Arab interlude – Summer in Lebanon, 1939

In 1939, my grandmother, Eileen Gedge (pictured above with my grandfather), met a wealthy Lebanese Law student called Ahmed Tewfik Bey Al-Khalil at Cambridge University where they were both studying.

They became firm friends and according to family rumours, Ahmed fell in love with my grandmother – a tall, fine boned, beautiful woman, always impeccably dressed and an exceptional tennis player.

Sadly my grandmother was forced to reject Ahmed’s advances as it was impossible then for her to marry an Arab.  In those days, inter-racial marriages were frowned upon in High Society.

After university, they lost touch, but not before Ahmed’s family gave a rare invitation to my grandmother to visit them in Lebanon for one long, last, romantic Summer vacation.  A brave journey for a young girl on her own in the 1930s.

During the weeks she spent in Lebanon, Eileen learnt about Arabic customs, cuisines, family values and a woman’s place in Arab society and thirty years later, wrote Arab Interlude, A Traveller’s Tale – her account of that visit.

It’s an insightful story of Arabic life in the 30s and as it’s never been published, I felt it deserved a place of honour on my blog. Below is a slightly abridged version of that story:

Arab Interlude
A Traveller’s Tale by Eileen Gedge  (written circa 1960s)

 I’d met Ahmed at Cambridge where we were both students.  He came of a wealthy, aristocratic family which bore him a Turkish title.  Proud as he was of this title, if you’d met him in the street, you’d have taken him for an Englishman, with his sandy hair, freckled face and blue eyes.

We used to laugh at him when he said in his clipped Oxford accent, acquired at an English Public School, “I am the eldest son of a Bey and therefore I’m a Bey too”. And he would reel off his entire name “Ahmed Tewfik Bey Al-Khalil”. We all called him Al.

When his family invited me in 1939 to spend the long summer vacation partly in their country house in the hills of Lebanon, and for the rest of the time in their home in Haifa, Israel, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

So off I went. My mother waved goodbye with tears in her eyes, and a ‘never will I see you again’ look on her face. She was firmly convinced that I was going to be kidnapped by an Arab Sheikh and spirited off into the desert as an addition to his harem.

I expect she was more than a little worried, too, about the grave international situation.

At that time, 1939, there was strife between the Arabs and Jews; once again the long feud over the rightful ownership of this ancient land had flared up into a bitter struggle.  There was hatred too of the English, for the Arabs felt they’d been betrayed.  Because of all this, the railway journey between Egypt and Palestine was very unsafe. Explosives were laid on the line and the train was derailed almost daily.  That meant I had to fly from Port Said to Haifa – quite an adventure in those days, although there was a regular air service.

A very bumpy flight

It was my first flight.  The plane was fairly small, and there was only one other passenger, a mother visiting her son who was stationed with the British Army in Palestine.  As the plane flew over the Suez Canal, we chatted gaily with the young English pilot, but quite soon the flight began to grow bumpy, and when this bumpiness increased, my conversation faltered, eventually stopping altogether.  Noticing my continued silence, the pilot turned to look at me and his eyebrows rose. “I say, do you feel rotten?” he asked, and then very hastily on seeing the colour of my face. “Alright, hold everything. I’ll take you down.”

For what seemed an eternity, but must have been only a few minutes, we flew on, and then down we went, to make an unscheduled landing at a small coastal town  – I didn’t even ask its name, I didn’t care as long as my feet were on the good solid earth!

My good Samaritan miraculously found me a little patch of shade and leaving me there, dashed over to where a thin Jewish boy, grinning with delight, stood beside a huge mountain of unleavened bread.  Returning with several round slabs, he said, “Now get these inside you, and you’ll feel better.  It’s rough today over the land as it’s so hot.  We’ll do the rest of the flying over the sea and you’ll be fine. No bumps there.”

Now where could you possibly get such service today?

Once more aboard the plane, I settled down, and in a short time we were circling to land at Haifa. Then we drove up to Aley, in Lebanon.

Meeting Ahmed’s family

Ahmed’s family was a great surprise – it was such a mixture.  The father was tall, well over six feet, fair and very distinguished looking, and the addition of a military moustache completed the perfect picture of a retired English colonel.  I loved him on sight – loved his old-world charm and gentle courtesy.  Although his English was poor, he spoke fluent French, and when my rather halting schoolgirl French proved inadequate, he’d smile at me kindly and wait for one of the children to come to my rescue.

In sharp contrast to Ahmed, the other children were dark-haired and olive-skinned; Marianne the sister, had the most serenely beautiful face I’ve ever seen – a deep cream skin, soft and lovely; eyes a big lustrous brown.  I was surprised to find that her husband was almost bald, paunchy and quite 25 years her senior. They had no children.

Following Arab custom, Marianne hadn’t chosen her husband, but had accepted, quite happily, the man her father had thought suitable.  She never questioned his choice, and was patiently resigned to her childless state, although every Muslim woman’s greatest desire is to bear a son. She would sigh, “It’s the will of Allah and so be it.” But the old Arab saying – a house without children is a house without light – sprang constantly to my mind.

Marianne’s clothes came from Paris and she had a fabulous collection of jewels.  It seemed a pity to me that her engagement ring, worth thousands of pounds, was kept in a bank – she can’t have had much pleasure from it.  Although dressed in these superb European clothes, she wasn’t entirely free of the yashmak.  She had a silk chiffon scarf to match each outfit, and threw it over her face and head whenever we went out.  Marianne was the only woman in the family as the mother had died some years earlier.  Her visitors were always women.  They arrived in a closed car, all with faces similarly covered by scarves, and after gossiping and giggling happily for a while, they disappeared as quietly as they had come.

Life in Aley

Their life in Aley was a peaceful one – lived within the family circle – a life of ease, culture and love.  Biblical days were brought vividly to mind when in the evenings a favourite woman-servant of the Bey brought in a bowl of water, removed the old man’s shoes and socks, and tenderly washed his feet.  This honour was reserved for the head of the house who was served with dog-like devotion by all his staff. After the feet-washing he sat, tarbush on head, waiting for his evening hubble-bubble pipe to be prepared.

This same servant extended the same ready sympathy and devotion to me when I was ill in bed.  Wringing her hands and weeping profusely, she stood at my bed-side wailing, “Oh, you poor thing! So far from her mother and home, and so sick – oh dear! Oh dear!”.  Spoken in Arabic this sounded much more pathetic!

I never saw any housework done.  This must’ve been carried out in the very early hours of the morning and I never solved the secret of the washing.  A man-servant would collect my laundry in the evening, and before breakfast the next day, it would be laid neatly on my bed, beautifully washed and ironed.

Arabic cuisine

I enjoyed the food immensely. The chief meal came in the evening after a light breakfast and a lunch consisting of yoghurt, cheese and fruit.  The main course, usually a rice dish, most often chicken, was placed on an enormous platter in the centre of the table, and we helped ourselves.  As the guest, I had to start first, and then everyone waited until the father had taken a mouthful.  Sometimes there were stuffed aubergines as a side dish, or hard-boiled eggs and always a salad of tomatoes and cucumber. As a change from chicken, there’d be fried chicken livers or very tender small pieces of mutton.

A sickly gooey sweet followed – a sugary syrup poured over nuts pounded together with honey and rosewater or perhaps little pistachio cakes filled with chopped dates. After this came a delightful assortment of luscious mouth-watering fruits – apricots, figs, plums, Jaffa oranges, melons, grapes and giant peaches, all heaped in one colourful mound.

Thick black Turkish coffee was served with small glasses of water in the cool drawing-room where once again the hubble-bubble pipe made its appearance, this time to be shared by the father and sons passing from one to the other.  The servants attended our every need, moving noiselessly over the marble floors, and not one of them would retire until their beloved master was himself in bed.

One evening I found there was to be a new ‘treat’ instead of the customary rice dish. This treat proved to be a large pile of very tiny birds which I was assured where a great delicacy. I’d no idea what they were or how to eat them, but when I saw the others pop the entire bird into their mouths and heard the awful crunchy crackle of breaking bones, my appetite deserted me, and I begged to be allowed to leave mine. Thanks goodness Ahmed was there to explain that this wasn’t intended as rudeness.

The Veil of Purdah

The veil of purdah (curtain of female exclusion) was drawn only once during my visit; a life-long friend of the family’s, a VIP was to come to lunch, and I was told politely but firmly that I should be having lunch with Marianne in another part of the house.

Marianne informed me that he was one of the ‘old school’, still adhering most strictly to the old rigid customs.  Although he’d been a visitor for as long as she remembered, she’d never seen him except when she’d taken a forbidden peep from behind a shuttered window.

When I expressed indignation as such treatment, she laughed and said how lucky she was.

Just look at the poor Arab woman’s lot, “ she responded. “She’s married at fourteen to a man she’s never seen and becomes his abject slave.  She has to work very hard indeed, and must always cover herself in the long, black veil.  There’s no comfort in her rooms, no pictures, no flowers, she’s not even allowed to sit on the roof of the home for fresh air.  If she doesn’t please her husband and he can afford it, he can take another wife or get rid of her simply by saying “I divorce you” three times.  Always the men come first; they eat first choosing the best tid-bits for themselves, and after they’ve finished, the women and children get what’s left over. Now I eat at the same table as my dear father and brothers. I’ve had a good education at home although I would’ve liked to have gone to school, and I’m especially free during the summer months we spend in Lebanon. So yes, I’m lucky.”

Despite her words, I hated leaving Marianne behind when we went down to the lovely beach for a swim.  When we returned – refreshed and invigorated to the white villa – we’d find her sitting patiently on the airy, pillared terrace busy with her embroidery.

Family roots savagely torn

I’m glad I was able to enjoy the weeks in this quiet haven, for this life has now disappeared altogether. The family’s roots have been savagely torn and twisted from their native land, to be set down again in Amman, Jordan, in a way of life so different from the old one as to be almost another world.  What was originally a raw backwards state, governed by desert Arabs, is rapidly becoming a vigorous young nation.  Towns, roads, schools and industries are being developed and Amman, the capital, has grown from a small town to a city of helicopters, expensive cars and well-dressed women.

For Marianne, it has meant the Veil of Purdah has been removed entirely.  I wonder whether this freedom has brought her happiness? Girls now receive an equal chance of education and western ideas have largely superseded the ancient Muslim customs.

Mercifully the gallant old Bey died before these violent changes broke forever the ageless pattern of his life.

And Ahmed? It must have been extremely hard for a man, Arab by birth, English by education and inclination, to assume the unexpected role he had to play.  But he was young enough to adapt himself more easily to a strange homeland.  He and other Arabs with a similar background have devoted their lives to helping their young King Hussein in his dedicated, tireless efforts to create for a homeless people, a new land – the modern democratic nation of Jordanites.

Footnote: Eileen and Ahmed never saw each other again and both went on to marry other people. 

In the 1980s, my mother, Sarah, visited Ahmed in Amman, Jordan. A former Governor of Nablus and a judge, Ahmed had established his own law practice in Amman in the 1950s and was a member of the Senate there for 13 years.  

He still spoke fondly of my grandmother and on one evening, while my parents and Ahmed drove to the hills overlooking the city, his eyes filled with tears as he looked at Mum and remembered his English sweetheart.  

Ahmed practiced law until his death in 1986.  My grandmother died in 2004 at the grand age of 87, peacefully in her sleep in Auckland, New Zealand.


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