A Life Well Lived
by Margaret Nilsson
“Do you know what my theme song is?” This is one of the first things Eleanor Edwards Nicholson ’32 says to me as we sit in the living room of her Rancho Palos Verdes home. “Don’t be afraid to take a little risk.” I have driven to the Southern California coast to meet this alumna whose extraordinary life has piqued my interest. She has gotten right to the point—it is her fearlessness and spirit of adventure that led her from Scripps to Hollywood to Arabia.
Eleanor lived one third of her life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her husband, Russ, worked for ARAMCO (the Arabian-American Oil Company) beginning in 1950. “My friends say,’Nell, you got more out of Arabia than anybody else,'” she tells me with a smile, and I have no doubt this is true. She approached Saudi Arabia not as an underdeveloped foreign country but as a place rich in history, culture, and traditions.
Her attitude was informed by the humanities education she received at Scripps under the tutelage of Hartley Burr Alexander, then professor of philosophy and one of the architects of Scripps’ early humanities program.”I saw the scribes, the money lenders, the camel caravans—all these things you read about in Biblical times and I just accepted it all. I didn’t try to bring the twentieth century and ancient times together.”
Russ and Eleanor lived first in Dhahran, headquarters of ARAMCO in Arabia’s Eastern Province, and later in the lovely seaside community of Ras Tanura—another of the oil company’s districts—on the Persian Gulf.Americans were granted the privileged status of guests of King Abdul Aziz, the country’s first monarch.They were housed in fenced-in compounds to minimize the interaction between the western guests and the local population.
The Nicholsons’ two children, Linda (Nicholson Lancaster ’73) and Cynthia (Nicholson Castain ’76) were born and raised in the kingdom.With no professional photographers in the province to capture the childhood years of her daughters, Eleanor took up photography.The Nicholsons were able to purchase a state-of-the-art Hasselblad camera and Eleanor soon found herself the unofficial portrait photographer for all three ARAMCO districts. Since photographic facilities were not available, Russ and Eleanor set up a makeshift darkroom in their home and learned to do their own developing.They purchased film and photographic paper while on trips outside Arabia.
The compound where Linda and Cyndy spent their childhood was small but well equipped—an American school from K through 9, a grocery store stocked with items from throughout the world, a recreation center with snack bar and cafeteria, a library, bowling alley, movie theater, and lounge with jukebox. Then there was the beach just a few houses away as well as a beautiful pool. Some families, like the Nicholsons, enjoyed horseback riding; others spent leisure time sailing.
A typical role for an ARAMCO spouse in those days included joining the women’s club, supervising Girl Scout troops, and playing bridge. In fact, bridge was taken so seriously that the women locked their doors prior to a game so that they wouldn’t be interrupted. Eleanor had something else in mind for her time in Saudi Arabia. “It was not my nature to live behind walls,” she tells me. Fascinated by the world outside the compound, Eleanor sought ways to venture out into the real Arabia.
While Eleanor and her family had the opportunity to visit other countries including the United States every two years, the children always considered Arabia home. “I told them,’Where you live [the compound] is not Arabia. We’re going to take you to see it,'” Eleanor recalls. The holy city of Mecca was off limits to non-Muslims. There was no decentroad to historic Riyadh. Yet they were surrounded by desert and the Nicholsons realized the real Arabia could be found in the desert with the nomadic tribes whose way of life had changed little over the centuries. “Among the Bedouins, we would come close to the family life and traditions that formed the background of modern Saudi Arabia,” Eleanor explains.
On weekends and holidays during the 1960s, then, the four of them took off in their Land Rover on expeditions into the vast Arabian desert. They signed out at the compound’s main gate, providing information about the general direction in which they were heading and their expected return date in the event that a search party had to be sent for them. An ARAMCO friend always accompanied the family in a second vehicle.
These forays into the desert entailed following what was then simply called the Northern Access Road to a place where there was an entrée into the desert. At that point they would leave behind roads, signs, and all civilization and take off into the desert. What would have been unthinkable to some was a marvelous opportunity and adventure to Eleanor. “I had a feeling of security because we knew that somewhere there was a Bedouin on a camel out there who would provide help if needed.” They had researched the eastern nomadic tribes and knew something about their customs and probable whereabouts at different times of the year.
Eleanor felt compelled to photograph the desert landscapes and the faces of the Bedouins she and her family encountered on these excursions.The Nicholsons’ respect for Bedouin history and culture and Russ’s excellent command of classical Arabic broke down any barriers they encountered. Eleanor and her family were able to witness, and in some situations share in, the daily life of the nomadic Arabs.They were treated to Bedouin hospitality which at times meant sharing in what Eleanor describes as “dried goat cheese tickly with black hairs and gritty with sand.” The fact that they entered the desert as a family helped—as Eleanor explains, “The Bedouins accepted us because we were a family and family means everything to the Saudi Arabs.”
While other Americans occasionally ventured into the desert for camping, exploration, or amateur archaeology, as Eleanor’s daughter Cyndy tells me, “I don’t know of anyone else whose sole purpose was to get to know the people. Certainly I’ve not run across anyone who has pictures like Mom does.” Photographer Ansel Adams agreed. When evaluating Eleanor’s extraordinary black and white images of the Bedouins during one of the Nicholsons’ visits to the States, Adams remarked that he had never seen anything like them, and offered to help her get them published.
The photos and the stories behind the desert excursions appear in Eleanor Nicholson’s first book, In the Footsteps of the Camel:A Portrait of The Bedouins of Eastern Saudi Arabia in Mid- Century (1983). In her acknowledgements to the book, Eleanor wrote,”My youthful days at Scripps College, Claremont, California, have a bearing on this book, for there I became initiated into the Humanities that set me on the road to adventure and to understanding of the ancient world.” Her book provides unprecedented historical documentation of the Bedouin lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, each of Eleanor’s photos of Bedouin life was literally stamped on the back by the Kingdom’s Ministry of Information, indicating the government’s acceptance of the photos as their history.
The Nicholsons’ success in following in the footsteps of the Bedouins gave Eleanor further encouragement to try to make contact with some of the women of Arabia. Mixing with the local women was nearly impossible at that time because the women typically stayed at home. When they did go out, for instance to the suq (marketplace), it was in the company of a male member of the family and they were covered from head to toe with veil and abbaya. Often the black-cloaked figures would run from Eleanor, fearful of what they considered a western infidel. Beyond the robes, though, Eleanor believed she would find these women similar to herself. “I always felt that women are women no matter where or how they live,” she explains,”and I suspected their hopes and dreams for their families would be the same as those of women everywhere.”
A chance meeting in the city of Al Hufuf between Linda and Cyndy—then 12 and 10—and members of the governing family of the kingdom’s Eastern Province, marked the beginning of a close relationship between the Nicholsons and the governor’s family. Eleanor and her daughters were invited beyond the imposing Lion Gate into the palace. There they would visit with the extended family—generations of the governing family who were just as excited to meet the Americans as Eleanor was to have finally broken into this closed society.
Eleanor felt an immediate kinship with a young princess, new wife of the governor, whom she thought of as a third daughter. The princess, part Jordanian and part Swedish, was struggling to fit into the Saudi way of life while maintaining her identity. On Eleanor’s frequent visits to the palace, she helped the princess work through issues of acculturation and identity. These weekly visits cemented a relationship that continues to this day. Several times a month when the phone rings in Eleanor’s home, the princess is on the line. It was the princess who, recognizing Eleanor’s respect for Saudi customs and traditions, asked Eleanor to tell American women the real story about Saudi women. Through the Lion Gate, Eleanor’s latest book which was published in 2003, is her answer to the princess’s plea. The book is a fascinating account of the development of the relationship between the Nicholsons and the royal family.
At the age of 94, Eleanor still shares her knowledge of Saudi Arabia through talks and articles. She encourages an understanding of Saudi customs, traditions, and laws, many of which are foreign to us but are rooted in history or Islam. She speaks with passion about current issues in the Middle East including the war in Iraq. “I think what’s going on in the Middle East is not acceptable,” she tells me with a heavy heart.”We had no right to go into Iraq and destroy it. Saddam was a bad character and all that but we didn’t have to kill the country.”
Before the end of our visit, I have the chance to see some of Eleanor’s special mementos—from photo collages of Linda and Cyndy to Eleanor’s Scripps memory book to exquisite embroidered pillows and hand-painted plates, gifts from an adopted Saudi princess. I am grateful to have been invited into the home and the life of this remarkable Scripps woman.