Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book 83, Oman: "The Sultan's Shadow" by Christiane Bird

Y'know, I actually own a book given out by the Omani Consulate - one of those propaganda, boo-yeah, look how prosperous we've become since the modernising force of Sultan Qaboos books. Received it as a door gift back when they'd just sailed the Jewel of Muscat to our shores.

But of course, I've chosen this book instead:


And guess what? Despite the National Library classifying it under "Oman", only a third of it actually takes place in the country - the story's focussed instead on the period after Sultan Seyyid Said and his descendants moved the capital of their empire from Muscat to Zanzibar, all the way down in present-day Tanzania.

But dear me, this book is terribly interesting. I should've read it before I started my East African journey, not after: it brings the world that Abdulrazak Gurnah describes to life; this Arab/Swahili/Indian/European world of slavery and debts and faraway colonial powers.

The author isn't just interested in communicating the cause-and-effect of history: she's fascinated by all the little stories and details of the era, which is why she meanders into side-tales of Ali bin Muhammad and the Zanj Rebellion (the greatest slave revolt in world history); of David Livingstone and Tippu Tip and Henry Morton Stanley; and of course of the Princess Salme, who eloped pregnant to marry a German businessman, turning her back on her faith and becoming the world's first-known Arab woman to write an autobiography.

Truth is, I think Christiane Bird extends the narrative a little too long: Salme ceased to be a sympathetic character for me quite early on (she was an apologist for slavery, among other character flaws), and the various threads of history told out of sequence do strain the mind a wee bit.

But now at least I have some understanding of what the East African slave trade entailed (the author objects to the term "Arab slave trade", given that we don't say "European slave trade"), and that old Oman truly was a glorious place with surprisingly enlightened leaders and a still rather tolerant form of Islam in its culture. That's education, baby.


View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Swahili clairvoyants were called in. Many lived in the most remote areas of the island, but they were tracked down by slaves and brought to the palace by boat, horseback, or foot.

Among them was a prophetess "of a quite unnatural corpulence," who claimed to have an unborn child inside her who could foretell the future. Arriving at the palace one afternoon, the woman told the worried family that her omiscient child, who had been living under her heart for years, could see from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the seas. And then, in a high squeaky voice, the "child" described three sailing ships, from the vantage point of the tallest mast, and outlined in detail what every single person on board was doing. Apparently, Seyyid Said was still alive and well. The family rejoiced and the prophetess ordered that a myriad of sacrifices be made. Gladly, the family obeyed, slaughtering animals and distributing meat, cloth, and rice among the woman's followers and the poor.

At the time, Salme and everyone else in the palace believed in the miraculous child. Only later, while living in Germany, did Salme realize that the woman was a ventriloquist.

Next book: The Quran, from Saudi Arabia.

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