National Geographic : 1956 Jul
Desert Sheikdoms of Arabia's Pirate Coast We penetrated deeper and higher into the mountain range. Here were few signs of life, though we frequently heard the Shihuh cry ing out to each other, an eerie sound that echoed around the wadis. Occasionally a figure would appear silhouetted on a near-by peak. He would observe our movements and suddenly be gone, to warn of our approach. Eventually we reached an area where the foothills meet the red sand dunes of Ras al Khaima. Here we were back with the Omani Bedouin. At this stage the reconnaissance necessitated bringing two tribes together, the Khawatir and the Mazaria, and of course both stayed for dinner. I had ordered five goats killed for the ruler of Ras al Khaima and his followers. It was nearly sunset when I realized that we had more than 200 guests. But our smiling cook seemed unperturbed. When I sat down with the first group of guests, the reason for his confidence became apparent. He had saturated the rice in a rich fat that dried hard and yellow on the backs of the fingers. It was possible to eat only a few handfuls before feeling ill. Consequently, there was plenty for all. Few Villages Break Desolation The shores of the Trucial Coast consist mainly of long stretches of bare, uninhabited beach, broken by occasional fishing villages composed of little clusters of frond huts. To the northeast the shore disappears entirely, and bleak limestone hills dip steeply into the sea. On the coast of Fujaira I have seen an other use the Arab makes of his precious date palms: small uncalked boats made en tirely of bundled fronds, in which the owner sits half-immersed in water. During the winter the villagers catch and dry little spratlike fish that are used as fer tilizer and food for livestock. The whole vil lage takes part, the men hauling the great nets to shore and the young and aged gathering and drying the catch (page 84). When my stomach has been able to with stand the uncertain motion, I have enjoyed journeys along the coast in local craft. It is a sign of the times that the most popular of these is becoming the "launch"-an Eng lish word now assimilated into Arabic. Usu ally these are native craft into which a gaso line engine has been fitted. But most of them retain their lateen rigs, with masts at rakish angles, for the older Arabs are still a little distrustful of the engines. The most picturesque of the Arab craft is the boom, a twin-masted vessel that bears as many as five sails. Built of sturdy Malabar teak, the boom ranges the Arabian Sea as far as Zanzibar. Dates and dried fish, particu larly shark's meat, are the principal cargoes from the Persian Gulf. On the return it car ries poles used in building palm-frond huts, spices, reed mats, and many other things that a more fertile land provides.* Arab Sailors Trust in Allah The navigation of these vessels is frequently a precarious thing. Sometimes the captain's only aid, other than his compass, is a simple sextant with which he takes bearings each day at noon. Living such hazardous lives, the sailors, like the men of the sands, are fatalists whose entire faith is in Allah. On one of the trips I made around the pen insula, a shamal, the prevailing northwesterly wind of the Gulf, caught our sails, and we ran for the shelter of Abu Musa, the Father of Moses. As we lay in the lee of that island, the captain told us of a storm the year before, when an unexpected shamal had taken the lives of 200 people. Beyond Abu Musa, in Oman territory, Shihuh fishermen approached in little canoes, offering fish for sale. On the so-called Is land of Goats a Shihuh shepherd gravely told me that his animals stood in the sea and sucked salt water up through their front hoofs when they needed moisture! Chanting Crews Ready Pearling Craft Every summer Dibai and the other little ports along the Trucial Coast hum with ac tivity as chanting boat crews prepare for the pearling season. The Persian Gulf banks have been fished since earliest times and have yielded some of the finest pearls in the world. Farther along the coast this ancient trade has been all but extinguished by the prosperity that oil has brought to other states. One summer I visited the pearling fleet. A large number of vessels lay anchored on the still, green waters of the pearling banks. Some of the divers from Dibai, whom I knew by sight, shouted greetings. Their captain beckoned me. The boat was packed with men and gear, and the smell of oysters was strong. About 20 divers were in the water. * See "Sailing with Sindbad's Sons," by Alan Vil liers, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1948.