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  Book review

Sons of Sindbad

An Account of Sailing with the Arabs in their Dhows, in the Red Sea, round the Coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika; Pearling in the Persian Gulf; and the Life of the Shipmasters and the Mariners of Kuwait 

by Alan Villiers

Reprinted by Arabian Publishing, 2006. Pp.xl + 408 Introduction. 50 b/w photographs. Map. Appendices. Hb. £25. ISBN 0-9544792-3-8.

By his mid-thirties when he first visited Arabia, Alan Villiers (1903–82) had already made his name as a sailor, photojournalist and writer. The second son of an Australian poet and trade union leader (who died young in 1918), Villiers went to sea in 1919, serving his apprenticeship in the coastal schooners which traded off Tasmania, but soon achieved his ambition of deep sea sailing in a square rigger.

Shortly before his arrival in Aden in late 1938, Villiers had completed an epic voyage around the world in a schooner of his own, the Joseph Conrad. He knew that he was living through the last days of sail and that ‘only the Arab remained making his voyages as he always had, in a wind-driven vessel sailing without benefit of engines... . The Arabs had been sailing...for countless centuries before we even knew the ocean existed: that they still sailed very much the same trade routes in much the same way I thought remarkable evidence of their ability and spirit.’ It was in this mood of empathy, born of his own sea-faring experience and natural modesty, that Villiers looked around for an Arab dhow master prepared to take on a lone Westerner wishing to record as much as he could of the last days of sail. An introduction from Harold Ingrams, then Resident Adviser in Mukalla, led him to Aden and indirectly to a family of Kuwaiti merchants, the Al-Hamads, with an office in Crater. Through the Al-Hamads he was put in touch, first, with the captain of a little Yemeni zaruq in which he spent two weeks on a voyage to Jizan, and later with the young captain, Ali bin Nasr al-Nejdi, of one of the great ocean-going Kuwaiti booms then at anchor in Ma’alla Bay. Nejdi’s boom, whose Arabic name Al-Bayan (meaning ‘clarity’ or ‘eloquence’ but sometimes used as a synonym for the Qur’an) Villiers curiously translates as the Triumph of Righteousness, was making the age-old voyage from the Gulf to East Africa with a cargo of dates from Basra. The dates had been sold at Berbera, and the boat was continuing its voyage with cargo and passengers from Aden eastwards to Mukalla and Shihr in Hadhramaut, and thence to ports along the East Africa as far as Zanzibar. The return voyage to Kuwait would be made in the early summer of 1939 with a full cargo of mangrove poles from the mosquito-ridden Rufiji Delta, south of Zanzibar, in addition to coconuts and cloves and a hundred cases of vermicelli!

Like the French sailor and adventurer, Henry de Monfreid, Villiers travelled among his companions as an equal, an honorary member of a mutually sustaining brotherhood of the sea; he was deeply impressed by their cheerful acceptance of the hardship and unremitting toil of their working lives, and their unquestioning faith in the Almighty. His only privilege was to have his own few feet of space on the poop, where he slept on a carpet for the next six months. Soon after leaving Aden, a serious accident on board the dhow left him semi-conscious and temporarily blind. This physically handicapped him for the rest of the voyage, and his main contribution to the welfare of his Arab companions lay in the basic medical treatment which he was able to offer those who fell sick. Villiers’ knowledge of navigation, his tireless curiosity and his unassuming friendliness – so different from the European officials with whom the crew usually came in contact – won him their respect, and he soon picked up sufficient Arabic to understand the management of the boom, and even to take part in conversations on the poop.

Sons of Sindbad is the work of a naturally gifted writer, sailor and photographer. It is a compelling, at times lyrical, at times poignant, evocation of maritime life in the western half of the Indian Ocean on the eve of World War II; a tonic to read, such is its descriptive power and such the humanity of its author:

‘Along the [Ma’alla] beach where the hard brown earth merged into brackish, smelling mud, a dozen small dhows stood propped on stilts or leaned crazily towards the sea, while their skirted sailors carried out repairs, or with endless chant and song, applied hot paying-stuff to their ships’ undersides, using their bare hands. Here and there the shapely hulls of partly finished dhows rose from surrounding piles of twisted wood from the Yemen and logs from the Malabar coast, out of which skilled carpenters, working only with adze and Indian drill, had hewn them. The sweetly curved bows of the new sambuks seemed to look in amazement over the odds and ends of wood which had given them birth.’

‘… the [Mutrah) anchorage was full of Persians. Five of their booms arrived, having come up from Africa in company. The bay resounded with their haunting boat songs as their longboats pulled for the beach, the nakhodas standing and waving as they passed their countrymen’s ships. After sunset the creak of their great halliards getting the sails aloft, ready for the sea again, came clearly in the intervals of dancing and the tramp of hard bare feet. Mutrah Bay, that night, was very beautiful under the bright stars. There was no moon, but the stars gave light as the Persians made ready for the sea.. The wind came from the north-west before midnight, gusty, burning with the heat of all the surrounding stone and the desert beyond, hot so it scorched the face like a furnace blast, and even aboard the ship out in the bay it was impossible to sleep.’

The book was first published in 1940 and reprinted only once, in America, in 1969. A further reprint has long been overdue and Arabian Publishing are to be congratulated on producing a book of such excellent quality. This includes a collaborative Introduction by William Facey, Yacoub al-Hijji and Grace Pundyk, which combines a biographical account of Alan Villiers’ remarkable life with a thoughtful assessment of the place of Sons of Sindbad in the travel literature on Arabia. As the only work of the genre on the sea-faring Arabs, the book is seen to rank with Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, a view which few who read it are likely to contest. The illustrations – 50 black and white plates – superbly complement the text.

John Shipman