was the first European woman to live in the Hadhramaut, an isolated, bone-dry region of Southern Arabia. A younger contemporary of Freya Stark, she travelled extensively throughout the Yemen and was integral in bringing peace to the region
Doreen Ingrams (nee Shortt 1906-1997) was the first European woman to live in the Hadhramaut, a strangely cosmopolitan but littleknown region of Southern Arabia, outside the confines of the British Empire. Abandoning her career as a stage actress to marry then colonial officer and later resident advisor to Hadhramaut, Harold Ingrams, in 1930; she thus began a lifelong love affair with Southern Arabia.
The landscapes that greeted Doreen when she and Harold were to embark on their first ‘reconnaissance’ journey into the Hadhramaut in 1934 must have been impressive, especially after the relative comforts of colonial life, with its oppressive rituals, in the neighbouring British colony of Aden.
Hadhramis living abroad in the diaspora had made their fortunes in Java, Indonesia, Hyderabad or even Zanzibar, since there was little money to be made in their homeland. Many of these emigrants dreamed of returning to Hadhramaut, where their remittances could be used to build seven-storey-high palaces, with defensive walls around the towns.
In the towns of Shihr, Shibam, Seiyun, and Tarim, earthen palaces, complete with gardens, water pools and the odd motor car were set against a stark
landscape of barren rock, high cliff faces, and 1,000-foot-deep crevasses with date-palm groves.
But Doreen was not the only female European traveller in Southern Arabia at that time - her peer, archaeologist and traveller Freya Stark (1893-1993) dedicated her book Winter in Arabia to Doreen and Harold, whilst a [female geologist], Elinor Wight Gardner visited the Hadhramaut with Freya Stark and
Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1938, remarking, ‘ 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...’
Doreen spent the first fifteen years of her marriage supporting Harold’s posts, typing up his reports, organizing repairs to the new roads in his absence, liaising with the antiquities’ surveys carried out from Egypt and Sudan, supplying employees with medicines and help, translating letters (during the war all letters abroad were censored).
This was no mean task, for in conjunction with the local ‘ seiyids’ (descendants of the prophet) and tribal leaders, Harold proposed the manumission for slaves in 1937; the development of agriculture in the ‘flood plain’ areas; introduction of school (at least for the sons of the seiyids); the establishment of government links with the Hadrhami Indian diaspora, and, perhaps most significantly, the introduction of a tribal peace between 1400 Hadrhami tribes with the approval of the Qu’aiti and Kathiri sultans in Hadhramaut. This peace, which lasted about 12 years, was commonly known as the ‘Ingrams Peace’ (or in local pronunciation, ‘Ingrains Peace’).
As Harold frequently needed to report back to his colonial superiors in Aden, Doreen undertook peace missions of her own to local tribes, including two significant journeys to Wadi Amd and Wadi Hajr in 1937-1939.
Doreen was a skilled communicator with her local bedou tribesmen who offered protection, although at one point the
couple’s 1934 reconnaissance mission was threatened with ambush. She also shone as a skilled missionary for peace, gaining access in a way that few, if any, Europeans had, to the womenfolk of local tribesmen and to the wives of palace harems.
Her approaches to local families are of far more lasting significance than official British government policy of advanced warning air-raids on tribes such as the Bin Yemeni.
Doreen’s visit to Wadi Amd by camel in 1937 was to obtain the support of the Ja’ada tribe for the ‘Ingrams Peace’, Ja’adis being known for their slaving connections with South-east Asia. She started out at Hureidha, where Freya Stark was to dig the following year, under the protection of the Seiyid Alawi Al Attas family. With her usual good sense, she befriended the uncrowned ‘head’ of the Al Attas household, a retainer, Jemila, a humorous 30-year-old woman, with whom she formed an alliance, cantering up and down the wadi on camel back to visit the other seiyids. A canter on a camel, Doreen said, was like riding in a ‘Rolls Royce’.
Most tribeswomen were curious as to why she should care about their affairs - as a soft-skinned Christian and, travelling alone, presumably a mere ‘travelling wife’ of her absent husband. But, patient, Arabic-speaking Doreen always expressed her concern for the state of their under-educated or malnourished children and offered advice and help in areas where she felt she could intervene; making her way into the hearts of the local ladies, the wives of the seiyids, the ‘sherifas’.
One of these wives was to return her kindness by spitting into a cup of coffee for her, a surprising wish for good luck for Doreen’s own fertility. But Doreen’s rapport with women was key to her success with the men; by the end of the trip she had won over the Ja’ada tribesmen too and the sign of her acceptance as peacemaker was to be invited to discuss the killing of Muslim by Muslim, ‘man to man’, over a dinner of mutton heart, which she was told, despite her disgust, she ‘must eat’.
Her next solo trip in Yemen was by donkey from Mukalla (the Ingrams’s home on the coast) to the Wadi Hajr. Once again, she needed to travel with bedou - although this time her bedou guides were unarmed and she attributed this new-found sense of security due to the Ingrams Peace. She climbed up and down donkey tracks to 2,000 feet, sharing
Elinor Wight Gardner visited the Hadhramaut with Freya Stark and Gertrude CatonThompson in 1938, remarking, ‘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...’
meals of shark, rice and coffee under the stars with her nomadic bedou guides, for whom a single thorn tree would do as ‘home’ throughout one’s life. She found the bedou were gifted seers – predicting the arrival of aeroplanes and guns to their country; as well as the ‘emptying’ of their own trade: motorcars and roads (which were among the colonial innovations) were to obviate the need for nomadic traders. But the pressures of Doreen’s colonial position meant that many of her friendships with local people turned to either questions of potential agricultural development or the request for help in various disputes.
It was the request to help in one such dispute, a key to the ‘Ingrams Peace’, that led Harold to be presented with the child of a slave woman who had been freed and was due to marry a new husband. Doreen and Harold therefore adopted Zahra, a one-year-old. Zahra stayed with the family throughout their subsequent travels, which included to Aden, to Cairo, to Britain during the war, the Gold Coast (via a motorcar ride across the Sahara) and thence on to a traditional British education which included training as the only non-native Wren officer in her year. She went on to marry a British Naval Captain, and they both worked in Bahrain
As war started to threaten the East, Doreen was shipped to Cairo in 1940, to give birth to her daughter Leila; but the family were to return to Yemen during the war, hit hard by famine, as remittances dried up while the Japanese occupied South-East Asia.
Doreen and Harold published widely on the Hadhramaut and their services were recognized by being jointly awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society as well as the Lawrence of Arabia Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. In addition, Doreen received in 1993 the Sir Richard Burton Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
After the unwelcome break-up of her marriage, Doreen took up a career as Senior Assistant with the BBC Arabic Service where she worked between 1956 and 1967 and which brought her into close touch with other parts of the Middle East, developing her contacts with Palestinians publishing Palestine Papers 1917-22: Seeds of Conflict (republished by Eland in 2013). 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).
Leila was welcomed to Aden as a baby on the back of a mule along with
Zahra, and spent her early childhood in the Yemen (and Ethiopia). In later life she was an inveterate visitor to the country and organised exhibitions throughout England, Ireland and Wales, on the history and culture of Yemen. She worked for the Centre for Arab British Understanding (CAABU), continuing the work of her parents after their deaths.
Author Adel Aulaqi said that he often corresponded with her using such names as ya sheikhah-mahariyah, ya sheikhahhadhramiah although she preferred Sheikhah to the more elevated Malikah, Sultana or Amira, ‘all best suffixed with a well-loved animal, country or place: Hadhramaut, Mahra or Ethiopia.’ Leila was fiercely proud of her mother’s work alongside her father’s: if the Yemeni women’s contribution was edited out of her parents’ books in Arabic translation, Leila would refuse translation rights. Leila never left Hadhramaut in her heart, and before she died, she told me that she was really a bedou at heart, adding, that by sharing people’s troubles and joys, as her mother had done, the barriers – of language, politics and religion – soon came down.
Above: Farmers conversing in the street Right: From left to right, the ZanzibariOmani Wazir of the Qu’aiti State Sheikh Seif bin Ali al-Bu Ali OBE; Sultan Salih al-Qu’aiti; Harold Ingrams in Arab dress; Crown Prince Amir Awadh al-Qu’aiti, father to the current Sultan and Doreen Ingrams (in Syrian dress, her everyday attire) in front of the palace in Mukalla, 1942