‘We drove out across the desert in the dark to a large fort-like building with turrets lit by neon lights.’
Extract from Glimpses of the Middle East
By Patience Moberly
Published by Scotland Street Press
Patience Moberly was born in 1923 and was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor from St George’s in London. Patience Moberly, and her diplomat husband John, were responsible for starting and training the first Intensive Care Unit in Gaza, they were founding members of Medical Aid for Palestinians, MAP. Any proceeds from this book will go to that charity.
Two weeks after I was engaged, in 1959, my fiancé told me he had been posted to Qatar as a Political Agent, starting in eight weeks’ time. I’d never heard of the place.
“How do you spell that?” I asked.
“I suppose that is what I call Quetta.”
But of course it wasn’t, and eight weeks later we were landing in Kuwait in August, en route to this Sheikhdom in the Persian Gulf.
At that time in 1959 with their newly discovered oil, the Gulf Sheikhdoms were both potentially excessively rich and at the same time politically very vulnerable. Britain had a treaty arrangement with them to protect them from outside attack in exchange for conducting their foreign affairs, but the running of their internal affairs was entirely independent. In each Sheikhdom a British Foreign Office official called a Political Agent oversaw this arrangement under the overall guidance of a more senior diplomat in Bahrain called the Political Resident. The inhabitants of Qatar were, of course, mainly the Qataris themselves, ruled by their traditional Ruler, with a fairly large expatriate group consisting of Indian servants, professional Arabs and oil workers, the most senior of whom were predominantly British.
I got out of the plane that August day and looked around for the furnace that must clearly be nearby, because no climate could possibly be as hot as this. There was no furnace, it was just the Gulf on a nice cool summer evening. Twenty-four hours later we were staying in Bahrain for a night, before flying on to Qatar the next morning. Our Foreign Office host, standing in for his boss, the Political Resident, who was away at the time, had organised a supper party for us to meet various colleagues. I sat next to him and he began to talk about my husband’s new job.
“There’s a lot of unrest here at the moment,” he said. “If you had real trouble I suppose we might be able to get you out. The Consul in Mosul was killed recently by the mob. Head split open with a pickaxe, like a rotten orange. I hope we could get you out in time.” He obviously wasn’t convinced he could. He talked on, thinking about the problem. I assumed he must be giving me an unofficial warning that my husband of three weeks would probably shortly be killed. Somehow I managed to get through that terrible supper which seemed to go on forever, before we could go to bed. But how could I tell John it was likely he would soon be murdered? I waited till he was asleep, then put my head under the pillow and wept and wept.
The next morning in a little plane with the mail-bags, a man in a dishdasha, and a goat, we set off on the last leg of our journey. I was quite certain I would shortly be returning as a widow.
We were met at the Doha airport by John’s second in command, and there were also a crowd of people on the tarmac, who we supposed must be waiting for someone else. It turned out they too were part of our welcoming party.
“You’ll love it here,” they said, beaming. “So much better than stuffy old Bahrain.”
It was the beginning of two and a half fascinating years in what was still a medieval Arab society. There were no mobs with pickaxes.
From the nightmare of the supposed danger to John to an almost fairy-tale meeting with the Sheikh was only a matter of hours. The Ruler’s eldest son was giving a feast in our honour that evening. We drove out across the desert in the dark to a large fort-like building with turrets lit by neon lights and a huge door covered by an illuminated Qatari flag, like a scene from a Hollywood Arabian Nights. As we approached, the door was flung open and we were in a great courtyard filled with servants and retainers armed with guns and bayonets, dimly seen in the half-light. At another door on the other side the Sheikh, resplendent in his Arab robes, was waiting to greet us. We processed into a huge majlis, or reception room, carpeted in green with green velvet chairs round the walls and further chairs in the centre. It seemed all the rank and fashion of Qatar, both European and Arab, were there, nearly all men though with a few European women, who all came forward and shook John’s hand. Then everyone relaxed onto chairs and talked and drank Arabic coffee. I found myself between my husband and a cheerful beady-eyed Sheikh who I tried but failed to talk to in Arabic. Fortunately, not talking is not considered rude, which is a restful convention.
Scotland Street Press sold World Arabic rights for Glimpses of the Middle East by Patience Moberly at Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 to publisher Nasser Jarrous from Lebanon, whose life mission it is to foster good East-West relations through the world of publishing. It is now published in Arabic with an initial print run of 1000 copies.