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Doreen Ingrams (1906-1997)

Doreen Ingrams, who died on 25 July aged 91, came to personify one of the happier chapters in Britain’s relations with South West Arabia, where she and her husband Harold Ingrams lived and worked from 1934-44. This was the most challenging and fulfilling period of their lives and it inspired a prolific output of reports, articles and books which have made a unique contribution to the history and sociology of the region.

Harold Ingrams joined the Colonial Service in 1919 and met and married Doreen eleven years later while on leave from Mauritius. He had already learnt from local Hadhrami immigrants in Zanzibar of the mud-brick cities of the Wadi with their multi-storeyed houses built on the profits of Hadhrami commercial enterprise in the East Indies. Keen to explore this new and almost unknown world, he accepted with alacrity the post of Political Officer in Aden in 1934. For a young woman still in her twenties the rigours of life in a remote outpost might have seemed a daunting prospect. But Doreen had an adventurous spirit and was no stranger to physical discomfort, nor, indeed to the hardship of others less fortunate than herself: her earlier career on the stage had introduced her to a world which in most respects was far removed from her privileged upbringing as the daughter of a barrister who served as Home Secretary under Lloyd-George.

The British Resident in Aden, Sir Bernard Reilly, had been the first Resident to visit the Hadhramaut, then part of the Aden Protectorate - in 1933 (by air). Harold had little difficulty persuading Reilly to send him and his wife on a nine week reconnaissance of the region. They travelled by sea to Mukalla, some 300 miles east of Aden, then by donkey to Du’an and the Wadi Hadhramaut, and later by camel down Wadi Masila to Saihut on the Mahra coast. They were the first Europeans to travel through Sei’ar country and the Mahra hinterland - where on one occasion their lives were threatened by local tribesmen - and Doreen was the first European woman to enter Seiyun and Tarim, Mrs Mabel Bent having preceded her to Shibam in 1894!

This pioneering journey left them in no doubt of the widespread popular desire, not least among women who had lost sons and husbands in blood feuds and tribal warfare, for an end to the anarchy which bedevilled most of the country under the nominal rule of the Quaiti and Kathiri sultans. Harold’s impressively detailed survey resulting from their trip ("Report on the Social, Economic and Political Condition of the Hadhramaut"), which Doreen helped him to compile (and which had the unusual distinction of being the subject of a Times leading article), became the mainspring of closer British involvement in Hadhramaut and later in the Protectorate as a whole.

In 1936 Harold, accompanied by Doreen, was sent back to the Hadhramaut to persuade local tribal leaders to accept a general truce. Doreen’s access to the women enabled her to enlist the support of an important constituency for peace. Negotiating the truce, which was to commence in early 1937 and initially to last for three years, was a remarkable achievement bearing in mind that some 1400 signatures had to be obtained from often truculent and prickly tribesmen. The results of what was to become known as "Ingrains’ Peace" were quickly apparent: the price of rifles tumbled; roads became safe; agriculture and trade started to flourish. The truce, extended for a further ten years, was enforced by the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion (which, recruited from local tribes, institutionalised the novel principle of inter-tribal cooperation), and occasional bombardment by the RAF (often welcomed by offenders as an opportunity to submit without losing face). It is hardly surprising that Harold and Doreen received an enthusiastic welcome from Hadhrami expatriates in Singapore and Java during their visit in summer 1939, just before the Japanese invasion led to the cut-off of remittances to the Hadhramaut - the catalyst of future famine.

Peace led to a new treaty with the Quaiti Sultan, in which the latter agreed to accept British advice in all matters relating to the welfare of his state (with the exception of religion and custom), and in 1937 Harold was appointed first British resident Advisor in Mukalla, a post which, apart from two years as Chief Secretary in Aden, he held until 1944. This gave Doreen the opportunity of further travel in largely unexplored areas of Hadhramaut - sometimes on her own (Wadi Hajr, Wadi ‘Amd) with an escort of one or two Bedouin retainers. But she spent much of her time acting as her husband’s oriental, political and administrative secretary, for which in those days of shoe-string paternalism no remuneration was provided nor expected.

Many years later, Doreen wrote an account of her life in Hadhramaut, drawing on her diaries and her own detailed "Survey of Social and Economic Conditions in the Aden Protectorate" (1949). Her charming and evocative book "A Time in Arabia" (1970) offers precious glimpses of a social life which has now all but vanished and was accessible to her because she could speak to people in their own language and took a lively and sympathetic interest in their way of life. She was always made welcome and fondly remembered, especially by the women into whose secluded lives she stepped as a cherished curiosity: "It was a never failing source of interest to the women whether or not I was the same colour all over. They thought I must have acquired my complexion and the colour of my hair from the soap I used....!" As Elinor Gardiner, a geologist, who visited the Hadhramaut with Freya Stark and Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1938, remarked, "We found their name an open sesame to us wherever we went. We were asked did we know ‘Ingrams’ and even more...did we know ‘Doreen’..." (Freya Stark was to dedicate her book "A Winter in Arabia" to Harold and Doreen).

The Arabian explorer, H. St.J. Philby, once referred to Doreen as someone who "hid her light under the bushel of her husband’s fame." Doreen never sought to compete with her husband, but rather to support and complement his work. Professor Kenneth Mason, who chaired Harold’s address to the Royal Geographical Society in June 1938 ("The Hadhramaut: Present and Future"), lamented that Doreen had resisted his efforts to persuade her to speak as well; and it was not until December 1944 that she agreed to share the platform with her husband in a joint presentation entitled "The Hadhramaut in Time of War". This included details of the serious famine of 1943-44 and the measures taken, with the invaluable assistance of the RAF, to relieve it. Doreen was directly involved in organising relief centres and emergency medical care in Mukalla (where she later established the first bedouin girls’ school) for the victims of famine, especially women and children. An incident which occurred during her 500 mile tour of the country in 1943 with the first camel patrol of the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion, typifies her concern for the welfare of those around her:

"I noticed a little skeleton hanging onto the hand of another boy. They came and sat beside me and I saw the skeleton was a blind child. He was covered with sores, so thin that every bone stood out and it was obvious that left in his present condition he would soon die... I asked for his father and arranged that the boy should be taken to Mukalla, where I promised he should be cared for, and wrote a note there and then to my husband..who took him in and gave him a diet of cod-liver oil and milk. Subsequently Effendi, as we called him, became the first pupil in the blind school which was started because we felt there must be so many other children like him."

In 1939 Harold and Doreen were jointly awarded the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal by the Royal Central Asian Society (later known as the Royal Society for Asian Affairs) for their outstanding role in bringing peace to Hadhramaut, and in 1940 the Royal Geographical Society awarded them its coveted Founder’s Medal for the contribution which their exploration of the region, separately and together, had made to geographical science. These joint husband and wife awards were, and remain, unprecedented in the annals of both Societies.

Doreen’s career as Senior Assistant with the BBC Arabic Service from 1956-67 brought her into close touch with other parts of the Arab world. She admired Nasser for restoring Arab pride and self-esteem and deplored the treatment of the Palestinians. She became a founder member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), serving for a time on its Executive Committee, and in 1994 the Arab Club in Britain held a reception to honour her outstanding contribution in this field. That event and the award to her in 1993 of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Burton Memorial Medal (which had been awarded to Harold in 1945) were both reported in the Arabic press.

In 1972, shortly before Harold’s death the following year, John Murray published her "Palestine Papers 19 17-22: Seeds of Conflict" and finally, during the last decade of her long and varied life, she undertook with her daughter Leila the considerable task of editing and publishing in 16 volumes "Records of Yemen 1798-1960" (1993).

Doreen always enjoyed recalling her life and experiences in Hadhramaut - the subject of her lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1993 - and it gave her great pleasure to receive and accept an invitation to become Patron of Friends of Hadhramaut, a charity formed early this year to support educational and medical projects in what is now a province of the Republic of Yemen.

Doreen dedicated "A Time in Arabia" to "The Men and Women of the Hadhramaut" with the following quotation:

"When you break bread with people and share their troubles and joys, the barriers of language, of politics and of religion soon vanish"

It is hard to think of a more fitting epitaph for a person of her spirit and humanity.

J. G. T. Shipman