Penny Freeth is standing at our designated meeting point, underneath the gigantic skeleton of the blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the main hall in London’s Natural History Museum. Our plan is to try and obtain information about the insect specimens sent to the museum in the 1930s from Kuwait by her late grandmother, Dame Violet Dickson. Among the specimens are two that were at that time new to science: Julodis speculifer dicksoni, a desert beetle that was distinguished with the Dickson name, and Utubius zahrae, a grasshopper named after Penny’s mother, Zahra, who had caught it.
Enquiries to the museum by email had failed to produce a response. Although aware that the specimens are probably kept in an archive and not on display for the general public, we still hoped we might learn something about the many scientific contributions from Kuwait made by Penny’s family. What we were not prepared for were the huge, noisy mobs of tourists and schoolchildren crowding the museum and the record high summer temperatures that created stifling heat inside the halls. We decided to abort the mission and grab a cab to the peaceful, shady grounds of Chiswick House, Lord Burlington’s eighteenth century villa just five miles from the museum in Kensington.
Away from the crowds, the heat, and the hubbub of central London, Chiswick House was a good venue for an interview with Penny about her family’s significant role in the history of Kuwait, their rich legacy, and her ongoing ties with the land where her grandmother spent 61 eventful years of her life.
The Dickson’s relationship with Kuwait began when Penny’s grandfather, Harold Dickson, was appointed British Political Agent to Kuwait, and he arrived with his wife Violet and their two young children, Saud and Zahra in 1929. Penny’s mother, Zahra, was four years old at the time and Saud was aged six. The family soon settled into their new home, a rambling mud brick structure on the seafront facing the dhow harbor. This was the British Political Agency, now known as the Dickson House Cultural Center.
Penny grew up hearing stories about the lives of her famous grandparents who came to Kuwait when it was a remote backwater with no paved roads, only a few cars, and no running water or electricity. In the harsh desert environment the residents suffered from famine, disease, plagues of locusts, and other natural disasters. Despite the hardships, the Dicksons soon developed great affection for their host country and lasting friendships with the ruling family, the bedouins, and the townspeople. These bonds have survived to the present day, with the Kuwaiti people still holding a special place in their hearts for the Dickson family.
“Growing up in England, when my grandmother used to come visit us in the summer, I felt that her talk of Kuwait was alien to me. But later on, my mother began telling me much more about life in Kuwait, and when I was able to go there and see it for myself I was able to make my own opinions of what Kuwait is all about. Living in England, I obviously can’t have the same feelings for Kuwait that my grandparents had, but the family connection with Kuwait is always there,” Penny reflects.
Penny visited her grandmother in Kuwait on numerous occasions, as a teenager and a young adult, from the year 1970, when she was accompanied by her older brother Stephen, up until the late 1980s.When Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Dame Violet was in the Kuwait Oil Company Hospital in Ahmadi, having suffered a stroke. Subsequently evacuated to England, she passed away there in January 1991. She had outlived her husband by 32 years, choosing to spend her widowhood in her beloved old blue and white house on the seafront and becoming the grand dame of expatriates in Kuwait.
During her visits to Kuwait, Penny had observed her grandmother following a very strict routine. “She always took her meals and her afternoon tea at precisely the same time, and also went out for a drive and went to bed at the same hour every day. When she came to us in England on her summer visits she wanted to keep up this same regimen, eating a lunch that consisted of meat plus two vegetables and dessert at exactly 12:00 noon, and then later on a cooked dinner. ‘That’s what I have in Kuwait,’ she would tell us,” Penny remarks.
According to Penny, every summer her grandmother would spend a month in Switzerland before coming to stay with them in England. “Then it would be time for her to do the grand tour, visiting relatives and various expatriates she knew from Kuwait. She would give a royal command to my mother, telling her to speak to certain people and arrange her visits, and then the tour would be planned with military precision.”
It wasn’t until she stayed with her grandmother in Kuwait that Penny realised what an important and influential personality she was. “When I used to see her in England she seemed like a fish out of water. But in Kuwait I could see she knew all the right people. In 1970 my mother and I accompanied her to Dasman Palace for a visit with the shaikhs’ wives and my mother remarked that this was quite a privilege. My grandmother was a very big fish in a small pond.”
What Penny had perceived as a teenager her mother had written about with great insight in her book, A New Look at Kuwait, published in 1972. Describing her mother’s character, Zahra wrote, “To meet V. in London is rather like seeing an exotic animal out of context, cut off from its natural background. Her habits of thought and behavior have been shaped by Kuwait, her reactions adjusted to the stimuli of Arab situations. In an English setting people often find her hard to understand, her mannerisms eccentric or irritating; but place her in the background where she has chosen to belong and she falls into place as inconspicuously as a bird whose protective coloration blends with the desert.”
Walking through the Chiswick House parkland and stopping to pick blackberries from a thicket of thorny bushes, Penny remarks how her grandmother loved to go berry picking in the English countryside.“My grandmother grew up in Lincolnshire well-versed in the country ways. She was interested in plants and wildflowers and small animals. After hunting trips she would help her father skin the animals that had been caught. She was not at all squeamish.”
As a girl, Violet Dickson had also learned to ride and shoot, skills that served her well later on in Kuwait. She and her young children would often spend long periods camping in the desert with bedouin friends while her husband attended to political affairs. She had her own riding camel, and as a crack shot with a rifle she could bag some game for her hosts’ cooking pot.
During these desert sojourns, Violet Dickson learned a great deal about the flora and fauna from her tribal women friends. On leave in England one summer, she went to Kew Gardens to ask if they would be interested in the flora of Kuwait and came away with a specimen press and detailed instructions on how to make a scientific collection. Her work in this field resulted in her book, The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain, and in her discovery of a pretty purple flower new to science that was named Horwoodiadicksoniae in her honor.
It was during these years that she and her children, aided by their young bedouin friends, collected insect specimens and sent them to London’s Natural History Museum. Her childhood experience skinning animals came in handy when she began carrying out her own taxidermy of small desert mammals and reptiles that she also sent to the museum. These are the scientific specimens about which Penny and I had hoped to obtain information, an undertaking we will hopefully pursue in the future.
The Dickson family’s literary contributions about Kuwait are significant. Besides her book about the flora of Kuwait, Dame Violet also wroteForty Years in Kuwait. Colonel Harold Dickson spent many years meticulously recording every detail of his keen observations of bedouin traditions, culture, and daily life. Eventually the lengthy manuscripts were typed by his wife and published in two great, fascinating volumes titled The Arab of the Desert and Kuwait and her Neighbours.
The Arab of the Desert was edited and abridged by Robert Wilson and Zahra Freeth in 1983. In the preface Zahra wrote, “The Arab of the Desert preserves for posterity all the colour and atmosphere of a way of life which, after thousands of years, died with the new conditions created by wealth from oil. Even the Arabs themselves now refer to it to find out how their forefathers lived.”
Zahra Freeth was also a prolific author. Her books include Kuwait Was My Home and A New Look at Kuwait, and with Victor Winstone, Kuwait: Prospect and Reality and Explorers of Arabia. She also wrote a book about British Guiana, (now Guyana) where she lived for five years, titled Run Softly Demerara.
Although writing did not provide a steady income for Zahra, she resisted taking a full-time job specifically because it would have prevented her regular extended visits to Kuwait. Her solution had been to join some friends in Colchester who ran a small antique shop and she went into business selling antique silver, jewelry, and china. Penny eventually joined her mother in this work.
In 1999 and 2002, Penny and Zahra were invited to Kuwait. “During those two visits I saw more of Kuwait than in all my other visits combined,” Penny says.
The visit in 1999 was sponsored by Mobile Telecommunications Company, now known as Zain, on the occasion of the premiere of A Call from Kuwait, a film about the history of communications in Kuwait made for MTC by Walid Al Awadi, for which Zahra had been interviewed at her home in England.
“We had a very hectic schedule during that week-long visit, including audiences with HH the Amir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah and HH the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah. And when the sheikhs’ wives heard that Zahra was in town, they invited us to Dasman Palace. They gave us a grand tour of the palace and the date palm gardens and mother got quite nostalgic; she said it was like going back in time sixty years,” says Penny.
Of course Zahra and Penny also visited Dickson House, at that time under restoration. “I’m always happy to come back to Kuwait and the house where I grew up,” Zahra had said with feeling to the crowd of local officials who were there to welcome her and her daughter.
When Zahra and Penny returned to Kuwait in 2002 at the invitation of the Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait, they once again received a warm welcome at Zahra’s old home. Zahra expressed her appreciation to the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters for turning the house into a historical landmark that celebrates the friendship between Britain and Kuwait.
However, Penny notes that Dickson House still has a great deal of undeveloped potential. “Even at that time my mother remarked that she was so glad to see that the house had finally been restored, but after having spent so much money and effort to do it, she felt perhaps more could be done to bring it to the attention of the public and make it a truly active and lively cultural center, as has been so successfully done with the old American Mission Hospital and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah. Surely there are plenty of creative young Kuwaitis with bright ideas who could develop it.”
During this visit to Kuwait, Zahra experienced another sort of homecoming when I had the privilege to invite her and Penny to our desert camp in Subiya. Strolling across the open plains and drinking camel’s milk provided by a local herder brought back fond memories of the time she spent camping with her family’s bedouin friends when she was young.
Zahra had been pleased to find quite a few flowers and plants with which she was familiar from her childhood and she had greatly impressed us by being able to identify them by both their Arabic and Latin names.
“My mother had inherited an interest in botany from her mother,” notes Penny. “And she was very good at learning languages. Upon arrival in Kuwait she would get her ear used to Arabic again and then it would all come back to her.”
Zahra and Penny had enjoyed the climb to the top of some low hills above the camp with the panorama of desert camps dotted across the landscape. Zahra had commented on the beauty of the scene, adding that of course it would look even lovelier if there weren’t so many plastic bags and other bits of rubbish caught in the bushes.
Zahra had said how much she had missed the open spaces of the desert, and the opportunity to walk around and not see another soul, although she knew there were people around. “It makes me think of the last lines of mother’s book, Forty Years in Kuwait,” she had said.
Penny remembers how she and her mother had stood on the hilltop, watching the sun slip below the escarpment, while Zahra quoted the words Violet Dickson had written so long ago. “Beyond the walls of my own house and yard, modern Kuwait has grown up and all is fever and bustle, but beyond that again is the peace of the desert, and the desert still calls.”
Sadly, this was to be Zahra’s last visit to Kuwait. She died of thyroid cancer at the age of 90 on May 20, 2015. Her brother Saud, also a highly-esteemed and respected friend of Kuwait, had passed away ten years before her at the age of 81.
Penny continues to live in Colchester and works in the antiques business, attending antique fairs in the local area. Her brother Stephen works as a professional archivist.
Now Penny hopes that the next generation of the Dickson family can continue the longstanding relationship with Kuwait. “Until today I receive letters and gift packages from members of the Al Hindal family whose friendship dates back to my grandparents’ day. My nephew, Richard, who is particularly interested in the Dickson family’s connection to Kuwait, is now also in touch with them.
“Hopefully some of the younger members of the Dickson family will be able to visit Kuwait in the near future and actually see Dickson House and its surroundings. This would make the history of the family and their strong bond with Kuwait mean so much more to them,” Penny concludes.