be incomplete without it.
As for the use of the word “terror” in my subtitle, which Paxton sees as a ploy to get contemporary readers– is he suggesting there was no “campaign of terror” in Aden? In fact, the terror was very real, as all accounts testify. I shouldn’t be blamed because the word has been debased by the recent politicizing and cheap sloganeering of Bush, Blair, and their supporters.
Mr. Paxton also attempts to debunk my book on the grounds of its sexual content, implying that I have written some kind of cheap “tell-all” memoir, when in fact I use the sexual references and metaphors rather carefully, and either with appropriate irony, or to comic effect. Let me be even more blunt than I was in the book. The sexual metaphor is particularly appropriate to describe the situation of colonizer to colony, just as it is appropriate to use it to describe ecological decimation caused by the greed of companies “raping” the land. Rape, seduce, assault, storm, ravage, put in bondage, “take possession of,” “screw,” deceive, debauch, defile, violate, force, “lead astray”—these are, metaphorically, some of the things that the colonizers do to the colonized land. In my account I emphasize both the effect of this pattern on both the victims and the victimizers, for the latter often ended up trapping themselves in political impotence, caught in a futile round of sexual games, or in drinking bouts presided over by “Cardinal Puff.”
Mr. Paxton also takes a slap at my use of humor, my stylistics, and my connection with British writers who have published well-known accounts of the colonial experience. He refers, for example, to Waugh’s account of his trip to Aden, and implies that I sought to imitate or amplify Waugh. What rubbish! While my book is occasionally very funny, my humour is most often at the expense of the top dogs, or is directed at my youthful self, whereas Waugh, among other things, seems to relish putting down the absurd pretences of the “wogs” who were trying so desperately (and in his view not succeeding) in being human (or even British). Similarly, while some of my passages are as evocative as, say, Lawrence Durrell’s in his often excellent Bitter Lemons , I do not cave in, as he does, and fall on my face before the suave facades of British power. Durrell records terrible events, but seems blind to their root cause: colonialism itself. He is not only a complacent fellow-traveler with the conquerors, but a “pet bard” whose humour is mostly directed at the conquered, the Greek Cypriots, and others who cross his path, such as the “three African dignitaries . . . (who) “gave off overpowering waves of Chanel Number 5–as if they had hosed themselves down with it after breakfast like genial elephants . . .” The concluding chapters of Bitter Lemons , in which Durrell describes his political role, are almost sickening in their sycophancy. Take, for example, his awestruck vision of the high official (the then Secretary of State) who was supposed to save the situation on the island. (And this is from the same page as the description of the “elephants”!) “His intimidating height and good looks would have marked him out as extraordinary in any company; but to these were added the charm and liberal disposition of an eighteenth century gentleman–great style completely untouched by affectation, and a broad cutting mind, which was sophisticated in the true sense. And humour. There was no room for timidities and attitudes in his presence–his simplicity and directness would have riddled them.”
Wow! Sounds rather like a schoolgirl– or rather a schoolboy– crush, doesn’t it? Now if I had written like that about Sir William Luce, Governor of Aden in my time, I would certainly have gotten a few more brownie points from Mr. Paxton.
Incapable of grasping the literary structure of my memoir, and eager to perform a whitewash for his neo-colonial masters, Mr. Paxton naturally resorts to a few “factual corrections” to try to undermine my credibility. The fact that he can dredge up so few in a very complex and detailed text is a testimony to how well-researched my book really is. And in fact three of his four corrections are themselves incorrect, not to mention tastelessly delivered. I do not “claim to have enjoyed” the hospitality of Horace and Idina Phillips; I actually was their guest on several occasions–no great accomplishment for an American vice consul. But of course Mr. Paxton is indulging in the old British uppercrust gambit of painting those who do not accept the constructed social façade as “bounders,” people adept at crashing parties and pretending to be familiar with their “betters.”
Thanks to the work of some brilliant and heroic reporters, and to the tireless efforts of the alternative media, the sinister folly of the American-British adventure in Iraq has become clearly visible, and the corruption, incompetence, and monstrous hubris of the Bush policy in that country have been well documented. It was not so easy to shine the bright light of truth on the happenings in the rather obscure British colony of Aden in the 1950s and 1960s, although the U.N. issued a very unfavourable report on British actions there in 1963, the same year the U.N. General Assembly by an overwhelming vote called for self-determination in South Arabia. Anyone who examines the evolution of British policy in the Arab south during that period must conclude that it was virtually a total failure. My book points this out, and explains why, and Mr. Paxton does not and cannot refute my conclusions; his ad hominem attack on me, his cheap attempt to discredit my book–without discussing the historical issues– simply gives the game away. The British failure, however, is rather surprising, given the vast experience in general of the British as colonial masters, and their particular expertise in the Arab world. The fact is, though, that the UK administrators were divided and wavering, and their goals unclear. They were very often simply blind to reality, and their “on-the-ground” actions were inflexible when they should have been subtle. The “entropic nightmare” of traditional colonialism, in fact, would have been difficult to cast off anywhere in the 1950s and 1960s; there were too many outdated assumptions on the ruling side, too many occasions for taking the wrong path, too many bad memories among the ruled, too many new geopolitical options for those who were quite justifiably outraged by what had been thrust on them in the past and what was being proposed for the future. Thus, once the methods of terrorism and resistance that had been worked out in Algeria were put into play in South Arabia, it was game over for the British.
Those who wish to jump into the complex reality of living in a British colony in decline, those who want to understand why colonialism failed in Aden and why neo-colonialism will fail in Iraq, may want to read my book. Although Coming of Age in Arabia is politically informed, the real joy of reading it may lie simply in the savouring of a place and time now vanished. That is precisely what fair-minded and intelligent reviewers and interviewers have seen as the permanent contribution of the book; that is why it will stand as a significant work in the literature of colonial South Arabia.
(For further information, see my interview with Peter Schneider, “A Memoir of Aden During the Cold War Brims with Interior Life,” in the Talks and Articles section of this website.)
| news | workshops | books | fiction | poetry | articles | dr