“When I first travelled to the Gulf, the UAE didn’t exist and it was still known as the Trucial States,” recalls Edna Carr Green, who chronicles her experiences of living in the region in Love From, her 2016 memoir. Shortly after marrying her husband Neville in 1960, they boarded a plane bound for Beirut where he was posted at the local branch of Eastern Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank). “Beirut really was the Paris of the Middle East back then and a wonderful introduction to the region,” says Edna of their time in Beirut, where they moved into an apartment on Rue Hamra, with its fashionable boutiques, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and cafes. “There were boutiques selling Dior and the Lebanese women were always fabulously dressed and beautifully made up. They also had the best hairdressers in Beirut who worked wonders on my English hair.”
In April of 1961, shortly before Edna was scheduled to fly back to the UK to give birth to their son Jeremy, the bank informed the couple that Neville’s next posting was in Abu Dhabi. Six weeks after giving birth, Edna was back on a plane with her new-born son bound for Beirut, where they joined Neville for the next leg of their trip to Bahrain. “Our plan was to stay in Bahrain for a short time, while Neville continued on to Abu Dhabi to find a place for us to live and a building for the bank,” says Edna, who in September 1961 set off for Abu Dhabi on a Gulf Air Dove. “In those days the planes were more like flying trucks, which I shared with my son, wedged in his cot between myself and the pilot’s door,” she says, recalling that among her fellow passengers that day was a goat and two Bedouins balancing falcons on their wrists.
“When we finally arrived in Abu Dhabi, the plane’s back door opening and there stood Neville with his Land Rover at the bottom of the steps. There was no control tower, customs or passport control of any kind, just a windsock on a stick blowing in the breeze,” says Edna, who from a distance she could make out the ruler’s palace, which was the only significant structure on the island at the time. “In the beginning, we were something of a curiosity as we lived close to the old souk where the bank’s branch was located. I remember once settling down to read when I heard giggling and looked up to find half a dozen ladies in black abayas and facemasks, peering through the window at this strange world of carpeted floors, bookcases, chairs and tables,” recalls Edna, noting that during those early years in Abu Dhabi, a sense of humour was required to make it through the day.
Edna Carr Green's mother with her daughter Amanda among the ruins of the ancient Roman city Sabratha in Libya, 1969
Since there was no central electricity supply, the lucky few expatriates who had access to electrical appliances had to power them through noisy generators. “Our generator ran the window air-conditioning units and lights,” says Edna, who would cook meals in a tiny kitchen with barely enough space for a bottled gas cooker and a fridge and freezer that ran on kerosene. “Not having running water was our greatest challenge though. We had to rely on daily deliveries in the form of four large old kerosene cans strapped to a donkey’s back. We were severely rationed by the amount of water the donkey could carry, which came from a local well and was a bit salty,” she adds, pointing out that as the population grew, an entrepreneur in Dubai began to drive across the dessert to Abu Dhabi with huge tanks on the back of his truck filled with fresh water.
“Back then Abu Dhabi was pretty isolated, since we didn’t have access to a transistor radio or telephone. The Political Agent had a radio, which was the only means of communication with the outside world. We were somewhat oblivious to what was going on beyond our little bubble, until news eventually got to us via letters or the occasional newspaper that was a few days old,” says Edna, pointing out that despite living in relative isolation, Abu Dhabi’s early expat community took entertaining very seriously. “We were such a small community at the time that it was easy to organize regular dinner parties, and guests made an effort to dress up in suits and evening gowns,” she says, noting that as Abu Dhabi’s expat population continued to grow in 1962, so did the number of parties.
Around that time, Edna hatched the idea to establish a club over dinner with friends. “The oil company allowed us to lease an old house outside of town and Sheikh Shakhbut gave his blessing as well. We formed a committee and decided to call it simply The Club,” recalls Edna, adding that shortly after moving into the building they had a concrete tennis court constructed. “The first big event I organized was a Poppy Ball, which is typically held in November on Armistice Day to celebrate the end of the WWI,” says the former expat, who after two years in Abu Dhabi received news that Neville was being transferred to the Eastern Bank’s branch in Bahrain.
Inspecting Abu Dhabi's new jetty in 1966
In February 1963 the family arrived in Bahrain, where they moved into a bungalow in a green compound called Nabeel Gardens. Living on the island for a longer period of time gave Edna the opportunity to meet Bahraini women. “Compared to my first stay in Bahrain, by 1964 one began to see more Bahraini women, particularly amongst the younger generation, wearing the latest Western fashions and hairstyles,” observes the former expat, who also visited the ruler’s wife at her palace and attended weddings.
Towards the end of 1965, while seven months pregnant with their daughter Amanda, Edna and her husband were told they were being transferred back to Abu Dhabi. By the time she returned to the emirate after giving birth to her daughter in the UK, Abu Dhabi had gone through considerable change in the few years they had been away. In 1966, Sheikh Shakhbut’s brother Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan became its new ruler and he set about investing Abu Dhabi’s oil revenues in earnest to bring it into the 20th century. “It had turned into a big construction site and overnight the population had doubled with an influx of contractors, engineers and labourers brought in to build roads, housing, office buildings and an airport,” recalls Edna of her return to the emirate, noting that it now boasted its own post office.
In 1967, the couple were informed by the bank that they would be moving them to Tripoli. “Where Beirut was very French, Tripoli reminded me of Italy with it beach clubs fronting the beautiful coastal promenade, Il Lungomare, where waiters in white coats would serve wonderful lunches,” says Edna, who recalled that Libya during King Idris’ rule was a very cosmopolitan place. “I discovered a great Italian silversmith called Angelino who made beautiful jewellery by hand,” adds the expat, who settled with her family in the Gargour Estate, a large compound of villas with manicured gardens. “In 1969 my mother stayed with us in Libya and we visited the ancient ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna on the north coast,” says Edna, who would soon be packing their bags in a few months; not for a new posting by the bank, but to flee a revolution.
When the bank was nationalized Gaddafi’s newly installed government, the Greens were advised to leave immediately. “I felt somewhat melancholy watching Tripoli recede into the distance from the plane’s window,” says Edna a few weeks later at her London apartment. “I feel privileged to have experienced all these rich cultures and friendships with people whose backgrounds were so different from mine. It was the most enriching part of being an expat in the Middle East, which is one of the reasons I decided to publish my memoirs. It teaches one tolerance and empathy towards others, something the world is in need of more than ever today.”
Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the April issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.
To purchase Love From, click here.