SHOPPING IN ADEN
By Joy Ottewill
Before I came out here l talked to a charming old gentleman who had been through Aden as a member of the Services early in the century. He asked me whether we would still depend on barrels of salt pork and “vegetable bricks'' for our staple diet. On inquiry, he told me that vegetable bricks were hard squares of dehydrated vegetables, which were dissolved in boiling water, and provided the troops with their only source of green vegetables while serving in the Middle East and India.
While feeling that we must have progressed beyond the vegetable brick stage in the intervening fifty years or so, I was still amazed at the quality and variety of the food available, at the multiplicity of shops and the tempting array of food from all corners of the globe for the housewife's choice. I rather expected to have to pull in my belt and rack my brains to think of new ways of disguising corned beef, of reconciling my husband to tinned diced carrots, tinned milk in his tea and powdered egg for breakfast. I envisaged that occasionally, we might reach exciting heights of camel steaks - painfully blackened over a primus stove - followed by goats’ cheese and dates, while bottles of vitamin pills would line our bathroom (if indeed a bathroom was available), and that for salads I would have to content myself with looking at pictures in glossy American magazines.
Lunch at the club that day I arrived was the first pleasant shock - roast chicken, potatoes and brussels sprouts, followed by fruit salad. My first shopping expedition was the second. I hardly knew where to begin, which shop to choose. All had shining, up-to-date deep-freeze chests. I could wander round a supermarket with my little basket, or dive into one of the many smaller, rather cosier, grocers, more like the old-fashioned village grocers in England that are now rapidly disappearing. I could have succulent lamb from New Zealand or Kenya, fat, milk-fed chickens from Denmark or Holland, fresh eggs from Kenya, salmon from Canada or herrings from the North Sea. I could choose butter from Denmark, Camembert from France, pineapple juice from Malaya, rice from America, bamboo shoots from Hong Kong and fresh milk from Kenya or Holland.
But the greatest surprise of all was the fruit and vegetables. I saw crisp lettuces, new baby carrots, tempting melons, tomatoes, spring onions, green peppers, new potatoes - all from the Aden Protectorate. I blinked at the blaze of colour in the market, where mounds of oranges and grapefruits towered on the stalls over great bunches of bananas, homely green cabbages, marrows, string beans and a host of more exotic vegetables. I soon discovered it was fashionable to haggle over the prices, and that accepting the first price named labelled one as a green-horn. It does not do to be in too much of a hurry shopping in Aden, particularly in the market, as one is expected to have all the time in the world to reach a happy compromise with traders, about half-way between his original price and one's own first figure.
Yes, it was all a long way from vegetable bricks!
Having decided that the inner man was going to be more than satisfied - in fact that the outer man was swelling visibly round the middle - I was able to turn my attention to all the other exciting things demanding to be bought. I had exciting excursions to the narrow, clamorous streets of the bazaars of Crater, threading my way between camel carts, the camels stalking along looking supercilious with their noses in the air, goats placidly munching cardboard boxes, hordes of little boys, veiled women and sweetmeat vendors. All was colour, heat, strong light and shade and noise - noise from the myriad transistor sets carried by even the poorest.
Inside the narrow shops it was cool and dark, impossible to see from the shop-windowless entrance what was within. But once inside one discovered all manner of things, many of the shops carrying a variety of merchandise unexpected by shoppers accustomed to stores specializing in one type of goods. Cheek by jowl with plastic buckets one discovered pearl ear-rings, cheese graters and Indian shawls, mysterious perfumes of Araby and curtain rods. Happily I flitted from shop to shop, picking up an aluminium milk can (sold by weight), bright Indian cotton rugs, a large bottle of French perfume " Fablon '' for the kitchen shelves and a dressing-table stool.
Sandwiched between typical eastern bazaar stores I came upon a modern-looking shop with plate-glass windows in which were displayed beautiful materials and a Vogue pattern or two in the studied careless, restrained style of Bond Street. Gratefully relaxing in the air-conditioned interior, l could feast my eyes on the finest materials from Britain, Switzerland, France and Italy, transported in atmosphere thousands of miles from the teeming life outside. Shopping in Aden is full of contrasts like that.
My husband and I spent many afternoons in the Crescent at Steamer Point and the streets behind considering the " big stuff," the sort of things, we told ourselves, we should never be able to buy so cheaply again. If our bank balance went down it would pay us in the end, we persuaded each other. We listened to record players and tape recorders; I tapped out " now is the time for all good men . . . '' on dozens of portable typewriters; I stood entranced before sewing machines of every type and size, picturing the exquisite wardrobe which would result from their purchase; we compared watches and binoculars, cameras and Persian rugs, cuff-links and transistors. We found that prices varied enormously, sometimes in adjoining shops, and that it paid to have a good look round before taking the plunge. We also found that, with few exceptions, the traders knew very little about the things they were selling; and that instruction books were all-important if we were to make proper use of the things we bought.
I suppose Aden must be one of the paradises of the world for women as far as cosmetics and perfumes are concerned. For two years I can smell more expensive than I shall probably ever be able to afford to smell again. I can have a different set of make-up every week, my dressing table can look like a leading lady's with de luxe bottles and jars, and I can step into a perfumed film-star bath every night. No more hoarding saved-up-for bottles of scent to wear on "special occasions,'' or ploughing through a box of unbecoming powder to the bitter end, or resisting trying that special cream which promises to take twenty-five years off my age. I can smell delicious for twenty-four hours a day, throw away the ill-chosen powder, and prove that the cream does not make me look a day younger. And we can still afford to eat!
Shopping for clothes in Aden does not present any particularly serious problem, as long as one has the time, energy and persistence to look. It requires patience to penetrate to the depths of the stores, to have faith that after cameras, typewriters, garden chairs and men's beach-wear, past the food counter, through glass and china one will come to dresses! Once having tracked them down, one may find some attractive things, and if one cannot face the search there are, notably in the new reclaimed district of Maalla, shops in which dresses are displayed in the window and which actually only sell ladies' and children's clothes. For the “clever little woman with her needle'' the materials are lovely and not expensive, and there are tailors who will make up your own materials, copying designs from magazines or patterns and charging about 30/- for a cotton dress. There is also a branch of a famous British chain store, and more and more dress shops are opening, particularly in Maalla and Khormaksar, to cater for the thousands of service families now in Aden.
Another shopping field to delight the hearts of women in Aden is in the realms of glass, china, cutlery and the other niceties for the gracious home. Despite having a particularly well stocked cupboard of glass, I am constantly tempted by the beautiful glass from all over the world, of all shapes and designs, which is extremely moderately priced, and the latest designs in canteens of silver and plate.
What are the snags to shopping in Aden? I think the chief of them is that if anything goes wrong with your transistor, sewing machine, typewriter or camera it demands a major expenditure of energy, nerves and temper to track down anyone who can repair it. It also involves forgoing one's afternoon nap in the heat to drive round looking for the agent - if one has after much research managed to discover who the agent is - and, having found him, finding out if he has any spare parts. If he has not, he starts the game called "writing to the manufacturers," and by the time this has been accomplished, and the manufacturer has replied and sent the spare parts by sea, one has long since given up and gone out and bought another transistor, sewing machine, typewriter or camera in sheer desperation.
But, taking all in all, Aden is probably the nearest realization of the shopper's dream to be found in this cruel world of income tax, purchase tax, inflation, depression, restricted spending and tightening of belts. And by the constant stream of straw-hatted, tired but triumphant tourists seen lugging bulky boxes back to their ships a lot of other people seem to think so too!
Article first published in Port of Aden Annual 1964-65