‘Sultan Qaboos enabled me to visit history in depth’

Dr Khal Torabully –
khal.torabully@gmail.com –

It is this openness and this creative vision of history that allowed me to work for a documentary crowned with the Golden Award of the Arab Media Film Festival of 2000 in Cairo, bringing together media professionals from the region. Unesco considers it the best document produced on the subject. “The Maritime Memory of the Arabs”, my Omani film paying tribute to the cultures of commerce and navigation, was screened during the celebration of the 30 years of the Silk Roads by Unesco in Paris four years ago, in the presence of a Chinese delegation from Quanzhou (ground zero of the Silk sea routes), the Ambassador of Oman and delegations from around 30 countries.

Dr Doudou Diène, ex-director of Routes of Unesco, who had led, 30 years before, the Unesco mission on the Silk Roads, from Paris to Quanzhou, testified that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos had made his personal yacht available to his team of experts, sailing them to China. They had made a film on these historic routes, broadcast on Arte Channel.
Dr Diene reminded me of a human fact: not far from Quanzhou, the royal yacht rescued Chinese fishermen who had been wrecked. It was around the New Year. His crew was therefore greeted as heroes in this city visited by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Quanzhou preserves many monuments of these exchanges between the “Western” countries and China, since the remote times. This link is still treasured, as I witnessed during my trip to this city in October 2019. I visited the Omani mosque, built next to the oldest mosque in Quanzhou. I also visited Jewel of Muscat, the 9th century remake of a dhow stitched with coconut ropes that Oman sailed from the mainland to Singapore and which is in the Sentosa Maritime Experiental Museum, proof of a real maritime diplomacy which continues unabated.
Indeed, at the inclusive Museum of Civilizations in Singapore, the very first texts and films that the visitor meets, as I could see first-hand, are those relating to Oman and its maritime culture, testifying to the still powerful links between two parts of the world that have shaped the humanities through all-out exchanges.
Needless to say, the Sultan, by encouraging me to explore this dimension, had propelled me towards the history of my native Indian ocean, the ocean of globalisations. This exploration led me from Oman, to China, India, Morocco, Tunisia, France, England, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Madagascar for footage.
A conspicuous mark of the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos was the active anchoring of his diplomacy in the depth of the caravan and maritime routes, open to otherness. In the wake of the recognition of Oman’s role on the international scene, during the commemoration of the 170 years of the Battle of Grand Port, the only naval war won by Napoleon, I was mandated by the Mauritian government to accompany the representative of the Sultan in Mauritius, who delegated Abdullah bin Salim al Shueili, ex-director of documentaries for Omani television. It was an opportunity to strengthen the diplomatic ties between Oman and Mauritius, which could have been visited by the intrepid Omani sailors, from Zanzibar and Madagascar, when Mauritius was still called Dwipa Moraze, as attested by the Cantino world map, kept now at the Lisbon Maritime Museum.
It goes without saying that Sultan Qaboos’ diplomacy of openness and peace continued in other spaces, mixing beauty, knowledge and peace. Passionate about opera, the Sultan had built an impressive Royal Opera House in Muscat, twinned with that of Lyon, France, which I was able to visit during the works on one of my Oman visits, in particular to discuss audiovisual projects.
To conclude, (but can I really?), I would say that I have rarely seen a head of state develop an inclusive vision that has become so visionary. A work all in discretion, but in depth and in historical continuity: this was the mark of the Sultan. As proof, two years ago, I was invited by his collaborators to the inauguration of the new library of Al Biruni (the Uzbek scientist who invented anthropology and hailed as a universal genius) in Tashkent. Funded by Oman, it was a lavish gift that Sultan Qaboos made to world culture, as the book holds for him a timeless marker of civilizations. The library is on the World Heritage List.
The current Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, whom I was able to approach during this event, was filled with calm and serenity, reminding me of Sultan Qaboos. I think it was among the first major events he chaired in anticipation of the succession of Sultan Qaboos, who was unable to make the trip to Tashkent, being ill. The PM of Uzbekistan, Abdullah Aripov, expressed his gratitude, stating that the work of digital transformation of the documents was on the way. His Majesty Sultan Haitham listened with great attention to the explanation of scientists responsible for preserving rare and precious manuscripts, books and parchments of the world’s literary and scientific heritage (there are more than 80,000), sparing no effort to visit the spaces of this architectural and scientific jewel offered to Uzbekistan, which like Oman, is a vibrant heart of cultures on the roads of civilizations, Uzbekistan being a crossroad of the land circuits of Silk routes in Central Asia and Oman being a recognised maritime node of the Silk Routes in the Indian Ocean. It was for me the marriage of two crossroads of prime importance in World History. I saw there an extraordinary convergence between two formidable geostrategic destinies, the seal of wisdom that the visionary Sultan Qaboos, offers to our humanities and desire to build a better world, with sagacity and generosity.
On these days following his demise, a great loss for Oman and beyond, may I be allowed to invite us to visit this magnificent Al Biruni library and its treasures, which contains much of the Sultan’s love for science, the frailty and persistence of beauty and the need to share knowledge as a natural right of Mankind. This legacy stands on the modern Silk Routes as a reminder of Sultan Qaboos’ far-sighted policies and a living testimony to his wisdom. In addition, let me invite the reader to know the richness of Oman, the pearl of the Arabian peninsula, and its discreet and effective presence in the world, which constitutes for me one of the major legacies that Sultan Qaboos leaves to an authentic, inspiring country and beyond.
I am confident that Oman, a beacon of stability, through the wise vision of the late Sultan, will continue to lay maritime and terrestrial milestones for an inclusive world culture. These constitute the obvious signs of a historical depth and continuity that has shaped Omani wisdom, an essential ingredient in a world tempted by the closure of hearts and routes of cultures and history.
It is therefore with great sadness and deep gratitude that I finish these lines, knowing that Sultan Qaboos has been on my way as a man of culture and has reached out to me for a more open and peaceful world. It’s a real treasure that he shared with me and other peace lovers. This itinerary will continue through the philosophy of the House of Wisdom Fez-Granada and my other activities.
The Sultan is no more, but his work remains, and the current world will find there a vision drawn in a haven of peace and fraternity. We must all be his heirs to continue building peace in hearts and minds.
Thank you Sultan Qaboos for this work of patience and rare consistency. You will keep inspiring me…

(Dr Torabully 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.)

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