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Lady Evelyn Cobbold: A woman against all odds

Lady Evelyn Cobbold: A woman against all odds
Heba hendawi

Lady Evelyn Cobbold, Scottish woman, born in the late 1800s, had been to Algeria and Egypt, where she made friendship with the Arabs, was exposed to the Arabic language and Islam. In 1933, she traveled to Mecca and performed Hajj.

Heba Hendawi

I was once scrolling down my Facebook account and then I stopped at a post. It was Ms. Yvonne Ridley’s photo of 20 Scottish Muslims on a mission to visit a lonely grave in the Highlands. There they prayed and remembered the deceased with due honor. I was intrigued by the fact that the very grave is up the mountains and it belongs to the first Scottish lady to perform hajj. As a previous resident in Scotland, I have a special admiration and attachment to the people I loved and the place where I spent three of the best years of my life.

I read what Ms. Ridley wrote about the journey they made to reach the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold and pay tribute to her. I have never heard of her before throughout my stay there. I was curious to read about her and know her mysterious journey from the Highlands to Mecca.  Google was the word! I typed her name and voilà! In a blink of an eye I had everything I needed to know.

Lady Evelyn Cobbold was born in the late 1800s in the age of Queen Victoria. She was the descent of an aristocratic British family. Her father and mother were the Earl and Duchess of Dunmore. Furthermore, her father was a traveler fond of exploring new lands and he accompanied his family with him. He took his family to spend the sunny winters in Algeria and Egypt where Evelyn was introduced to a completely new culture. It was there that she made friends with the Arabs, had local nannies and was exposed to the Arabic language and Islam. She enjoyed her life unlike her siblings who were not influenced by the oriental culture.

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Image Courtesy: One Path Network

Also read: Lady Evelyn Cobbold – The First British Muslim Woman to perform Hajj

When the family left, a spark was lit forever in her heart. Lately, in Egypt, she met her future husband and got married and returned to the UK and had two daughters and one son. Her marriage came to an end with no recorded reason. She had a decline towards Islam yet she did not remember when or where she acquired it. In her own words she recalled “being a little Muslim at heart.” In 1933, at the age of 65, she decided to perform hajj and travel to Mecca. It was such a challenge at that time for a European woman to travel alone and enter the Holy Land. It was not an easy mission. She had to take the permission of King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in person. A new convert to Islam was not allowed easily into Mecca let alone a woman and of a European origin. A new Muslim was to stay in Jeddah for a year and if his residency proved his authenticity and genuine conversion to Islam he was then allowed to enter Mecca for the Hajj. The reason behind this strict attitude was that the Arabs were subject to fraud from two European travelers who claimed to be Muslims and entered the Holy Lands and caused troubles then went back to their countries accusing the Muslims of ill-treating them and exposing their lives to danger. It was just an adventure for them to write a book and get money out of it.

She wrote down her diaries day by day and as soon as she returned to the UK she published her book Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1934.

Lady Evelyn Cobbold - bookThis strong Scottish woman had such undaunted determination to perform Hajj. In 1933, she travelled to Jeddah and wrote to the King. As a British aristocrat and of good relations with many people, she was credible enough to be taken seriously.  She was given the permission and she performed the journey of her life. She wrote down her diaries day by day and as soon as she returned to the UK she published her book Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1934.

In her book, she not only recorded her days and memories in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina but also she took on her shoulders the responsibility of defending Islam and the Arabs against all the misconceptions the West had about them. From within Arabia, as a witness of everyday life, she spoke about the real status of women in the Arab world and refuted all the unjust claims about their oppression or discrimination. She contemplated on many aspects of life and Islam and in many occasions she reflected upon the true essence of the religion she adopted and loved not fanatically but lovingly in simple reasonable words. The book is a good explanation of what Islam is all about and how life in Arabia was like from a traveler’s point of view.

As a translator, I was intrigued to deliver her message after all those years and revive her forgotten book. The more I delved into her world, the more I felt I know this lady. I could hear her Scottish accent and steady personality. I am a memoir writer myself so I cherished her sincere will to tell her people about a place she loved and friends she was bound to. I have been there and know how it feels like to have affection for a place and cannot stop talking about it. I decided to translate her words to Arabic readers and let them all know about this first British lady to perform hajj and travel by herself against all odds. Being written in 1933, it was a little bit funny to read about her Ford car that was a unique means of transportation at the time. She was privileged to have it and a watch to people. It is a time in history nearly a century ago that we know nothing about except for such old books. There were no phones and not even running water at homes. Their lives was simple and natural.

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Image Courtesy: Pinterest

At the age of 95, 30 years after her fascinating journey, she passed away in Inverness. According to her will, she was to be buried the Islamic way and her face should face Mecca. She chose a remote grave in the Highlands that she loved and where she belonged. On an exceptionally cold day, she was laid to rest in the presence of a sheikh from the mosque and a traditional kilted Scottish piper. On her tombstone she ordered the Qur’anic verse she adored most “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.”

Also read: When memories poured out on my head!

I enjoyed translating her memoir as much as she enjoyed writing it in the first place. I added footnotes to explain things that are history to 2024 reader and it was such fun to explore this era. As soon as I finished I had Lady Evelyn or,  Zainab as she choose her Arabic name to be,  words echoing in my mind:” Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart….what have the past days held out but endless interest., wonder and beauty? To me an amazing world has been revealed.”

Published under an International Cooperation Protocol with Middle East Business | Life Magazine





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