translated by Russell Harris
Banipal Books, London, April 2020
ISBN: 978-1-913043-08-7. Pbk, 160 pages, £9.99/ $15
ebook: 978-1-913043-09-4. £6.99 / $8.68
The call of the sea
In the late 1930s, the Australian captain and writer Alan Villiers embarked as a passenger on a dhow, a traditional wooden sailing ship used in the Indian Ocean, for a round trip that lasted around six months and spanned over 15,000 km. Villiers’s journey started in Aden, where the dhow, Al-Bayan, had sailed in with a cargo of dates. The ship continued its way along the Hadhramaut coast, picking up other passengers along the way, then sailed south to Zanzibar and, after collecting mangrove poles in the Rufiji Delta in present-day Tanzania, returned via Oman and Bahrain to Kuwait. Throughout the trip Villiers sailed with the crew as an equal, sharing their hardships (he was left temporarily blind after suffering a serious accident on board) and practising their navigation techniques. Additionally, he took dozens of photographs and committed to the page the ship’s travel routes, information about its construction materials, hull type and rigging, and his observations about the intricate social arrangements between the ship’s crew and its passengers. In 1940 this mosaic of details was published in a book, Sons of Sindbad, which (despite a title that is sure to set off some readers’ Orientalism alarm) remains an invaluable record of a significant period of seafaring history, as well as of a now-vanished material culture in the Gulf.
The cover of the Banipal Books English translation of The Mariner, the novel by the Kuwaiti author Taleb Alrefai (b. 1958), is adorned with one of Villiers’s above-mentioned photographs: a striking picture of a huge, imposing dhow navigating the vast expanse of the sea. Two of the ship’s men are working on deck. The contours of a coastline are visible in the distance. The image really could not have been more apt. Indeed, The Mariner is a fictionalized retelling of the final day at sea of Ali bin Nasser al-Najdi, the real-life former captain, or nakhoda, of Al-Bayan. Primarily set over the course of one day, February 19, 1979, we find Captain al-Najdi 70 years old and retired, and about to embark on a fishing excursion with two friends, also former seamen. Despite al-Najdi’s wife’s early reservations about it, the trip starts out as a breeze – a leisurely afternoon spent just off the coast of Kuwait, fishing for sea bream, singing sea shanties over biryani, and with the sailors sure to be home by the evening. The surroundings of the sea provide al-Najdi with plenty of opportunity to reminisce about the past. Accordingly, the narrative, steadily paced in short, chronological chapters, interweaves the captain’s stories about his extraordinary life: his romantic obsession with the sea from childhood, his development into Kuwait’s youngest and finest nakhoda, and his travels through faraway ports and harbours. Villiers, with his ‘enormous stature and his feline gaze’, makes several appearances throughout the story, and al-Najdi’s (albeit fictionalised) descriptions of him provide an interesting reversed perspective of the Australian’s time on the dhow. Although, according to al-Najdi, Villiers never learnt more than a few words of Arabic and remained a cultural outsider, the mutual admiration between the men is readily apparent, and the two share a poetic sensibility and a love of storytelling (“Sindbad, if he ever existed, could not have concocted adventures such as were commonplace with them”, Villiers later wrote of al-Najdi and his crew). In contrast, Villiers, but not al-Najdi, understood early on that the nakhoda’s way of life would soon be no longer. And indeed, after the export of the first consignment of oil from Kuwait in 1946 the seafaring industry changed completely – sea captains, sailors, pearl fishers and traders abandoned their livelihoods for new riches in the oil industry and in international commerce. Kuwaiti dhows were largely sold or dismantled, their wood repurposed for buildings or used as firewood. For al-Najdi, the only life he had ever known was gone, his seafaring skills and pride ‘enveloped by darkness and immobilised by nostalgia’. Meanwhile, amid increasingly treacherous winds and an ominous oncoming storm his small fishing boat starts rocking uncontrollably.
This two-fold unravelling – the old captain’s solemn grief over what was lost, the sudden, perilous storm – make up an engaging novel which, in Russell Harris’s faultless translation, reads effortlessly and sustains the reader’s attention throughout. Because it runs in parallel with, and reflects back on, Villiers’s famous record it is an undoubtedly interesting story, but as a standalone work of fiction too it is a worthy addition to an already substantial body of literary references to Kuwait’s maritime past. The Arabic original, Al-Najdi, published in 2016 in Kuwait, was longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and is Taleb Alrefai’s fourth novel. It already has French, Turkish, and Chinese editions and is now joined by the English.
Certainly, one feels that The Mariner was born out of an intensely personal and longstanding interest of its author, and Alrefai’s knowledge of Arabian dhows and of seafaring appears comprehensive and is competently deployed. His depiction of life on deck can also be wonderfully evocative, and this in turn complements the stories of Captain al-Najdi, for whom the sea, despite its unforgiving harshness, is a spiritual call, a way of life, ‘a life-long love affair’.
First published in Banipal magazine