The Nedous and Lawrence of Arabia – A Page From Pakistani History

By Mubashir Hassan

July 18, 2008

nedous-hotel“Not many are aware any longer that the present Avari Hotel in Lahore stands on the site of a magnificent hotel, the Nedous, built at the turn of the last century by Harry Nedous, an Austro-Swiss hotelier. The Nedous family had arrived in India at

the turn of the last century and invested their savings in this hotel – later there were hotels in Srinagar and Poona.Harry Nedous was the businessman; his brothers, Willy and Wally did not participate much in the enterprise; his sister, Enid, took charge of the catering and her ptisserie at the hotel was considered ‘as good as anything in Europe’.
Tariq Ali in his book Bitter Chill of Winter makes a startling revelation to add to the Nedous’ history: Col T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was not the lifelong bachelor he has been made out as. He went through a brief marriage in Lahore. This was revealed to Tariq Ali by a senior civil servant from Kashmir who had been told by Benji Nedous, the brother of the bride. Ali said, ”While Lawrence was stationed in India he used to go to the city of Lahore like many other officers, to relax. It was known as the Paris of the East and the Nedous family had a hotel there that was popular with soldiers wanting to rest and drink and so on, and that is where he met her.
“Akbar Jehan was the daughter of Harry Nedous, and Mir Jan, a Kashmiri milkmaid. Harry Nedous first caught sight of Mir Jan when she came to deliver the milk at his holiday lodge in Gulmarg. He was immediately smitten, but she was suspicious. ‘I might be poor,’ she told him later that week, ‘but I am not for sale.’ Harry pleaded that he was serious, that he loved her, that he wanted to marry her. ‘In that case,’ she retorted wrathfully, ‘you must convert to Islam. I cannot marry an unbeliever.’ To her amazement, he did so, and in time they had 12 children (only five of whom survived). Brought up as a devout Muslim, their daughter Akbar Jehan was a boarder at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in the hill resort of Murree. Non-Christian parents often packed their daughters off to these convents because the education was quite good and the regime strict, though there is evidence to suggest they spent much of their time fantasizing about Rudolph Valentino.
In 1928, when a 17-year-old Akbar Jehan had left school and was back in Lahore, a senior figure in British Military Intelligence checked in to the Nedous Hotel on the Upper Mall.Colonel T.E. Lawrence, complete with Valentino-style headgear, had just spent a grueling few weeks in Afghanistan destabilizing the radical, modernizing and anti-British regime of King Amanullah. Disguised as ‘Karam Shah’, a visiting Arab cleric, he had organized a black propaganda campaign designed to stoke the religious fervor of the more reactionary tribes and thus provoke a civil war. His mission accomplished, he left for Lahore.Akbar Jehan must have met him at her father’s hotel. A flirtation began and got out of control. Her father insisted that they get married immediately; which they did. Three months later, in January 1929, Amanullah was toppled and replaced by a pro-British ruler.
On 12 January, Kipling’s old newspaper in Lahore, the imperialist Civil and Military Gazette, published comparative profiles of Lawrence and ‘Karam Shah’ to reinforce the impression that they were two different people. Several weeks later, the Calcutta newspaper Liberty reported that ‘Karam Shah’ was indeed the ‘British spy Lawrence’ and gave a detailed account of his activities in Waziristan on the Afghan frontier.Lawrence was becoming a liability and the authorities told him to return to Britain. ‘Karam Shah’ was never seen again. Nedous insisted on a divorce for his daughter and again Lawrence obliged. Four years later, Sheikh Abdullah and Akbar Jehan were married in Srinagar.The fact of her previous marriage and divorce was never a secret: only the real name of her first husband was hidden. She now threw herself into the struggle for a new Kashmir. She raised money to build schools for poor children and encouraged adult education in a state where the bulk of the population was illiterate. She also, crucially, gave support and advice to her husband, alerting him, for example, to the dangers of succumbing to Nehru’s charm and thus compromising his own standing in Kashmir.”
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