Sunday, 15 June 2014

Around the Coasts of Arabia

Here's a piece of vintage orientalism I came across while looking for sources on seafaring in the Indian Ocean in times past: an essay by Alan Villiers, author of Sons of Sindbad.  That latter book is his account of his voyage with an Arab trading dhow in 1938-39, with the north-east monsoon from the Gulf of Aden down the East African coast to Zanzibar and back to Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, where he spent some time with pearl divers.  I haven't tracked down a copy of this yet either; most of Villiers' books are out of print or very expensive and Not Available In My Region.  But the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has put Villier's spectacular photographs from that trip and others online.  You can even buy prints.
Excerpted from 'Around the Coasts of Arabia,' published in the Marine Corps Gazette, May 1949:
Muscat, in Oman, is a port of importance in world steamship routes. It is on the regular mail route between Bombay and Basra, and the Indian government, under British rule, maintained a post and telegraph office there. Native craft generally used the smaller, more open port of Mutrah, immediately to the north of Muscat harbor.  
Muscat, Oman 1913 (source)
Badans at Mutrah. The larger of these typically Omani craft could make the voyage to East Africa, while the smaller ones were used for fishing.
Here there is the usual covered bazaar, and fish market most unhygienic - on the beach beneath the hot sun. Many of the inhabitants are Baluchi, from Baluchistan across the Gulf of Oman. At Mutrah bay I have seen some of the most primitive sailing-vessels still using the deep sea, some of them dating back, surely, to Phoenician days. Incredibly small and inefficient vessels sail from there down to Zanzibar, in the good season, and frequently also sail back again.

Becalmed off the Swahili coast (Alan Villiers)

Ready for auction, freshly caught tuna await buyers at Sur, Oman’s chief fishing center. From the 7th to the 19th centuries Sur was a hub for the slave trade that stretched from East Africa to India. (NatGeo)
Around the whole of the southern coasts of Arabia and in the Gulf of Oman, the good season is the northeast season. There are two annual monsoons, northeast and southwest. The northeast lasts from October to the middle of April or some time in May; the southwest blows during most of the rest of the year. From the beginning of November to the end of February, the northeast monsoon prevails as a steady moderate breeze with fine, settled clear weather and a smooth sea. These are the conditions which the dhows revel in, both coastwise and deepsea. It is not at all uncommon to find 50 in together at a place like Ma'alla. The area of greatest regularity in this northeast wind is to the eastward and southeastward of the island of Socotra. In March the winds are variable, and now the big dhows begin to come home from Zanzibar and across the Indian Ocean, for they do not like to be out in the southwest monsoon. The weather then is often thick, hot, and extremely unpleasant, and the wind may reach gale force with a nasty sea. The southwest season is no time for amphibious exercises. [...]
A boom under full sail often carried a jib to take full advantage of the wind, like this one probably off the south Arabian coast. (Alan Villiers)
A fine baggala, probably the 'Bedri' of Kuwait, having her hull cleaned, Kwale Island.
The most trying conditions for personnel travelling in the Red Sea are to be found aboard transports going either north or south, with the wind following them at the same speed as the ship, and insufficient or no air conditioning. These conditions cause heat prostration, for which the Red Sea is notorious. But ashore the climate is not so bad, especially if people learn quickly to gear their lives to the existing climatic conditions and not those they knew back home. The busiest time in the Arab day is from dawn to about 10:30 am. The Arab eats lightly at dawn, generally breakfasting on a little unleavened bread and some strong tea, heavily sweetened: at 10:30 he has his mid-morning meal, and does not eat again until the early evening. His robes are cool and comfortable; his house, though lacking in sanitation and almost always without even running water, is cool, and well ventilated. He sleeps in the open, whether he be Beduin or Sheikh. He wears his picturesque head-cloth so that he can wrap up his face against severe dust storms, and his head-ropes are to keep his headgear on. He has learned to live properly under the conditions of his country; it would be a good idea to study how he does it, if so be you ever get the opportunity.
Nejdi had come on ahead to the Hadhramaut coast to drum up custom for his boom. These prospective passengers were trekking to Mukalla from the hinterland.
While the Bedouin still herd camels and goats and move camp every three or four months to find forage, they no longer depend on them for subsistence. (NatGeo)
On the whole, though trying, the climate is by no means as bad as it is reported to be. Up in the mountains, of course, it is cool enough. The local Beduin have a curious belief that indigo dye will keep them warm. I have seen them coming down from the interior into the roads of Shihr with no clothing other than a brief, black sarong, long matted hair thick with ghee, and black indigo smeared heavily on their lithe and almost fleshless bodies, though they had come straight from the hills. [...]

Now that the age-old seclusion of much of Arabia is becoming a thing of the past, the standard of local government, and services, is improving almost everywhere. But there still are bad spots. On the coast near the Kuria Buria Islands, there are tribes of pirates who are still held in awe by date-laden dhows: in many parts of Oman, the locals would sooner take a pot shot at the stranger than hang out any flags. Policing much of South Arabia was from the air, mainly by the Royal Air Force; when a tribe of Beduin break the raiding rules with persistent carelessness, sometimes they must be bombed. But on the whole there is more peace now than there has been for many years, and the influx of wealth and western ideas is making for good government. [...]
HM Taimur bin Turki, Sultan of Oman, 1913 (source)

The typical Arab has two things which very greatly sustain him, no matter what he might otherwise lackand these things are his calm philosophical outlook, the growth of much contemplation in an existence very close to a harsh and unforgiving Nature; and his Moslem religion. To him, both these are very real things indeed. He may know little of mass production and his greatest industry may be concerned with the production of some indifferent tobacco or good coffee beans, or queerly flavored honey. He likes to rub some perfume on his forehead, in the evenings, and to waft the fumes of burning incense into his wide nostrils. He eats in silence, crouching and using the right hand only; womenfolk are neither present nor discussed: he is at home on a strip of rough carpet beneath the stars, or upon a camel's back, or seated cross-legged hour after hour in the stern sheets of a dhow. He may have slaves, concubines, vast possessions (some of the wealthiest property-holders in Singapore are Arabs, and in Java) ; or he may not have a change of indigo. He may trade in pearls or sheep from Berbera, dates from Basra, cotton-goods in the cheap bazaar at the Crater in rainless Aden. He may speak no language the average Westerner understands, though the business man is often at home in four or five difficult Eastern tongues. He may wear a dagger, carry an ancient rifle (not quite so out of date as it may appear), ride a racing camel, fondle his amber rosary.

A old man resting outside a shop in Muttrah Souq. (Times of Oman)
All these things he may well do; but one thing also you may depend upon. He will comport himself with quiet dignity like a man, and a man he is, and was, and always will be. A man's man, at home in a tough man's country. It is a country, too, where we can learn a lot.
I won't say much about 'quiet dignity.'  But I take it Villiers never saw men shouting at each other, sitting around talking and laughing.  Or he just forgot about it.  Confirmation bias and all.  That's a very narrow and Noble Savage view of Omani men.

The Sheikh of Kais, 1913 (source)
And Villers seems to have forgotten that Oman contains as many women as men. 

A picture from September 1955 showing women carrying waterpots in Muttrah with the office of the “Wali” in the background. (Andy in Oman)
'A crowded market in Fanja' undated photo (Every Culture)
Women who live and work and give birth to children and raise them in what were and sometimes still are tough conditions.  He must have encountered women at some point; they were around doing things, but it strikes me how much he and Thesiger and other European travellers considered Oman and the Arabian Peninsula masculine countries inhabited by very masculine men, and rarely mention women or their contributions.  It's not just that women were frequently segregated and they mostly dealt with men, but also how endurance and going on trips involving hardship, especially in foreign lands, are gendered masculine and seen as things men do, and the experiences and contributions of other genders dismissed and discounted.

Most of the sources I found when I searched for "oman women in history" talked about how oppressed Omani women were/are by their culture, the need for Western organisations to liberate them, and the great strides they've made since Westernisation. It's all very colonial.  The introduction to the 'Women in Oman' Wikipedia article (the first hit for that search) pretty much sums up that narrative:
Women in Oman were historically excluded from the forums of everyday life. But with the dispersal of Omanis in the early 1900s and their return in the early 1970s, a more contemporary population of Omanis that were influenced by the British colonial values during their time abroad have slowly challenged many traditions of gender segregation. Women now pursue careers and professional training, slowly moving from their previous household confinement to the public sphere.[2] In Oman, 17 October is celebrated every year as the Omani Women's Day with various pro-female events.[3] (Wikipedia)
That whole article is terrible, and I do not recommend it.  It's written by people who fully believe in the development narrative - the modern form of the old colonial civilising mission; their rhetoric's just less obviously racist than it was in Kipling's time.  It's not that there weren't ever major problems in Omani society or aren't still, it's that Omani women are portrayed as victims of their backwards culture who need to be saved by the enlightened West.  Which is totally not misogynistic or exploiting the rest of the world for its own gain, nope.  The past was very different, and great changes have happened in the last forty years, but this narrative of Western influence liberating the world rather than local women and people around them working to change their own society from the inside while dealing with imperialist pressures and using foreign resources as they see fit is racist and ethnocentric, and covers up the real purposes of imperialist projects.

There was one result on the first page of Google result that talks about a few Omani women who were prominent in recorded history:

Indeed, the history of Oman also includes its share of women noted and recognized for their various contributions to public life.  To name a few, based on Al Balushi (2000), Seyyida Moza bint Al Imam Ahmad bin San Said was a top military strategist in the early eighteenth century, while Seyyida Khawla bint Seyyid Said bin Sultan, the daughter of the Sultan who ruled Oman from 1856 to 1857, was a known thinker, planner, and the most reliable member of the ruling family.  Shamsaa bint Al Alama Said bin Khalfan Al Khalili was a well-respected scholar and thinker in Islamic jurisprudence who was consulted to interpret some of the most difficult issues of the early nineteenth century.  Aisha bint Sheikh Issa Al Harthy was a famous poet of her time.  Al Ghalia bint Nasser bin Hmeid played a major role in national unity and social cohesion in Oman in the early 1900s.  The list is long and diverse, and continues from the noted late-nineteenth-century book author Seyyida Salma bint Sultan Al Seyyid Said bin Sultan to the more contemporary scholarly contributions of Nagiya bint Amer Al Hijriya, Sheikha bint Hilal Al Hinaiya, and Nasira bint Suroor Al Riyamiya, to mention only a few.

(Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Agents of Change,  by Fatima Sadiqi and Moha Ennaji, Routledge (2013) pg. 217 on Google Books)

I'm not going to do the research right now, but it's clear just from one source that there are many more, and countless other women who were not members of the ruling family or upper classes who lived ordinary lives and were never recorded.  But they were there, and they contributed. (I haven't read the whole book, but the section I quoted from is titled 'Omani women: the journey to empowerment'; it goes on to talk about outside influence empowering Omani women, which is also a pretty problematic narrative.  Empowerment in general is.  It can be hard to find sources in English on topics like this that aren't problematic to some degree.)

The world outside Europe was not only populated and participated in and at times ruled by local women as well as local men, it was explored and colonised and Christianised by Western women as well as Western men.  Women participated in imperialist exploration and mapping projects - quite a few of them.  There were a lot more than I realised before I went looking for lists.  Women were there, on both sides.  But they get left out of accounts, and left out of history.
Explorer Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 (Wikipedia).  She explored and mapped parts of Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Arabia, and wrote about her travels.
Here's a long list of Western female travellers and explorers of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Here's another one.  Their imperialism and ethnocentrism and sense of superiority to other races weren't good things, but they were part of history and they should be included in history when we write about it.

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