The golden days at Hans Crescent
by alumnus Farook Aman
November 1966 witnessed a turning point in my life. It was 5 a.m. at
the military airport of British Aden Colony when the BOAC Super VC10 airplane was taxing awaiting instruction for takeoff. Though early in the morning, it was already hot and humid. 35 degrees Celsius. The airport was heavily guarded by British soldiers to protect British families who were scheduled to travel to the UK. Aden was under intense arm struggle with persistence demands for independence from the British Colonial power. Thus the twice weekly VC10 flights to London had to take off from the military, rather than from the civil airport. The flight was fully booked and all faces were British Military Personnel and their families. The only Adeni locals were Mohamed and I, both headed for studies in London.
Quietly, I prayed as the Super VC10 jets throttled to full power and sped down the runway taking off smoothly and revealing below the magnificent scene of Aden in the early morning sunshine reflecting on the red sea which meets the Indian Ocean. Suddenly, I felt a bit apprehensive. I thought about my parents. That trip was going to be 4 years of studies in London. Will I see my parents again when I have completed my studies? They were not allowed past the airport check point as I kissed them good bye at the gate and then pushed my way through, carrying hand bags to the main departure building.
We touched down at Heathrow airport at about 3 pm London local time. It was a fairly smooth flight with little turbulence. As we were circling over London, the pilot announced that London weather forecast was 43F, overcast with drizzle. Looking down, London appeared old, dull and foggy. I looked at my colleague, Mohamed and said, “Finally, we are over London after almost 11 hours of flying.” He smiled quietly not knowing what to say.
I went through the usual immigration and customs check points. We
took the surface train to Victoria Station. At the exit gate, I saw a man holding a banner with my name and that of Mohamed’s. We looked strangers, as we evidently were, and it was easy for the man with our names to spot us. He approached us and introduced himself as a representative from the British Crown Agents Office. He then drove us through London’s busy traffic. We were quietly watching the streets, pedestrians and the traffic in general. Everything looked and smelt different. We stopped in-front of an old building with multiple doors and huge entrance. He informed us that this was Hans Crescent, the famous Commonwealth student’s hostel where we would stay for 3 days as we would have to look for other accommodation thereafter. As I stepped out of the car, I felt in my back the cold and dampness of London weather.
The receptionist met us at the hallway and led us through to the office where we signed papers and received the key of the room. Mohamed and I were going to share the same room. The room was clean and tidy with a desk for studying on either end of it. There was also one wooden closet on each side of the room. As I examined the room, there was a 4 foot high device with winding pipes placed by the window. It was the water central heating system. I did not know what it was. I touched it and it felt hot. I drew the curtain to open it and looked outside but what I saw was the side of another building which blocked any view of the street. We quickly sorted out our belongings and went downstairs to the ground floor. We saw students lining up as the loud bells were ringing.
It was dinner time. We lined up too. The food was tasteless unlike my mother’s cooking!
We went to the British Crown Agents Office which was across from the British Parliament buildings. Mohamed and I were each given 29 pounds as our monthly bursaries, plus one year books and clothing allowance. We were also advised to open a bank account. Waoo..I have never had a bank account in Aden!
We were told that from then on, we were basically on our own to chose where- ever we wished to reside. We were warned that failing twice the yearly final exam is a bad recipe as we could potentially be asked to return back to Aden.
Living closer to College seemed to be a logical and wise choice.
West ham was our mutual decision. We shared a one bedroom accommodation, a shared kitchen and one bathroom for all the residents on the same 3 bedroom floor. Sliding coins was normal to purchase gas to heat the room, to use the stove and heat the bathroom water.
What? This is not my parent’s Aden home!
The landlord was a tall man seemingly of Polish origin who seemed to
be accommodating. He shared the ground floor with his wife, who hardy spoke English.
Our room was in-between two rooms on either side, housing 2 separate families; a Turkish couple with a baby girl and the other was a cockney accent English couple. We were briefed by the landlord on the rules of engagement regarding accommodation and the importance of weekly rent payment a week in advance. Yes, the bath tub had to be cleaned after use; hair must be removed too.
The college looked old from the outside with dull brown-coloured bricks, housing lifeless lecture rooms and serious sharp-eyed lecturers. We had to learn the bus routes, leaving to college when it was dark early in the morning and returning back when it was dark in the evening. No dinner was ready to look forward to. No fridge to use. Is this London? It felt depressingly cold, frustratingly unfriendly and sparingly dull. I am not going to live here. I wanted to go home! Those were my thoughts !!
I called my sister, Amira who was studying in Dundee, Scotland. She was excited to hear my voice. She asked if I could visit her. We made plans for the Christmas vacation.
I took the overnight train and sleeplessly counted the hours until I arrived at Dundee’s Main railway station. Dundee was a small city, compared to London, with winding roads and everlasting hills. For an inexperienced student from Aden, it was also cold and miserable. I gave the taxi driver the address of Amira. He dropped me at 66 Forfar Road and drove off. It was just before 6 a.m. when I rang the front door bell. A sleepy looking middle aged lady opened the door after a delay of a few minutes. I introduced myself to the half open-eyed Scottish accent landlady. Clinching her jaws, she mentioned that Amira was coming down. But she was nevertheless welcoming. Amira appeared from behind the landlady. She too was half asleep with half a smile. We hugged. We noticed that the moment was awkward and the time was too early for greetings. The landlady was standing right there surveying the situation with seemingly unfriendly looks. She had asked Amira how long was I staying for her to calculate how much extra she would charge.
I enjoyed the company of my sister. It was short and on my third day, I was heading back to London.
When I arrived back in West ham, I opened the front door and noticed at the entrance two suite cases and a box full of books. These were mine and
Mohamed’s. I wondered how come these items were at the door. My thoughts were interrupted by the Polish landlord’s imposing voice, who approached me and with a strong English Polish accent, he exploded, “You and your roommate left without paying for your next week’s rent! This is London, you don’t pay you don’t stay, understood?”
I did not have enough cash to pay the rent. The banks were closed and only open after the Christmas and Boxing Day holidays.
“Sorry sir, give me a chance until the banks are open.” I politely replied.
“No sorry. No nothing. I now open room for you, but you pay me tomorrow,
Is day after tomorrow ok, sir?!
Early in the morning, on Boxing Day, I took the underground train to Knightsbridge Station. My plan was to see if we could get accommodation at Hans Crescent again. I walked past Harrods Store wondering about my luck to achieve this goal. As I approached 1 Hans Crescent, I saw an old grey-haired man walking his dog. I greeted him respectfully and asked if Hans Crescent was open. He inquired who was I and what it was that I needed. Accommodation, of course was the answer. As he looked at his wrist watch, I checked mine too. It was about 6:30 a.m. He noticed that I had tears in my eyes. Looking aimlessly to the sky, he asked me to follow him. He unlocked the front door and walked in. I followed quietly, praying. I thought to myself, “This is heavens opening its doors for me.”
At the office, he checked a file, frowned for a second or two and then said, “At this time, I cannot offer you two separate rooms for you and your friend, but right now, I can provide you with one double bedroom for both of you. Is that OK with you?”
The grey haired man turned out to be the Director of Hans Crescent.
Talk about good luck at 6:30 a.m on Boxing Day!
I hid my feelings of joy and asked when I could move. I was anxious to move that same day. I signed a paper, thanked him and rushed to take the train back to West ham.
The ugly landlord appeared before me as I opened the front door. “Brought money for the rent?” He asked
“Yes, but for one day only, sir!” I announced with confidence.
“I am moving out today, sir.” I said with a rather confident but trembling voice
too, while wondering what the legal implications were.
As he gave his back to me, I thought I heard “OK, you pay me and off you go”
I paid him, and took time to collect all my belongings and that of Mohamed’s too. Mohamed was spending Christmas holidays at his friend’s Aziz and wife Firdous in north London. I had no telephone number to contact him.
I left that grim place for good. The taxi dropped me at the West ham underground station and I was on my way back to Hans Crescent again. The distance between Knightsbridge station and the hostel Hans Crescent was only a block away. No taxi driver was interested in driving such a short distance. I carried the two pieces of luggage from the station to the hostel. I was exhausted, but I made it. In the late afternoon, the guard who was already informed handed me the key. He also was kind to help me with the bags. What a world of difference from the landlord in West ham.!
Mohamed and I shared Room 508, on the top floor. It was right in front of the elevator. The floor housed students from the Commonwealth countries. There were hardly students from Aden Colony.
Hans Crescent was a huge building which consisted of 5 winding floors leading to another street in the back and to the side. It accommodated 280 students plus flats for the office personnel, including the Director’s. On the main floor, there was a huge TV and recreational room, a dining hall, a library, and a dancing hall with an in-house piano. Each floor was equipped with a minimum of 2 incoming calls phone sets. As well, there were group shower facilities and bathrooms on each floor. There was a daily maid service to clean the rooms and bed sheets were changed once a week. Breakfast and dinner were served as part of the accommodation package, 21 pounds a month! Once a month, a dance party would be held. Competitive activities such as table tennis, chess, etc.. provided social opportunities for the Hans Crescent students to get to know one another. A student’s union President was elected every year. He would coordinate with management and report back to the resident students. In general, everything ran pretty smooth as students came and went to their respective colleges. The front door was locked at 11:00pm and visitors were strictly not allowed to stay overnight. Nevertheless, unlike other accommodation facilities, Hans Crescent certainly provided me with the sense of security and confidence which I needed to maintain sanity and to focus on my studies. Had I remained in the other grim accommodation facility, I probably would have given up and perhaps might have returned back to Aden without finishing my studies. That thought put the chills and shivers in my spine as I thought how would I have faced my parents and friends in Aden having failed the golden opportunity of free scholarship to study in London.
Life in Hans Crescent opened social avenues for me and my roommate, Mohamed, whose origin was from East Africa. My good Aden Mirsaba neighbor, Farooq Murshed, joined residence in Hans Crescent after he completed his high school studies in Chippenham, a village located about 50 miles outside London. He resided with a former British teacher who taught English language in Aden. Farooq was studying Laboratory Technology specializing in Hematology. He became my good friend, though he was a few years younger than me. My daily encounters with Farooq was often. We lined up for the first dinner seating and shared our day’s events. He had a contagious and distinguished loud and happy laughter which made me laugh! We were both serious and busy with our studies after dinner. We hardly met after dinner as we would focus on our respective individual homework and study projects.
Preparation for exams often commenced a few months before the scheduled dates. Several daily hours of intense revisions were the norm. Students, with stony unshaven faces appeared from their respective rooms to have dinner and back to hitting the books. The library on the main floor would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The TV entertainment room lacked activity except during News hour. It was deserted during exam time and became full again after the exams were over.
When the exams were over, students would slowly but surely attempt to unwind. Happy and relieved students faces emerged to see the world again. Lady friends regained possession of the Reception Hall and loud speakers called students to meet their respective beautiful ladies of all colours and shapes. At that point, Hans Crescent became alive again. Different Commonwealth English accents would be heard from clean shaven and happy faces. Laughter was heard in the corridors, the elevators, the rooms, etc.. Life was back to normal after the exams were over.
Mohamed’s pregnant Irish girl friend
The local lady Church Administrator came to Hans Crescent to inform Mohamed that Patricia was pregnant and the child was his. He was asked to sign papers to the effect that he would either marry Patricia or take care of the baby. Mohamed was shocked and could hardly breathe. The news felt heavy on his chest. He was so stressed that he had to be hospitalized for ulcer surgery. I gave Mohamed all the support he needed. Still both of us were too young to know anything about the British family law and the options available to take. Hiring a lawyer was obviously out of the question. Neither of us had enough money to fight the case. It was a stressful time for Mohamed, but he made a decision that since he was a student, he would neither marry Patricia nor accept responsibility for the baby. Come what may!
Somehow, the local church backed off and did not pursue the case any further. Patricia gave birth to a cute baby girl with curly hair and darker skin than her mom’s. Mohamed went to see the baby and reported to me how beautiful she was. Mohamed was now a father who was not ready yet for fatherhood. It cost him an extra one year of his studies. I graduated a year ahead of him.
Later on, he decided to leave London for Nairobi, Kenya where his family lived. He got married there and had children. Few years thereafter, I was informed that he apparently suffered a heart attack and passed away at the young age of 35. God bless his soul and have mercy on him.
My Nigerian next door neighbour
One day, a huge African figure arrived at Hans Crescent. He was accompanied by the Crown Agent Representative. The new student sat quietly at the Reception Hall while his papers were being processed. Suddenly, he snapped and turned violent. The first thing he did was to break the long silver chain which was attached to the pencil used to register the students at the reception counter. He grabbed that chain and went to the public pay phone kiosks next to the administration office. He opened the door of each kiosk and systematically started belting each student who was peacefully talking on the phone. Some were badly injured. Then he turned his attention to the TV room down the hall which was filled with students watching the evening news. As he entered it, he gave such a shrieking loud sound while hitting whoever was closer to the door. Some frightened students took the nearest easy exit. They jumped off the main floor’s windows without checking the origin of the loud noise. They broke limbs. The violent Nigerian continued his crusade hitting anything in his way. Three big and strong students from the Caribbean cornered him and pinned him down to the floor until the arrival of security. A floor mat was thrown to the floor and the violent man was rolled inside it like a loaf of bread. His bloodshot eyes were bulging with anger as his mouth was foaming too. He was professionally handled by the security personnel in order to maintain full control and to further eliminate potential risk to other students.
We were told later that the violent Nigerian had arrived from a remote village in Nigeria. He had spent over 24 hours of sleepless land and air travel time. He had therefore been under severe mental stress. The Director of the hostel apologized for the incident and praised the quick courageous action of the 3 Caribbean students who controlled the situation, thereby reducing further risk of injuries. The next day, there were few students walking with the help of crutches!
However, I felt that my luck had run short when the Nigerian student was assigned a room next to mine close to the corner of the 5th floor’s incoming calls phone set. Prior to the arrival of the Nigerian student on the 5th floor, whoever answered the phone would usually call for the receiving room number to collect the incoming call. However, since the Nigerian student came to our floor, no one received calls any more. He would simply answer and say, “He is not here!” No one dared to argue with a 6’5’’ bloodshot eyed creature. Days passed and I did not receive any phone call, but I did not challenge either. Instead I asked for a room transfer. I was transferred to room 503. This time I had a single room while Mohamed was given another single room too.
Again my luck ran short when one evening I heard a loud knock from the floor below. It was supposed to be a reminder to walk quietly to lessen the noise to the room below. But I already went to bed when I suddenly heard the same floor/ceiling warning knocking again from the floor below. That got me upset and instead of ignoring it, I decided to stand and to strongly jump up and down on the floor sending shock waves below my floor. Seconds later, there was a loud bang on my room door accompanied by a familiar voice saying, “Come out, I will kill you.” It was the Nigerian, who apparently changed rooms from the 5th to the 4th floor. Cowardly, I kept quiet and remained inside my room with the lights off. “Playing coward saves lives.“ I told myself!
Apparently the same thing happened to my friend Farooq, who also did not put any challenge. It was best that we filed a complaint to management.
Mr. Hunter, the Giant new Director
Another incident that comes to mind, the grey haired Director of the hostel was replaced by a new Director, Mr. Hunter. He was a real giant, 7’2” tall and walked with the help of a large Moses-like cane. In his youth, the new Director was a professional boxer. But he was kind and considerate. One evening, while we were having dinner, the popular student’s union President, who came from Serra Leon and whose father worked as a judge, suddenly lost his cool. He approached the Director’s dining table and shouted with his top voice challenging the Giant Director to fight him. At first, the students thought that the Director did something wrong which might have upset the student’s President. Later on, it was found that the mental stress caused by preparing for the exams proved too much for the African student resulting in mental strain. Professional security guards rushed into the dining hall within minutes notice and put the student in a straight jacket. The African was furious. He tried to bite the hands that were tying him. He managed to spit at the guards. He was apparently admitted to a mental institute with his father’s consent.
One of my best friends, Khaled, was diligently preparing hard for his Barristers exam which he failed twice before. Depression took over him. He committed suicide when he failed yet again for the third time. He was an intelligent handsome young man who was apparently intensely stressed with the exams pressures which caused his mental power to crack down and fail. It was shocking news for all those who knew Khaled. May God have mercy on his soul.
What a loss!
Observing the fasting in Ramadan
The month of Ramadan was quite a challenge for us to fast in London’s Hans Crescent. Yet, I was lucky since I struck good relations with Mr. Walker, who was the head cook at Hans Crescent Kitchen. He was kind to provide the four Muslim students at Hans Crescent with early breakfast meals consisting of Spanish egg Omelets served with fresh bread. The daily menu was served to us for the whole fasting month of Ramadan at no extra cost. We broke fasting at around 4:30 pm when the daily first round dinner was served at 6:15 pm. God bless Mr. Walker’s soul who helped us during the Holy Month of Ramadan every year thereafter.
One night, at around 2 a.m., my sleep was interrupted when I heard a soft knock on my door. It was Mike, the Irish night shift guard. He said that there was an urgent phone call from St. George’s Hospital. They were asking for me.
“What, the hospital, asking for me?!”
I learned that Mr. Walker had suffered a heart attack. I was asked to go to visit him urgently. I had no money for a taxi ride. I walked the distance, instead.
Mr. Walker’s was alert. He was happy to see me. He was hooked up to all kinds of machine tubes. He signed to me to get closer. The nurse asked me to be brief after handing me 2 keys. With a weak whispering voice, Mr. Walker asked me to go to his room and take his box of valuable items, fur coat, and some documents. He said that should he died, it is OK for me to take those items and never give them to his relatives. However should he lived, he wanted them back. I thanked him for his trust in me and promised that I would fulfill his wish. He did not want anyone to know that arrangement which made my mission harder since his room was located in the office personnel quarters in Hans Crescent where students were not allowed to enter. His key was to enter the residence quarter. I collected all the items which Mr. Walker asked me to keep. Indeed, it was a challenge to keep expensive items in a safe place in my room lest they got stolen when I was out. Two weeks after, Mr. Walker was released from the hospital and I was free also of the burden of such safeguarding responsibility. He later told me that he could not trust anyone else in the UK including his sister who lived in Scotland. I felt
The Sea Pilot friend
Another late night hospital call was received when an Adeni student, who was attending classes to graduate as Sea pilot, was attacked by a youth gang while he was walking back at night to Hans Crescent around Hyde Park area. His face was disfigured. His nose smashed. His wife was evidently scheduled to arrive from Aden the very next day. Farooq and I went to receive the wife at the airport and gently broke the news to her before taking her to the hospital to visit her battered husband.
June 5th, 1967: The start of the 6th day Arab/Israeli war
The British media was reporting that President Nasser of Egypt lost the war in the very first few hours following the swift Israeli aerial attack aimed at crippling Egypt’s air defences. Israel’s one-eyed Defence Minister, Moshe’ Dayan, labeled Nasser nothing but a paper tiger. The Egyptian air force was apparently disabled before they could even have an opportunity to take off to face the enemy attack. It was a swift dawn attack that effectively destroyed Egypt’s air force, totally. In addition to Egypt’s war front, Israel also took care of business at the Syrian and Jordanian fronts claiming combined vast lands from the 3 countries; the Sinai desert, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. More land could have been claimed had the UN not stop the hostilities. The Arab war machines were obviously no match to the apparent superiority of Israeli war machine. The war ended in 6 days and the Israeli army was evidently victorious occupying lands from its warring Arab neighbours.
I had just concluded my exams. However, instead of celebrating, I locked myself in my room for days to come; fully ashamed of the performance of the Arab
armies. I was ingenuously vocal prior to the war!
I spent a good part of my Friday evenings at the nearest Laundry shop located few blocks from Hans Crescent. While my clothes were in the washing and dryer machines, I often had books to read plus my weekly TIME magazine, which I often read from cover to cover, even during exam times. My love and appetite for reading were often a high motivation to quench my thirst for more knowledge.
Because of my frequent visits, I knew all those who supervised the laundry shop. However, I was once on the receiving end of a lengthy lecture on how to operate the laundry machines. I had apparently exceeded the amount of laundry detergent. The soap floated up and off the washing machine down to the floor making it slippery and potentially dangerous for clients to walk. One mishap incident would have made the insurance rates go through the roof. I was oblivious of the soap danger, as I was seated facing the front door while indulging in the joys of reading my TIME magazine!
Guilty as I was, I offered to clean up. I was promptly handed a mob and a bucket to do so, which I gladly concurred to perform. It had to be that way, otherwise I would not be allowed to return to the shop again the following week. The next laundry shop was inconveniently located a train ride away plus a good walk!
With the exception of exam time, Saturday evenings were my only free time. I went with friends and my cousin, Ghazi, to the Hammersmith Palais to dance. At 11 pm, I would head back to Hans Crescent, already thinking of my study programme for Sunday. However, Sunday afternoon, I often attended Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner and learned more about world politics while having few laughs too! There was a speaker named Roy. He was from Guyana. I believed he was fun to listen to his speeches.
Hans Crescent’s policy was to accommodate as many Commonwealth students as possible according to the prescribed member country quota. The maximum stay was usually one year per student. I was lucky and so was my roommate, Mohamed and also Farooq. We lived there for over 3 years. Aden Colony was not a member of the Commonwealth, nor was the new independent People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen (after independence). Nevertheless, we fared pretty good with management. They loved us as we loved and respected them too. The Executive Assistant of the director was my student. I tutored her Arabic. She was preparing to join her husband who was already working in Saudi Arabia.
Hans Crescent was no doubt a spring board to my future. If it was not for it and the grey haired director who took pity on me that early morning of Christmas, I probably would have given up in the face of the various life challenges and the frustrations of living in a large unfriendly city such as London. But, the highlight of my goal was passing my final exam and thereafter, my graduation. I had a title after my name (ACIS).
Back in Aden
It was September 1970 when I arrived back in Aden. I was a proud UK graduate.
I was assigned a big responsibility. To manage and run the Executive Legal Administrative Affairs Department of Aden Electricity Corporation. My parents were proud of me. They were discreetly busy, searching, behind my back, for a
wife. I had other plans in mind. Aden was not anymore the same place. I left when it was under the British rule and returned back to experience an independent and strange country under a brutal socialist, communist and iron fisted regime. In 1972, I made a daring attempt to run away from the iron curtain. I travelled walking for tens of miles over mountain tops to flee the country. I failed miserably and was detained at the border crossing with the then North Yemen. I tried again a second time and was successful. With God’s blessings, and for the last 37 years, Canada became my homeland and that of my wife’s and children.