December 17th, 2009 12:28 EST
How The Arabs Were Ignored as Seafarers and Ship Designers
The winter issue of Barrow Street, the highly regarded twice-yearly poetry magazine, has arrived in bookstores. This issue includes North of Trouble, " a poem in which I take unusual pleasure because it has a long and intimate history.
The poem mentions a Norwegian sailboat called the Redningskoite. I saw such a boat when I was a young sailor and fell in love with it. I have dreamed of it many times, and North of Trouble " is the result of a kind of alchemical process in which my memory of that Redningskoite became an alembic into which I poured years of study and reflection.
Other types of boats are mentioned in the poem, the Arab felucca and zarook and the American J-boat, a famous racing yacht. I could also have mentioned the baghala, which Alan Villiers, the Australian poet-sailor, believed had been the model for the Portuguese caravel, the Model T Ford of the 15th Century.
The poem is a surreal amusement about a boat that haunts my dreams. But it was my encounter with the Redningskoite many years ago that put me on a course of research about Arab seafaring and alchemy. I found that marine archaeologists have been waiting for the moment when the wreckage of an actual caravel is found. They have never seen one and have only artists` renderings of the Nina and Pinta, ships Columbus used, to inform them.
Studying those renderings, Villiers reasoned in a 1946 issue of National Geographic that the Portuguese almost certainly encountered Arab ships whose sailing qualities impressed them. Western histories, however, gave the Portuguese sole credit for the caravel`s design, just as the same histories glossed over the fact that the Portuguese lost a 15-year sea war with Oman.
It`s likely, if an intact caravel is ever found, it will be off the Omani coast. I`ve written a trilogy of novels imagining just such a discovery. In my trilogy, Light Piercing Water, the caravel Sao Tiago is found in the 1960s off the Omani coast. A British couple writing a book about the Pearl Route to the Mughal court in India have hired an American merchant marine officer to skipper their research vessel. The American, who is of Arab-German descent, finds the Sao Tiago while diving with an Omani dissident he has befriended. The finding of the Sao Tiago is a tremendous event and changes the lives of everyone concerned.
While telling the stories of the seaman, the British adventurers, the sultan of Oman, a mathematician, a conservator of ancient musical instruments and a Chechen arms dealer, the unpublished trilogy also redresses a number of historians` wrongs against the Arabs and Romans. These wrongs consist of some outright distortions, but mostly omissions. For example, the Romans have been consistently portrayed as landlubbers, whereas they were excellent seamen. The Portuguese have been credited with discoveries that rightfully belong to the Arabs. Arab seafaring, which was well appreciated by the Vikings, has been discredited and ignored. Indeed the Vikings were so astonished by the agility and speed of the Arabs` lateen-rigged ships that they assumed the Arab sailmasters were magicians who conjured the wind. The Arabs were equally astonished by the Vikings` ferocity and described them as giants with holes in their heads through which one could see the sky, a reference to the Vikings` blue eyes. For two centuries these sea warriors terrified each other but eventually conducted lively trade and cultural exchange. It is the Arabs` lateen rig that all modern Western sailing yachts use, giving them their speed and versatility "the famous J-boat, for example.
I would have finished Light Piercing Water many years ago, but I got wondrously lost in my research. In the course of it I learned much about alchemy, Arab seafaring, and the many clashes between the Vikings and Arabs at sea. The more I learned the more it haunted my dreams. North of Trouble " in the winter issue of Barrow Street is a talisman of these discoveries. I hope it reflects my joy in them.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His 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. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.