Surtag Hack

Ms Surtag Hack
Ms Surtag Hack

Story: Ian Clifford. Main photo: Camille Daughma

Ms Surtag Hack lives on Wensley Estate with a garden full of colourful flowers and a patio set out with parasols. She is volunteer coordinator of Petsearch, which puts people in touch with lost pets, is of Indian descent and has three successful adult children of joint Arab-Indian heritage.

Ms Hack grew up in what is now the Yemen and has a story which is of a slice of British colonial history. Ms.Hack spreads out several expired British family passports some issued in India, Ethiopia and Aden(Yemen), including documents before me that show her family were originally from Saharanpur in Utter Pradesh (India). Her uncle and father were first from her family to work in Aden, by the British Government. Her grandfather (mother’s father) was also an Indian, her grandmother (mother’s mother) was from Hyderabad in India, and great grandmother (mother’s, father’s, mother) was an Egyptian.

The documents show Ms.Hack’s late father had worked in Aden and Ethiopia (two sons and a daughter were born in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) German Legation, Addis Ababa, in the year 1920’s and 1933). Ms.Hack’s father and the German diplomats were very good friends. “My mother had given birth to 21 children and only 5 of us survived. 4 of us are now left as our eldest brother has passed away”, explains Ms. Hack.

Steakhouse, casino and Regal cinema, with the British Fort on the hill behind.
Steakhouse, casino and Regal cinema, with the British Fort on the hill behind.
The Regal cinema
The Regal cinema

Chairs and Cushions

“In 1941, my father bought lands in the Khormaksar area of Aden for 1 rupee a yard and owned a cinema, casino, steakhouse, bungalows (also in Steamer Point area). The casino and steakhouse was served to the British and foreign personals. The cinema was called the Regal, all nationalised in the year 1971”.

Ms. Hack shows me a letter in which F/Lt Jackson told the Senior Chaplain, R.A.F, in Steamer Point of the extreme generous gesture and kindness to her father Mr. Mohamed Ehsanul Hack for not charging for the hire of the ‘chairs and cushions’ in the year 1950 with most grateful thanks, Amateur Dramatic Society. A letter from British Legion, thanking Ms. Hack’s father of the organisation and kind co-operation in selling puppies for Earl Haig’s Fund in 1951 and the funds raised was Shs:311.35 (Pounds:500/-) were forwarded to London. Mr Hack was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1937 to his role. An acknowledgement letter from Government of state for the closure of the cinema mourning for the death of King George Vl in 1952.

Ms.Hack’s father was employed by her grandfather who was in charge of The Perim Coal Co. Ltd., in Perim Islands Aden in 1927 . Coal was supplied by the said Company from Wales, England. Her grandfather was also in charge of all foreigners arriving in Aden. Ms. Hack’s late father was not only a wealthy man but, also a well known contractor and a professional doctor in Biochemic medicines.

A letter of thanks was also sent to her father from H.M.Naval Office, Aden, for having constructed a boxing ring and stage in aid of the Aden Centenary Fund and Smoking Concert. Letter from the Church of Scotland Mission, Sheikh Othman , Aden, in 1941 thanking him for his generous gift of material and labour for building a new roof to the operating theatre of the Keith-Falconer Hospital in Sheikh Othman. Letter also stated: By this gift to the Mission as your gift to Church of Scotland in Steamer Point, you have put the staff and personnel in your debt, and have helped an organisation which seeks to serve the people of this country as well as Europeans in the Colony’. “See what kind, friendly letters of praise and thanks were wrote to him” says Ms. Hack.

Ms. Hack remembers the British Governor from when she was a child, Sir Tom Hickinbotham. “He was my father’s closest friend and he used to visit us in our bungalow and have dinner and sit on a swing dressed smartly with black bow tie. I used to tease him and he used to pull me by my pigtails. The Governor had an open invitation at all times to the casino and the cinema”.

Map of Steamer Point
Map of Steamer Point

War of independence

A brutal war of independence saw the British leave in 1967. Ms Hack says:

“I saw two British soldiers being blown up. We had to go out and pick up all the pieces from the geep they were in. I remember the British consulate announcing that all British personnel had to go to the pier at Steamer Point (Tawahi) and Tawahi beach where ships were collecting foreign personnel. I saw the ships over-crowded, people leaving things behind. I remember a lot of Indians left behind, all stranded on the beaches. I was 17 or 18 at the time.”

Map showing the cinema and bungalows
Map showing the cinema and bungalows

Following independence, and in keeping with the new Republic's socialist policies, the property of the rich was nationalised in 1971, including that of many in the Indian community. “Daddy was grabbed by his shirt and chucked out of the cinema. We had to live in just one of our bungalows – it was unfit and unsafe.”

The Hack family including Ms. Hack experienced some harsh times during this period and her father sadly died from injuries sustained during this time.

Ms Hack with Pet dog Drago
Ms Hack with Pet dog Drago

Dog takes bullet

Another extraordinary tale, Ms. Hack relates how one evening during Ramadan 1994 she had to take her dog Drago outside of the flat to relieve itself. “Suddenly a young lad shouts out: ‘be careful auntie’. Drago was becoming very agitated and jumped up in front of me and immediately he fell to the ground with his chest full of blood. Drago had taken a bullet for me.” The air-gun wound affected his heart and was flown to the UK from Aden 1995 and died at the age of 15 in 2005. He is buried in Ms. Hack’s garden.

With things clearly not working out in the Yemen, Ms. Hack after a long struggle had arrived in the UK in 1995 with British Overseas passport accompanied with her three children and continued to try to become resident in the UK. Despite her parents having British passports. It took 10 years before she was granted full British Citizenship two years ago.

Prince Phillip

Ms Hack continues to campaign for the return of her father's property in the Yemen. She showed me a letter from Prince Philip acknowledging correspondence about her claim. Ms Hack also wrote to the freemasons, but received no reply.

I put it to Ms Hack that she's as much a victim of British colonialism as the Yemeni people who fought for independence in the 60's. “Yes, that's true,” she said. “But it was worse for us, we had so far to fall. Daddy was very wealthy – he was the first non-European in Aden to own a Bentley and the first to own a Jaguar. I can’t tell you what price we paid because of the British dumping us. Is this what we deserved after what my father did for them? My father was always there for the British”.

For a a more detailed view of the maps, download the full-size images:

Some history

  • 1838 – After a deal with local chief, Sultan Muhsin bin Fadl, Britain starts to occupy and control parts of Southern Yemen, as “the Aden Settlement” and rule them as part of British India.

  • 1937 – Aden Settlement was detached from India to become a British Crown Colony.

  • 1967 – British leave Aden after war of independence, Aden becomes capital of People’s Republic of Yemen.

  • 1990 – After a civil war, People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen unified with North Yemen, which was never a British colony.

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The content on this page was added to the website by Derrick Okrah on 2007-05-31 21:55:00.
The content of the page was last modified by Lisa Swift on 2007-06-06 14:48:24.

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