My father named me Pliny. Why did he choose an obscure Roman
naturalist as the namesake for his son? Did such a name arise from my
father’s love of history? Some considered him an odd bird. My father,
Arthur Oslander, and my mother, Eloise, were misfits, by ability and
social status, in their position as pastor and wife for our conservative,
affluent Anglican church. Indeed, I overheard these comments from
several in my father’s congregation. Did father intend to foist off his
eccentricity on me, too, by his choice of the obscure name?
My unorthodox name was just another reason for my schoolmates to
ridicule me. “Pliny, Pliny, miny moe.” There were other reasons, too,
not the least of which was the fact that I bested them in academics.
My father’s position in his well-off church had allowed me a post in
the Lambeth School for Boys, a school our social station would not
normally have warranted. But the end of that period in my life came
when Father was drafted by the Reformed Church in America for their
He was deemed eligible for work with the Reformed church because
he had tried to lead his congregation in the direction of Evangelicalism,
the British term of the day for the reformed faith, a product of the
Reformation. This was not popular with the staid congregation. Having
failed in this endeavor, the American Reformed Church saw him as a
potential missionary, and for the Anglicans, it was a way to get rid of
a failing pastor.
When I announced to classmates my departure for the Middle East
with my family, my fellow students stood stiffly, quietly, no smiles,
as they attempted to administer a satisfactory goodbye. Thus, I was
not sad to depart the grim and particulate fog produced by the burning
of soft coal that fueled London, and along with haze, the dung in the
streets generated by the thousands of horses that pulled the city.
And for the three Oslanders, a spiritual journey lay before us.
I had just reached my fifteenth birthday when we departed on
December 1, 1896. I carried with me the mental picture of my fellow
students’ stolid expressions as I endured six weeks of travel by sea to
our new home, bored by the endless blue-gray waves and revolted by
seasickness as we coursed over a waterscape that had no end. For all I
observed, the earth was probably flat.
The thick, gray clouds pouring from the ship’s two smokestacks
reminded me of the foul London air, but at least we left the smolder
and pollution behind us, as the two square-sail masts allowed our ship
to outrun the smoke from the boilers. In the Gulf, first, there were
stops to leave off cargo in Doha and then Bahrain, where the Reformed
medical mission was already established. We transferred to a thirtymeter
wooden vessel, the Jamila, with two triangular sails. My
mother’s last happy words were, “My gracious what a beautiful boat.”
On January 14, 1897, the Jamila pulled into the well-sheltered, halfmoon
shaped harbor, the water as smooth as a giant lake abutting the
gently sloping sand in front of Kuwait City. We saw dozens of vessels
of varying sizes, the smaller pulled up on the beach and the larger
moored in shallow water. The vessels were unfamiliar to me in their
design, with their graceful triangular sails, rough-hewn masts, and
broad hulls, which sloped downward from bow to stern, with every
view of them showing all flowing ropes and sails.
Indeed, there was nothing that looked familiar. I put my head down on
my forearms resting on the prow of our ship, trying, failing, to conceal
the tears from my parents, who strived (I thought half-heartedly) to
comfort their displaced son. My father said, “Don’t worry, Pliny, it’ll
be fine.” He was not at all convincing. Their distress was evident
to me in the tight corners of their faces, in their lack of any smiling
Yes, we were really going to live in this alien, dusty cranny tucked
in a corner of a blue- green sea. Small, gray-silver fish, some
beaching themselves, scattered before the Jamila’s bow. The dock and
gangplank on the shore, which our vessel could not access because
of the shallow beach, were covered by yellow dust, and there was
nothing I could see that was not swathed in its coating, the product of
a recent toz (Kuwaiti term for a sand storm). All my life, my parents
had expressed the dictum that cleanliness was a component of one’s
spiritual development, and I repeated this to myself as I surveyed the
filth in front of me, still mindful of my parents’ authority. That precept
vanished in the stiff breeze that arose from the land carrying the finegrained
sand that lodged between my teeth and stung my eyes.
Such a venture to the Near East was not my choice, although leaving
school chums and football pitches in London was not a complete
regret. I lifted my head from the prow to view our new home. And
seeing Kuwait, I sorely missed the green hills of our homeland. When
I looked inland from the gentle sea lapping against the sandy shore,
yellow and white stretched before me, the only visible colors. My
mother, father, and I, along with our belongings, were carried by the
porters across the shallow water to the beach, an undignified landing.
At intervals along the beach, human feces were scattered awaiting
washout by the next tide. Would I ever get used to that sight?
Our family had not come by choice. Andrew Zwemer, already
designated by the religious of the day as the hero-evangelist to the
Arabs, had asked, no, really commanded, my father to leave his
Anglican congregation in south London and proceed to this pitiful
Christian outpost at the head of the Persian Gulf. My father had
obeyed, and here we were.
And for what purpose? Were the three of us to be missionary cannon fodder?
We didn’t speak Arabic. The fifteen King James Bibles we
brought with us, carefully boxed and each protected by foil from the
elements, were in English, heavy books with leather covers (their
bindings already crumbling in the strange climate) with thin pages
and small print. How futile to give these books to those who read only
Arabic. Was this even a cruel, insulting gesture? And, since we were
warned not to proselytize, to whom would they be awarded? To my
question, “What do we do with these books?” my father and mother
had no response.
Physicians from the Reformed Mission, already active in Bahrain, had
been promised, too, for Kuwait by the Reformed Church. There were
no more doctors available to be sent, so my parents were the promise
of their delivery. I could glean no other role for our presence.
The harbor hands, bare-chested, skin shining with sweat, heads wrapped
in once-clean red and white checkered cloth, unloaded our family’s
belongings and provisions, some of the crates already fractured, with
my mother’s underclothes spilling out. My father objected, “Help me
pick up her clothes.” But my mother was too struck by the outrage of
our undertaking to be embarrassed by her underwear, and the Arabs
showed no interest in the dress of a white woman, as if she were
The dock men loaded the boxes onto five donkeys, two gray and
three brown, but all yellow from the dust matted in their wiry fur, and
set out for one of the white, rectangular structures several hundred
meters away from the sea. One of the men, his chest exposed, with
no fat on his bones and stringy muscles, led the others in a rhythmic
chant. His rich bass voice sounded out a four-beat cadence, which
his men followed as they tugged on their donkeys’ halters. I couldn’t
understand the words, but their guttural consonants captured my ear.
My mother directed an unsmiling glance at father – no, steely would
be a better word, no blinking in her gaze, no words of encouragement.
“I’ll never clean up all the dust.” Little had been said between the two
on the voyage up the coast from Doha, and I observed they had not
touched each other in affection for weeks now. I had heard Mother
talking to her friends in the congregation before their departure. She
told them she was opposed to the journey. Hearing Mother say this, I
had long dispensed with any sort of optimism for the venture.
We trekked up the sandy beach, following our belongings toward
a mass of white structures that lined narrow streets of yellow dust.
The city, I learned, housed twenty thousand Arabs. The buildings
were rough, with few structures of equal height and little evidence of
measured construction. The edifices lacked much solid stone, which
was rare in the desert, rather, they were composed of mud or baked
bricks and wood pillars. Some structures were covered with stuccolike
material. The larger homes, one to which we were assigned, had
central courtyards for privacy. These homes possessed walled roofs
to allow for additional private open space. Our assigned home was
generous compared to most: a large kitchen with iron stove with an
adjacent eating area, no table, an anteroom for sitting with guests, a
separate room for the women, and four bedrooms on the second floor,
the stairway leading to the second floor and the rooftop navigated by a
challenging stone staircase of uneven stairs.
Our arrival at the house secured for us by Sheikh Mubarak, the Kuwaiti
ruler, did little to lessen the ongoing parental conflict. As much as the
dust caked the outside of the structure, it was nothing compared to
the coverage on the inside. Mother sat in the one available, roughly
appointed wooden chair, her head down, sobbing. Father wandered
about the house, stopping first at the large, empty water jug in the
kitchen and then at the strange toilet in the courtyard, where one’s
waste could be washed with water down a hole in the sand. His face
was gray, stone-like. We spent our first night on the floor on piles
of large pillows, with no food or water, staring at the boxes of our
remaining belongings, those that had not been destroyed during the
ship transfers and the rugged voyage. Conversation? No, there was
none among us.
In the morning, an Arab woman dressed in a head covering, the nakab
(draped down to the neck, covering all but the eyes), and a long robe
called an abaya (the black-cloth total-body covering), appeared with
tea, bread, melted butter, and what she referred to as laban (a type of
fermented milk). “Ana Janiah.” (I am Janiah).
The three of us, as new Kuwait residents, roused and gobbled the
bread. The bread was like nothing I had ever known – thin, crisp
on the outside, small bubbles formed in the crust, soft in the center,
warm, and ready for the melted butter that accompanied it. We weren’t
prepared for the thick, tart laban.
What about water for drinking and washing? Janiah gave a few coins to
a street seller who passed by with water jugs carried by three donkeys,
and our supply for two days was secured.
There could, would, be life for us in Kuwait.
I exhausted the first day resenting what my parents had done to me.
My parents didn’t speak to each other, and I didn’t speak to them. They
had severed me from my familiar, if unpleasant, school surroundings.
Now what? But the days settled into routine, each pretty much the
same: bread and tea for breakfast, then fish or chicken, each always
with heavily buttered rice, along with the grease from the animal
prepared for us, brought by the silent, black-robed Janiah. Later, we
learned most Kuwaitis could not afford regular meat servings. We had
no forks, so we ate with our hands. Were we such pitiful creatures that
we must be fed like stock animals in a pen?
First, who had sent Janiah to serve us? She had stayed throughout
the first morning assisting my mother with the unpacking. My father
sat in the one chair, uncertain what to do. Then the Arab woman,
clearly the person in charge of us, directed the men as they brought
in tables, chairs, and cushions that the sheikh had selected for us. We
later learned the cushions were to teach us the Arab style of sitting
on the floor. She came twice daily with food and provisions, which
we had no means or ability to procure for ourselves. For cooking and
heat, she carried in piles of brushwood, which we had seen transported
on donkeys led by young boys as they returned from the desert. This
sequence continued for a month until, finally, our family learned to
venture out to the town on our own.
There were shops intermixed among the homes selling vegetables;
fruit, some we had never seen; fish fresh from the sea; sheep, each
hanging down from a hook, skinned and gutted; live chickens; and
metal components for cooking. “I could never kill a chicken,” said my
My mother responded, “I’ll kill the chicken. We must eat.” A purposeful
exchange, at least.
The first mystery we had to solve was who sold what. If there were
signs, and there were few, we couldn’t read them. Our collective
bewilderment over the new home lessened, and the extraordinary
sights we encountered on a daily basis became less strange.
Thank God we were British. Otherwise, Sheikh Mubarak would not
have even allowed our landing in port. There would have been no
help at the dock, no porters for our frail belongings, and no shelter set
for us. And it was Mubarak who sent the Arab woman, Janiah, who
supplied all our food and water for a month and the men who delivered
our beds and other furniture.
Soon our family became aware of our on-site benefactor and his
associates. There was Mubarak himself, soon to be designated Mubarak
the Great, the now recognized leader of Kuwait, an intimidating figure
for sure, with all his impressive height and demanding presence
(perhaps threatening would be a better word), his clarity, obvious even
in the unfamiliar Arabic, and certainty in giving orders. And of course,
we heard the rumors (they were not merely rumors) that Mubarak had
murdered his two half-brothers, Mohammed and Jarrah, just a year
earlier, in order to ascend as the sole leader of Kuwait.
Since we had no skills in Arabic, Mubarak saw the necessity of
assigning Fouad, an English speaker, for our family’s guidance.
He first set us straight on desert politics. “Mubarak saw the need to
remove his brothers from the scene. Such efforts at self- preservation
are standard for the Gulf. This was necessary for the good of all. We
need a strong leader.”
Our first question to Fouad was, “Where does the fresh water come
from?” At least we knew the importance of clean water.
“The water is brought via camels and donkeys from the estuary of the
Tigris and Euphrates to the north.” Another indication of the fragility
of our survival.
And why were we allowed refuge in his kingdom? Fouad was clear
here, too. “You are here as the Reformed Missions’ guarantee of the
arrival of the doctors.”
We had no other role.
Often, beside Mubarak, I saw his adopted protégé, Abdul Aziz ibn
Saud (meaning Abdul Aziz son of Saud), who took care to observe
Mubarak’s methods. The young man’s family had been given refuge
in Kuwait as they fled from their enemies, the Al-Rashids, the current
family in power in the Arabian Peninsula.
At seventeen, Aziz was two years older than I, broader at the shoulders
and six inches taller. Our acquaintance, while incongruous in many
ways, was orchestrated by Mubarak, who urged the lad Aziz, as I called
him, to befriend me. Aziz was obedient to Mubarak and that was the
end of it for the moment. I think Aziz deemed me unworthy of his
attention. But Mubarak continued to encourage Aziz in establishing
Looking back, I think he wanted Aziz to experience more exposure to
the West. Aziz had some English, and I had no Arabic, so English was
our initial mode of communication.
An absolute requirement, set by Mubarak for Aziz, was his attendance
at the majlis (the Middle Eastern equivalent of the court of the king).
This gathering was often held in the Seif Palace near the sea. The
palace, built perpendicular to the water’s edge, was a large white
structure with more rooms than I could imagine, up to three stories in
places, with arched windows and wooden balconies extending out over
the courtyard. The inner court of the palace was a large rectangular
room, an ornately patterned carpet in the center, thick green curtains
adorning the wall, pillows around the periphery, and an awkwardlooking,
dark wood chair with a thick cushion at the back of the room.
I learned the events of the majlis as Aziz took me with him, reluctantly at
first. “Pliny, watch Mubarak, even his hands and eyes.” He interpreted
events to me in the court, the seating area where official business
was conducted–sometimes it was in the courtyard outside the palace,
sometimes in the expansive Seif Palace itself–and I conveyed the
necessary information to my parents, truly an awkward arrangement.
But one that worked. As the two of us, just young boys, joined in the
spectacle of Mubarak’s majlis, I observed, by gesture, even without
understanding Arabic, that the sheikh told Aziz to translate for me, so
that I might get the sense of the goings-on. One message was clear,
and Aziz conveyed this directly. “You and your family cannot spread
the word of Jesus.” My father had already accepted this as a condition
for Mubarak’s acceptance of our family. No problem there.
If our only purpose was as “placeholder” for the physicians, how, why,
would we even persist?