Dr Khal Torabully –
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said left this world on Friday, January 10, 2020. The peaceful Sultanate of Oman, located South of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching between deserts and the Sea of Oman, has been shaped by the elements. Placed between the East and the West, the Sultan soon understood its exceptional role on the silk, incense and spice routes. With patience and consistency, he has been able to endow Oman with an internationally recognised historical and cultural capital.
It is in the clairvoyance of the late Sultan that my story begins with this country reputed to be that of Sinbad. This legendary merchant sailed to India, Serendib and China, transporting coveted goods which he sold at a considerable price, hoisting him among the notables of the region. Also, as a tribute, I will say, in a few words, the story of a very strong connection with a historical vision and a cultural perspective supported by the Sultan and which led me to be a close observer of the development and influence of Oman for the past 20 years. This is the core meaning of my personal tribute to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, drawn from my lived experience.
A country open to the humanities
Before my research on the history of shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea in the 1990s, Oman was an unknown country. I had made 3 documentaries at the time. In 1998, I realised that we had to make a film about the sea, seen from the Indian Ocean perspective. My readings took me regularly to Oman. Sinbad, it was said, probably came from the town of Sur or Suhar (also home to the famed pilot, Ahmad bin Majid, born probably in 1432, when Admiral Zhen He’s fleet reached Jiddah), where old sea wolves were still hanging around, smoking their finely chiseled pipes, the massar, kuma or turban screwed on their heads.
To crown it all, the famous dhows or sambuqs, majestic vessels made of acacia or teak wood that Sinbad would have used, were still being built there. A land of legendary seafarers had become reality. I knew that we certainly sold goods there, but we also shaped the humanities in immemorial exchanges.
I wrote to the Embassy of Oman to tell them that a documentary was missing from this page in maritime history. A few weeks later, the Sultanate expressed interest in my project. I was surprised because I did not have the credentials of an international television team to confront such a massive project.
Hamed bin Mohammed al Rashdi, the Minister of Information at the time, invited me to meet him. With the support of the Sultan, he was eager to highlight the maritime history of his country. The first trip was a delight. Oman opened up to me at the highest level. I was greeted there in a memorable, warm way and with all the professionalism I asked for.
It was agreed that I needed to deepen certain points in my film, in particular shipbuilding and the trading posts on the Indian Sea. The budget was decided without haggling. A frank handshake meant that confidence was granted for this ambitious film to be shot in 12 countries. I had never carried out such a grand scale project, which required flawless logistics. The Sultan trusted me: Oman put everything at my disposal in terms of its heritage and its international openings. I was very touched by this unique openness and mark of confidence.
In 1999, I came back with Philippe Fivet, virtuoso cameraman of the French television, to start filming. Everywhere, we were helped by technicians and people in the trade. Exceptionally, Oman opened its museums to me; everything I wanted for the film was available to me. I felt how much Omanis were aware of their past, of which they were proud. The country, at the time, had no motorway network per se. But it was quietly following its path to the quiet, rowdy progress that was the prerogative of the Sultan. As a visionary, he gave priority to education, training and health. Oil was to help provide decent income for all. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was an active guardian of Oman’s biodiversity, making it a duty to keep tourism at acceptable limits. And I saw, on each of my visits, how the country was developing in depth.
I never met His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, but I felt all his kindness and confidence in me. Without being a licensed director of the BBC or any other major international channel, I was responsible for making a film about Oman on the international stage. We were in the frontal shock of September 11, which created a fracture between East and West. As a counter-narrative, our film wanted to provide a bridge between these two mental and cultural geographies.
The Sultan, an exceptional visionary, understood the issue of this “clash of civilisations”, developing a diplomacy for peace by highlighting the inclusive maritime history of his country and the Arabian Peninsula, which linked Africa, Europe and Asia during the sumptuous days preceding steam navigation. At that time, it was essential to hear peacemakers like him, men sure of their culture of openness, of the richness of their traditions. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was at the vanguard. As the region burned from the geopolitical chaos that we experienced before and after September 11, Oman continued to be a haven of peace and understanding.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, steeped in the great history of his country, placed on the incense route and the sea routes of silk, continued to work for the understanding between peoples, defusing situations of conflict. He was regularly chosen for thorny mediations between belligerent parties. All this, I say without being mistaken, comes from a fact: the Sultan was a worthy heir to the history of his country, open to that of the region and the Indian Ocean, this matrix of globalisation and ocean-engine of history, as the emergence of Asian giants and the new economic and petroleum contexts still prove today. He combined, like his people, the patience and resilience of the inhabitants of the desert and the openness and the daring vision of a people turned towards the sea. The wisdom of the desert bathed by the sea was there, on the lookout, allowing him to avoid many pitfalls to his people, in an area of all dangers.
To be continued…
In this two-part article, Dr Khal Torabully recounts his association with Oman. The writer is a Franco-Mauritian semiologist, film director and writer who graduated at Université Lumière in Lyon, France. He directed The Maritime Memory of the Arabs in 2000 for the Omani Ministry of Information. He is a Unesco expert for the Interactive Atlas of the Silk Routes and founder of the House of Wisdom (Fez-Granada), to promote peace and understanding. He is a cultural friend of Oman, which he treasures as a genuine land of navigators. firstname.lastname@example.org –