In 1994 I was in Sana’a in Yemen when two things happened: war broke out and I met Bruce. I’m not sure which of these two events was the more significant for me, but I suspect it was meeting Bruce.
Long long ago, before the internet began, a traveller sitting in a hotel room in a new place searched the index of guidebook, but failing to find any mention of the area, was forced to go outside and explore, even to talk to people. There was no phone to reach out and consult. What on earth did we do with our hands in those days? Write in notebooks?
One thing I did was switch on my short wave radio. Then after selecting a bandwidth, I would delicately tune the dial, swooping through clouds of static and sudden samples of languages, lingering a little on Voice of America or perhaps Radio Moscow, before settling on the BBC World Service. I'd listen to whatever they threw my way. Never having been much of a football fan, I'd somehow be glued to the second-half commentary of matches like Norwich versus Crystal Palace.
And sometimes I would hear a special announcement. "We interrupt this broadcast with a message for all British and Commonwealth citizens living in X."
What came next would vary, but the gist would be: GET OUT! LEAVE! IT'S WAR!
Finally came the day when that interuption was aimed at me. "All British and Commonwealth citizens living in Yemen should proceed to the American Embassy compound carrying one suitcase for immediate evacuation."
I was an English teacher living with my then wife Judith and two children Caitlin (4) and Conor (2) in an old Jewish house in the al-Qaa district of San'a, the Yemeni capital. A mud and stone house inside a labyrinth of alleyways. The house was itself a mysterious puzzle: a front door worthy of a Transylvanian fortress led to a dark flight of stone steps that emerged in a sunny courtyard. All the rooms led off from that courtyard, each with its own narrow curling flight of steps of varying numbers of steps, because, I was told, the Jews had lived inside a strict heirarchy. Hence the kitchen was down four steps and the master bedroom up six: the cook must be below the boss. There was no glass in the place, only thin sheets of alabaster that in time had warped and cracked, an antique feature that would prove a godsend when bombs exploded.
War had been grumbling into life for some time: little conflagrations here and there, a bit of panic, a petrol queue, a sudden burst of automatic gunfire. A medic at the American Embassy told me that an expat lady had turned up for a consultation, then once the door closed had screamed in his face: "Psycho-vac me!" Her car had been hijacked at gunpoint and the poor woman was in shock.
Then coming down the alleyway one day, approaching our front door, I spot a man banging on it. Who is he? His clothes are not Yemeni. He wears a loose kaftan over voluminous baggy trousers and an embroidered cap. Getting closer I note his pale skin. Some kids playing in the street are showing an interest in him too, shouting, "Ya Khomeini!" The reference to the Ayatollah is unusually accurate. Bruce Wannell, as the man introduces himself, has actually arrived in Yemen from Iran, mostly by walking and hitching lifts on various boats. When he turns towards me, the brilliant blue eyes are what I notice first.
He is looking for someone else, a mutual friend. He has arrived in Sana'a a few days earlier, but already seems to know dozens of people, most of them either in possession of a large house or a noteworthy talent. He is organising a musical evening at which the rising star of traditional Yemeni lute-playing, Abdulrahman Akhfash will be performing and I am invited.
In those days before the war, rumours spread like wildfires. The Central Bank has been robbed! 3,000 people slaughtered in Amran! Tanks on the streets! The US Marines are holding wife-swapping sessions! Bruce Wannell is a spy! All of this street tittle-tattle was probably false, but it was hard to be sure. What seemed inevitable was that something violent would happen, but when?
Over the next couple of days, I see Bruce a few times. He speaks several languages fluently - Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, French, German - but his English can sound a little strange. It is like hearing a BBC World Service announcer from the 1930s. I can imagine him delivering the coup de grace to expatriate life in Sana'a: 'Would all British and Commonwealth citizens...'
But Bruce is not really a 1930s man; he is definitely 18th century. Everything about the man is vintage. His shoes creak with the leathery authenticity of hand-made artefacts; his knowledge is encyclopedic on subjects such as Persian poetry, but he misses any references to anything 20th century. During one group conversation, he leans towards me, mystified by some arcane cultural reference that he has not understood. "Kevin... what is a Womble?"
His preparations for his musical evening are meticulous, in a way that I will come to appreciate is typically Bruce. He has commandeered the large residence of a UN official and decorated it with oriental art of the highest standards. He has invited an eclectic mix of locals and expatriates, the kind of mix that no one has previously attempted: grandees of embassy and NGO rub shoulders with handsome local youths charmed off the street; high-and-mighty tribal leaders accustomed to deference and respect are thrown together with itinerant teachers like myself. Bruce expects everyone to get along, since he gets along perfectly well with anyone. He is also a tyrant. He tells the Yemenis to smoke downstairs, informs the ambassador where to sit, and autocratically shuffles every group with relentless charm.
Then, finally, young Abdulrahman plays. My notebook from the time records what I thought: "Subtle, snaky improvisations that silence Bruce's disquisition on the Iraqi tradition of killing the resonance in the string."
Bruce's night is a triumph. His faith in the ability of music to melt all distinctions and bridge all divides is vindicated. I go home wondering what will happen if Bruce is put in charge of Yemen. I imagine he will enjoy the job and war will be averted. Unfortunately, a few hours later, before Bruce can be installed as president, something terrible happens.
to be continued next week...