Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
RISKS AND REWARDS / A GIFT OUT OF THE BLUE
by Rachman Mitchell
In my mind there is something like a golden thread that connects all the experiences of our life, starting at our conception and up until our death and maybe even onward that reveals ourselves to ourselves and makes sense of our living here. This is just one.
After five years in a sterile job in Saudi Arabia, those words above and the words in the title began to have real meaning and I began to cast around for a different way of meeting my family responsibilities and applied for the job of Medical Director of Yemen Hunt Oil company. Some time in May of 1987 I was called for an interview and told that the short list was in fact quite long. The interviewer was an attractive Texan millionairess, and the interview took place in her bedroom suite in a 5-star Kensington hotel. Welcome to part of the Hunt family from Dallas, model for the TV series of Dallas in those days.
She seemed not to mind that I was a Muslim (but had taken the day off fasting that particular day) in fact I sensed that I had already got the job as she began outlining my responsibilities and the details of my contract. I began to feel that I had sold myself a bit cheap, perhaps over-dazzled by Texan razzmatazz. Knowing that most Yemeni men were not considered properly dressed unless they had some form of weapon on them whether it was an AK 47, a Mauser in their back pocket, or a Jambiya (Yemeni dagger) and that they could be quite trigger happy.
I asked, “Is there any danger money?”
“Oh don’t worry about that,” she said. “The worst that could happen to you is for your back tyres to be shot away!”
I smiled to myself as I thought already in Texan “Gee Rachman this is just the job for you now”.
My first day in the job at my clinic in Sana’a, the nurse took me to a pickup parked in the clinic car park. It had a bullet hole in the glass of the back window just 4 inches to the left of where the driver’s neck would have been, and we found the bullet lodged in the driver’s door. He had been returning from the CPU a 3-hour drive from Sana’a up in the Empty Quarter and had been waved down by a group of Bedouin, who he had decided to ignore; bad choice really, and they had opened fire. They had only wanted his pickup, not him. He had been examined and declared okay. He had drunk a couple of double whiskies and taken the next plane back to Britain and did not return. After this the company instructed us all to be driven by Bedouin drivers.
There is something about Al Yemen that people fall in love with. It is a place that has suffered so much in the past and even more so now. It made many of us want to help, and the company was generous enough to allow me one morning a week, to give my services as a Rehabilitation Physician to the local Rehab Centre. There, there were many who were amputees from mine explosions, all kinds of spinal and head injuries and those with wasted limbs from polio. Most of the physios and occupational therapists were good people from India. The spirit in the patients or attendees was entirely different to what I witnessed in Saudi Arabia. In Yemen they faced their fate with courage and resourcefulness and wanted to make themselves as independent as they could, not only from a practical sense but also as a matter of their own self-respect. Who is to judge in these matters but certainly they attracted my respect and a desire to help them in any way that I could? One day they asked me whether I could find a place where they could have their own club and basketball court. A way that not only would develop their upper body strength and coordination but also improve their morale.
The expatriate community gathered at different places but most popular was the British Embassy Club which had a pool, tennis courts and a bar used for both drinking and singing a lot, which I enjoyed. I danced a lot and was known by the American ambassador as the Dancing Doctor. We got to know Penny Marshall the British ambassador’s wife and a group of us formed a committee to raise money and soon a house and garden were rented, and a basketball court laid. The difference in both the physical and emotional energy was immediately noticeable. I was full of joy and so when they asked me whether I could get them to the first Para Olympics at Stoke Mandeville it did not seem impossible, and I began to wonder whether the company, Yemen Hunt, could or would help.
Companies, of course, have their strict lines of order and deference which is required for good administration. My request to see the CEO of the company was continually blocked by Steve Showers, my excellent boss and head of the Human Resources department. It was around the 18th day of the Ramadan fast when I felt an opening inside me. A new younger CEO had arrived and this time when I approached Steve he relented. My popularity with the company had increased for various reasons and Steve I guess felt it would be good for the CEO to meet this rather odd, very British, doctor who was also a Muslim.
I knocked on the door of the CEO’s office and entered to find him sitting with a pile of files neatly spread on either side of him. I stood there suddenly rather tongue-tied having prepared no “speech”. Something in me stepped back and watched me, as I spoke rather simply as to why I was standing there.
I said, “It is the 18th day of Ramadan when those who are better off think and feel for those that are not.” Then feeling that this preachiness could offend I said, “I think it would do the Company’s name a lot of good if it supported the Yemeni team who have asked me to assist them to compete at the Para Olympics”. There was a long silence as he put the fingers of his hands together, forefingers almost on his nose as if to aid his consideration of my proposal. After this long pause, “Yep,” he said, “we will give 25,000 dollars and we will hold a party for our subcontractors and raise another 25,000 dollars.”
It was difficult to keep my British composure as I felt myself wanting to cry for joy and laugh at the same time. There was more benevolence still to unfold. Saddam Hussein’s tanks had just rolled into Kuwait on August 1st and General Schwarzkopf was in town to consider the matter of a response. I received a call from his aide-de-camp, a marine colonel who invited me for breakfast. There he asked me whether I would like to have some racing wheelchairs for the Yemeni basketball team which the Army was going to gift to the Sudanese. “And by the way, we could take your guys on our plane that is going to London and bring them back”.
We won a medal, a bronze one, even if it was for swimming and not for basketball. I was up at the CPU in the Empty Quarter when Penny Marshall received the thanks of the Government. I was delighted she sent me a video and photos.