Arabian Days and Nights

Following in the footsteps of a legendary 20th-century travel writer, Ella Windsor crosses the deserts of Arabia and finds a world in transition.

I had not been in Damascus very long when France Soir reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims in Syria rallied in anger as they did all over the Islamic world. It was February 1, 2006, and here I was, fair-skinned and blonde, among the crowds watching them torch the Scandinavian embassies. I had always wanted to travel through the Middle East—but perhaps now was not the best time to be a direct descendent of King Christian IX of Denmark.

Queen Elizabeth II of England is my father’s first cousin— a detail of my identity that made my particular journeys from Damascus to Tehran somewhat different. Few of my relatives had ever traveled within the region. There was the very real risk of being kidnapped. Still, the foreign office let me go on the condition that I keep them informed of my progress.

I had been inspired to travel to the area after reading Dame Freya Stark’s memoir of her explorations in the thirties. The Southern Gates of Arabia is one of the greatest travel journals ever published. Stark crossed the Hadhramaut region of Yemen chaperoned by tribal guides in loincloths and indigo dye. She traveled on foot, horse, and donkey, often during wartime, always as feminine and stylish as conditions would allow. She wore hats, head scarves, and a sheepskin cloak lent to her by a colonel. When the occasion demanded, she put on locally bought gowns and once, for a Yemeni wedding, a yellow satin dress with black spots. In the end, ill with dysentery, she had to be rescued by the Royal Air Force.

By contrast, the only real challenge for me was my identity—and timing. Through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Iran, my boyfriend and I slept in houses, hotels, unheated apartments, tents, and village huts, traveling overland by train, jeep, and sometimes even camels. I met cooks, teachers, shepherds, princes, ambassadors, and sultans.

3 February 2006

In Damascus, I watch protesters from the balcony of a friend’s house. We hear them ranting in Arabic, fists pitched in rhythm to the words. Men lead the bulk of the march, but there are many women trailing behind. Two angry girls catch my eye. They are wrapped in black right up to the thick sunshades covering their eyes. Suddenly they look back up at me, shouting and circling their faces with black-gloved fingers. Cover up! scream their gestures. I try to show some expression of sympathy, but it is no use. I am a Westerner and unwelcome.

In truth, non-Muslim women need not cover up in Syria, especially in Damascus. During my two months in the country I choose not to cover up at all, apart from the day I go to the mosque. There I wear a long black coat and a dark paisley head scarf to hide my hair. In the women’s section I am surrounded by large friendly faces. Arms are linked through mine, little sweets in colored wrappers tossed into my lap.

We rent an old-fashioned apartment in Jisr al-Abyad, a religious part of Damascus, at the foot of the mountain. It has high ceilings, a kerosene heater that we refill by hand almost daily, as well as a cook, our only regular female visitor, with whom I bond over cardamom coffee. Dressed in black trousers, black turtleneck, and black woolly hat, she fries us minced lamb in bread crumbs.

I spend my days taking Arabic lessons, visiting the mosque, and painting watercolors of castles near Aleppo to take home as gifts for my elder cousins. Then the Danish cartoons are published and the city erupts. As the tension builds in Damascus, I decide to leave.

5 February 2006

From Damascus I cross the mountains at sunset, by jeep, to visit a friend in Beirut. It is a two-hour drive into Lebanon. There the world feels safe and I can relax again. The first night we dine at Element, the most glamorous restaurant in town. As dessert is cleared away, we join a human sea of joy rising up in unison onto the tables to dance the night away.

The Lebanese, too, react to the cartoons. Young men run yelling through the streets, stoning shopwindows and smashing cars. My head still pounding from the drink and music of the night before, I rub my eyes before the blackened concrete walls of the smoking Danish embassy. I glue myself to the sides of my Lebanese friends for safety. The fury subsides once the building is in flames. No casualties, just the gesture.

20 February 2006

We are safe in Jordan in the hands of Prince Hassan bin Talal, who has fortunately received a letter of introduction from my father and acts as a Middle Eastern father figure to me during my stay.

His family gives us lunch and advice and arranges for a Bedouin guide and shelter for a night in the desert. The tent is extravagantly luxurious, long, and plumped full with duvets. We befriend the Bedouin’s son, who brings us platters of chicken that have been cooked by his mother. She stays completely out of sight.

When Prince Hassan hears we are going on to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he leans in close to me at the table and whispers, "If ever you feel uncomfortable, please know you can always come back here."

24 February 2006

Our next leg is through the desert. Before leaving Amman, I buy my first veil and an art magazine showing the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. It’s a 12-hour jeep ride in the blazing midday sun, with my veil, a swath of thick black silk.

I am frightened by the prospect of visiting Saudi Arabia. Syria was not easy and I know Saudi Arabia will be stricter still. Even my Saudi friends advise me not to go, as there is nothing to see outside Mecca and the Holy City is off-limits to non-Muslims. But how often does one get the chance to travel here? As it transpires, everyone we meet in Jeddah is utterly charming, and the architecture of the old city is some of my favorite on the whole trip. What’s more, with my visa, veil, and wedding band (a strategic accessory), I am made to feel entirely welcome.

Prince Saleh al-Qu’aiti, son of the former Sultan of Hadhramaut, meets our jeep as soon as we cross the border. He takes us to the Jeddah beach house of another friend, Fady Jameel, whose family recently unveiled the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The al-Qu’aitis are based in Jeddah. However, they are Hadhrami. The Hadhramaut is one of the most important regions in Yemen. In fact, my friends would still be ruling the Hadhramaut had the British Protectorate not fallen in 1967 and the sultan been sent into exile. Since the unification of North and South Yemen they have been allowed to return as visitors, but they tell me it is still a sensitive matter and difficult to do. Ten years ago in London, I met Sultan Ghalib’s daughter Princess Fatima, and now she and her family are my most valuable protectors as I travel through the region.

27 February 2006

In Jeddah, the sultana, the wife of Sultan Ghalib, includes me in her ladies’ lunches. They are like no other female gathering I have ever experienced and as far from a gossipy Notting Hill affair as imaginable. The talk is serious and every woman is impressive, from the sultana’s daughter, a teacher, and her London-raised daughter-in-law, who’s pregnant and adjusting to life in Jeddah, to a lady running a center for disabled children.

Most memorable of all is Princess Reem al-Faisal, a royal Saudi and a photographer. For a woman, let alone a princess, a career here is already uncommon. But a princess photographer is even more controversial in Saudi Arabia, the seat of Wahhabism, a brand of Islam that does not encourage visual depictions of the human form. She has photographed the holiest Muslim city, Mecca, repeatedly during the hajj. I am surprised to encounter such strong women here in Saudi Arabia, where I had expected to witness extreme female subservience.

From afar, my al-Qu’aiti friends guide me to the Hadhramaut. I am following in the footsteps of Dame Freya Stark, who wrote in The Southern Gates about how her own passage through Yemen had been facilitated by the al-Qu’aiti tribe.

The real danger in Yemen, it seems to me, comes from its desperate poverty. Since its president sided with Saddam Hussein in 1990, the country has been neglected by its oil-rich neighbors. In some areas taking a hostage for ransom might be the only way to get attention from the government for the most basic needs. This is why you will find everyone in the ancient city of Marib, where the Queen of Sheba is believed to have ruled over an empire of frankincense and myrrh, carrying Kalashnikovs—even the kids.

From its palaces to its shacks, Yemen strikes me as extremely romantic. The women wear every shade of the rainbow, and the men tuck their daggers into futas wound about their waists. The markets flow with silver trinkets and the best-tasting honey in the world.

2 March 2006

The sultan and sultana put us in touch with the British ambassador to Yemen, Mike Gifford, who in turn hands us over to two jeeps of heavily armed escorts who will lead us safely out of the most dangerous part of the country.

Not that I want to leave. I have fallen in love with the place. I find myself secretly wishing to be kidnapped, and I have heard reports that some tourist hostages are fed and treated so well, they don’t even realize what has happened and think they have been taken in as guests.

In Yemen I feel free and wear my hair uncovered, my skirts below the knee, my colored cardigans loaded with strings of beads that I bought in the market. The only time I sense any danger is in the shark market. Shark meat is a specialty, sold in tiny dried specimens on platters under canvas canopies. Spotted taking pictures of the treasure, I am publicly admonished by a short fat gray-haired man who forces me to apologize to the entire yard. Dame Freya Stark had also encountered mixed reactions to her camera.

16 April 2006

My trip ends in Iran. We spend Easter at the German embassy in Tehran. Searching for traditional Easter eggs, boiled and painted yellow, we pick up on local attitudes. The people here are no happier to see English-speaking Westerners than people in other parts of the Mideast.

Iran has just publicized its first uranium enrichment program. Since there has been no American embassy in Tehran for 27 years, the British embassy is fielding most of the recent grenades. Iranians everywhere want to talk with us about their concerns, in spite of the risk of being caught saying the wrong thing.

Unsure of the local dress code, I wear my black floor-length veil again, but the lipstick-painted Iranian women warmly clear their throats. I need wardrobe advice. Apparently the only uniform for women here is a manteau (a three-quarter-length coat) and a head scarf (both in any color). Long black veils are strictly optional. A foreigner in a veil is ludicrous. I buy myself a manteau. The first girls I see show their ankles in pedal-pusher jeans and stilettos, their fitted coats riding halfway up their buttocks, long hair billowing from bows. They rouge their cheeks and dust their eyelids with violet powder.

20 April 2006

I am flying home to England. A case of extremes! Tomorrow I will be swapping my Tehrani head scarf for a Philip Treacy hat. My father’s cousin, the queen, is celebrating her 80th birthday.