Sea Arabs, Oman, Qatar and Zanzibar

I rewrote this post from three family letters, written in 2010 from Dubai, 2011 from Doha and 2012 from Zanzibar.

People think about Arabs as a desert people, riding camels, “The ships of the desert” as I was taught in school, across waves of sand.  But in my travels I learned that Arabs were also master seafarers taking their dhows all around and across the Indian Ocean, carrying trade goods, culture and Islam to East Africa, India, Malaya and Indonesia just as the ships of the desert carried the same across Arabia and North Africa.  Along the coast of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf coast the Emirates (Both in the United Arab Emirates and the independent states Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) were pearl fishers and pirates.  The British established protectorates over some of the most piratical of the states.

Driving North from Doha in Qatar we visited fishing villages where I met some of these “Sea Arabs.”  I compared the lines of their fishing dhows with the fleet in Sitka, and noted the gear, some familiar net rigs and crab pots, and some not so familiar.  Those dhows are smaller versions of the ones that carried Arabia a quarter of the way around the world.  These modern Sea Arabs look to me like they carry the genes of much of the Indian Ocean basin. In port I savored the smell of a working port, part salt, part fish, part diesel.  In these ports on the northern Qatari coast mosques do double duty, the minarets serving as lighthouses.

On our visit to Dubai we took a daytrip to Oman where we got the first hand feel of a dhow as we sailed along the Musandam Peninsula and its fjords toward the Straits of Hormuz, the choke point at the entrance to the Persian (or Arabian, take your choice) Gulf.

Once we had visited Oman I wanted to go to Zanzibar because of the connection between the two states.  Stonetown, Zanzibar was founded by Persian traders.  The Portuguese built their forts here during their period of exploration.   Zanzibar became a way station on the way to India, Timor and Macau.  The Portuguese imported spice seeds from Indonesia to develop a spice industry closer to home.  Then in 1698 the Sultan of Oman took over the island and Zanzibar became the port for the flow of spices, ivory and slaves from Africa to Arabia.

The Swahili culture evolved, with slaves from all over East Africa mixing with Arabs in Zanzibar and speaking a language, based on Arabic mixed with local dialects.  Swahili became the trade language for all of East Africa. It its height Omanis from Zanzibar controlled the coast from Kenya to Mozambique and ran trade routes deep into Africa. The slaves they captured in the interior had to carry ivory to the coast and then were sold, either for transportation to Arabia or for work on Zanzibar’s plantations.  At one point the entire Omani Royal house moved its capital from Muscat on the Arabian Peninsula to Zanzibar.

The British entered the scene in the 1800s to stop the slave trade.  To this end they signed treaties with the Sultan. By this time the Omani Royal House had split with one branch ruling Oman and the other ruling Zanzibar.  The Brits destroyed the slave market and built Christ Cathedral on the site of the market.  So while Zanzibar is 95 % Moslem the most prominent religious site is this cathedral.  In 1890 Britain established a “protectorate” over Zanzibar.  In 1963 Zanzibar became independent with a constitutional monarchy with the Emir as head of state.  Very soon thereafter a revolt overthrew the Emir and massacred 20,000 Arabs and Indians.  Many more were deported.  Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to become Tanzania.  While the Arabs are gone in many ways the culture of Sea Arabs lives on in Africa.

These pictures are from Oman, Qatar and Zanzibar.  Tomorrow I will post pictures from another side of Arab life, an oasis set in waves of sand.


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