Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia

Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia 

by Penelope Tuson, I. B. Tauris, 2003. Pp. xx + 266. Illus. Map. Bibliog. Index. Notes. Hb. £25. ISBN 1-86064-933-5.

Compared to the mass of material published over the last quarter of the century on British women in the Indian subcontinent, there has been very little on such women in the Middle East, and specifically in Arabia. An obvious reason is the great disparity in numbers. While thousands went to find, or join, husbands working in India, to teach and to nurse, there were no more than a handful who visited the Arabian peninsula before the late 1920s when Imperial Airways began flying to out of the way places. The very few women, like Emily Lorimer and Violet Dickson, who did find themselves here during the 19th and early 20th centuries, came as the wives of political officers, or like Amy Zwemer, as a missionary from America. Occasionally there were independent women travellers, drawn by an invisible but powerful magnet, who became experts on the region, of whom Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark are of course the best known.

A posting to the little ports of Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Aden, Muscat or Sharjah was regarded as a poor second to an Indian service appointment. There was none of the familiar colonial infrastructure of the subcontinent, built up over the previous three hundred years, none of the comforting network of old ‘Anglo-Indian’ families, and, as it appears from Penelope Tuson’s book, very little intellectual interest in Arabia itself. Servants were brought from India, which provided a buffer between the British wives and the small, desert-surrounded towns. Indeed, Lady Cox, whose husband spent most of his diplomatic career in Arabia, spoke ‘wonderful Hindustani… a mongrel servant jargon’, but during eight years spent in Bushire had not learnt to speak Persian.

The American missionaries, on the other hand, many of whom came from farming families in the mid-West, and who were sponsored by the University of Michigan, were not allowed ‘out into the field’ until they had undergone a two year course of study that included spoken and written Arabic and ‘Islamics’. Setting up hospitals, dispensaries, clinics and roving medical programmes, they proved so successful that sheikhs and tribal leaders would invite them to travel inland and treat their own people. This led to a degree of envy and annoyance among British officials, jealous of the Americans’ rapport with the rulers, and hostile to their geographical penetration of the peninsula.

The author. as former Curator of the Middle East Archives in the British Library, should be in a good position to write of this select band of westerners, and in fact her careful analysis of relations between the Political Agents and the missionaries is the best chapter. But this is ultimately an unsatisfactory book. If Tuson had offered a history of western intervention in Arabia, constructed from the writings of both women and men, and the wealth of official papers, it would have provided a good introduction to this still little-known subject. Instead she has generally sought to subject her women to the pervasive doctrine of post-feminist thought which is so intensely annoying to the historian. How one’s heart sinks to see the words ‘gender’ and ‘imperialism’ in the same sentence, to be followed shortly by ‘orientalist’! This leads to ridiculous statements like that on page 78 where she criticises the scholar Emily Lorimer for ‘Her letters [which] are suffused with the imperial and racial attitudes and the social and domestic conventions of her time.’ Unless Lorimer was a time-traveller, it is difficult to see how she could have written otherwise, given her position as the wife of a British officer posted to Arabia during the early 20th century. What Tuson doesn’t seem able to see is that her own narrow, androphobic, anti-colonial views are just as much a straitjacket as the supposed attitudes she derides in her subjects.

Her selection of women in Arabia has been skewed to fit her theories. Lady Mary Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, is an odd choice with which to begin this book. Touring the Gulf by sea in 1903, with a large naval escort, Lady Mary seems not to have gone ashore at all, being pregnant at the time. What she writes in her journal comes mostly second-hand from her husband’s day-to-day accounts of his onshore meetings with the local sheikhs, although Tuson describes her journal as ‘subtly subversive’. Too much of this chapter is taken up with irrelevant material, when it could have been used to tell us about more interesting women like Mabel Bent, the archaeologist, who travelled with her husband through the present day Gulf States and into southern Arabia, and who only merits a paragraph here. And the omission of the redoubtable Lady Evelyn Zeinab Cobbold, daughter of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, who converted to Islam and who travelled to Mecca in 1933 at the age of sixty-six is quite inexplicable. Too subversive perhaps?

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

Penelope Tuson