For many years Violet Dickson was best known to Middle East hands simply as the wife of H.R.P. Dickson, the British Government's Political Agent to the Shaikh of Kuwait and author of the two monumental works, The Arab of the Desert and Kuwait and Her Neighbors. Since Colonel Dickson's death in 1959, however, those interested in Arab-world places, events and personalities have come to suspect what Vi Dickson's wide circle of friends, Arab and foreign, have known all along: that she is a strong, vibrant woman, generous, witty, always curious, who has made ample contributions to Arab-Western friendship and understanding in her own right. Like her late husband, Mrs. Dickson is particularly known for her intimate knowledge of Bedouin customs and her love and respect for these proud nomadic herdsmen, both as people and as guardians of a vanishing way of life.
Mrs. Dickson first came to the Middle East as a young bride in 1920. Before settling in Kuwait, she and her husband lived in Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, where they knew and worked with such well-known Arabists as Sir Percy Cox, Gertrude Bell, Bertram Thomas and H. St. John Philby. In 1929, when Colonel Dickson was appointed Political Agent, the couple moved to Kuwait and set up housekeeping in the same thick-walled, whitewashed, mud-brick house on the sea front where Mrs. Dickson lives today by courtesy of the now-independent country's ruler, Shaikh Sabah Al-Sabah.
In her recent book, Forty Years in Kuwait, published in London by George Allen and Unwin, Mrs. Dickson told about the vast changes she saw come to the tiny Arabian Gulf shaikhdom, especially after the discovery of oil in 1933, and not just the obvious and much-publicized physical changes in town and countryside. Mrs. Dickson also wrote The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain, published in 1955, and the desert flower Horwoodia Dicksoniae honors her botanical work.
Violet Dickson was 76 in September. Bedouin friends often refer to her respectfully as Umm Kuwait, Mother of Kuwait, as well as Umm Sa'ud, after her son's Arabic name. They also, sometimes, address her as Hajjiyah, the honorific title of a returned pilgrim to Mecca, an unusual tribute for a Christian woman who has not, and cannot, make the pilgrimage, but perhaps the best sign of the warm feelings so many of the desert Arabs hold for her.
Mrs. Dickson, you came to live in Kuwait in 1929, when your husband was appointed as British Political Agent to the Shaikh. What were your first impressions of the city?
From the sea the town looked quite small. But you got the impression that it was a very clean town. The houses were all—not whitewashed—but done with white plaster. So from the launch that brought us to shore the view of the town was of the sea, the very nice white houses and a low hill rising up behind. All in all, it gave the impression of quite a nice town.
And what was it like up close?
Well, it was a nice town. And to me it was an interesting town. I remember how all the houses around us used to have one or two goats. It was the townspeople who kept goats, not the Bedu (Bedouins). And there was one man who would take them out in the desert to graze all day and bring them back just before sunset. Many of the goats would go home, each to his own house, and stand up and scratch the door. The rest would come to the yard and the children would be sent to go and bring them to the house.
There used to be a very nice lot of horses here too. The Shaikh himself had about 50 mares that used to roam in the desert. It was very pretty. You'd go out in the desert beyond the city walls at feeding time and you'd see them all coming in from various directions, to be watered or to get a meal. There was no more use for the horses once the car came, you "know, but in 1929 there were only about three or four cars; the T Ford was the best. So everyone either rode a horse or a donkey. The merchants all came to work on the big white donkeys. They'd come trotting along the seafront here in front of the house, their riders often carrying an umbrella when the weather got hot.
The harbor was full of the big sailing boats which brought cloves and rice and tea from India and Zanzibar. The Bedu came in for their supplies, these things, and coffee. The marketplace, the open square, was full of people coming in from the desert, masses of camels, and they would load their supplies tied on each side, sacks of food, tins of kerosene.
And there were still caravans crossing to Mecca at that time. The pilgrims were still going in baskets on the sides of the camels in little covered seats. They sat cross-legged in there, one on either side. The guides led the women's camels, walking all the way. Of course the camels didn't march head to tail the way you'd imagine. They just went on grazing most of the time.
That was quite a walk!
Yes, it was. Today you wouldn't find anybody who'd do it. Not even a Bedouin. They used to set off long before the time of the pilgrimage so they could stay longer in places where there was good grazing for the camels.
How did the Bedouins in the desert earn money to buy their coffee and other supplies?
They would bring in a few camels to sell for slaughter, and also wool from the sheep. There was quite a big market for sheep's wool, and in those early days, of course, there was very big trade in astrakhan, the skins of young lambs which they killed when they were only about five days old. Astrakhan, tight curls of black wool. They'd export them to Europe. All black, the Kuwaiti sheep were. Not now; you hardly see any of the black ones today. Their skins were very valuable. So the Bedu brought those in and the women wove little rugs which they also brought in for sale. Today you see very few of those either.
And they would bring in brush for firewood. There was no firewood here, and everybody had to cook on wood or palm fronds. There was a big trade in palm fronds cut and brought in here by boat from Basra in Iraq. There were a lot of ships going and coming all the time. Dates and green fodder and fruit and vegetables. In those days nothing was coming across the desert from Lebanon or Syria. Nothing. It all came down the Shat al-Arab River from Iraq.
Life here then must have been very simple. But you always managed somehow to keep a comfortable home for your husband.
Well, yes. We made do. Of course, when we first came in 1929 the only foreigners here were my husband and I at the Political Agency, the agency doctor and his wife, and a small staff of four or five at the American Mission Hospital.
We didn't have electricity, just paraffin lamps. But the American Mission had already got some little engine that they used for their work, so after a few years we also got one from America, and it did our house and the agency doctor's house down the road. We turned it on at sunset.
For food, why when we came back from leave—by ship, then—we'd bring a whole year's supply of certain tinned goods with us. And we had little gardens. Radishes, plenty of cucumbers, plenty of melons. There were little shallow wells, just outside the wall of the town. Not more than six or eight feet deep. Each well served maybe four little garden plots. Sweet. If you went deeper it got brackish. And I gave our gardener some cabbage and cauliflower seeds which I brought from England. Potatoes came up on the mail boat from India and fresh drinking water was brought from the Shat al-Arab. There were special boats with water tanks fitted into the hold, exactly the shape of the boat. Then there were carriers who went wading out on their donkeys with skins to fetch the water. We bought ours from a man with tins on a yoke across his shoulders and put it in a tank in the yard, about 25 four-gallon tins a day.
Kuwait really had two faces, didn't it, one turned toward the desert and the other the sea?
Well, actually the only wealth of the town in those times was from the sea—the pearl diving. It was all they had. There were special boats called hawasha which took people anxious to go out and buy from the actual pearling boats. Merchants would come up from Bahrain and the French pearl merchants came up from Bombay to Bahrain and bought pearls there. The remaining pearls would be brought in and sold along the seafront here in Kuwait. You'd walk along the front and there'd be people selling them or you'd walk in the bazaar and a man would produce one out of his mouth and say, "Do you want a pearl?" He'd pop one right out of his mouth. If he put it in his pocket it might roll out or something.
I suppose diving was considered a very difficult job.
Yes. They say it used to affect their ears quite a bit. Before they went on the dives we'd often see men who were sitting and having blood taken from their heads. There was sort of a little glass tube, heated, I think, and a man cut them with a razor and drew out blood with it. They thought it would help for the pressure. Today, of course, you'd never see such a thing.
It must have been quite interesting, living here on the front.
Oh, indeed! I used to watch them put up the big boats for the summer. They cleaned them up and they'd take the sails into these one-story godowns—warehouses—along the front. You'd see the men running across the road with this sail wrapped up just like a great serpent, a sea monster, about 15 or 20 men carrying it and running across the road.
Another thing I miss today that I always used to enjoy so much was the singing of a spring evening when the pearling fleet was in. The crews would sit on their boats which were pulled up in front of our house and sing their pearling songs away into the night, when we perhaps would have already gone up to sleep on the roof, or often when we were having dinner up there. The pearling songs have all gone from Kuwait now. You don't hear them on the front any more, though I think the late Shaikh had recordings made of them. They say occasionally they put them on the radio, but I haven't heard them.
Didn't the Kuwaitis also engage in trade?
Oh, yes. They would go on long voyages to India, East Africa, Zanzibar. I think the first year we came to Kuwait there were about 400 boats which went out. They'd start in September, calling at Basra for dates, then going down to India, discharging the dates, taking another cargo across to East Africa and then down to the Rufiji River. The winds brought them back about the beginning of April. They laid up these big deep-sea boats and they had just about two months with their wives before they went out again on the 15th of June. Then they went off to the pearl banks and didn't come back until about the 26th or 27th of September and then off to Basra to get dates and then off again.
From olden times the Kuwaiti was really much famed for being a sailor, a good sailor. They knew all the reefs and knew the winds. Kuwaiti captains would only sail with a Kuwaiti crew. They wouldn't take anyone else, because, they said, "We might get to Mombasa or somewhere and the other men might just go off and leave us." They knew with a Kuwaiti crew they were all waiting to get back home to their families here. It was only after the oil came, when people thought they would earn as much money working in the oil fields and didn't want to go to sea, that gradually all that seafaring trade came to an end. There is no pearling now. None of the young men want to dive today, no one wants to go to sea. There are still a few merchant ships, but mostly they just sail across to the Persian coast or down to Muscat in Oman. And some of the big old wooden ships which have been sold come in occasionally for overhaul, and they still repair them here. West of the city there are small yards where they still make a few shrimping boats and some pleasure launches, but I don't know how long that will go on.
Wasn't boat building an important industry here once?
It was. They used to build many big boats. The Indian Ocean boats were all the big booms and the bugala. The pearling boats were smaller, bouks and shawaize, and the captain of the pearling fleet used the bateel, another special type that no longer exists.
The ships all used to be made in the yards here along the seafront, so they could launch them on a high tide. On the return journey from East Africa some ships brought mangrove poles which grow there and others would bring back boatbuilding wood from India. They would bring back all the natural bends for the ribs of the boats and the keels. They would sail in here, unload the wood and float it ashore.
When we first came here there were about four old wrecks in the sea, iron barges, their broken backs sticking up out of the water. We'd go there of an afternoon and the children at low tide would climb into them looking for crabs and barnacles. Then many years later when World War II came, the men who were making the big wooden boats and the pearling boats were desperately short of nails. They'd been getting them from India and now everything from India was shut off. So the builders went to the Shaikh and said, "If the government doesn't want those old metal barges we could break them up and make nails out of them." The Shaikh said, "Nobody wants them. You can do what you like with them." So after that, day and night, whenever there was a low tide there were about 20 men there hammering and banging and cracking away until they broke those barges all up and made nails for making boats during the war here.
What about the desert, Mrs. Dickson? And the Bedouins? How did you first become interested in that facet of life here?
I guess it started with small trips to visit the Bedu. Usually in the spring my husband would take me and the two children out and leave us with some Bedu friends for a week. In those days there wasn't much to do here for the children. We'd catch desert mammals, hedgehogs, jerboas, and chase grasshoppers with a butterfly net. My daughter eventually had both a grasshopper and a beetle named after her. Then we'd have picnics, and we'd ride the camels, and we'd go visit this tent and that on the camels, and have coffee. The children would play with the Bedu boys and ride on the donkeys. Eventually, we even had our own Bedouin tent. It moved with our friends with their camels. They kept it for us. At one time we thought it would also save trouble if we left our bedding with them but that wasn't a success, because of course when we weren't there they used it. They're accustomed to sharing everything. Then when we did get there we found it full of things, so that wasn't such a good idea. And there was nothing like DDT then.
When we were leaving we used to ask our friends, "Now where are you going to camp next week?" They never stayed in one place longer than perhaps 10 days maximum, and then they would move. And they would say, "Well, we think we shall go to such and such a place." They would always choose a place so they couldn't be easily seen, behind a hill, because they lived close to the main trails to Kuwait and there were always travelers looking for a tent where they could just go in for the night or spend a few days before going on. But every stranger that did come was welcomed. "Welcome and come in," they'd say. "Dinner is ready."
Yes, that is the story that one always hears, but in your experience is it really true?
Definitely true. I think Bedu hospitality must be a response like ships meeting at sea. Without it there was no other means of getting from a distant place in the desert to the town to purchase supplies. Travelers also carried news, and they knew that all the way along they could spend the night in someone's tent. They didn't always get a lamb to eat, but they could have rice and milk and butter and then move on. You could travel in the old days right across Arabia without taking any food with you.
Once in the desert with my husband we met a Bedouin on a camel and asked him, "Where are you off to?" And he answered, "I'm going down to Najran." That's hundreds of miles away, in southwest Arabia. He said, "Two years ago a man came through here from Najran and came as a visitor to my tent and I gave him a dinner; so now I'm going to go down to Najran and find him and have dinner with him."
You've mentioned supplies, and of course the Bedouins had their animals. I'm also curious about game. Was there good hunting in those days?
Not really. We used to go with the Ruler's hawkers to hunt hubara bustard, lovely big birds. But even in those days there wasn't much else in the way of game. The shaikhs sometimes shot gazelle, and when we were with the Bedu their salukis, greyhounds, would often catch a hare or two and we'd have them cooked for our evening meal. Salukis had special status. They were allowed to come into the tent. A sheepdog is considered an unclean animal, but the saluki, no, because they catch your food for you, such as hares. So they can come in and lie down inside.
The Bedu love their salukis. There was this one tent... it's a sad story. A friend of ours had this female saluki which he was very proud of. She would go out every morning and every evening she would come back and in her mouth bring a hare for them—every single evening—and they would cook it and give her some little bits of it. But one day the wife left her new baby in the tent. In those days they wrapped their babies up in swaddling clothes and put them on carpets on the ground. Well, this nice little greyhound came in and lay down beside the baby. It must have rolled over, or she must have ... anyway, later when they went to pick up the baby the dog had lain on it and the baby was dead, smothered. They didn't know what to do. A few days later a party of traveling Bedu came through and stopped at their tent and the father said, "I'm going to give you our best saluki." They wouldn't kill it, they couldn't kill it. So he gave her to this family of Bedu who were going on down into Arabia and not coming back.
Do the Bedouins repeat such stories?
Yes, they do. They remember them. I sometimes see this man. He lives now in a village west of the city.
For all the romantic tales of nomads and black tents in the desert, life for the Bedouins must have been hard in those days.
Yes. Water, for example, was always a problem. When the oil company first came, my husband, when he was hired as an adviser after he retired from government service, insisted they dig some water wells out in the desert for the Bedu. They did put two or three, deciding on a windmill type. But in hot weather when water was most needed there would be a month when there was no wind, and water would have to be sent out in tank trucks. Or the Bedu would climb up the rigging and try to turn the wheel by hand to get a bit of water. Occasionally something would break and then the man in charge would have to gallop into Kuwait two days on his mare to inform my husband. In a bad year, during the summer months there were always one or two cases of people practically dying of thirst in the desert. Perhaps they had run out of water, or a camel had fallen, unable to go on anymore.
And there were sandstorms?
Oh, yes. I remember one time we took a visitor out to camp and a dust storm came up very suddenly. We looked around and—well, I thought it was a bush fire. It was exactly like flames coming along. But of course there weren't that many bushes to burn. The Bedu saw it too and rushed to the tents quickly and took away the poles to make them fall down, and then rushed to our tent and lowered all the poles. It came on us as a howling storm and we were all frightened, in under the fallen tents. It lasted, I suppose, about an hour and a half. When it had passed on the air was all clear and quiet. But it was scarlet sand. It must have come from far far away to the north, and today the Bedu talk about that as "the red year," because of that strange red storm.
What about locusts? Weren't they also a plague?
For farmers in the oases, yes, but not for the Bedu. They said that whatever had been eaten by locusts came up again even better than before. The grazing was better after.
We used to sometimes have locust plagues in the early spring. I remember one day in the market square when it began to get a bit dark. We suddenly saw these great big hawks and vultures flying up in the sky. They were attacking locusts, and this swarm came over until it almost darkened the whole sky.
It went on from that year; I guess it happened almost once a fortnight in the winter and spring. Clouds of them would come ... and if they got here toward the evening they'd settle on bushes. After the weather got a bit warmer and they'd had good food and after there'd been a rain, they laid their eggs in sandy places. Then as soon as you got the next shower of rain, out would come all these hundreds of young hoppers. First it was a little patch, but every day it would get bigger and bigger and hop further and further until the whole place was a seething mass of hoppers. The flying locusts would have gone on, but then the hoppers came. I've seen them coming over the city wall just like an army. Like this, black! Coming up on the wall and down over, and falling into the wells and into the drinking water. They came into your house; they ate the curtains, they ate everything they came upon. If you drove through them with a car and crushed some of them the others simply came along and ate up all the crushed ones.
But with flying locusts the children had a grand time. They'd take off their gahfiyahs, head scarves, and knock the flying ones down and catch them. And the great delicacy was to catch the females before they laid tneir eggs, when they were still full. Everybody would catch them, and they were selling them in the marketplace. They'd cook them in boiling water and salt. When I went calling on ladies here they would always bring a tray of fat boiled locusts and take off the heads and the legs and the wings and then offer them. The Bedu dried them on their tents and kept them all year. The salukis ate them, the donkeys ate them and the people ate them. The Bedu were really happy when they came.
That surprises me. I always thought they did so much damage.
They did when they got up into Iraq where there are fields of wheat and barley. They ate everything. But the Bedu didn't care about what happened up there. They were very sad when the locust control came to poison and destroy them. Not the farmers, but the Bedu, because they relied on them in those days, really, as a source of food, of protein.
Is the life of Bedouins changing much now?
Yes, their whole life is changing. Faster than I really ever thought it would. Originally in the reviews of my husband's book, The Arab of the Desert, many of the critics said, "This book will be a lasting record, because all this is going to go fairly soon," and I thought, "Well, no. I don't think it is going to go that soon." But it is going, and very rapidly now.
Take camels. Originally the economy of the Bedu was based on the camel—when there was a market for them as a means of transport. And the Bedu couldn't have many sheep because sheep need water every day. But now that's all changed. After the war everybody began to buy pickup trucks to drive to a well and fill up drums of water for the sheep. Today lots of tents even have a lorry, a big truck. They've gone from pickups into big lorries. And some Bedu have even bought tank trucks so they can go far away for water. And now they're getting short of young men to look after animals of any kind. That's their next trouble. Gradually as the oil companies have increased, they're taking the young men into industry. The young man's ambition is not to look after sheep, it's to drive a motor car. You can't really blame them. And so they come into town.
The old tent life is changing too. About four or five years ago the word went out somehow that women should no more spin and they should no more weave. I don't know why that was. This sentiment just sort of spread. Perhaps they felt they should be more ... well "educated." One doesn't know how it started. But I'd go out to the tents, even far out in the desert, and the women were not spinning. Always before, sitting by the fire in the evening, the old women would be spinning their wool. And what was happening also was that Syrian manufacturers were exporting tent strips made to the same width that Bedu had always used for their black tents, made in factories by the yard. So if you wanted a tent as long as this room you just measured it off and cut off five strips like that and the women sewed it together and they had their tent. No need to spin any more. They sold camels to buy these strips.
But they were very badly woven, very cheaply woven, and although they were wool they were too thin. They weren't protection from either sun or rain. So a lot of the tents have fallen apart, and now they've got burlap sacking pieces on the back or they've got bits of white sailcloth on top of them. This last 'id holiday, for example, when I was in the desert down in Arabia, it rained for two solid days and nights and sitting with the Bedu in their tent, I saw the water dripping through the whole time, through these thin machine-made strips.
Do you think nomadic life as you've known it is ending?
I think in Kuwait, definitely yes. From the tents now, many have moved into huts and little shacks on the outskirts of the city. At first they keep their tents because in the spring they still want to get away into the desert. But now the government is building rows and rows of low-income houses to remove all these shantytowns and to put the people into houses. Well, that's the end of the nomads. I suppose the young think that it's a step up to move into a house, but the old people are quite miserable. They feel trapped in there. And a Bedouin woman never had to learn how to keep a house clean. She'd no idea. She didn't really sweep or anything, because she could just move their tent and get on a clean spot. And the houses mean that they can't keep an animal, they can't have a goat. They have to live on tins of powdered milk.
Is this modernization having other effects?
Yes, even on the desert itself. When all the building started in the city the contractors quickly exhausted the nearby quarries for new jetties or roads. Then they discovered that there were certain places in the desert where there were a lot of pebbles on the surface. So some poor nomads started sweeping them up and trucks would go out to collect them. Now those sections are practically denuded. All the gravel has been swept from the surface and it's a dust bowl where hardly anything grows. There's nothing left. People have said to me, "Where exactly is that one place you mention in your flower book? We've been out there and we didn't see any of that flower." And I answer "Well, no, you won't see any. They're not there anymore. They've just disappeared."
You still collect wild flowers to send to Kew Gardens, and you've even had one plant named after you. Did you realize you'd discovered a new species when you first found it?
No, I didn't. Because it was so widespread around here. I wasn't even thinking of that, really, although I'd read that the ambition of all starting botanists is to find something that has never been found before. But this plant wasn't rare here at all. It grew up under a larger bush and came out at the side all in flower.
What about your second book, your biography, Forty Years in Kuwait, which was published not long ago? How did you come to write it?
Strangely enough, it has echoes of James Bond. You see, the Kuwait Oil Company got Ian Fleming to come out here from England to write up a book for them, a company history. He came out and interviewed everybody in Ahmadi, the oil town, and then one day he came to the city and asked me a whole lot of questions. Then he said, "Why don't you write something?" Well, if somebody says you've got to sit down and write a book it frightens you to death. But he said, "You only need to sit down for an hour a day and you'll see what a lot you can write if you just write up the odd story." Then somehow it didn't seem like such a large task.
Now that you've finished your book, how do you spend your mornings? Do you have a lot of correspondence?
Usually I try to do calls in the morning. There are certain mornings when some of the Arabs "sit." Do you know this expression "to sit?" Sit in majlis. The coffee is going, and the tea, and everybody pops in and has a cheery chat. Women aren't supposed to go, but my husband used to do it so regularly that after he died, I said to myself, "I feel that now that he's not here perhaps I should go." And they all welcome me.
I go to the Ruler's majlis sometimes too. He sits in public majlis where anybody can come in from 8:20 to 8:45 every morning. He's not there to solve any problems, really; that custom died out when they formed the National Assembly.
Especially it's the custom on the 'id holidays to "sit," and on the first morning, after the Ruler goes past in his car to receive his congratulations in the town palace, I go and call on my neighbors, the various houses, and sit with the men in their majlises and wish them a happy 'id. It's not meant for women to go, but they accept me because I've always done it.
How did you first meet your husband?
After the first war I was working in a British bank in Marseilles. He came into the bank off the ship on his way to England from India and asked if he had any letters and changed some money. Three months later, when he was returning from leave, he came back to the bank and again he asked for letters, cashed a check and talked to me for a while. Then about a week later he sent me a cable from Port Said saying wouldn't I come out and marry him? And I talked it over with some friends and then accepted and met him in India.
And as soon as you reached India your new husband was transferred to Iraq, wasn't he? How did you like Iraq?
I found it difficult. Harold was very busy in his office all morning and it was my responsibility to try to cope with servants, not knowing a word of Arabic, and tend to the grooming of the horses and care for the other animals. It was very difficult.
Of course, gradually you picked up Arabic and those problems worked themselves out.
As I say in Iraq I didn't know any. But I started to pick it up when we were in Bahrain for a while and then when we came here, by having our own Bedouin tent and going out and spending a week or more with the Bedu. Now I'm fluent enough in Kuwaiti Arabic, but if anyone talks a high-flown Arabic then I'm still rather at sea.
When did you first begin to realize that not only could you manage to live in the East, but that you were growing to love life here and were going to make it your permanent home?
Really, I think, not until I came here to Kuwait, after 1929. There were the townspeople and there were the Bedu, and they were all friendly. Then gradually I became interested in my hobby with flowers here, and there were some very good years of rain and we did some camping with the Bedu and here I still am, you see. Looking back I find all my friends are . . . who are my friends here? Why they're people in all walks of life. All the policemen, all the coast guards are my friends. I don't go to women's coffee parties. Nothing could induce me to. But I go and sit of an evening and chat with the boat repairer on the front or I go to the coast guard post out on the spit and sit with them having tea and coffee, reminiscing about the old times. Probably people think I'm rather eccentric. You don't know what other people think of you, do you? But, as you see, I'm quite happy here.
The British Government didn't think you were just an eccentric. Hasn't the Queen awarded you the CBE (Commander of the British Empire)?
Yes. That was in 1964. One day I was just sitting in the office and the telephone rang. It was the Political Agent and he said, "Hello, Vi. I've just had a telegram asking me to ask you if you will accept the CBE." I said, "What?" He said "Will you accept the CBE?" I said, "Are you joking, Noel?" He said, "No, I'm quite serious." "Well," I said, "Really, you're asking if I accept it. Of course I'll accept it if you're not joking." He said, "No, I'm not. All I want to know is if you'll accept it." I said, "Well, yes, thank you very much." Then later I got an invitation to attend the investiture in London and the oil company offered me a return air ticket.
Was there a citation with your CBE?
No. You don't get a citation. One rather wishes one did. People say to you, "What did you get it for?" And you don't really know. I presume as much as anything it's just for being friendly with the Arabs here, and liking them. My Arab friends come and ask me to show the medal to them, and the signature of the Queen. It's given me a sort of prestige, living by myself, really. They appreciate my having decided to remain here. You're one of us now, they say, a Kuwaitiya.
Mrs. Dickson, why do you suppose the Arabs are sometimes unpopular in the West today, misunderstood? In your husband's preface to The Arab of the Desert he refers to them as "one of the proudest and most lovable of all people."
I don't know. Do you suppose it's because of history a hundred years old, that people think they treated their women badly or that they had slaves? Do you think those ideas have lingered on until today? If they have, those people simply haven't had the opportunity to come and meet the Arabs in their own homeland. When the Arabs travel more and when more Westerners come here, they'll see how friendly and hospitable and kind Arabs really are.
William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.