A Camel Herder in Hollywood

Nawaf and his father, Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf. (Al-Majalla)

Nawaf and his father, Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf. (Al-Majalla)

In the 1930s, Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf (1895–2000) became the first Saudi immigrant to the United States. It was a time when America was still on the path toward becoming a great nation, filled with the sights and sounds it is today. Neil Armstrong had yet to walk on the moon and there was no television; even the cinema was silent. But Rawaf managed to find his way to America.

Rawaf was one of very few Arabs who had even heard of America in those days. He was a Bedouin who belonged to the Aqilat tribes. As a young man he worked as a camel herder, buying camels, raising them and then selling them on. In the 1920s and 1930s, his work took him from the desert sands of Buraidah and Anizah in Saudi Arabia to Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Khalil Al-Rawaf was born in 1895 in Damascus to a family who guarded the caravans of pilgrims to the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca on their journey from Damascus, a journey that took roughly forty days at the time.

In parts, Rawaf’s story seems like something out of the Arabian Nights. In 1933, he was staying in the Dajla Hotel in Baghdad at the same time a wealthy American lady, Frances Allison. She had come as a tourist to explore Arabia and to learn about the culture, and it seems she had developed close friendships with the Arabs, particularly the educated elite.

Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf

Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf

Khalil spoke of his world, his culture and family, and Frances in turn told him about her country and family. It seems that Frances made quite an impression on Khalil; she herself seems to have been pleased by his youth and olive complexion. They fell in love. And since Frances loved him, she promised to come back to Damascus to meet him, convert to Islam, and marry him.

Rawaf waited in Syria, counting the days and the hours, until one day Frances returned and married him—just as she had promised. After the wedding celebration in Syria, the newlyweds lost no time in the Middle East. Rawaf packed his bags, picked up his green card from the US embassy in Beirut, and they sailed together for America. Even as an old man Rawaf remembered the long voyage fondly; its memory drew him away to that magical new world. On October 3, 1935, their boat docked in New York.

The new world was hard to take in. A throng of newspaper reporters and photographers waited at the port entrance. Frances spoke of her return from the East, the land of legends and the Arabian Nights. In those days it was not easy for a man to travel to such far-flung places, let alone a woman—and she had researched, explored, and then returned with a dark, handsome husband. Rawaf’s appearance seemed to them like the desert sun. The next day, he found his photograph filling the pages of American newspapers and magazines.

Frances spared no expense to please her new husband. She bought a car and toured the United States with him on a six-month journey, eventually stopping in Arizona. Frances and her husband were always shown great hospitality wherever they went. For an Arab coming from a culture ill at ease with women going out and mixing with men, Rawaf often found this welcome strange and hard to accept. In Arizona, differences began to appear between the couple, to the point that their relationship became unbearable. Rawaf felt that his manhood was being threatened by living under the care of a woman who drove the car, spoke the language, and kept him with her money.

So he decided to divorce her. But this proved difficult in America, as they had married in the Middle East and according to Islamic customs. Frances returned to Damascus where she appointed as her lawyers Fares Al-Khoury, one of the big political players in Syria, and the outspoken Egyptian lawyer Makram Ebeid, and hired Fauzan Al-Sabiq, the Saudi representative in Egypt. With their divorce final, Frances was freed from the restrictions Khalil placed on her, and he was freed from her influence, her power and her arrogance.

[inset_right]It was odd, then, for the young man from Buraidah to choose to go to Hollywood.[/inset_right]

It was odd, then, for the young man from Buraidah to choose to go to Hollywood. But Rawaf was set on improving his English and found work as an artistic consultant on Arabian heritage, Bedouin ways and Eastern traditions. But he did not confine himself to consulting: he made a foray into acting and performed with John Wayne in the 1937 film I Cover the War, in which he played a Bedouin guard. He was the first Arab to appear in a Hollywood film.

After Hollywood, he began to write a textbook teaching Arabic to Americans, and followed it by opening Arabic language schools a few years after his divorce from Frances. One day, a young American lady, Constance Wellman, got in touch hoping to learn Arabic. She began to attend the school and learn the Arabic alphabet. Love began to blossom between Khalil and Constance. They say that love is blind—even to the point that Khalil forgot his promise never to marry a non-Arab woman again. Less than eight years after his divorce from Frances, he married Constance.

On June 23, 1946, Constance gave birth to a son, whom Khalil named Nawaf. However, differing traditions and customs once again caused unhappiness. Nawaf was eight months old when his parents decided that they could no longer live together. Rawaf went through another divorce; he found that American life, despite its beauty and flashiness, did not suit his traditions and roots. He found himself longing for the Arabian Desert. He only remained in America for a year following the second divorce before leaving for the Middle East, having wrapped up all his affairs.

In Saudi Arabia, Rawaf decided to marry for the third time—as they say, the third time’s the charm. His Egyptian wife bore him two daughters, but Rawaf never forgot his son, Nawaf.

Al-Rawaf (standing in the back of the picture) in New York in 1945 with the late kings Fahd bin Abdulaziz and Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, and  Hafez Wahba.

Al-Rawaf (standing in the back of the picture) in New York in 1945 with the late kings Fahd bin Abdulaziz and Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, and Hafez Wahba.

In 1958, he returned to America accompanying Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz. The Prince sent an envoy to Constance to ask her to hand over custody of Nawaf to his father, with the prince himself to supervise the boy’s upbringing and education, but she refused to part with her son. Rawaf tried again in 1963, when he went to America with his family, but he found no trace of Nawaf or his mother. He then tried for a third time in 1968 and a fourth in 1987.

During this time, Constance met the Arab romantic poet Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi, one of the founders of the Apollo poetic movement. Ahmed Zaki married Constance a year after her divorce from Rawaf. Abu Shadi adopted Nawaf and raised him as his own, changing Nawaf’s name to Clive Abu Shadi.

But Rawaf continued to search for his son until the King Saud University sent his nephew, Uthman, to America to complete his higher education. Uthman searched for his cousin for seventeen years, and finally, last month [September 1991], Uthman found Nawaf Khalil Al-Rawaf. That is a story best left to be told by Uthman himself:

“Ever since I was a young boy, I have heard about my Uncle Khalil, who went to America. Mother would tell us about him and say he had sent a beautiful picture of his son, but he is lost now. I didn’t pay attention to the matter until 1974, when the university sent me to the United States. My uncle said to me, ‘Ask the Saudi embassy in Washington about Nawaf.’ I did as he asked and went to the embassy, where an old Palestinian employee told me that he knew the story. He directed me to Safeya Abu Shadi [Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi’s daughter], who was working at Voice of America.”

Safeya told me: “Yes, I know Nawaf; my father married his mother after she divorced Al-Rawaf. We lived together for a few years, until Father died. Then she married another man and I don’t know where they are now.” She added: “Because his name was Clive Abu Shadi, and since the names are the same, someone told me they knew him and that they had fought in Vietnam.”

Uthman then embarked on a lengthy search for his cousin. He told Al-Majalla how he had searched high and low, first writing to the Ministry of Defense and then posting notices in a military veterans’ magazine, hoping a Vietnam vet would recognize the profile. But the trail went cold, no one responded to the advertisements and the ministry required specific information on Nawaf that Uthman was unable to provide. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1980 without learning much more about Nawaf.

Five years later, Safeya contacted Uthman to tell him she had made a discovery. She had found Nawaf’s adoption documents among her father’s old papers. Yet even with this new information in hand, Uthman was unable to track down the elusive Nawaf, who, even after Uthman hired a private investigator and tracked down the headquarters of his old 1st Cavalry Division, remained undiscovered.

From left to right: Nawaf, Uthman and Khalil.

From left to right: Nawaf, Uthman and Khalil.

Then, in late 1991, Uthman made a breakthrough while in Washington to meet an old friend from university called Michael Orsini. Orsini worked in the Department of State and took an interest in Uthman’s quest. Orsini gave Uthman the name of a private investigator.

A mere three days later, the investigator contacted Uthman and passed on Nawaf’s new name, Michael Wellman, and his address and telephone number in Miramar, Florida. “When I spoke to the investigator I was in my hotel room with my uncle, Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf, sitting next to me. We had not decided whether we should write to Nawaf, or telephone him or visit him, if we found him,” Uthman recalled.

After taking down the details from the investigator, Uthman asked his uncle whether they should contact Nawaf. “He said ‘yes’ and then ‘no,’ and then he closed his eyes for a while as though revisiting the past,” Uthman explained. “I know that my uncle is a very religious man and I felt that he was calling on God to open his eyes. Then in a quiet voice he said, ‘Contact him,’ and so I did.”

[inset_right]“The first thing my father said to me was: ‘Nawaf, how are you?’” [/inset_right]

Al-Majalla spoke to Michael, or Nawaf, who told us how his father got in touch. “Three weeks ago I returned home and my wife, Margaret, said to me, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this. . .  . Your father phoned looking for you.’”

Michael’s daughter had answered the phone and Rawaf had introduced himself, saying, “I’m your father’s cousin.” She called her mother: “Dad’s cousin is on the phone.” Margaret replied, “Your father doesn’t have a cousin, or even an uncle.”

Margaret handed Michael the number, and the long-lost son called Khalil Ibrahim Al-Rawaf. “The first thing my father said to me was: ‘Nawaf, how are you?’”

This article has been partially altered from the original piece that appeared in Al-Majalla’s October 23–29, 1991, edition (No. 611).


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