Arthur Rimbaud: The Exit from Aden

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Arthur Rimbaud house in Aden, Yemen. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Sunday, January 29, 2012

French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived in Yemen for many years before having to leave due to health complications. After a painstaking search to find his house in Aden, Al-Akhbar discovers it has been closed due to repeated ownership disputes.

The house where Arthur Rimbaud (20 October 1854 - 10 November 1891) lived is today about one kilometer away from the sea. It used to face the sea directly in the days when the French poet lived in the city of Aden in south Yemen. The time he spent in Aden – intermittently between 1880 and 1891 – totaled about 45 months.

If Rimbaud were to return today, he would not recognize the original location of the house. Today, the neighborhood around his old house is crowded with residential and government buildings, as well as two football fields.

From his house, one can see the alpine black mountains, which are part of a district named Crater, where Rimbaud’s house is located. Crater is also the name of the volcano upon which the whole area is situated.

It is noteworthy that in the letters Rimbaud used to send from his residence in Aden to his sister Isabelle in the city of Charleville in northeastern France, he always complained about this city that lies in the crater of a volcano.

Yet he settled in it, this place that has “Not a tree, even a withered one, not a sod of earth!”

These complaints were frequently repeated in the letters he regularly sent from Aden, where he worked for a retired French officer who oversaw an agency that exported coffee to Marseilles, France.

It was work that he did not like much, not because of its nature but because of the low wages he earned which did not fit in with his ambition and the easy life he wished to live. This was in addition to his deep-rooted belief that he was “the smartest employee in Aden” because he could speak many languages, including Arabic.

Thus, the author of The Drunken Boat began to level a barrage of complaints satirizing Aden, the city that is the “most desolate in the world after Charleville.” But did Rimbaud really hate Aden? Why then did he stay in it all those long, hot months making a name for himself in business, which he successfully used to establish commercial dealings of his own in the Horn of Africa (Somalia and Ethiopia in particular)?

Rimbaud’s hatred for Aden might seem obvious at first glance or through a cursory examination of what he wrote about the city. But if we slow down a little and re-examine what went on with him in this city and its people, then we would come to a different conclusion altogether.

The people in Aden still believe that the author of A Season in Hell was an eternal lover of their city and its sea stretching out into the horizon he so loved. So they are not shy to show off their pride in that good, young, elegant Frenchman who left his native country to live among them.

To this day, they do not believe that Rimbaud described their city as a “crater of a volcano.” He came to Aden looking for an “eternal summer” and cultivated good relations the people of Aden until his last day in the city, before he had to return to France to treat the disease in his knee.

He had reassured them that he would return and spend the rest of his life near their sea. That is why Rimbaud purposefully left many of his personal belongings in the house.

And that is why the people of Aden held a gathering in memory of him when news of Rimbaud’s death reached the city. At the center of the gathering was his picture with inscriptions of “There is no God but God, there is no power but in God, and we are of God and to God we return.”

By honoring him this way, residents in Aden were showing that Rimbaud had a special place in their hearts. Also, this ceremony alluded to his rumored conversion to Islam.

Rimbaud was influenced by the Quran, which he heard dictated from a minaret, still in existence to this day, only 10 meters from his house. The minaret remained from Aden’s great mosque, which the British destroyed at the beginning of their occupation of the city. From the mosque, Rimbaud would hear the Islamic call to prayer regularly. This prompted his interest in the Quran, so he sent a request asking for a French copy. He wrote his sister saying: “Without this book, I would be like a blind man.”

The insistence of his friends in Aden to maintain the house he lived in and the personal belongings he left behind was due to the strong human relationship that had grown between him and them. This could not have been arbitrary without signs and clues pointing to it.

This also demonstrates that their relationship to him was based on the depth of that human connection and not on his status as a poet. The literary status of this young Frenchman and his achievements in that regard were not yet known. That is something that the people of Aden, and especially of the Crater district, would come to know years later.

On the other hand, the French who were interested in the legacy of this poet did not come to know where his house in Aden was until 1991, after an exhausting search in the folds of British documents. Researchers had to track down a series of his letters that he sent from Aden and compare them with the places he described in these letters. In addition, pictures that Rimbaud took of himself in front of his house were also used.

After finding the house, it was converted into a cultural center under the auspices of the cultural attache of the French Embassy. The place hosted several international conferences on Rimbaud and his poetry. But after a little while, the French Embassy announced that it could no longer afford to pay the rent on the house, thus returning it to its original owners who turned it into a hotel named after the poet.

But about two years ago, the owners entered into legal a dispute with plaintiffs claiming they owned the rights to the building. They lost the case after a number of hearings.

That was not the end of the successive crises afflicting this house, however. Its owners entered into yet another dispute, this time with the government bureaucracy, which has led to the closure of the house and the hotel to this day.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Mistah Rimbaud - he dead

Odysseus leans on the steering oar
Among the blue waves
The Enchanted Isles
Brine streaming off him
Sinews twisted like cordage
Bathed in the poem of the sea
The dolphins
The singing fish
The bones of coral
Where Ariel flames on the yards
Beneath the Island of the Winds
The harsh footprints of the wind
Treading down the sea
The Ship
A brigantine
Driven south into the void
Into the whiteout
The great white bird
Shearing along the crests
The vessel
Emerging from the mist under full sail
The wheel secured
Eastward bound from the Celestial Isles
Deserted, trailing a frayed rope,
Its pinewood hull
Washed clean and buoyant
Sailing in the wake of a dream
A materialisation
Reality changed
The smell of foetid swamps
And flowering jungles
Clinging to its sails
The golden eyes of leopards
In the undergrowth below decks
The deep forests, impenetrable,
The poles, as distant as the moon,
The hinterland beyond the reefs
Out of reach
Where men go to disappear
And nothing but a blotched photo comes back
Of a man faded to ectoplasm
In a crumpled white suit
Against a theatrical backdrop of Africa
His life seared away by the light
Who is boarding the ship Aphinar
Al Finar, in the courtyard
Of the house in Aden
Where he dreams he is dying
The world shrunk between walls now
The Arctic ice retreating
The forests fragmenting
Boarding the ship
The Aphinar
From the courtyard of the house.

Rimbaud dictated a letter to his sister shortly before he died in a Marseilles hospital:
“I have come to inquire if I have anything left on account with you. I wish to change today my booking on a ship whose name I don’t even know, but anyway it must be the ship from Aphinar (“le service d’aphinar”). There are shipping lines going all over the place, but helpless and unhappy as I am, I can’t find a single one – the first dog you meet in the street will tell you this. Send me the prices of the ship from Aphinar to Suez. I am completely paralized, so I wish to embark in good time. Please let me know when I should be carried aboard…”
It has been suggested that “Aphinar”, or “le service d’aphinar” is a rendering of the Arabic word al Finar, meaning lighthouse. Al Finar is actually courtyard in Arabic. Rimbaud’s house in Aden was close to a lighthouse (al Manar) which may hint at how this error in conjecture has occurred. I am imagining that he thought at the end he was in his house in Aden.

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