In the Wake of the Dhow: The Arabian Gulf and Oman

In the Wake of the Dhow: The Arabian Gulf and Oman 

by Dionisius Agius

Ithaca Press, 2002. Pp. xx + 253. Illus. Maps. Append. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £35. ISBN 0-86372-295-8.

From the very beginning of Arabic literature the Arab writer has striven to crown his work with a catchy title, preferably rhyming and more or less relevant to its content. Dr Agius’ choice of title earns him a place alongside the masters: not only for its play on words but also for its suggestion that he is pursuing a fast vanishing quarry and is inevitably constrained to rely largely on archival sources for facts and images. He has responded, in the wake of a number of Arab chroniclers of the dhow, by supplementing a scrupulous trawl of almost the entire corpus of useful written material with observations and anecdotes meticulously gathered from more than two hundred interviews with Arab shipwrights, ship-owners, seamen, retired pearl-divers (including a Bahraini aged 114!) and fishermen; he has compressed a great deal of detail from a wide range of sources between the covers of a single book, while making material from Arabic sources available to readers unacquainted with the language. However, not everyone will share his confidence in some of his assertions or place the same weight on some of his findings. Meanwhile, the high quality of the book’s binding and printing is not reflected in its many black and white illustrations which lack lustre, and one struggles to understand why they were not indexed.

The main focus of the book is on the nomenclature of different types of dhow and of their component parts. It represents the first part of a project (supported by the Leverhulme Trust, British Council and various bodies in the Gulf States) to establish an historical and linguistic link between today’s traditional seafaring craft and those characteristic of the 17th and succeeding centuries. The book omits all reference to sails, rigging, seamanship and navigational instruments, which are to be covered in a subsequent volume. Its structure is quite novel. Earlier writers tended to follow an alphabetical format or, like Hornell and then Shihab, the classification of hull types, distinguishing firstly between stitched and nailed ships; then subdividing the latter into double-ended types and those with transom sterns, describing the different ship types under their respective generic headings. But Agius has sought to classify by function, While this lends itself to a more catholic array of information, it does make the work vulnerable to the personal experiences and biases of the author’s informants. To be fair, Agius recognises the limitations of this approach, noting that ‘craft types and labels vary from region to region and identical terms may apply to different vessels while others may apply to structurally similar crafts’. So it is worth emphasising here that Arab seamen were essentially entrepreneurs, employing their ships wherever there was a stray dinar, dollar or rupee to be captured; thus one might find an ocean going boum smuggling gold to Pakistan, ‘tramping’ in the Gulf coastal trade, or engaged in pearl fishing during the pearling season, which coincided with adverse weather conditions off its regular trading centres on the Malabar coast.

One unusual and commendable feature of the book is the chapter describing the planning and execution of Agius’ fieldwork and the measures taken to avoid the pitfalls of recording oral testimony. It is a model for anyone contemplating the field study of oral history This is followed by a useful geopolitical and economic overview of conditions in the Gulf region spanning the past four centuries, setting the author’s study in its historical context.

The bibliography is excellent, and the author will have been pleased that since his book went to press two of the Arabic sources he lists have been published in English translation by The London Centre of Arab Studies (now ‘Arabian Publishing Ltd’): Ya’qub Yusufal-Hijji’s The Art of Dhow-building in Kuwait (2001), and Saif Marzooq al-Shamian’s Pearling in the Arabian Gulf: A Kuwaiti Memoir (2000). The glossary, however, displays a number of important omissions and inadequacies. The omissions include culturally significant ships such as the fulk (although this appears in the Arabic quotation at the head of p. 49) and jariyah of the Qur’an, the bus or busi of the poets Tarafa and al-A’sha, and the khaliya and ‘aduli or ‘aduliyah of Tarafa’s mu’allaqa. Among the inadequacies we find abubuz which Agius describes as a ‘fishing boat with similar features to a sanbuq except for its rounded stern’, whereas it is in tact modelled on the lines of a nineteenth- century clipper ship with a rounded stern and a characteristic concave bow, having a snout projection at the top, which probably gives the ship its name; for abubuz may be translated as ‘father of a snout’. Elsewhere, other characteristic features overlooked include the matting sail of the mtepe, the distinctive curtailment of the outer stem of the zaruq and that of the outer sternpost of the za’ima.

Despite these minor blemishes, Agius’ book, with its collection of oral testimony enriching his glossary with new linguistic material, is an impressive achievement enhanced by the lucid and pleasing manner in which he writes. The publication of his book is also timely As the author laments, economic pressures and technological change are causing fibreglass to replace wood in dhow construction; tribal memories of traditional seafaring techniques and terminology are fast disappearing; the handsome wooden sanbuq is following the Kuwaiti boum and Omani badan on the long voyage to extinction. One must hope, therefore, that his detailed account of the region’s historic but dying maritime culture will be read widely by a younger generation born too late to have been part of it.

James Taylor

Dionisius Agius