A facebook friend sent me a URL to a blogpost which introduced Sons of Sinbad by Alan Villiers… What struck me was the contention that the book was “probably the only work of western travel literature that focuses on the seafarers of the Arabian Peninsula.”
I bought the book and read it cover to cover on a plane (which itself feels rather apt) flying to California and another one flying back. The book itself is lovely – a library copy of the 1960 reprint of the original 1940 book, it has that delicious musty paper smell and very thick pages. And dozens of amazing photographs.
Villiers is an interesting figure: an Australian son of a union organiser and someone who has sailed around the world (on a boat called The Joseph Conrad no less), he does trot out romantic orientalist cliches at every turn -in that TE Lawrence sort of way which sees Arabs as wise, timeless and courageous; as embodiments of “nature”. More interestingly than Lawrence, Villiers, himself a sailor and the son of a union man, also sees them as profoundly skilled, competent, and capable. He sees the hardship of work, and has a fabulous passage on the ways in which structures of debt binds sailors to the ship captains, in turn bound to the merchants who own the ships:
The sailors owed money to the nakhodas [the dhow captains], the nakhodas to the merchants, the merchants to other merchants, or the sheikh. Working without any banking system, with insurance, usury, and even interest forbidden – at any rate in theory – by the Islamic law, the economic side of the port of Kuwait was a dark maze. It was obvious, however, that the whole industry rested on a structure of debt. It was equally obvious that the nakhodas, though they imagined themselves to be the owners of their booms, were not the real owners at all. The merchants owned them… In their turn, the nakhodas owned the sailors, for the sailors were considered bound to any nakhoda to whom they owed advances… The nakhodas were tried to the merchants, and the sailors to the nakhodas, though they were not slaves. There was little slavery in Kuwait. There was little need of it. Slavery had become uneconomic. It was better to own a man’s work than to own and support the man himself. To own his work, you had not to support him.
The deskilling that comes with division of labour is yet to come, but the captain is bitter about the fact that the European regulations, competition, and violence have pushed him from deep-sea voyages towards coastal trade. This sailing along the coasts itself has translated into a loss of knowledge (and lack of access to technology) that would make navigation in deep seas possible. Villiers is nevertheless full of admiration about the encyclopaedic knowledge of the captain – of rocks, channels, banks, and coasts, or ports, sunk ships, and best places to cross, and the ability to sail through the monsoon.
The sailors work incredibly hard on the dhow – and Villiers exults the skill that goes into repairing the ship, but also in its day-to-day operation, and even in the tacking to wind. He is attentive not only to the sailors, however, and also writes about the other people who work aboard the ship, including the cook. Or the first mate:
I thought I had known something about ghosting vessels along in the catspaws and doldrums conditions, after all those grainship voyages and coaxing the Joseph Conrad through the Sulu Sea, but Hamed seemed to begin where I left off. In conditions under which I could neither be sure that there was a breath of air stirring nor predict whence the next air might come, Hamed could get some progress out of the vessel. He was a past master of this sort of sailing, and he had no mercy on himself or the crew. For the slightest change or the most fleeting breath of air, he trimmed that huge lateen sail. Hamed showed himself a splendid sailorman, and though at that early stage I could not appreciate all the moves he made (and indeed wondered about some of them) later I learned to appreciate him as a very fine sailorman indeed.
He also writes beautifully about the most horrific things (well, I am katsaridaphobic): “the most enormous cockroaches scampering –well, not exactly scampering, for they were too sleek and fat and undisturbed to move with any such unleisurely speed. Rather then were scurvily ambling about the place, as if they owned it”.
But he nevertheless often makes grand (and orientalist) generalisations about Arabs or Suris or Italians or whatever – and yet the specific people he writes about escape these generalisations of timelessness by simply breaking through the constraints of his orientalism through the sheer dint of living modern lives and in modern times. One character, for example, is “a Yemeni sayyyid who was thinking of going to the Congo to collect some dues” who also happens to have been an “automobile worker in Detroit and had spent eight years in the stokeholds of ocean steamers.” This fellow speaks no English or any other recogniseable language until his fellow travelers figure out that the language he speaks is actually Polish “which he had learned in Buffalo and Detroit… He had lived in Hamtranck, the Polish suburb of Detroit, and his fellow-workers must have all been Poles.” So not so much a colourful and exotic Bedu, but a modern immigrant who has worked in that quintessential modernist industry in that quintessential modern city of Detroit.
There is much else that I will be using in my own work: his description of the ports; the economies of shipping; the goods being shipped around; and the rather ineffective regulatory systems of the British and the Italians on the east coast of Africa are all amazing. But one other thing about his book that absolutely shocked me was the recognition of how much the relations of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have changed in the intervening decades.
There is an incredible account where rickety ships filled dangerously with migrants -escaping war and famine- are seeking shelter and work in another place: but then in 1939, the desperate migrants were Arabs, and the port to which they were escaping in hopes of finding jobs and respite was Mogadishu. Here is the short and terrible account:
Why, I asked Nejdi [the nakhoda], did so many Arabs wish to leave their country at once, in so poor a vessel? Nejdi said there was trouble between Sharjah, the next port up the coast, and Dabai [sic], whence the boom hailed –political trouble, bad enough to culminate in a local war. He left me to gather that perhaps these people from Dabai crowding that boom were fleeing from the war: but Hamed bin Salim said there was a famine round Dabai and all the Trucial Coast was so poor that anyone might gladly leave it, even in a sixty-foot boom crowded with two hundred people
Update [added on 18 February 2015]: I have just discovered that Villiers commanded the ship Moby Dick which was used as Pequod in John Huston’s version of Moby Dick scripted by Ray Bradbury, with Gregory Peck as Ahab.