20-21 September 1997, Yemen: My Travel to & first day inside the YemPak factory

I landed at Sanaa airport around 8 a.m. on Saturday 20 September. There was someone waiting to collect me at arrivals but he had the wrong name on his sign and so I walked past him and found a local taxi driver (and his friend) willing to drive me the five-hours south to Taiz. 

Link to .pdf file of my photo contact sheet from Yemen   

As we arrived on the outskirts of Taiz city my taxi companions stopped to ask directions; I didn’t have an address or the correct name of the factory we was looking for. The local they’d stopped to ask - a random person in the street - looked at me and said something to the effect of “That’ll be the foreigners compound”We got directions and within five-minutes we were at the HSA Group HQ compound at PO Box 5302 Taiz.

Link to labelled satellite image of the HSA Group headquarters and YemPak factory in Taiz

Our unannounced arrival at the secure entrance to the very large compound caused some consternation amongst the uniformed security guards who peered out of the heavy metal gates. I explained who I was and that I was there to install a machine - a guard told me to wait before the gate was closed tight again. I glimpsed a figure off to one side, looking over the compound wall at us; he was in civilian clothes and holding an assault rifle. He disappeared from view after a second or two. A few minutes later a man opened the front gate a little and beckoned me inside - I nodded nervously to my taxi companions then stepped in, leaving my bags in their car.

There was a tense atmosphere; a few guards had slipped out of the gate after I'd stepped in and the gate was closed again. After establishing who I was the man wanted me to follow him up the steep entrance road - I protested that I hadn’t paid my taxi fare or got my bags but he was very insistent, informing me the guards would take care of everything and that I should follow him. We proceeded to the office building besides what appeared to be a parade square on top of a hill. I was briefly introduced to Mr. Saeed the general manager, or ’the Chief’ as everyone called him, before being taken to the factory building to begin the installation. I was not warmly welcomed, due to my making my own way from Sanaa by taxi and causing someone a wasted journey I think. Everyone I met (save for the Pakistani security guards) spoke good English.

I was shown to the YemPak building - a high standard, brand new, airconditioned factory unit inside the main compound. It was empty save for our machine, the northern end occupied by brick-built offices that were marked out of bounds. I was introduced to the machine operators I’d be training: two Pakistani chemical engineers. They were very civil and, I remember saying, professionally (graduates) over qualified, but they didn’t know anything about printing. Our machine had already been unpacked and setup. I checked the installation and complimented the factory’s mechanic, introduced to me by the machine operators as Dino - a mocking nickname I thought, one he bore grudgingly. Nineteen years later, after seeing his photo on the news for the first time in May 2018, I realised ‘Dino’ was Saudi national Ahmed al Darbi, a Guantanamo military prison detainee (transfered to Saudi custody in 2018). The ‘Dino' nickname was a reference to the cartoon character Darby the Dinosau, a play on al Darbi’s name and maybe he enjoyed watching cartoons. Whatever the reason, I already sensed a hierarchy in the group and a condescending attitude between the Pakistani operators and Dino. 

An Italian service engineer, Nicholas of Biellini was at the YemPak factory for the first couple of days, measuring up and planning the installation of a £1+ million printing press also prchased in Chicago. We knew each other from industry shows and crossing paths at customers. 

I worked for four-hours on Saturday before being taken to my hotel in the city centre by the same man who had beckoned me into the compound earlier. His name was Mohamad, the factory’s general manager who drove me between the hotel and factory each day. I kept mispronouncing his name and had probably caused him a wasted journey to Sanaa and a lot of stress after I missed the driver waiting for me at the airort; ours wasn’t a cordial acquaintance, due to my mistakes.

Sunday 8am till 6pm was spent in the factory training the operators how to use the flexographic plate mounting machine before dinning with the Italian engineer Nicholas in our hotel that evening. 


Links to .pdf files of my photo contact sheet — diary entires — YemPak customer database entries
Satellite images of the HSA Group HQ & YemPak and the view from Taiz to Al Qa’idah town
Google Maps HSA Group HQ at PO Box 5302 Taiz  and the Route from HSA Group HQ to Al Qaidah

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it