By PIERS MICHAEL SMITH.
HAROLD DICKSON WAS British Political Agent to Kuwait from 1929 to 1936. During that time, he and his wife Violet lived in what had once been a merchant’s house overlooking the Arabian Gulf and its glassy wastes. The history of what is known as the Dickson house, or ‘Bayt Dickson,’ is sketched out in a Kuwait National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters brochure.
The original building was a one-storey dwelling with close-set mangrove poles for roof-beams and walls made of sun-dried mud bricks. In the second decade of the twentieth century it was transformed by the grandiloquently (or grotesquely) named William Henry Irving Shakespear, Political Agent to Kuwait from 1909 to 1915, into an Anglo-Indian style ‘Colonial Veranda House.’ A new second floor was added to accommodate a drawing room, dining-room and two small bedrooms, and a veranda and platform designed to catch the sea-breezes. After he’d gone, Shakespear’s work was left to crumble in the sun and winter rains, its walls and mangrove poles gathering dust and guano in the dry broiling summers. The man the brochure heaps the blame upon for this neglect was one of Shakespear’s successors, the resonantly and perhaps less reassuringly named (from an imperial point of view) Colonel More.
The Dicksons wanted to restore what Shakespear had bequeathed to the nation and what Colonel More had neglected. They wanted to shade themselves under a veranda roof and to stiffen their leopard skins in the cooling salt-winds the raised chicks could let through, just as its first colonial resident had. They didn’t bowdlerise anything. They took what they found and set out to return it to what it had been before, not stinting themselves on authentic materials and craftsmen. The foundations were reinforced with coral rock, and the same material was used to buttress the front wall.
The renovated house has been allowed to stand more or less complete to this day—but not for its continued utility or neighbourhood charms. Along with several other colonial-era buildings on the sea-front, it has become a ‘heritage’ site, tangible proof of Kuwait’s historical and cultural equality with other modern nation-states—you can’t be a modern nation-state without a history, however eccentric or foreign-made. Its sides have been smothered with whitewash, thick blue gloss paint (on the woodwork) and clanking chains and padlocks. Bronze lettering in English and Arabic announces: ‘Dickson House Cultural Centre.’ The building overlooks a harbour constructed out of concrete x-blocks, picture-postcard dhows, a facsimile traditional village and Souk Sharq’s nod to the wind-towers of the past.
Stepping in, out of the blinding vertical sunlight, I found myself in an atmosphere suggestive of African mission churches, and half-expected to find mildewed hymnals, pictures of the Infant Jesus and smiling black children assembling at my knees. But it wasn’t like that; the ghosts were older, moodier, faintly Jacobean. There was a musty cloistered feel to the passages, nave-like silences in the bare artificially chilled showrooms, and a fine bone-white dust on the ledges of the darkly varnished doors. The almost liquid humidity and the waves of bitter soda smell coming in from the sea seemed incongruous in such a setting. The ‘guard’ (‘harees’ in the local tongue) came up to me goggling, cigarette concealed behind his back. In the background, his two pals took an age to put down their tea-glasses. Clearly, this place was no cynosure for tourists.
The guard, named Saleh, walked round me in a circle while I pressed him for a booklet or guide. He finally broke away to fetch me the brochure. Saleh told me that he was from Luxor, flagging that place-name at me twice with coaxing eyebrows and a fixed stare in case I hadn’t registered it. He may have wanted me to associate the magnificence of the Luxorian past with this somewhat smaller, pokier, less noticeable chunk of time. The brochure was full of fish-eye lens shots of important items and very little text. What text there was had been enlivened by ingenious spelling mistakes. We laughed in mutual enjoyment of ‘politittical’ on the first page. Or perhaps Saleh laughed to cover his bewilderment at me laughing in simulation of the same—a species of Chinese-boxed response which is the first step in any project of deciphering the meaning of one’s presence in this part of the world. Neither of us was from Kuwait, yet both of us were, at one remove or another, responsible for the place
THERE WERE TWO ways up to the Dickson house’s second storey: a steep, ladder-like staircase or a ramp that wound round part of the courtyard. I thought the ramp might have been a side-effect of the state’s newly acquired interest in the rights of the disabled—there are a lot of Kuwaitis in wheelchairs (not, I should say, because of war)—but Saleh told me it was for Violet who had become enormous in her last years, and anyway had a gammy leg.
The upstairs photographs seemed to confirm this. Saleh also told me that the original pictures and furnishings had been looted by Iraqis during the occupation. This explained the cyclostyled reproductions on the walls (black and white shots of emirs, sheikhs and kings, the Dicksons themselves, the other political agents who’d inhabited the house) and the theatrical knocked-together look of the sideboards. (Some of the furniture, including two mouldering armchairs and a teak chest, as well as some Bedouin craftwork, had been donated by sentimental locals.) Air-conditioning units had been recently installed. Captain Shakespear and Colonel Dickson would not have approved. They were made of sterner stuff. Shakespear had handle-bar moustaches, a ramrod spine and Crimean courage, perishing in Central Arabia while staring down a cavalry of charging horsemen. Dickson, equally uncompromising, camped with Bedouin in his gaiters and waistcoat, and went hunting for bustards with a harquebus. In his photographs, he has the bulk and florid appeal of the beaming effigies in boaters and blue-striped aprons you find outside butchers’ shops in English shopping precincts. This is true even of the last ones, which show him leaning on crutches or being helped into airplanes.
Harold Dickson stayed on in the house after his retirement, at the request of the Emir at the time (Ahmad al-Jabr al-Sabah), now the Chief Local Representative of the Kuwait Oil Company. When he died in 1959, he left behind a remarkable account of Bedouin life, a famous dream, which accurately prognosticated the whereabouts of Kuwait’s first oil well at Burgan, and his increasingly formidable wife. The Arab of the Desert (1947) is still consulted by Kuwaitis, possibly out of nostalgia for the good old days and the desire to see how their forefathers lived, though they might only be interested in seeing how this bastion of English imperial values factored them into that narrowed vision of the world. The dream is very odd, featuring a local sidr tree (the very one, in the Burgan desert, that would mark the spot) and a resurrected female corpse, who, like a Hollywood special effect, emerges, laid out in sere-cloth on a stone block, from a hole in the ground, and then grows younger and more beautiful as the dreaming Harold (attended by his troubled wife) looks on. When he rescues the now fully animate woman from a howling mob of stave- and knife-wielding patriarchs, she gives him a copper coin, which (according to desert lore, Dickson will learn) signifies fabulous riches.
Violet, now immortalised by the soubriquet ‘Um Saud’ (mother of Saud), would outlive her husband by 40 years, and remain, Miss Haversham-like, stuck in the groove of that relationship, in the same place (and the same chair, judging by the photographs) till her death in 1989. She would grow larger, untrimmed and minatory with age, inhabiting her upper rooms like a troll. Some of the photographs show her looming over royalty with bushy overhanging eyebrows and a tulip of champagne in a ham-like fist. She took a dim view of bad manners. Those untutored in the ways of the desert could receive a verbal spanking. Her son, the eponymous Saud, recalled that on her visits to England she would instruct genteel Oxfordshire housewives in the necessity of providing dates and cardamom-flavoured coffee at elevenses.
Standing in her bedroom, looking at the narrow metal cot labelled ‘Um Saud’s bed,’ with its new plastic-wrapped mattress, I considered both her asceticism—the cot would hardly hold a child—and the tenacity of her 40 year-long vigil, which was as much for the Kuwait she’d first seen 60 years before as it was for Harold. She would not leave even when the Iraqis invaded, and could only be repatriated when she was felled by a stroke. One of the nurses who travelled with her said it took four people to carry the stretcher. She left behind a book on wildflowers, much cribbed by present-day Anglo-Kuwaiti mems, and the sort of mythology others have to invent.
There were no other visitors when I was there. Pictures of Queen Rania of Jordan and Prince Andrew of Britain (staring with contrived-looking earnestness at the wall-hangings), suggested that only minor royalty and scavenging post-imperials like myself ever visited. But downstairs, the Visitor’s Book, which was crammed with commentary (‘Wonderful sense of Kuwaiti history,’ ‘You’ve done great job of preservation,’ ‘Thanks for the tour, Mr Khaled!’) and signed by the usual Swedes, Canadians and Japanese, suggested otherwise—though, it has to be said, some of these were thirty years old and Khaled long gone.
The Emir of Kuwait had been a great admirer of Harold, and his successors, along with a host of other well-to-do and well-padded locals, were no less admiring of Violet. She was, they recall, legendary for her hospitality—hospitality being a much-vaunted Arab virtue—and you could always drop in on Violet and share cardamom-flavoured coffee and dates with her. She kept a good house but wouldn’t allow anyone to overuse the bathroom or pour away the bathwater. (She’d lived through austere times, when fresh water only arrived once a month.) She had an extensive knowledge of local events and could identify at length whatever had been unloaded on the wharves that day. She kept turkeys and jerds in the back yard and rode a horse along the beach most mornings until well into her sixties. Her servants, frequently imported from India and Pakistan (some dynastically renewed), remember her without loathing
In 1990, one of these, Faiz Khan, at great personal risk, salvaged a bundle of documents from the house, before fleeing the invading Iraqis. The bundle included letters from Violet and photographs of himself standing with the great lady, one in particular showing them both on the occasion commemorating the sixtieth year of her tenancy of the house. Why did he salvage these documents? Can it really be in tribute to Um Saud’s indomitable spirit, or as the legacy of his own loyal servitude, as her biographer implies? I prefer the psychologically truer, more human explanation that Faiz Khan chose to rescue them not so much because they spoke of Violet’s life as because they recorded the value and importance of his own. I would like to think that it was not just as a Dickson factotum that he kept the documents but as one who wanted to be lit by the same sort of reflected glory as Saleh now wished on himself, courtesy of Luxor.
Museums are supposed to collect together a representative selection from the world, and, at the same time, promote a representational understanding of that world. Thus, while we’re visiting the Dickson House and looking at selections from the Dickson’s life in Kuwait, we’re also learning to see that life in slices. This museum aims to remind us that the Dickson life is part of larger whole called Britain in relation to another whole called Kuwait, and that these two are themselves (implicitly) only parts of a still larger whole itself representational of another grander understanding. In this sense, the museum is not an expression of the Dickson history, or a Dickson life, at all. It is not a storage and exhibition of their past; it is much more an expression of a relation or set of relations. The brochure states on the last page, ‘The Dickson House has become a symbol of the deep friendship and strong political relations between Kuwait and Britain which have existed for years and which are still being strengthened and reinforced through political, military, commercial, educational and cultural exchanges.’ The house represents a set of relations that is not past, stored away for dusty or over-polished exhibition; it is with us now, very much alive and well, winging it away into an ever-branching future—hence, I suppose, the plastic-wrapped new mattress. This insistence on a lived growing cultural relation (the future present) can be read, inversely, as a refusal of the very life the museum seeks to preserve, as a refusal, in fact, of the past, a refusal of not only the British colonial and Harold’s and Violet’s ones but also of Faiz Khan’s materially more vital one.
Collecting modulates into hoarding; classification and display exist in tension with accumulation and secrecy. The museum collection is a product of desire, private and libidinal; it has little to do with scenes of material production, makers, users, men and women labouring. The Dickson House collection is not earned or worked; it is actually outside (or above) history, drifting endlessly in a timeless zone. Entering it, we enter an abstraction. We can admire the ceilings, examine the photographs, imagine portions of a life, we can stroll with our hands in our pockets, linger on the platform, take pictures, or duck into the shade of an anteroom once used to house goats. We can follow the signs, obediently keeping pace with someone else’s libidinal investment. I like to think that we can do much more than that. We can turn our backs on the markers that tell us what we are seeing. In the unvarnished atmospherics of the veranda space, for example, I find, or find visited upon me spectrally, the unsliced intensity of Violet’s stubborn gaze.
What did she see from her veranda through those long unrepresented years? Aircraft carriers, oil tankers and container ships moving with a sort of ponderous stealth across a mirror-flat sea? Doubtful. The shipping lanes would have been less crowded in the early days, in any case, and nearby Shuwaikh port couldn’t support the bigger class of ocean-going vessel. Would she have seen anything of the ebb and flow of today’s traffic? Probably not. Neither the dhow harbour nor Souk Sharq, over to the right, with its cluster of see-through wind-towers, designer shops and supermarket, was built until after her death. She wouldn’t have seen the Hummers and Harley Davisons that now weave along the Gulf road or have heard the shriek of tyres and the flat thud of impact announcing yet another case of quadriplegia. What then could she have seen?
In winter, she might have seen the silvery fry the tide leaves piled up on the shore, wavering lines of green kelp, in spring, and, perhaps, once or twice, towards the end of her life, an oil-clogged cormorant or gunshot-riddled flamingo lying on the steaming mudflats of summer. But mostly, she would have watched the filmy curtains of muggy grey shade into brown shading into blue, and blue shading back into brown shading back into grey, and then grey deepening into a final sticky black, as the humidity waxed and waned, and night fell, because there was nothing left to see.
Piers Michael Smith lives and works in Kuwait. His online travel pieces have appeared in Eclectica, Cold Noon and Nowhere magazine. He sometimes tweets @smithsmyths