Palestine in 1932 to live with her aunt, Margaret
an impression that lasted a lifetime. (See
It is not
hard to understand why. Introduced by her aunt, who was a senior official
in the government of the British Mandate, to the Jewish and Arab leaders
of the day,
Betty found herself at the centre of the political
world of the Middle East.
the country first in the 1930's and then what it became later, she
witnessed the extinction of a nation. She saw a country where a minority,
comprising less than 5% of the population in 1918, became its masters.
Her last visit in 1991 brought home the reality even more strongly and reinforced her sympathy for a
The same sensibility toward
injustice that prompted Betty to write about William Beckford also
impelled her to speak up for the lost nation of Palestine.
only 7% of Palestine had Jewish owners. By the year 2000, the proportion
had almost reversed. Three
maps show the history more dramatically than words:
Arab owned land in black,
Jewish in white
UN imposed partition - Land for Arabs in black, for Jews in white
Arab controlled land in black,
Jewish in white
Betty's Visits to Palestine
first visit to Palestine made a deep impression. Unfortunately the only
account that survived among her papers are some incomplete notes which
were for a talk she gave when living in Pembroke. These fragments are
visit at age 77 stirred her sympathy and included some scenes of high
drama. The best surviving account is in her article which appeared online
in the New Internationalist, and hence is preserved.
Click to read article
Betty climbs into a Gaza refugee camp,
barricaded by the Israelis.
Success! Betty reaches the top
and enters the refugee camp.
Betty with one of the
youngest of camp prisoners
George's Cathedral guest house, Jerusalem,
where Betty stayed on her later visits.
Betty's First Visit to Palestine
“WE SET OFF FROM ENGLAND”
These are the few crumpled pages
of Betty’s account of her year long stay in Palestine with her Aunt
Margaret in 1932, when she was eighteen years old. These were probably
written for a talk in the 1950's.
We set off
from England in early October in high spirits. We took the car with us on
the Dover-Calais ferry, and then drove right across France to Marseilles,
where we spent a week exploring the lovely coast of the Corniche.
boarded a French liner that was supposed to disembark us at Jaffa.
However, during the voyage across the Mediterranean disquieting messages
were being received by the ship’s wireless. Reports of riots and
shootings in Palestine. It was doubtful whether the ship could dock at
heard that a general strike had been declared on the very day we were due
to dock, as it was Balfour Declaration Day. The captain decided that we
should have to proceed to Beirut. My Aunt, who spoke French fluently and
evidently persuasive, went to see the Captain. If the ship could not dock
at Jaffa, it would have to dock at Haifa, she had no intention of being
carted right up the coast to Beirut.
Here there is a missing page.)
We docked at
Haifa. In double
quick time our car and all our luggage were on the quayside, but another
snag cropped up. We were informed that there was a curfew proclaimed on
the whole of Palestine and no cars were allowed on the roads. My Aunt
marched to the District Commissioner’s office. He was sorry but nothing
could be done about it. The rioting had been very serious, and as it was
Balfour Declaration Day they expected more trouble. My undaunted Aunt got
through by telephone to the chief of police in Jerusalem.
conversation was obviously going to a long one and I stepped out to take a
look at Haifa. I had no doubts that we should be on our way by car,
curfew or no curfew.
emerged from the Commissioner’s office triumphant. We had permission to
travel by car from Haifa to Jerusalem, but we had to stop at every police
station on the way to inform them of our safe arrival.
We were the
only car on the road. The car was loaded up to the roof with our luggage.
roughly the same size as Wales. It consists of a Northern Plain, the
Plain of Esdrelon and a coastal Plain and otherwise it is all hills apart
from the valley of the Jordan. Our journey from Haifa to Jerusalem would
normally have taken us four hours, it is about 175 kilo, but it would of
course take much longer having to stop at each police station.
runs through Nazareth, Jenin, where we would have to take on a police
escort, owing to the danger of an ambush through the steep ravine, then
Nablus and Jerusalem.
At the top
of Mount Carmel you can see right across the plain of Esdraelon to the
valley of the Jordan and right down to the hills of Nablus. We stopped
the car for a moment and my first sight of Palestine lay in panorama
before me. Nothing but bare brown hills and rocks, and limestone crags
protruding like the blanched bones of some long-forgotten prehistoric
not a tree or a blade of grass to be seen, but gradually I did identify
the dusty gnarled olive trees and away across the valley the thin ribbon
of the Jordan. In the distance the mountains of Moab rose like a
forbidding barrier of russet sandstone. I felt my Aunt’s keen eye
watching my reactions. Words came and failed. You must remember said my
Aunt that not a drop of rain has fallen on the country since last April.
It only rains in Palestine for two months of the year and all the rest of
the time the country is exposed to the relentless burning sun.
of the country lies, as I learned later not from lush greenery, but from
the ever changing shadows in the hills. The rising and setting sun
changing the colours of the hills from russet brown to greeny blue and
mauves. The white stone villages clinging perilously to hillsides, their
architecture blending with the countryside. The gaily coloured people,
especially the men. All these things give colour and contrast in a
country that is colourless in itself.
suppose the clothing had changed since the time of our Lord. It is so
practical and so attuned to climatic conditions. An “abeigh”, an outer
cloak, is probably similar to what Joseph was probably wearing when his
brothers cast him into a pit. The over their heads they wear “kafujah”,
held in its place by an “agaal”. (I’ve left the spelling of Arab names
as Betty typed them.) It’s a very practical garment. When the sun is
very hot it shields the back of the head and also shades the eyes. When
the wind blows cold, it can be wound round the lower part of the face for
return to our journey from Haifa to Jerusalem, the first police post we
stopped at was occupied by two very young British policemen. It was on a
very lonely stretch of plain with not a house in sight.
delighted to see us and gave us a great welcome. We could not stay long
however, and we pressed on towards the dreaded Jenin Pass. We stopped at
the large police post just before we entered Jenin and were welcomed by
the superintendent, a very large Turk wearing a waxed Kaiser moustache.
He looked very formidable, and I could not help recalling the tales of the
ferocity of the Turks when they were fighting the British. We were taken
into the post and given the traditional black coffee. My Aunt I noticed
was trying to attract my attention with grimaces and shakes of her head.
I promptly surmised that what she was trying to convey to me was that the
coffee was poisoned. It certainly tasted like that for it was extremely
bitter. Directly the fierce looking Turk turned his back I quickly
emptied my cup into an unsuspecting potted fern. By my Aunt’s severe
frown I realised I had done something wrong. Later she explained that her
first grimaces were signalling to me to turn the cup round and drink from
the other side, as she didn’t think they would bother to wash the cups
properly as they were so short of water. I felt very humbled.
into the car again, and this time accompanied by and Arab sergeant who
perched himself miraculously on top of the luggage. We were proceeded by
a police car carrying the chief and four Arab policemen, and behind us
came two more police cars. We were a stately procession, and I was only
sorry there were no spectators to cheer us along. The policeman perched
on the luggage could not seem to find any better place for his rifle with
its fixed bayonet than to rest it on my shoulder. I felt the blade was
uncomfortably near my neck in the event of a sudden halt. I signalled to
him to move it, but he just grinned very happily and nodded and left it
just where it was. My Aunt then explained what was required in Arabic,
and then he obligingly moved it to what I felt was a safer place.
however without incident, and there being no other cars on the road we
sped along in great style. About ten miles the other side of Jenin, we
said goodbye to our escort and thanked them for accompanying us, and we
carried on alone.
The sun was
just beginning to set as we neared Jerusalem. Its rays gilding the white
masonery and minarets and sparkling on the wonderful blue tiled Mosque of
Omar. Jerusalem stands on a hill three thousand feet above sea-level, and
viewing it from a distance in the light of the setting sun, it truely
looked Jerusalem the golden. Far beyond, the mountains of Moab were
turning purple and mauve and green before they faded into the fast falling
lived in a delightful old Arab house belonging to one of the hereditory
Sheiks of the Dome of the Rock. It had flat roofs and arched ceilings.
It consisted of a large hall/sitting room leading straight out into the
garden. Each side of it were two large bedrooms. This was the main
house, but a door at the other end of the sitting room led into a charming
courtyard gay with trees and flowers, and around this was built, the
dining room, kitchen and bathroom and maid’s quarters. These were
originally the Harem quarters with courtyard with high walls providing the
necessary protection. The walls of the house were over a metre thick,
thus providing delightful cupboards originally used for sleeping mats
carefully folded and covered with an embroidered cloth. One was reminded
of our Lord saying to the man sick of a palsy, “arise take up thy bed and
walk.” The bed would not be our beds as we know them, but one of the
sleeping mats they use in Palestine today.
Sheik, my Aunt’s landlord, was a frequent visitor. After many compliments,
serving and drinking of coffee and eating of sweetmeats, he would
invariably ask, “Would you not like to pay more rent for the house?”
first sight might be a disappointment to many. Its holy places are hard
to distinguish, so overbuilt are they with churches and chapels, each
denomination of the Christian church vying with each other for the best
places. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre that houses the holiest places,
our Lord’s buriel place and the crucifixion, is not beautiful in itself.
It is a large straggling building, and within it contains the chaples and
altars of all the Christian churches. Greek, Armenian, Russian, Coptic
of the Holy Sepulchre comprises all the spots associated with the closing
career of our Lord. There on the right, he stood and wept, by the pillar
on the left he was scourged, on the spot just before you he was crowned
with a crown of thorns, just there he was crucified, down there he was
buried. All in one building, and each spot marked by an altar with
hundreds of candles and incense burning.
nowadays spreads out over a large area. Outside the old city walls there
is a modern Jerusalem, now occupied by Israel. The old city, within the
walls would seem to be very similar to the Jerusalem of our Lord’s day.
Of course it has been twice raised to the ground since those days, but it
would have been built up again on much the same lines. It is built on
sharp salient rocks with deep ravines, which were filled in during Herod’s
time. In the old souk or market, the narrow alleys run steeply up and
down as they always did. Now as they are covered in with carved arches,
the houses so closely facing each other that neighbours can almost hold
hands across the cobbled streets. Then each street sells a different
There is the
street of the carpenters, the street of the shoemaker, the street of the
copper beaters, the street of the sweet makers and so on. Each displaying
their wares in a colourful profusion. The shining copper bowls and pots,
all hand beaten, the green Hebron glass, and the blue pottery, handspun
silks and tempting Eastern sweetmeats. I found it all fascinating.
Wherever I went I got a cheery greeting from the stalls, “Good morning
Mees Neexon”. On one occasion a friendly hand thrust me aside to escape a
pail of slops carelessly emptied from an upstairs window, to the
accompaniment of squeals of laughter. The method of drainage is just to
chuck everything out of the window in the hope it will find its way to the
gutters running by the side of the alleys. It is best to be aware of
sanitory conditions left much to be desired, I found the people of the
country most hospitable and highly intelligent and with a great sense of
humour and justice. At that time the population was predominately Arab.
About one million Arabs to about 200,000 Jews and the rest made up of
almost every nation of the world.
Most of the
political troubles of Palestine have been due to a complete
misunderstanding and misrepresentation. People of the Western countries
have been apt to think of Palestine as a barren rocky land inhabited only
by roving bands of somewhat feckless Bedouin. This was very far from the
truth. Of course on the outskirts of Palestine and in the surrounding
deserts there are tribes of Bedouin, and I will tell you of my visit to
the Bedouin tents later. Palestine Arabs were of all classes of society,
rich and poor, shopkeepers, business men, landowners, professional people
and the aristocracy. One and all they had and still have a passionate
devotion to their country. Like the Welsh they are very nationalistic.
They have not just drifted into Palestine when the Jews moved out 2,000
years ago. They can trace their ancestry back to long before the Jewish
people ever came to Palestine. The title deeds of their land go back
further than anyone can claim in this country. The Jews in fact never
possessed the whole of Palestine. They only occupied Judea. The coastal
plains and Galilee were never Jewish, and it is rather ironic that Israel
should now occupy those very parts of Palestine that they did not occupy
in Biblical times.
stay in Palestine, I had the opportunity not only of seeing the historic
places of that country, but also of meeting a great cross section of its
was perhaps the people I met that intrigued me even more than places of
historic interest. I was taken to dinner at Government house, by Dr
Weizmann the great Jewish leader of those days. I met Ben Gurion, the
present leader of Israel. I dined and lunched with the great Arab
leaders, Musa Bey Alami, and the Mufti of Jerusalem. Apart from the
Jewish and Arab leaders, I met all the European communities. I was a
guest of the various consulates, American, Austrian, French and German, at
a time that Hitler was rising to power. At Government House I met
writers, artists, politicians (the dullest of the lot) and a few cranks.
were always cranks in Palestine. The elderly lady that went up to the
Mount of Olives at daybreak every morning with a flask of hot coffee, to
await our Lord’s second coming. The man who claimed to be Jesus Christ,
and who went to my Aunt’s office to ask if she could arrange for him to
see the High Commissioner.
inadvertently got locked in my Aunt’s office overnight.
As I have
already told you my first impression of Palestine was of as rocky barren
land scorched by a merciless sun. As I travelled round the country and
got to know it better I was often amazed to see how every possible little
nook and cranny was utilised for agriculture. Even the steep sides of the
hills were terraced to give perhaps only a few yards of cultivable soil,
which was lovingly ploughed by hand.
incidents I have mentioned, were only a small part of my aunt's work. As
well as being in charge of the women's Central Prison in Jerusalem, she
had other government responsibilities, including the supervision of three
Homes for women and girls, a project which she had set up on her own
The need had become apparent to her some years before and,
after fighting to extract money from the British Mandate, she established
a Women’s Home in Bethlehem, another in Hebron, and another in Nazareth.
With barely adequate funds from the government, my aunt canvassed the
expatriate communities in Jerusalem. It was their generosity that provided
the furnishings, through gifts and donations.
The Homes were not only
for women and girls facing probation or remand, or awaiting trial, but
also for abused women and girls with serious difficulties at home.
Homes were supervised by women from England trained in social work, but
staffing was minimal. The girls themselves did the cooking, cleaning and
gardening. They also learnt how to work the traditional Palestinian
embroidery which they sold to visitors to raise additional funds. It
seemed that they had a natural flair for design and colour without formal
training. Visiting one home with my aunt, I was struck by the beauty of a
cushion cover they had embroidered for her.
The girls’ name for my
aunt was Um il Binat, Mother of Girls. Their liking seemed genuine and the
mood in the Homes was a happy one. I saw no signs of sullen indifference
usually typical of government institutions. Instead whenever I visited the
Homes with my aunt, I was struck by the good humour and happiness of the
My aunt insisted that the girls should be helped not only with
their immediate difficulties, but should be allowed to stay until
circumstances made it possible for them to return to their own homes and
find suitable work.
It’s not to say that were no problems. There were
many issues my aunt would be called upon to deal with. On one occasion she
received a report that the Communist prisoners were smashing up everything
they could -- windows, glasses and crockery. My aunt spoke to the leaders
and told them the truth, that there were no funds availabel for repair or
replacement and so windows would not be mendedand they would have to make
do with their damaged cups and plates. They soon cooled down, and order
was quickly restored.
On another occasion a pretty young girl had
caused a great deal of trouble in her village by running away from her old
husband with a young cousin. The girl's life was in danger and she was
brought to one of the Homes. Aunt negotiated with the family and soon
concluded that the husband’s limited interest in his wife could probably
be offset by by a small monetary return. After an hour or two of
persuasion and haggling, she prevailed upon him to divorce the girl so
that she could marry the cousin. The deal was settled and it was agreed
that the young man and the girl’s the relatives would arrive together to
take her away from the Home. My aunt promised to be present at the
occasion to supervise the departure and witness the reconciliation. All
was quiet when she arrived and to her horror she saw fresh blood on the
steps. Fearing some relative had ordered the girl’s death in traditional
punishment for adultery, she ran inside to find the whole family sitting
together calmly. To her great relief she learned that they had killed a
lamb on the threshold, and sprinkled the door posts and lintels with the
blood in token of the reconciliation. Old Bible customs were still in
evidence at that time!
My aunt acted as advocate, regularly attending
Magistrates Courts to speak on behalf of the accused. On one occasion,
three little girls from Beit Hanina had been brought before the court,
accused of assaulting a grown up man. The Magistrates asked aunt to
investigate. It turned out to be a family quarrel which had erupted after
an abusive uncle had visited the home. It had ended up with the children
biting and scratching the man, but was hardly a case for a Magistrate's
Strange superstitions from pagan times live on even in the land
that was the birthplace of Christianity. A girl arriving at one of the
Homes was reported to have a terrible burn on her head. My aunt went over
and demanded to know who had done this to her.
“I had a terrible
toothache,” the girl told her, apparently inconsequentially.
explained that she had gone to see a sheikh known for his healing powers.
The sheikh inflicted the burn in order to cure her toothache. The patient,
however, was satisfied, the girl assuring my aunt that the treatment had
My aunt’s charges included both Arabs and Jews and
despite the growing hostility within the mandated territory, there were no
ethnic divisions within the Homes.
A woman with a British sounding
Cockney accent accosted my aunt on a street in Jerusalem and, without
preamble, asked her for a loan of 5 Palestinian Pounds, a not
insubstantial sum in those days. My aunt recognised her, addressing her as
Sara, and told her to come to her house to her later. She duly arrived
that afternoon and my aunt, very much to my surprise, leant her the money.
Sara, my aunt told me, was a former charge who had left a Home two
years before. She was Jewish, and had left her home in Whitechapel, London
when her British parents cast her out after she had given birth to an
illegitimate baby. Arriving in Palestine illegally, With no money and few
possessions, she was promptly picked up by the police. She was taken to a
home and work was found for her. She left a few months later after meeting
and marrying a Samaritan pedlar. Sadly the man had died after little more
than year and Sara was now trying to continue his trade by selling his
“That’s the last you’ll see of your money,” I said.
my aunt said. “Maybe not.”
I later learned that Sara came to see her
every month to pay 5 shillings on each visit until she had paid it all
A mother brought in a girl who, she declared, had been very
tiresome, and she had done everything possible to control her, and had
even spent 10 shillings consulting a sorcerer. The mother showed my aunt
his “prescription” which he had given to her together with some powdered
stone. He had written out instructions that the girl was to drink some of
the powder in water, and the rest she had to make into paste beads to hang
around her neck. It was the sorcerer’s signature that amused my aunt.
Mohammed Jesus Solomon!
My aunt was also the chief Inspector for
welfare in the factories. Usually they would be textile firms, and there
were firm rules on the size of the workrooms, and the space that had to be
allowed between each employee. Some firms, in order to increase the
workspace, halved the height of the room by putting in an extra floor!
This was quite unacceptable, but sometimes quite difficult to identify,
the girls being ordered to stop work and keep silent while the inspection
was taking place.
The sensitivity of the ethnic and religious rivalries
was highlight by my aunt’s experience as a member of the Board of Film
Censorship, a government-sponsored board that included a representative
from both the Palestinian and the Jewish communities. On top of the
considerations, any film with any ethic association required tactful
consideration. The film "The House of Rothschild" was a case in point.
After viewing it the Jewish member of the Board demanded the first scene
be cut. It depicted the Rothschild family hiding away all valuables, and
dressing their children in rags on the approach of the tax collector. The
British members including my aunt saw little harm in cutting the scene if
it risked of causing any sectarian offence and drafted a resolution to
that effect. The Moslem representative promptly objected.
only true part of the whole movie,” he said.
One day my aunt invited
two elderly Quaker ladies home for lunch, having first taken them to visit
the Girl's Home at Bethlehem. After lunch, the two ladies expressed a
desire to visit the walls of the old city and walk along the top for a
panoramic view of the city.
“Excellent idea,” aunt said, not hiding her
eagerness to get back to work. "Betty will take you there.”
exactly?” I asked.
“The wall, of course. You know the way don’t you?"
Weakly I affirmed that I did. With the confidence of youth,I reckoned
I'd find a way. The walls should be easy enough to find. The entrances, I
suspected, might not be.
We took a decrepit old bus, packed to the
limit with the locals on their way to market with large baskets of
vegetables and a crate of chickens. Not one seat appeared to be vacant but
as soon as we stepped aboard spaces appeared and we squeezed ourselves in.
My Quaker ladies seemed undismayed and even appreciative of the local
insights I was giving them.
At least I knew I’d chosen the right bus
when it turned to go up the hill to the Jaffa Gate, though as the engine
sputtered and the springs squeaked I was not as confident it would reach
its destination. It did and when we alighted I knew I’d come to the limit
of my knowledge of the whereabouts of the steps that would lead to the top
of the city wall. I looked for someone to ask.
I approached an older
bearded man who was respectably dressed and looked wise. He smiled at me
and nodded politely to the ladies, listening to my every word but clearly
not understanding a single one. It was the first time I realised the
extent of my problem. I had little idea of local geography and could not
speak any Arabic. I pointed to the top of wall. He looked puzzled and
shook his head. He beckoned to another passerby for help. In no time we
were joined by a crowd, all talking at once, trying to help. Some had a
few words of English, but they all pointed in different directions.
led my visitors in the direction that seemed to most represent the
consensus of those trying to help us. We found ourselves outside the city
walls, and in a stony field. Maybe the steps were outside the walls, I
thought. We continued on until I realized I could not even find the way
back to the gate.
"I think we might be lost," I confessed.
sure you’re right,” one of the ladies said. Both by now looked quite
As I tried to retrace our footsteps I heard angry shouts.
They came from the other side of the field, and were soon followed by a
shower of stones. We ducked for cover behind a low stone wall. For a few
moments stones continued to whizz over out our heads.
All three of us
were frightened, but then I began to giggle. My companions looked at me
worriedly, obviously thinking I was going into hysterics. Imagining my
aunt’s reaction if I reported that we had been in terrible danger, I
suddenly remembered something she had told me some months earlier. The
Palestinians have a wonderful gift of accuracy in stone throwing. Had they
wanted to hurt us, we’d have known about it. In those days Jewish
squatters were already moving onto Palestinian land and as a result people
had become very sensitive to trespassers. The stones, which now seemed to
have ceased, had been a warning.
Cautiously I stood up, to be assaulted
not by stones but a hail of Arabic, incomprehensible but almost certainly
unprintable. We hurried off, without dignity but also without harm. The
two ladies took it all in good part, but never again did my aunt ask for
my help in escorting visitors.
The incident was a reminder of darker
events threatening what had once been a peaceful land. It was a land
Britain that was holding in trust under the League of Nations and was
bound to protect under the terms of the Mandate. Yet the Administration
had found it could do little to stem a massive flow of illegal Jewish
immigration from all over Europe which was being secretly sponsored by the
Palestinian discontent had started in the
twenties after the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This was an
extraordinary unilateral declaration by the British government to
establish a home for Jews in a territory occupied for many centuries by
another people. At the time it might not have seemed so significant, maybe
more of a symbolic gesture than political, since the Jewish population
accounted for little more than five percent of the total.
immigration the balance was rapidly changing.
The British faced
violence on two sides. They were obliged to protect Jewish immigrants,
even if illegal, from the wrath of the Palestinians, and at the same time
to protect the rights of the Palestinians which were being consistently
and methodically undermined. The Jews fought the British for not allowing
unlimited immigration. The Palestinians fought us for allowing it at all
and for not stopping so many illegal immigrants coming through.
not an easy situation and it was getting worse by the day. It would all
erupt into greater violence with the Arab Revolt in 1936, but at the time,
fascinated by a country that seemed rooted in its historical past, I could
not imagine change and thought little of politics.
Of aspects of
Palestine life, the most unchanged and unchanging was that of the Bedouin.
So I was very excited to be told by aunt that I was to accompany her to a
Bedouin tribe. In 1932 there was a severe drought, barely noticed in the
cities, but heavily affecting the nomadic Bedouin, whose wells had dried
A little convoy had been organized by the District Commissioner of
Jerusalem, a Palestinian, to deliver food to a tribe in greatest need. He
and his British wife accompanied us and we picked up our donkeys in
Bethlehem, for that was the most practical means of transport.
Bethlehem then was a charming little town, with sixteenth century houses,
and small shops round the little square, and the Church of the Holy
Nativity in the background. The shops displayed gifts and mementoes of the
Holy Land, including mother of pearl crosses and brooches, coloured beads
and rosaries, olive wood boxes and awkward pencils with carved camels on
the ends. The square was quite empty when we arrived, but our numbers soon
increased. Our donkeys wer brought to us and we were joined by a guide,
two policemen on horseback, two donkey drivers and six more donkeys
bearing the sacks of food and clothing that had been donated by the
international communities of Jerusalem.
Soon the square filled with
spectators, women in long black dresses, heavily embossed with the
colourful Bethlehem embroidery, and children inquisitive, and fingering
the heavily laden donkeys.
Aunt, taking the lead as always, was the
first to mount. Her donkey snorted in protest and immediately carried her
off at great speed. She held on, protesting indignantly. I confess to
laughing with the townsfolk as we watched her disappear from view, her
legs flapping wildly.
One of the policemen galloped after her and
returned moments later with a docile donkey and a subdued aunt in tow.
She had at least chosen the right path. After we had all mounted, I saw we
were following the same dusty track down which Aunt and her donkey had
disappeared moments earlier. Soon the track gave way to open desert, not
the romantic landscape of sand and rolling dunes that I imagined. This
consisted of rocks and stones and sand and dust and hills and crevasses,
and more stones and rocks. All I could see for miles around was an endless
arid landscape that seemed to stretch to eternity -- and sand and dust in
endless continuity, with not a blade of grass to be seen. I wondered how
anyone could survive in it.
At least some creatures survived in it --
snakes and scorpions. I saw two scorpions scuttle away between the rocks
as I passed by.
We had been told that the Bedouin encampment was about
twenty miles outside the town. I hoped it was not further.
We had a
good guide, and he kept us in the shade of the tall cliffs as far as he
could. The sure footed donkeys trotted along, knowing just where to place
their feet among the stones and up the narrow tracks skirting the steep
The sun beat down relentlessly, and I was very relieved
when, after a couple of hours, the cavalcade was brought to a halt. The
Districk Commisioner had brought oranges, and we ate them gratefully to
quench our thirst.
I guessed that we had already covered more than
twenty miles and to my concerne an argument started up between the guide
and the drivers before were able to set off again. There was much
gesticulation and pointing. The worrying part was they pointed in
different directions. The desert looked much the same to me wherever I
looked. The argument became more heated, while I waited anxiously,
suspecting we were lost and wondering if we would ever be found.
aunt and the District Commissioner joined in the argument. Soon the voices
became calm and my aunt signalled me to get back onto my donkey. The
argument, she explained, was about the drivers wanting more pay. The
journey was further than anticipated and they claimed it was putting more
strain on their donkeys.
I was reassured by the guide’s confidence as
he led us on our way again, even though we were following no visible
track. I was more reassured when I something in the distance. At first
they looked like dark objects floating above the landscape. A mirage? They
were black tents, my aunt told me, and we jerked our donkeys forward to
get there quicker.
Long before we arrived, we were met by a party on
horseback. The Bedouin had spotted us before we had seen them, and the old
sheikh and his sons had ridden out to greet us and escort us into the
When we arrived we saw the wives waiting eagerly but keeping some
distance away. Cautiously they came closer, and fingered our dusty
clothing. The old Sheikh drew made a humorous gesture of despair and,
drawing out his whip playfully lashed out at them. The result was screams
of laughter and undeterred the women took hold of the laden donkeys and
led them off, escorted by an excited throng of children. It must have
seemed like Christmas to them.
We were ushered into the largest of the
tents, dark and surprisingly cool and comfortable, and furnished with
Persian rugs and cushions on the floor. I gather we were to sit at a
circle of cushions at one end of the tent. The guide, the policemen and
the drivers followed later and were shown to the other end of the tent. As
soon as we were all seated, coffee was brought in and handed round in tiny
brass cups. The women had disappeared into their own quarters. The coffee
was green and bitter. I had longed for a long cool drink, and had to hide
my disappointment as stop my face screwing up in distaste. I managed to
stretch a smile and nod my thanks, only to be presented with another cup,
with smiles all round! However, I have to admit the coffee was
surprisingly refreshing and I soon forgot my thirst.
A large white
cloth was brought in and laid out on the ground. We all sat in a circle
around it and watched as two men carried in a huge metal platter, at least
three feet in diameter, piled with rice and the carcass of a lamb that had
been cooked until the meat fell off the bones.
The Sheikh sat with my
aunt on his right. The District Commissioner and his wife sat on his
right. Sat, uncomfortably cross-legged , surrounded by sons and sons in
law. Another large dish was brought in for the policemen and the drivers
and guide and set down at their end of the tent.
There were no plates
or knives or forks, so there would not be much washing up. As there was
very little water, that seemed just as well. I watched my aunt reach out
to pick a handful of rice and meat, but hesitated to follow suit.
dishes consisted of pieces of roasted lamb, which had been specially
killed in our honour, and prepared with herbs and spices and served on a
pile of rice.
More hands reached into the dish. I still hesitated,
feeling awkward, until a young sheikh sitting next to me reached into the
bowl and tore off a large piece of meat and handed it to me in his rough
brown hands, most graciously.
Very tender and delicately spiced, it
was delicious and I hesitated no more. When I finished the first piece, I
reached in again, remembering my aunt’s warning to use only my right hand.
The rice presented quite another problem. Looking around me I could see it
was easily overcome by those with the knack of taking up a handful,
rolling it round into a tight ball, before tossing it up in the air, and
catching it in the mouth as it fell.
Under the guidance of my young
sheikh, I tried this a few times. It seemed a cleaner way than stuffing
hand¬fuls of rice into one's mouth. In my case it had the added benefit of
providing great amusement and entertainment for our hosts. I eventually
opted for the alternative solution of stuffing handfuls into my mouth.
Afterwards, a bowl of warm water and a cloth were brought in and handed
round for everyone to wash their hands, in the same bowl of course!
Later I learned that the lamb had been killed in out honour and that it
had taken three days to cook. A fire had been lit in a hole in the ground,
and when the embers were very hot, the lamb was covered with herbs and
spices, and put in a cloth, and laid on the hot embers, covered with earth
and left to cook in the heat of the sun, a real barbecue!
Of course we
didn't finish the huge dish of meat and rice which was just as well.
Afterwards it would be passed on to the servants. When they had had their
fill, it would be taken to the women's quarters, where the children would
have the first claim on it, before the women took their turn.
killing of one of their prized flock by this wandering Beduoin tribe, and
setting it before us with such dignity and pleasure, touched me greatly,
for I knew that, apart from the small amount of food we were able to bring
with us, they would be on very short supply until the rains came to bring
life to the earth, and pasture for their flocks.
There are many degrees
of hospitality, but none more appreciated by me than this traditional
repast, given with such genuine delight.
is where Betty's obviously incomplete manuscript ends.