Yemen film fans find calm in British-era cinema

Dunya News

The history of the Hurricane is intricately intertwined with the story of a local wealthy family.

ADEN (AFP) - Aden s Hurricane offers just one screening a day, but a devoted band of Yemeni film lovers has kept the British colonial-era cinema going through communism, civil war and Al-Qaeda.

A handful of ageing cinema buffs files quietly into the fading yellow building in Aden s Crater district at the same time six days a week, just as the sun slips behind the volcanic hills encircling the city.

This routine -- every evening except Saturday -- has withstood years of upheaval in violence-wracked Yemen, and most recently weathered the political crisis that saw the president flee his residence to sanctuary in Aden.

A former British protectorate and prosperous port city, Aden was exposed to foreign arts and culture in a way that set it apart from much of conservative Yemen.

It retained its diversity in stark contrast to the austerity of the capital Sanaa, 430 kilometres (260 miles) to the north.

When South Yemen gained independence in 1967, its socialist rulers encouraged Aden s openness.

But unification with the north in 1990, followed by the 1994 crushing of a secession attempt, replaced the city s liberalism with a more conservative Islamic climate.

Aref Naji Ali, who heads the cultural organisation Al-Waddah Foundation, says attendance at Hurricane has never recovered.

"The reason many spectators have disappeared is the war of 1994, which was followed by fatwa edicts that banned cinemas," he said.

"Frightened, many families stopped going to the movies."

Family business

The history of the Hurricane is intricately intertwined with the story of a local wealthy family.

The patriarch, known as Master Hammoud, was the head of Aden s education department under British rule and his son Taher was lured into the cinema business in the middle of last century.

Opening the Hurricane and four other picture houses earned Taher the nickname of "King of Cinema".

He oversaw the halcyon days of Yemen s cinema industry, ensuring that the latest Egyptian movies premiering in Cairo were screened simultaneously in Aden.

But the Hurricane s success ended abruptly after the family was stripped of its cinemas under a nationalisation plan introduced by the socialist government after independence.

By the time the Hammoud family regained its property in 1994, it was not able to save all four cinemas, three of which had already been converted to alternative use.

A growing real estate boom had swollen the number of Aden picture houses to 10, but the Hurricane survived thanks to the hard work of its owners and the loyalty of its aging clientele.

 Television killed the cinema 

The Hurricane sits close to the site of the Britain s last stand in Yemen, the culmination of a local insurgency against British forces that began in late 1963.

Amid a backdrop of a political crisis that has seen a Shiite militia seize control of much of central Yemen -- including the capital -- and increasing Al-Qaeda attacks, the cinema offers punters a rare escape of calm and culture.

Its old movie reels, now rotting in the warehouse, have been replaced by videos and a digital projector, but the Hurricane s audience remains largely unchanged.

"The television has dealt a fatal blow to cinema. It killed cinema and there is not a single house without a television," complained Ahmed Saleh, a 75-year-old retired public servant.

Although he does own a television, Saleh continues to come each day to watch films at the Hurricane.

"I continue to love cinema. It allows me to mingle with people and kill time," he said.

Other spectators file into the theatre, no young people or a single woman among them.

At exactly 18:30 local time, a bell announces the start of the show -- today, an Indian movie with Arabic subtitles.

Not that anyone seems to care about the plot. For the nostalgic audience of Hurricane, all that matters is that the cinema is still there at all.