Rosita Forbes: first European woman to set foot in Kufra oasis

Born in Riseholme Hall, near Lincoln, England, in 1893, Joan Rosita Forbes was the eldest of six children of Herbert James Torr and his wife, Rosita. She was educated at home and that is perhaps why she has always had a passion for travel since her childhood. In 1911, she married Colonel Robert Foster Forbes at the age of 17. He worked as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War. Despite her divorce from Colonel Forbes in 1917, she used her ex-husband’s name until his death.

A portrait of Rosita Forbes published in “‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara’. (Wikimedia)

islamic world

In 1918, a French magazine commissioned Forbes to research French colonialism in Africa, and she visited Morocco. His first contact with the Arab world was established during this trip. She met eminent personalities in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and many other places and laid the foundation for her lifelong interest in relations with the Arab sphere. She published this trip in a book called “Unconducted Wanderers”.

During the winter of 1920-1921, Forbes traveled through the Libyan Desert and visited the Kufra Oasis in Idris, Libya, the leader of the Muslim order Senussi and later the King of Libya beyond. from the Italian occupation border. Only a European by the name of F. Gerhard Rohlfs has been able to visit Kufra before.

Throughout this journey, Forbes introduced herself as Hatice, a Circassian woman working to improve her Arabic. On her trip to Koufra, she was accompanied by Ahmed Hassanein, a graduate of Balliol College, University of Oxford.

In 1921 she married Colonel Arthur Thomas McGrath, head of the occupation intelligence branch of the British War Office. She toured Yemen the following year. Together with spy John Philby, who was advising the Al Saud family, they made plans to cross the Rub ‘al Khali Desert, the unexplored region of southern Arabia. However, she had to put her project on hold when the Daily Telegraph asked her to write about the life of bandit leader Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, known as Raisuli, to most English speakers.

Ahmed Hassanein during his 1923 expedition to the Libyan desert.  (Wikimedia)

Ahmed Hassanein during his 1923 expedition to the Libyan desert. (Wikimedia)

Raisuni was famous for the men he kidnapped in the early 1900s, and Forbes had previously visited him in the Atlas Mountains. “El Raisuni, Sultan of the Mountains” was published in 1924. Forbes’ work was also adapted in the film “The Wind and the Lion” (1975), with Sean Connery as Raisuni.

Forbes reverted to her travel plans after the Daily Telegraph ended, but British authorities in Aden did not allow her to pass this time. So she chose another route through Ethiopia with photographer Harold Jones. “From Red Sea to Blue Nile” (1925), in which she describes this trip, is also one of her best books.

Mustafa Kemal

During his travels, Forbes has had the opportunity to get to know the leaders of the New World firsthand. Former King of Saudi Arabia Ibn Saud, Former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Founder of the Turkish Republic, Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler, Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini and Dictator Soviet Joseph Stalin were just a few of the leaders she knew. She heard about Ataturk, whom she mentioned in several of her books, during a dinner at the home of an intelligence officer and parliamentarian named Aubrey Herbert when Mustafa Kemal was attached to Sofia. In her book “Appointment with Destiny”, she describes this dinner which Field Marshal Lord Edmund Allenby also attended.

Visiting Atatürk several times while he was in Ankara, Forbes devoted part of his book “These men I knew”, published in 1940, to Atatürk and Ismet Inönü. In the book, she describes a ball she attended in Ankara during the Turkish War of Independence in the summer of 1921:

“A scene that I remember, not at Chan Kaya, but at the Agricultural College of Angora. year of war, some civilians, with unlimited weapons and ammunition, they held their bank of the river and prepared to cross. Kemal ordered his troops to relax. He tells them to play soccer or pretend to play. He announced a ball in Angora. It was the first to be held in the new, unfinished, even scarcely planned, and already threatened capital … The walls were rough plaster and the damp stained the whitewash. gutters on window sills. The brass band had been ordered to perform European dances. She experienced a series of discords. Under a large flag, riddled with holes, the men stood together, stiff. They feared what they could be made to do – in a ballroom, not on a battlefield. The women were far more embarrassed. Some of them were on the verge of tears. Deprived of the veil which to middle-aged Turkish women might still mean boredom, but safety, charm and privacy … They huddled together in a corner , back to the room. They wore as much clothes as possible. No piece of skin showed if they could help him. Halideh (Edip Adıvar), in a high neck chiffon dress, looked fiery and intelligent. She has the face of an angel with a flaming sword.

Rosita Forbes

Rosita Forbes

How Mustapha Kemal, in uniform, with mud on his spurs, galvanized this bullet into what his detractors would call an “orgy”, I could never decide. He terrorized the band into playing the right notes. He pushed reluctant women into the arms of frightened men and shouted at them: “Dance!”. He wouldn’t let anyone stop. He poured out a drink – there was plenty to drink. The Turks are tough-headed. Their only form of excess is courage in battle, but Kemal was handing out araki and champagne – with a strange pinkish taste – as if it were hot and cold water poured into a bathtub. At midnight the ball was a success. In her climax, the host grabbed Halideh by a thin wrist – she was his Egeria, his luck, he wouldn’t fight without her – and threw her hatless and coatless into a waiting car. They walked away, heads bowed through the night, to the Sakkaria River. “

When Ataturk, who wanted to be the only one to have a say in the administration of the country, began to execute her friends, Halide Edip Adıvar fled abroad. Forbes, who met Halide Edip again in New York years later, listened to the story of his life. She included this conversation in her book “Women Called Wild”.

In his books “Quest: The Story of Anne, Three Men and some Arabs” (1922) and “Account Rendered” (1929), Forbes fictionalized his adventures and his relationships with other intelligence agents by changing the names of the characters. and spies. For example, in her novel “Quest: The Story of Anne, Three Men and a few Arabs,” the main character, Anne, is an intelligence officer who collects information about Atatürk herself.


Forbes lectured during World War II in support of the war in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. In 1939-40, she and her husband moved into a house they had built on a small island in the Bahamas. Her husband died on this island in 1962. Five years after her husband’s death, Rosita Forbes died on June 30, 1967 in Warwick, Bermuda.

She has received medals from the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp and the French Geographical Society and a prize from the Royal Society of the Arts. She became famous for her courage and courage as a woman, although she did not make any significant discoveries. But the name of this adventurous spy, who traveled to many parts of the world, who was reshaping at that time, from America to Afghanistan, is sadly forgotten today.

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