Kuwaiti taxi drivers often get lost in their own constantly changing city-state. But they never have trouble finding Um Saud's waterfront house with its crumbling white facade.
The two story house and its long-term occupant are both treasured reminders of Kuwait's pre-oil heritage, before a six-lane imitation Los Angeles freeway slashed through the garden and the dhows were moved out of town as eyesores.
As much a pillar of permanence as the ruling family, Dame Violet Dickson -- Um Saud, or mother of Saud to the Kuwaitis -- is very much in charge of the mud-built house she first moved into in 1929 as wife of the British "political agent," who was London's representative in charge of administering what was then a flyblown station on the imperial lifeline to India.
"No one could have hoped for a fuller or more interesting life than I have had," she says at 84.
Her blue eyes twinkle from a face that once inspired womanizing Saudi King Abdul Aziz to offer her a trip -- "declined, of course" -- without husband to Mecca, then as now off-limits to infidels.
Instead she promised the king she would call her son Saud, which she did, but only after considerable argument at the christening ceremony from persnickety church officials in Switzerland who questioned whether that was a proper Christian name.
Listening to Dame Violet is to be transported to an era of adventure, privilege, responsibility, guts and privation. Hers was a world where you dressed for dinner, received a general or a king without notice, when boys pulled ropes to work the punkah, or hand-powered fan, to provide relief from the stifling 120 degree heat, when portable toilets known as thunderboxes were the latest in sanitation. The house's overhead ceiling fans came in the 1930s when the first generator was delivered to give electricity.
During an Indian interlude in the mid-1920s, there was also a touch of the high life. During one outing, she recalls, she was invited "to have a go at a gazelle" by a friendly maharajah.
"He lent me his rifle -- a .275 Magnum -- and I brought down the gazell from his Rolls Royce car from a range of 190 yards," she says. "The horns measured 10 3/4 inches."
But Kuwait then was a village protected by a mud wall and boasting three cars -- the ruler's, her husband's and a taxi. This was the colonial life she married into by accepting a telegraphed proposal from then-captain H. R. P. Dickson, 28th Lancers, Deccan Horse, Indian Army. He had seen her fleetingly on two occasions when he stopped in at the Marseilles branch of the British bank she worked in to cash checks in 1919.
Over the years she came to know the great English adventurer-diplomats -- Bertram Thomas and H. St. John Philby, the first and rival Englishmen to cross Saudi Arabia's fearsome Empty Quarter desert -- and Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark and later writer Wilfred Thesiger. Like them and her Arabist husband, she was to fall under the spell of the desert Bedouin.
On the linoleum floor of the house lies the two-pommel camel saddle she once used and the water colors on the walls are of Bedouin scenes. She and her husband loved to camp out with Bedoins in their distinctive tents spun from black sheep wool and hunt the bustard and houbara with falcon or shoot imperial sand grouse.
Spring rains brought desert flowers that she carefully pressed and dispatched to the Kew Herbarium outside London before writing and illustrating "Wildflowers of Kuwait and Bahrain."
Before and after her husband died in 1959, she prided herself in her Bedouin friends. Some of the men who came to the house, she recalls, were "plausible rascals, hoping for an easy gift, but I was fond of them all -- even these -- because I knew what they were up to, and they knew I knew."
She still listens to the men -- although refusing to have much truck with the women -- asks them about their families and grazing, and sends them off to the store with chits for such desert staples as coffee and cardamom to flavor it. In her book "Forty Years in Kuwait," published a good decade ago, she explained that Bedouin men would tell her their most personal problems.
"I do not believe any other English-woman would be spoken to thus," she wrote. "It's probably just the fact I have been in touch with my bedu friends for 40 years and I do not believe any other Englishwoman has been in Arabia that long."
All she now sees in modern Kuwait she does not necessarily like, but she is wise enough to know her Bedouin friends are better off settled in their welfare state than they were before.
"From 1950 we were sometimes dismayed to see how the Kuwaitis were demolishing entire quarters of the old mud-built town and replacing them with multistory concrete blocks," she wrote. It bothered her husband, who when he retired as political agent in 1936 stayed on as adviser to the new Kuwait Oil Co., which brought in its first well two years later.
What bothers her -- and is beginning to bother some Kuwaitis -- is the destruction of the environment that oil wealth has meant. The Bedouins now have pickups and trucks. Dune buggies tear up the desert that has been denuded by the constant travel of too many people foraging for firewood. Today in the autumn there are no more migrating houbara or bustards for the falcons to hunt or imperial sand grouse to be shot. The protective bushes are gone and too many guns have taken their toll.
The nearest game is now 100 miles away across the Saudi Arabian frontier, according to her Bodouin friends. In any case, the young Bedouin generation "is not so keen on the desert," she explains, although most Bedouin families still like to keep a few sheep around for milk or to kill for a feast.
Like many Kuwaitis, she regrets that oil has made what once was a village into a city-state.
"Today I do not see the ruler," she says. "He has people coming from far and near and they go away with handful of money. In the old days the town was so small the ruler sat in the open market square. All the men could talk to him."
In those days she went, sometimes with her husband, sometimes alone. Even now she sometimes attends the crown prince's once-a-week majlis, or meeting at the a palace.
"He puts me next to him and I listen to everyone talk and whisper and drink coffee," she explains. "It's a privilege from the old days."
She no longer goes into the desert but her beloved Bedouins still come to see her.
"It's a bit far for me these days," she says. "They just arrive with no warning. I can tell from my turkey's gobbling and I see the Bedouin sitting on the bench downstairs. We chat and I give them a chit and they go away happy."
Decorated with the Order of the British Empire, Dame Violet was also honored by the British ambassador two years ago on the occasion of her 50th anniversary in Kuwait.
"There were two tents in the embassy garden and I received from 7 to 9," she recalls. "Cold drinks, you know, only men. It was wonderful. The European wives thought it was in bad taste because they were not invited."
But, as she explained, she does not receive her Bedouin friends' wives either, for "that is the way it was."