I take revenge on tyrants
June 2022: The Ukraine War has thrown the lives of oligarchs into the spotlight. A number of super yachts belonging to Russian billionaires have been seized around the world. Newspapers delight in listing their features: helipads, dance floors, grand pianos and jacuzzis.
July 1994: I go back to Yemen for Esquire magazine, hoping to write about the ongoing war in the country. It is, however, finished, so I set off to explore the country. I travel inland from Mokha and reach the city of Ta’izz, a vibrant and bustling place full of historical and cultural interest, not least in the former palace of Imam Ahmad who ruled Yemen from 1948 to 1962. The imams were religiously consecrated kings who followed the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, as does the de facto government of the north these days, the Houthis.
I reach the palace by mid-morning and find the gate open. “You are our first visitor since the war,” the caretaker tells me. “No one has been here for months.”
For that reason, perhaps, he wants to show me around personally. However, I have an urgent question. “Do you have a bathroom?”
He shakes his head. Sorry.
In the taxi, coming up to the palace, I had already felt the murmurings of something nasty going on inside. Every traveller knows the drill: first, the distant rumble of thunder which is ignored in the hope that the storm will not break. Forlorn hope. I should have used the facilities at the hotel, or swallowed a couple of tablets, but I hadn’t.
“These were the Imam’s waistcoats,” says the caretaker, fingering one of 24 rather showbiz garments worthy of a 1950s Liberace show. Next to them is a dusty glass case containing hundreds of pocket and wrist watches, many inscribed with the face of their owner.
Imam Ahmad was the last long-term monarch of North Yemen, and like his father before him, Ahmad kept the modern world at bay, at least as far as his subjects were concerned. There was only one telephone line, the one running up to his palace which does beg the question: who did he call? The shopkeepers of Aden?
Photographs reveal a man of gargantuan size who looked not unlike Luciano Pavarotti during an unsung spell in panto. The resemblance ends there. Ahmad was a brutal dictator, prone to violent mood swings and rages. With the entire resources of the state at his personal disposal, he was the archetypal medieval tyrant, but also the prototype for the modern oligarch who murders with novichok.
Before becoming king in 1948, Ahmad had been governor of Ta’izz for thirty years, living in this palace. His life, judging by his possessions, was a shopping spree, a wild orgy of consumerism before the rest of us had even considered it an option. Alongside soda syphons and fountain pens stands an art deco tea service. A large silver plate bears the inscription, “From His Majesty King George VI to His Majesty the King of Yemen as a token of friendship and esteem.” Monarchs, of course, stuck together in that era, like oligarchs do now. It didn’t really matter how repellent or vile you were; once sprinkled with the fairy dust of kingship, you were part of a privileged club. The main constituent of that magical dust is genealogy. In Hatfield House where Queen Elizabeth I grew up, there is a magnificent family tree that traces her descent back to Adam and Eve. I always felt that rather undermined the whole project since, presumably, we can all trace our descent to that original couple. Ahmad himself went back to the prophet Muhammad via the Shia leader, Zayd Ibn Ali.
Despite the friendly overtures from the House of Windsor, Ahmad hated the British, vowing to drive them out of Aden which he regarded as his - a sulphurous steaming pile to accompany the perfume bottles on his shelf. I trace my finger along the faded labels, Nuit de Longchamp, Bouquet de l’Orient, and Old Spice. The paraphrenalia of 1950s excess looks faintly comedic, even absurd: scented notepaper, ink blotters, tins of hair oil and bottles of Vimto. I am reminded of Gary Glitter’s bedroom, a chamber I once visited soon after the star had sold the place to go somewhere swankier (this was at the height of his fame, not his infamy). “The curtains are electric,” said the new owner proudly, flicking a ridiculous Bakelite switch by the head of a large circular water bed. There was a distinct clunk, then a distant grumble and a brief kerfuffle in the curtains, as if Tommy Cooper were behind them. Then nothing. After an awkward silence, the man observed: “I must get them fixed.” All those state-of-the-art gadgets and super-expensive luxuries reduced to lumbering outdated relics. So it will be with all those mega-yachts. One day their plasma screens will look as cumbersome as the black-and-white television my Dad bought in 1966 to watch the World Cup final.
In Ahmad’s lobby are photographs of an execution by sword of the traitors who attempted to assassinate him. In one attempt Ahmad was wounded and afterwards became addicted to morphine. In one room there is a set of syringes gathering dust in kidney dishes. I examine the medicine cabinet carefully. Do any of these tablets contain loperamide?
I wander on through his house, overwhelmed by the wanton excess: how many wireless sets, ornamental mirrors and sequinned gowns does one man need? In the mafraj, or living room, a black and white photograph shows Ahmad with huge bulging eyes, staring across the same dusty carpets and cushions that lie there in front of me gathering dust. As I stand there, another rumble of personal thunder, this time more threatening.
“Are you sure there is no bathroom?” I ask. Cold needles of sweat stagger across the back of my head then rake down my spine. My mouth has gone bone dry.
The caretaker frowns. “It is forbidden.”
He ushers me onwards into the next room. Pearls from Aden and gaudy jewelry still in their presentation boxes: ‘Zahari Brothers, Crater, Aden.’ Cans of cine film. Marble tables. Guns. Swords. Soft toys with real tiger skin. Prickly heat powder. And then in the centre of the next room, Imam Ahmad’s commode. The caretaker brushes the blue leatherette arm-rests with his finger tips, then raises the lid to show me the bed pan beneath. “He was a very lazy man,” he observes dismissively, “And crazy.”
I stare down into the bowl and am conscious that my own storm is about to burst.
At that moment another man appears and gestures. “Muhammad?”
My guide looks displeased. He is enjoying our tour. But the man insists. “Telephone.”
Could it be a call on the very same archaic copper line that Ahmad had installed? A single strand of communication reserved entirely for his own use. Could this be the ghost of distant tyrants on the blower? Kubla Khazi?
A stomach complaint while travelling is like Death. For a long time, it is far away and you can ignore it. Then, quite abruptly, it is upon you. The Grim Reaper rushes silently forward. Too late you realise that time is ended. The cosmos gurgles down the plughole.
The caretaker waves his hand. “You can finish the tour alone. We have seen most of it.”
“Of course,” I agree, in a strangled squeak, “Thanks. See you. Down there.” A ghastly blob of adrenalised panic skids down my belly. The men shuffle off. I hear them on the stairs. I have one split second to scrabble desperately at my belt, then dive for Imam Ahmad’s commode.
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In February 2016 the palace museum in Ta’izz was bombed by Houthi forces, but there are now plans to rebuild and renovate. Sadly most of Ahmad’s personal items were destroyed. The whereabouts of his commode remain unknown.