1912 - Barclay Raunkiaer
Arrival in Kuwait
We reach the first houses of Kuweit between eight and nine at night. On the edge of the town not a human being is to be seen. To our left is the real town, with its houses of sun-dried clay. To our right is the movable town, that is to say, of caravaneers and bedouin, scattered over a part of the desert which penetrates like an arm of the sea into the real Kuweit. As we advance the tents become more numerous and closer together, the lights from small fires give passing glimpses of natives sipping coffee and of their resting beasts of burden.
In the innermost corner of the inlet of waste begins the bazaar, with numerous lanes and partly covered streets. We grope our way on through them in complete darkness, pass their fastened-up booths and after repeatedly changing direction arrive before a fortress-like building eight to ten metres high and of such great extent that its full bulk could not be made out in the night. Into this otherwise seemingly inaccessible mass of clay a very narrow lane penetrates and at its mouth we call a halt, because our pack-horses would have wholly blocked the passage. The lane is immediately filled by armed men of all shades of colour from Sudanese negroes to pale-skinned Arabs from the north, some of them bearing torches or lanterns. Very deliberately they take my letters of recommendation to be conveyed to Mobarek. Some time passes in impatient expectation before one of the Sheikh's trusted men, Mohammed, came and made a sign that we were to be admitted. We are led through a low door and down a dark passage between two rows of janitors, all armed to the teeth, and come out into a little irregular court surrounded by a medley of buildings. In one of these I was shown into a room, the baggage was piled in a corner, a carpet was spread over the straw mats which cover the floor and I myself take a place on the carpet, an object of great curiosity to the Sheikh's men.
An Abyssinian slave arrives with an enormous tinned copper tray on which are bowls of libn, bread and dates, and simultaneously Mohammed came on the Sheikh's behalf to pray me excuse the fact that we were not getting a proper meal; the evening meal had been eaten at six o'clock and there was nothing left from it.
While we were eating, Mohammed and another of the Sheikh's men began to put suspicious questions eagerly. Who am I? Whence come? Where going? Am I a partisan of the English or of the Germans? Why am I guest of the Sheikh and not of the English political agent? and so on, for ever and ever, without regard to the fact that the questions were answered beforehand in my letters of introduction. Finally the Sheikh's Arabs withdrew and I was left alone with Ali in a room only dimly illumined from a petroleum lamp.
The decoration of the room is simple but carried out with greater precision than is usual. The Persian rug, at one end of the room, is where I am to spend most of my time and receive visitors. The whitewashed walls have on one side a row of windows, unglazed of course, but having iron gratings and wooden shutters.
The ceiling is of the regular, lower Mesopotamian and east Arabian kind, a row of thin beams supporting mats made of plaited palm-leaf. Above the matting is a layer of firmly trodden clay.
The following morning I am awakened by the Abyssinian slave bringing the morning meal of tea, hot milk, bread, honey, and various sweetmeats. Soon afterwards Mohammed arrives to announce that the Sheikh is ready to receive me and we follow him at once over a bridge, about five metres above the street, joining Mobarek's palace to the well-built serai or government house.
Here, with a view over the sea, and protected by a fully armed bodyguard of about sixty men, who lay picturesquely sprawling on the floor at a respectful distance, I found the ruler of Kuweit, an energetic old man of seventy-three. He was sitting in an armchair and observing keenly the strange sight of a European, in Arab dress, who, though neither English nor German, yet journeyed under the special protection of the Turkish Government. My reception was formally polite; but the Sheikh's questions were marked by mistrust and reserve. It is clear that he is in great uncertainty how to treat me. The questions were the same as those he had ordered Mohammed to put to me the evening before and he now makes determined efforts to involve me in self-contradiction, especially in regard to my political standpoint.
It is evident to me that this is the crucial matter and easy to see that my position in this respect is become very difficult indeed. After the hearty friendliness and powerful protection extended to me everywhere in Turkish quarters, I could only express the most friendly sentiments towards the Turks, while at the same time I declared myself distinctly Anglophile. In the present political situation in the Persian Gulf, my singular attitude raised an almost insuperable objection in Mobarek's mind, for the ultimate removal of which I am deeply indebted to England's diplomatic agent in Kuweit, Captain W. H. I. Shakespear.
Several very unpleasant days elapse, however, before we succeeded in getting to this point. My first audience of Mobarek ended with his promising to send a messenger after some Ajman bedouin, who, provided they will accept the responsibility, may conduct me to Katif and Hofuf. Since, however, there are no men of the tribe mentioned in Kuweit at the present moment, some days must pass before anything further can be done. Mobarek gave Mohammed orders that he was to be at my disposition in all things, and first and foremost to show me the town; and after the expression of a desire, ending with a husky, deep-mouthed inshallah, that the bedouin might soon appear, the first of a long series of audiences, by no means all encouraging, though always interesting, came to an end.
Mobarek’s town, bone of contention in the struggle for power between England and Germany in the Nearer East, lies on a coast which sweeps south-west by north-east and rises only very gently from the Gulf of Kuweit with its rich deposit of Shatt-el-Arab mud. Quite apart from the great political importance of the town, it claims no ordinary interest because, with the exception perhaps of Makalla, on the south shore of Arabia, it is the least disturbed by foreign civilization of the few 'independent' Arab coast towns of any importance.
The town's greatest extent, somewhat over two kilometres, is along its water-front, while inland it is hardly one kilometre in depth.
At about the centre of the sea-face lies the Sheikh's Palace, a large and very irregular complex of buildings with dependancies built at various times in various styles. Thus Arabian, Mesopotamian and Persian architectures are all represented.
It is divided into three parts in the uses to which it is put, namely: the Sheikh's private residence with the harem, on the rise from the beach; quarters for the bodyguard, male servants, slaves and guests, on the slope behind; finally the serai or government building, on the beach itself.
The Sheikh's residence is a large, fortress-like building round a square court. Its high walls have no windows giving outwards, only loopholes at certain points and the whole building communicates with the outer world directly only through the little door into the very narrow lane which separates the two upper blocks of the palace, the residence and the quarters for guards and servants. At a height of about five to six metres above the lane, there is, however, a bridge, blind on both sides, which connects these two parts of the palace.
Finally there is a wooden gallery, through whose multi-coloured panes is a view over sea and town, joining the rest of the palace with the serai, above a broader street which other-wise separates them.
The serai is built in the Bagdad style, in burnt yellow brick, two storeyed and having on the second floor in the middle two audience halls surrounded by airy arcades. These halls are lavishly supplied with windows, whose panes are partly of coloured glass; the floors are covered with Persian carpets; along the walls stand broad seats and sofas of a hybrid Oriental-European style and the ceiling is divided into panels by wooden fillets. Each panel is occupied by a polychrome lithograph, representing a young and appetizing, including European, female beauty, the whole forming a considerable collection selected with doubtful taste and comprising all hues from the North Cape to Cape Matapan, with particular preference for plump examples.
Through Wahabiland on Camelback