Back in May I had an email from Michelle Wallin, an editor at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. I’d contacted the four-year-old publisher – which, as its name suggests, came out of a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – to see whether it might have any suggestions of books I could read in translation by Qatari writers.
As it happened, I was in luck. Wallin was editing the manuscript of the translation of a novel that had been very popular in Arabic. It would be one of the first Qatari novels to be published in English and was due out at the end of the year. Would I be interested in that?
I replied that I certainly would, especially if Wallin could send me an advance copy or manuscript so that I could read it in time for the end of the project. She promised to try and impressively, despite the delays that so often hamper the publishing process, a manuscript of The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud arrived in my inbox a couple of weeks ago.
Set in the early 19th century, when the British Empire was extending its reach across the globe, the novel tells the story of the struggle for control of the trade routes in the Persian Gulf. Spurred into action by the region’s burgeoning number of pirates or corsairs, among them the notorious Erhama bin Jaber, His Majesty’s Government moves to protect its interests, sending figures such as the aristocratic Captain Loch and the awkward Major George Sadleir to the Gulf to safeguard the transport of British cargo through diplomacy or military action. But the British have reckoned without the complex web of rivalries and loyalties that spans the Gulf. As the narrative progresses – roving between Plymouth in the UK, Bombay in India, Bahrain, Qatar, Madeira and many places in between – it becomes clear that the emissaries of the small nation that at one stage controlled a quarter of the planet are out of their depth.
Al Mahmoud’s 19th century Gulf region is a rich, cruel and bewildering place. From the sumptuous palaces of the Sultan of Oman to the barren plains where Ibrahim Pasha prosecutes his brutal wars, it is a world of contrasts and contradictions. Fresh springs bubble under the sea, making it possible for intrepid sailors to dive for drinking water, and lifeless deserts hide secret dens, buzzing with activity – signalling that here very little is what it seems. Relationships in the region are equally fraught, with family betrayal frequent and allegiances between factions and sects shifting with alarming regularity – ‘they pray to the same God and towards the same Kaaba, and yet they butcher each other,’ remarks Sadleir at one point. Through the hubbub and carnage strides the towering figure of Erham bin Jaber: terrifying, enigmatic and fascinating.
Al Mahmoud’s depiction of the British characters is similarly compelling – and one of the most convincing I’ve read all year. None of the false notes that so often strike you when you read the work of a foreign writer trying to describe your countrymen and women to you are present. Instead, his creations are utterly believable, right from the irritable and effete administrative official David Matthews to the governor in Bombay.
This credibility buys the author a lot of leeway when it comes to revealing the flaws in his characters and the national policies driving them. Beginning softly with a few instances of casual racism and ignorant generalisations on the part of the British, as well as some digs at the ill-suitedness of English attire and practices to most of the settings in the novel, he begins to dismantle the pomp and circumstance of empire to show the folly and hypocrisy on which it rests. This gradually moves to more serious matters, with the disgruntled Indian employee Gulap offering one of the first shots across the bows with the observation: ‘many Omanis regard the British as criminals and killers’.
The rest of the novel serves to demonstrate why such a view might well be justified. Welching on deals, commissioning murder, and promising the powerless lackey Abbas his safety only to kill him once he has served his purpose and testified against the Prince of Shiraz’s nephew, the British characters reveal themselves to be the most underhand and treacherous players in the Gulf.
Crucially, however, Al Mahmoud does not himself fall into the trap of generalising. He gives Sadleir a great deal of insight into the thoughtless cruelty of his compatriots, leaving the door open for a friendship between him and the pirate Erhama bin Jaber’s son, Bashir. As Bashir explains, the problem is really a question of perspective: ‘You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people,’ he says. In fact, the author’s skill is such that, in this translation of his work into the language of the former empire, he manages to get readers to experience something of what it means to think differently: by the end I found myself rooting for Erhama bin Jaber and his followers against the Brits.
Although Al Mahmoud navigates well between his large array of settings and characters, there are one or two minor snags in the rigging. The lengthy descriptions of Captain Loch’s aristocratic background and his offhand manner with his crew in the first chapter seem to promise a mutiny which never materialises, as though the author changed his mind about the weighting of the narrative half-way through. Similarly, there are a few places in the book where Al Mahmoud sets up an obstacle only to sweep it away in the next sentence, rather than using the added tension to drive the narrative forward. At one stage, for example, Abu Matar speculates on the whereabouts of Bashir, saying that he hasn’t seen him for ages, only for Al Mahmoud to tell us in the next sentence that ‘they didn’t have to wait long for Bashir’, which has the odd effect of making Abu Matar look like an actor filling time on stage while he waits for a colleague to realise he’s missed his cue.
Overall, though, this is an excellent and fascinating book. Having grown up in the UK, where the history of the British Empire is regarded by many with complacency, I found it liberating, challenging and thought-provoking to read a bit of the narrative from another perspective. This novel, particularly in its translated form, is a reminder that truth is often in the eye of the beholder – and that we must cherish those with the insight to recognise something of the other sides of the story.
The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012)