Scottish-born Kuwaiti hid treasures, American WAR IN THE GULF

March 13, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- For seven months, Jehan Rajab kept dangerous secrets.

Behind hidden panels and false walls at her home, she kept safe from the prowling Iraqis a fabulous museum collection of jewelry.

And an American hiding from the Iraqi roundup of foreigners.

For many months of the occupation, she used a black Arab shawl to hide her own pink cheeks and blue eyes that would reveal her Scottish background.

The story of this small, determined woman during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is one of heroism and stubbornness. She would not give in to intimidation.

"I really don't think you walk out in bad times," she explained with the patient tone of one instructing on proper manners. "I really never once considered leaving."

She is a genial woman with a dry wit and a page-boy haircut. Despite her wealth -- her two homes are grand mansions of marble -- she was elbow-deep with a broom last week, cleaning the filth left by Iraqis in the school she runs.

Kuwait has been home for 32 of her 56 years. She met Tareq Rajab, a Kuwaiti, when he was studying in Britain. He returned with her and became Kuwait's first director of antiquities, then formed the New English School, the largest private English school in the Middle East, with 2,300 students.

Mr. Rajab had just left for Jordan, and the couple's two oldest grown children were traveling abroad, when the Iraqis swooped into Kuwait Aug. 2. Mrs. Rajab woke up to the sound of gunfire and found herself trapped in the city with her son Nadr, 29.

"Nobody believed it," said Nadr, who had returned from Spain only a few days earlier. "We thought it would be over in a week or two weeks. If we had been told it would last until the end of February, we would have had a heart attack."

A few days after the invasion, Mrs. Rajab learned the seriousness of the occupiers. She joined other women to protest the invasion, and when the chanting, sign-waving crowd neared a police station, "they shot to kill," she said.

The police opened up "at chest level. They fired round after round. They killed three women and a very young man of 15," she said. The crowd turned and fled in terror. Mrs. Rajab said she hid behind "the skinniest little palm tree I ever found in my life." Much later, she realized she still was clutching a Kuwaiti flag.

Soon after, she said, "we started hearing the tales of torture and murder." After what she saw, she knew they were true.

When the Iraqis rounded up foreigners living in the country, Keaton Woods, an American who ran the Meridian Hotel, came to her for help. She did not hesitate.

"All these people had been in Kuwait doing a very good job. How dare [Iraqis] come in and keep totally innocent people and hold them hostage?" she said.

"I think it's absolutely disgusting. And I think it's one's duty to defy them and try to save the hostages."

Mr. Woods brought his wife and two daughters to live with Mrs. Rajab. When women and children were released by Iraq, Mr. Woods stayed alone in her son's adjoining house for nearly four months.

He led a monastic life, dressed always in an Arab robe, and stayed away from windows so he would not be seen from the outside. He never went out. Mrs. Rajab and her son had signals to warn him if Iraqis came, but twice he was nearly caught. Only Nadr Rajab's stalling tactics, talking loudly to Iraqi soldiers who came to search the house, gave Mr. Woods the moment he needed to slip into an air conditioning vent and hide.

They told no one of his presence and visited his room only at night. If he had been discovered, it is likely Mrs. Rajab and her son and even their Kuwaiti relatives would have been killed as punishment, she said.

But she dismissed praise. Nearly 1,000 Westerners were hidden by Kuwaitis until they were all allowed to leave the country in December, she said.

Besides, "I can't think of words to express my disgust at a country that uses these methods. It's just all wrong."

Almost as precious a secret was the collection she and her husband had acquired over the years, a fabulous collection from throughout the Middle and Far East: nearly 10,000 silver and gold jewelry pieces, plus costumes, robes, ceramics, fine silver work and old arms.

She shrugged at the value: "Certainly in the millions," she said, but beyond that she insisted she did not know.

They had opened part of their large home in the city to the display, converting two basement levels to a museum for the public. Inside, rows of cases were filled with the treasures.

There were intricate silver necklaces, studded with rubies and emeralds; musical instruments carved of fine wood and inlaid with ivory; grand Bedouin dresses 15 feet long; cups and utensils of finely polished silver work; huge Turkish war banners; and nearly 500 delicate scripts of the Koran and other texts.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.