December 4th, 2010 12:29 EST
Poet Writes About How His Research Into Arab Seafaring Became An Obsession
and the hijackers we love
Some passions are so consuming that they hijack your life, and since you are in love with the hijacker you secretly hope the crime will go unpunished. You, after all, are its reward.
So it was with my research of Arab seafaring. It began innocently and cursorily. I thought it would be accomplished in a week or so. I just needed a handful of facts for a novel I was writing. I suppose the Australian sailor-writer Alan Villiers inspired me at first. He had written about Arab seafaring in The National Geographic in 1946, and that article, focused as it was on Omani seamanship, had stuck in my mind.
I`m a sailor myself, but not of Villiers` stature. He was a master mariner and naval historian. I`m a coastal and riverine putterer. But I lived on a sailboat with my wife for 10 years and I served in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier. So I felt somewhat qualified to undertake a little research.
No sooner were my studies underway than the novel fell to the wayside and I immersed myself in a frenzy of discovery. Western historians, as Villiers knew, had pretty well written the Arabs out of their seafaring annals, painting them as sand dwellers. But they were equally at home on the sea and they deserve better than they have gotten in the histories.
That is why I excitedly greeted news in The New York Times on November 27th of a planned maritime history museum on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich emirate. Such a museum has long been needed not only to correct misperceptions about Arab seafaring but to redress omissions.
For example, the celebrated Portuguese caravel, that Model T Ford of the 15th Century, evolved almost certainly from the Arab ship designs the Portuguese encountered off the coast of Africa. But the Arabs have not been credited with this. Similarly, the modern lateen rig used by almost all modern sailboats is of Arab origin.
And there is much more. The Portuguese are justly celebrated as merchant navigators, but it is almost never mentioned that these famous seamen lost a 15-year sea war with the Omanis for control of the Indian Ocean. Nor is it often mentioned that the sea routes to the East for which the Portuguese are credited had been opened and plied by Arabs centuries earlier, as Vasco da Gama discovered when he arrived on the east coast of Africa and announced to Arab mariners that he intended to find the sea ways to Calicat, Cathay and The Jopons. Why, have they been lost? replied the incredulous Arabs.
From these few instances you may see why my novel was postponed while I read about Arab prowess at sea. My discoveries paralleled those of the Vikings. The Vikings and the Arabs spent a century or two scaring the hell out of each other on the high seas, and very little has been written about this.
The Vikings thought the Arab sail masters were conjurers who manipulated the winds, because the lateen-rigged Arab ships were light and could sail on the wind, unlike the Vikings` dragon ships which needed a following wind, just as the classical galleys had. The Arabs, for their part, described the Vikings as giants with holes in their heads through which one could see the skies.
These two seafaring peoples clashed on the Atlantic, on the North Sea, in the Baltic, on the Danube, on the Volga, on the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean. They took each other captive, they traded, and eventually they were correctly perceived by Rome as a threat to the church. Viking prisoners became Muslims and went to sea under green banners, and Arab prisoners became paganized and sailed on Viking galleys.
It`s the stuff of great books, but few have been written. What teen-aged boy wouldn`t be interested in this rambunctious prisoner trade, this swashbuckling adventure? I, a middle-aged man, was enthralled. I read translations of Viking accounts and Arab accounts. It was apparent that they had spooked each other far more than the Soviets ever spooked the West or NATO ever scared the Soviets.
My novel was about an Arab-American merchant seaman. He was awarded the Navy`s Silver Star for bravery in Korea. He would be our literature`s first Arab-American protagonist. A former frogman, he would find the world`s first caravel wreck off the Omani coast and be befriended by its autocratic former sultan. But the book languished as my research heated up. I loved the smidgeons of knowledge I was pocketing. I dreaded the day when I would have to put it aside.
It took me 15 years to write that book. Today, Light Piercing Water, as I call it, remains unpublished, and I remain as enthused about its research as I was when I started it. Artists Hill, " a non-marine section of the book, adapted by my wife Marilyn as a short story, won Literal LattÃ©`s first prize in fiction, so I have some reason to think the book is worth a reader`s time. And when I let my imagination run wild I imagine a copy ending up on the shelves of Abu Dhabi`s new maritime museum.
There is a world of Arab seafaring to be laid out before our eyes. There are wrecks, treasures, rutters, accounts, and much more. Today Arab coins are often found in Stockholm`s harbor or in the Danube. And it is likely that many a blue-eyed North African owes his sky eyes to a Viking captive of long ago.
Sometimes I think the proposed title of my book, Light Piercing Water, is the appropriate description for what ought to be done to balance the history books, to show the Arabs in their true light as mariners. We must pierce the dark waters of historical bias and omission. We must give credit where it is due. The Arabs were not only adventurous sailors, but long before the Portuguese and Spanish they were seafaring capitalists, a message that is clear in the Sindbad tales and yet obscured by our exoticization of the tales. And there is much more to be said about that, because the seafaring Arab merchants were not, for the most part, plunderers, as were the Spanish, but traders, practicing a moral capitalism from which we could draw some lessons ourselves.
The Abu Dhabis will name their maritime museum, but I choose to think its name is Light Piercing Water.
To listen to radio interview with the author, go to WAMC: Bard`s Eye View
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com