My Time in Yemen- An Interview with Peter Schneider

Embassy, February 16th, 2005
By Peter Schneider

My Back Pages
A memoir of Aden during the Cold War brims with interior life

Coming of Age in Arabia
By Tom Henighan
Penumbra Press (2004)
233pp., $34.95

Professor emeritus of English at Carleton University and the author of three previous books on Canadian culture, Tom Henighan has lived in Ottawa since 1965. From 1957-1959, he served as an American consular officer in the British protectorate of Aden. His formative experiences in South Arabia provide the basis of his recently-published memoir, a rich and meditative read which seamlessly blends the intimate with the geopolitics of the day. Tom Henighan was interviewed by Peter Schneider on Jan. 14, 2005.

Q: When did you know you were going to turn your experiences as a young consular officer into a book?

A: I started writing a novel when I was there. I still have some bits of that. It’s a bit embarrassing, because I really didn’t know how to write fiction; it was interesting to go back to it, because it did give me some details that I otherwise might’ve missed. Every scrap of information, every little bit from the past that happens to have survived all the moves and so on, becomes useful in giving you little hints and jogging your memory. I did keep a diary for a couple of years, which was a godsend. I had some letters, and I had State Department records, but it was amazing, because little scraps of paper gave me key details that I otherwise would’ve forgotten. I didn’t think of writing a memoir until a couple of years ago, when two friends of mine, whom I mention in the preface, began writing theirs. I wasn’t really in the diplomatic service long enough to consider myself a real career diplomat, I was in for about six years, which is longer than some, but it was so long ago, that it’s kind of like another life. And I didn’t think of it that way. I’m a writer now, and I thought ‘how can I evoke this as a writer?’

Q: What was it like to encounter yourself as a young man again? I think that’s a big part of the book– you’re looking at who you were when you got there, and how that experience shaped you.

A: When you look back, from being nearly age seventy to age twenty-two, you’re obviously seeing somebody who’s practically a different person in many ways, and you’re seeing somebody whose energy you might admire, but whose judgment and whose emotions are really alien to you. I was kind of a loose cannon in so many ways, emotionally, and every other way. I had to deal with that. The way I decided to deal with that in the book is that some people in this book were obviously going to get ‘the treatment’ I’ve been waiting a long time for this– and one of the people who was going to get the treatment was myself! If you write a book that’s full of self-inflation, and if you think everything you did was right, and you justify everything, it doesn’t go down well with the reader, because they know that somehow you’re still self- deluded despite all the passage of time . When I looked back, I thought, ‘this kid was really something else.’

Q: One of the things I encountered in the book was the way you recreate and evoke Aden’s strangeness, and your sense of not knowing if the surface of what you’re seeing is real. Can we talk about that atmosphere, and how you bring the reader into that environment.?

A: It made such an impact on me, that for years later, I would have flashes of memory that were still really strong. I would suddenly see a person or a road or something in Aden. For a time I talked a lot about it, and then after a while, I stopped talking about it. I began to realize that to other people who hadn’t been there it was a bore, it was like some old colonel talking about what happened in the past. I dropped it completely up until the time I took it up again to write it. This is just the way I wrote my way through that experience. It doesn’t pretend to be a tremendously objective thing. But I tried to convey the experience of colonial schizophrenia: what was said and what was promoted and advertised was one thing; the reality was another. In going back, I did do a lot of research , and read the books by people who had analyzed the political events. I had no idea at the time, exactly. We knew at the time that we were one little outpost of the Cold War, and that we were trying to steer a course between the British colonialism on one side, and the encouragement of all kinds of radical, rebellious guerilla action on the part of the Russians and the Chinese who were down there. What I knew was we were basically trying to back up the British, basically trying to uphold the Western side, but not get too involved in the situation. I understood that much, but I didn’t know a lot about the different political or religious rivalries that were going on.

Comparing it with Iraq is interesting. While I was writing this, [the build-up to the war in] Iraq was happening. I kept referring in my brain to Iraq and thinking, ‘there are so many similarities’, and so many differences, too ­ one thing about Iraq, is that almost everybody , there was so much expertise on Iraq, there had been so many detailed analyses, it seems every journalist can rattle off the differences between the Shiite and the Sunni Muslims, in those days, although there were some top-flight British journalists going down there, and some people from TIME and Newsweek and so on, there really wasn’t much analysis of what was happening, it wasn’t a big story for the American public, and not even for the British. It became bigger, as the time of the guerilla action grew in the mid-60s. But in the late 50s it was still a kind of assumption that everything would work out okay, and it wasn’t going to be a horrendous thing. As it turned out, it was horrendous, but it was a strange, strange feeling to be there.

Q: How did you end up in Aden?

A: I was in New York, and I didn’t have a job. I was going to go to graduate school at that point. I had been working as a valet, I’d been working as a sweeper, the best job I’d had was with the United Press. I worked in their business office, for a while, as a copyboy. And that job ran out– you can’t do a copyboy job for long, because it’s like being tortured– systematically, ritually tortured by a bunch of screaming lunatics, who were the reporters! Especially at that time, because the technology was so primitive. Everything was hoofing it around, running out for sandwiches, and running out with messages here and there. When I quit that, I heard about this Foreign Service exam, and I thought I’d take that, and maybe something would turn up. I took the exam, and to my astonishment, I passed the written exam, which was very hard in those days, and then I heard there was a personal oral interview with three hired foreign service officers. I did pass that as well, and then I suddenly found myself in the foreign service.

The way it happened was, you’re in foreign service school, you get a call from some bureau. I went and talked to this guy, and he went through the whole rigamarole, and finally said, ‘I think I’ve got a very interesting assignment for you. How would you like to go to Aden?’ I didn’t have clue where Aden was. I couldn’t just say, ‘I don’t know where Aden is’- you’re supposed to know these things! – so I said, ‘that sounds really great.’ So he raptured on about what an opportunity it was for a young officer. When I left, I ran down the street to the nearest bookstore, and asked ‘do you have any books on the Middle East?’ When I got there, I ended up writing the first economic report on South Arabia for the State Department, and I wrote some reports on the colony as well. It was a strange experience, just groping through this world. At that age , you’re tending to want things to be spectacular, you really want to have exciting experiences, you don’t want to be stuck in an office. The worst thing for the Foreign Service people was to be assigned to Hamilton, Ontario or to be assigned to Bermuda, or somewhere in the Caribbean. It wasn’t exotic enough. People didn’t want to go to Paris either, because they knew they’d be the one-thousandth person on the totem pole if they were lucky, even apart from the charms of Paris. The posts that people wanted were just like Aden, that’s where people wanted to go.

Q: As I read the book, I was aware that at that time, before computers and the Internet, before the ability to pick up a cell phone and call anyone around the world, there was a sense of remoteness and of isolation. This hothouse environment drew some very interesting people who were there for different reasons . You go through the people you met, and every sort of ego malformation, quirk, or peccadillo under the sun is there. How was it for you to remember these people, and to see it as a coming of age story, to see all of human nature in this quasi-laboratory?

A: I think it was very useful for me to do that. Even though I was born in New York, and wasn’t from North Dakota or something, and had some experience of urban life and complexity, I wasn’t well-traveled. I’d only been to Washington and New York, and hadn’t even traveled much in the United States. I was really very much a local boy, so to me, going there was absolutely amazing because although I knew from the abstract, literary point of view that these kinds of characters did exist, because I was kind of a literary student and had studied English literature and had read a lot of novels, I didn’t know what it would be like to meet these people in the flesh. My regret is that I took them for granted. In other words, I took the eccentrics almost for granted, and if I were to go back, if I could get into a time machine and relive that experience, I’d take more photographs, I’d talk to people more, I’d seek out these people, because they were really the unusual and the unique .

Your efficient, well-tailored diplomat is the same everywhere. There may be a complex person underneath, but some of these people wore their neuroses on their sleeves,. They were very dramatic, and were powerful personalities. It was just shocking for me, and startling, to go into a situation where these people were available to me. I had status there. I was able to talk to anyone. The only limitation for me was the cultural limitation, in that I wasn’t an Arabist, so I wasn’t able to penetrate the Arab culture very deeply.

Q: In your Afterword, you’re talking about things that really trouble and concern you. You were only in the diplomatic service for six years, and have devoted most of your life to writing and teaching, but at the same time, here you are watching the situation in Iraq, and you’ve been close to it, you’ve lived in that part of the world.

A: The thing is, I really got politicized by Bush’s foreign policy. I was fairly indifferent to things, I thought by and large there were mistakes and there were things that went right and things that went wrong, but I didn’t have a massive suspicion of American foreign policy until the Bush administration came in. It seemed to me that Afghanistan was more understandable– but the Iraq invasion was to me, an absolute horrible nightmare.

I had just been through researching this book, and I had read the background of the British occupation. The British had everything going for them in South Arabia, it was much easier for them, they’d been there for 100 years, et cetera. Yet they were totally at a loss to deal with the kind of insurgency they faced. My whole political take changed. I found Michael Sterner’s name on a list of 25 American ambassadors who had served in the Middle East who had signed an open letter to Bush, telling him not to invade Iraq. I thought, think of the experience these guys have, 25 ambassadors!

I was able to turn the last chapter into a more personal thing rather than just make it a rant. I was helped in that by [editor] Patricia Dole , who read it. She said, “you’ve got to scatter this stuff around a bit. You’ve got to do a more sophisticated blending of personal and political.” Anyway, what happened was, I’d been marching — and I had never marched against Nixon, or any of those guys– but when it came to February 15 last year, I walked across the Victoria Bridge in -30 degree weather protesting the war. I was out here when Bush visited in November, I’m really upset about this war. I think it’s a huge mistake for America, I think it could be fatal down the road.

That is what was happening while I was writing the end of this book. It got a bit political at the end. In Aden I was just learning. You know, it was just basically assumed that everything was fine, that we had a right to be there , and that we were fighting the evil Soviets and so on. I just assumed that. I didn’t have a very sophisticated view of things.

Q: Can we talk about the cadence and style of the writing? I think one of the things that’s evocative is that there are echoes of other writers who have written about that part of the world, and that there are ways in which you try to conjure that encounter of cultures, and reflect upon how some people ‘went native’ in a very strange sort of over-identification. Also, as a young man, you were reading books– ideas and novels…can you talk about some of that?

A: The key to answering your question is that I never thought of myself in those days, at all, [as a diplomat]. If you had asked me what I wanted to do at that time, I would’ve said, ‘I want to be an editor. I want to work for Doubleday, or Random House.’ Since I didn’t get those jobs, I took this job, and it got me a free ticket to adventure. I was always keen on writing. When I went to Aden, literature provided my awareness of myself. I was really well-read. I had done a lot of English courses, and had read a lot of writers in translation. I’d read a lot of Russians, and French, and Germans, and so on. And I had also read, and have always loved, travel books. I don’t think at that time I had read Dinesen or Durrell — that came later– but I had read books about the Pacific, books about traveling in Europe or France. I was very conscious of style, and I think that like most young writers who have a lot of literary background, I tended to overwrite, I tended to be too self-conscious as a writer. The good thing about the foreign service job is that I had to kind of trim my writing, and that helped me improve my writing.

When I wrote this book, I think I understood the difference between being evocative and overwriting. By the time I wrote this book, I think I really had honed my style. This is the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t just a factual book. I read Michael Crouch’s book. I read it, and thought ‘this is a hugely interesting book. He tells me all sorts of things I didn’t even know. But his book is not evocative. He could write the book of the century about the desert. I remember him saying to me, ‘my whole idea is to live in the desert and sleep under a Land Rover and get to know the Arabs.’ I thought, ‘oh, this guy’s great! But the thing about it is that when he wrote the book , it doesn’t evoke that, you know what I mean?- it’s very factual, so British in a certain way. It’s of a certain type- it’s very factual and straightforward. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make my book more evocative. As I say, Durrell was a big influence. He’s a very good writer, because he knows how to evoke without overdoing it, and he knows how to portray personalities in prose. I hadn’t waited that long to write a book that was kind of a pedestrian run-through of ‘I did this, I did that.’ I wanted to evoke people. I wanted people who read the book to really see a picture of Bill Crawford, for example, or of Bruce Condé, the guy in Yemen. I wanted people to see him pacing up and down the room, you know, and taking pills.”

Q:In some ways you can see the movie in your mind as you’re reading it. On almost every page, there’s another character coming at you. Not only do we see how eccentric they are, but we also see your reactions, pulling back, because nothing could have prepared you.

A: I didn’t realize that, but it’s true. You’ve hit on something very important about me, that’s always been true. I don’t push myself on people. I don’t usually question them. A lot of people will say, ‘what’s this?, how long have you been married?’, they ask you all these personal questions. I’ve never done that. I’ve always been very standoffish, a little bit of an observer. If I conveyed that, I really did convey my younger self. I was walking about in a bit of a daze, thinking, ‘who’m I gonna meet next?’ I never saw myself as a personality, of course, you never do. I saw myself as a kind of a blank slate, as a kid. Not from the sticks, but almost, you know? I thought, ‘Wow. These people are really strange.’

Q: Maybe we can talk about the manner in which Westerners posted to ‘an exotic place,’ viewed the local people, and the whole troubling notion of having an Empire. You write about U.S. Manifest Destiny as a very narrow and troubling thing, but it’s very persistent and strong. That’s something that really informs the book, that people were always looking at the Other, with a capital “O”.

A: That was an education that took a long time. In a couple of cases, I present myself as dealing with the racism, confronting it. But by and large, there was nothing you could do about it. If you wanted to function in a colony where everything was set up in this racist fashion, in this structured fashion, you had to follow the rules. That was the terrible pressure. For example, when I went to join the RAF officers’ Tar Shyne club, that was for Western, white people, and not only that, only for officer-class people- it wasn’t for the ordinary bloke in the services. You had to get passed in, like a club. Then there was the Gold Mohur bathing club– it was racist, local people were excluded. What were you going to do? Your personal crusade was not going to work, you were going to make yourself useless and so on. That was a really shocking thing. Then I cast back my mind. When I went from New York to Washington, that was a stage in understanding racism, because literally, at that time, blacks had to ride in the back of the bus, which is almost inconceivable now, but it did happen, that was the way it was.

The young man in this book was in a position that some part of him was horrified by this, but there was no way to really deal with it or to express his horror in a creative way at the time. I’m really glad to be able to do it now. It’s a little late, but at least I got it down on paper. The consulate was divided on this issue. Some people were completely free of racial bias, such as Coco Sterner, who was from the South, ironically enough. And other people had that innate assumption of racial superiority and so on. It was a very complex situation.

There was another twist to this, though. It couldn’t escape anyone who was there, and that was that the British had a romantic myth of the Arab, which offset the racism to a certain extent. It was another way of dealing with it, in a positive way– the old T.E. Lawrence thing. The idea that the Arabs were somehow, especially the desert Arabs- spectacular, admirable, colourful people . Critics nowadays would say that’s just a cover for being superior, but it was a passion for the British, and in a sense it was a complex element in that mixture of racial tensions. The British were carrying out something that had been established centuries before. It was going on by a kind of deadening unfolding that nobody seemed to question. I didn’t hear one British person in two years say even an ironical word about racism. It was so assumed, it was so taken for granted. The only people who ever criticized it were a few of the Americans, and not many of them, but a few of them did. It’s really amazing to me when I look back on it.

When I go back to your earlier point, the idea that we live in a different technological universe now, I don’t think you could do what they did there now, because we’re talking about a world where you have everything on television within hours. You have all kinds of communication, you have travel, people are very free. It was almost like being on another planet, being there, that was how it felt. One didn’t feel that the world was looking at all at what was going on there. It was very, very isolated. All of these static forms that evolved from the British colonial enterprise over the centuries were still in place, very solidly unquestioned, and it was really shocking to a couple of us who encountered them.

Q: This might be facile, but one of the things about that experience, about a bunch of people from the ‘civilized countries,’ set loose in a colony, where they mingle amongst themselves, where they view the people around them as being ‘savages,’ often the most shocking and aberrant behaviour takes place amongst the Western community there .

A: Precisely. It happened in Kenya, too, the “White Mischief” thing. It happened in Aden, the same thing happened. The Westerners felt released from their inhibitions and restrictions, where they felt they might have had to hold up the side among their fellow white Westerners at home, but when they got there, they did things that might’ve been unthinkable at home. There was a kind of hothouse atmosphere to the whole place. That sort of emotional release was there, and it was not always positive. There was a lot of violence, and a kind of wild frivolity, which I noticed. I somehow thought when I was in Aden that all parties everywhere had the same kind of lunacy. I was shocked, when I looked back years later, and realized nothing elsewhere was quite like that. In Aden, there were frivolous parties and super-stiff parties, all the time. That was a unique thing. I mean, the sheer numbers, the endless, endless rounds of parties. That was unbelievable. There were three or four invitations a week. I still have a pile of cards this high! Endless rounds of drinking, and the desperate attempts to get some new interests. The kind of thing that really bothers me more than a lot of those things is that I was in a place . . . if I had had any sense, I would have gone out and bought a telescope and gone out. It was actually a perfect observational place. I was seeing a different sky from the North, but nobody did things like that. There was a lot of photography, that was the one big passion, but there was no beach surfing, because of the sharks, there was not much swimming outside of the nets, there was not much fishing by Westerners. It was like being on Alcatraz in a way. It was very strange. The “white mischief” thing applies, and there was a lot of that. I didn’t know half of what was going on. I’m hoping this book will cause somebody who’s survived from that era to get in touch and fill me in on a few details I missed!

Q: What haven’t I asked you?

A: Maybe the question you haven’t asked me is: ‘where do I go from here?’ I think this book has jogged me. It’s funny, when you were asking me about what it felt like to recreate the past, this book has pushed me into the next phase. I did have a full tour of duty in Hamburg, but I’m definitely not going to write about that, although it was interesting in its own way. I’ve decided I’m going to write another book. It may end up as fiction, I don’t know. I’m just curious to know if this book will click with the Americans and with the British, it seems to me the British should enjoy this book in the sense that it does evoke part of their colonial history from a totally different perspective. There have been a lot of British memoirs about Aden, but they’re totally different.

(Addendum, 2006. This is the complete and accurate interview, with a couple of touchups for clarity. Well, the British don’t seem to have picked up on the book, for the most part, although one well-informed British Aden resident has told me that my book is “the best memoir of Aden in my time” and a distinguished American professor called me all the way from Mexico to tell me how much he enjoyed the book. He said something like (if my phone notes don’t lie) : “This is the best book on a British colony I’ve ever read,” and he should know, since he’s written some fine and insightful books on the Middle East).

©2002 Tom Henighan


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s