Leila Ingrams will be remembered for the energy and passion with which she worked to promote the culture and welfare of Yemeni people. She was an indefatigable proponent of culture as a means of understanding and brotherhood among peoples, and harboured a characteristic aversion to ‘politics’, an attitude shaped by her years of living and working in the Middle East.
Leila was born in Cairo on 16 June 1940 in the clinic of the Jewish midwife Zalal Abdul Latif. She and her mother spent the first days after her birth as guests of the Daw’ani family of Sayyid Hasan al-Bar avoiding the Italian air raids on Cairo in the safety of the Egyptian town of Zagazig. Her father, William Harold, was at the time acting Governor and later Chief Secretary of Aden (1940-42), but is known for his work as Resident Adviser and British Agent to the Qu’ayti and Kathiri Sultanates (1937-40 & 1942-44). He played a crucial role in the pacification of the warring tribes of Hadhramaut, a process that became known as Ingrams Peace. Her mother, Doreen, daughter of Edward Shortt MP, Home Secretary in Lloyd George’s Cabinet, was an actress before joining and assisting her husband in his various postings. They became the first Europeans to establish their home in the Hadhramaut.
Leila got her first glimpse of the Yemen ten months old from the back of a mule alongside her sister Zahra, whom her parents had adopted in 1937 from a Se’iar tribeswoman. A year later, in 1942, she travelled for three months with her family through Somalia to Ethiopia, another country that would define her later life and interests. After spending her early childhood in Aden and al-Mukalla, Leila was educated at Ashford School in Kent, and Wychwood Girls’ School in Oxford. Her primary education was interrupted when her father was posted to the Gold Coast. He took his family in the spring of 1947 by car from England to what is modern Ghana; an adventure published under the title Seven Across the Sahara: From Ash to Accra (John Murray, 1949).
After studying in Paris, Leila moved to London where she worked for the Centre for Arab-British Understanding, of which her mother was a founding member. It was during this time that she became an active supporter of the Palestinian cause, and an advocate of Palestinians’ access to education. Throughout her life, Leila remained a staunch proponent of Palestinian rights, participating in demonstrations and events, and promoting the sale of Palestinian products, including olive oil, in London. In 2004 she set up the Doreen Ingrams Scholarship Fund for destitute female students of Birzeit University, near Ramallah, giving particular priority to students with special needs. She followed keenly the progress of the students supported by the Fund, which transformed the lives of many young Palestinian women, and will continue to do so after her death.
During the 1970s Leila lived in Muscat, where she worked for John Townsend, economic adviser to the Omani government. She also worked for the Omani Director of Information Shaykh Nasir bin Seif al-Bu ‘Ali, later to become Oman’s first ambassador to London. His father, Shaykh Seif, a Zanzibari Omani, was known to Harold Ingrams during his posting in Zanzibar (1919-27) and owed to his recommendation his appointment as Qu’ayti State Secretary.
Leila’s literary career started in the 1980s, with the publication of the book Ethiopia Engraved (Kegan Paul, 1988) jointly with Professor Richard Pankhurst. Leila had worked as a volunteer in the library at the Royal Asiatic Society, when Pankhurst was librarian. During the same period, she undertook together with her mother the Herculean task of compiling the sixteen-volume Records of Yemen, 1798-1960 (Archive Editions, 1993). Yemen Engraved: Illustrations by Foreign Travellers 1680-1903, a companion volume to Ethiopia Engraved was published by Stacey International in 2006. Leila also authored a number of articles and contributed chapters to edited volumes. Among these, two stand out for the breadth of her knowledge and interests: “African Connections in Yemeni Music” (Musike: International Journal of Ethnomusicological Studies, 1:2, 2006), and “Somali Migration to Aden from the 19th to the 21st Centuries” (with R. Pankhurst in: African and Asian Studies, 5:3-4, 2006).
Under Leila’s tutelage her parental legacy flourished. She established and maintained a network of friendships with people connected to her parents throughout the Middle East and the Indian Ocean from Mauritius to Jerusalem, and Zanzibar to Singapore. An example of how she harnessed such links was her ability to arrange for the participation of Yemeni musicians at the annual Festival of the Dhow countries in Zanzibar. In 1998 she was honoured for her efforts with a medal by the principal of the Madrassa al-Wusta in Ghayl Ba Wazir, Dr Muhammad Sa’id Mudehij. In 2002 she met in London Brigadier Ahmad Nowah Ba Rashaid, who was a member of the Hadhrami Beduin Legion camel patrol, which escorted her mother on her 500-mile trip across Hadhramaut in 1944.
The next year, she attended a conference at the University of Aden on her father’s period of service in Hadhramaut. During one of her many visits to Yemen, in 2009, she opened an exhibition at the National Museum in Sana’a for the 50 years of the British Council in Yemen with photographs her parents took during their time in the country. Later that year the exhibition was donated for permanent display in the Museum of Say’un. In 2010 she was invited by the National Library of Singapore to attend an exhibition on Hadhramis in South-East Asia and contribute a chapter in its catalogue.
Leila oversaw the republication of some of her parent’s more important books. Her father’s Zanzibar: Its History and its People (Stacey International, 2007), and her mother’s Palestine Papers, 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict (Eland, 2009), and A Time in Arabia (Eland, 2013). Her friend, the Hadhrami poet Najib Sa’id Ba Wazir, also translated the latter into Arabic. Cognisant of her health problems, she donated over the past couple of years her ethnographic collection to the British Museum, and supplemented her father’s papers in the archives of St Antony’s College, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Her parental legacy notwithstanding, Leila carved a niche for the expression of her own identity. She was committed to educating the British public on Yemen, and reversing the negative publicity often associated with the country in the British media. To this end, she put together the Focus on Yemen exhibition, which toured universities in the UK. In 2006, she was instrumental in bringing a group of Yemeni musicians to perform at the International Music Village Festival in Kew, in Wales, and at the Arab Arts Festival in Liverpool, which she used to attend. In 2007 she convened at SOAS the successful First Yemen Film Festival. Over three days it put on show some of the most important films produced about the country.
As a Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society she was able to organise a number of events there, particularly on Hadhramaut. These included exhibitions of the objects and photographs both her parents, gold medallists of the Society, had brought back from their explorations in the then East Aden Protectorate. After the death of her mother in 1997, she succeeded her as Patron of the Friends of Hadhramaut. From that position she was able to channel her energies and influence towards the support of relief and educational projects in the region that had hosted her family during her early life. Under her coordination, the organisation was among the first to send necessities after the devastating floods of 2007. It is difficult to think of any Yemeni cultural event to which she was not in some way linked.
Leila shared her mother’s profound admiration for Arab women, and encouraged scholars to study the role of gender in the Middle East. She generously helped academics with an interest in the region and her parents’ work, and took many under her wing. A multifaceted personality, she devoted a considerable part of her life to the study of her other favourite country across the Bab al-Mandab, Ethiopia, campaigning for the return of its cultural heritage, such as the Aksum Stele. One of her major qualities was the ability to understand and empathise with fellow humans irrespective of their background. This allowed her to traverse social and cultural boundaries and forge friendships everywhere she went. Perhaps her own love for music stemmed from its very ability to provide a neutral common ground for people of different traditions. Leila used to attend performances at her cousin Leonard Ingrams’s Garsington Opera and contributed to the Foundation under his name.
Leila was a true friend of Yemen and personified a direct link to the past of the country. She will be widely mourned by her many friends the world over, not least by those of us who were lucky enough to experience her generosity and warmth. Aged 74, she passed away peacefully on 22 March near her home in Kent.
by Thanos Petouris
This obituary was first published in the British-Yemeni Society Journal 2015
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website