Monday 28 January 2019

The Story Teller of Damascus

This is the story of an encounter with another story teller from 2010, when Damascus was a happier place. I wonder whether Abu Sadi still tells his stories.

Since Scheherazade told her stories over a thousand and one nights to King Shahryār in the golden age of Islam, the art of story telling has been an important part of Arab culture.  Visiting Damascus, I wanted to see and hear it for myself.

 It was easier than I thought to find the Al Nofara coffee shop in the maze of the al-Hamidiyeh Souk in the old town.  The Umayyad Mosque is set into the souk.  At its Southeast corner, under its imposing walls is a set of steps.  I went down those steps, turned right into al-Nofara alley and there was al- Nofara itself; the oldest coffee shop in Damascus.

In the early evening Damascenes, mostly young, and a handful of tourists were seated at small tables spilling out onto the street.  The place was alive with a score of conversations.  Aromatic smoke from a dozen nargilehs drifted upwards until dispelled by the ceiling fans.  I saw what I wanted.  At the back of the shop was a chair, a throne, on a raised dais.  On the wall behind were magnificent glass paintings depicting heroes of Arab legend.  In front of the empty chair was a small, circular table.

I found a table with a good view and ordered coffee.  Only water, coffee and tea are served in this traditional coffee house.  I tried to order in my ill-pronounced, phrasebook Arabic.  The owner repeated my order in English.  “But I am trying to speak Arabic,” I protested.  “Why?” he shrugged.

Not long after the evening call to prayer from the mosque, the story teller took his seat.  He was traditionally dressed, a tabouche on his head, a stick in his right hand and a book in his left.  On the small table was a glass of tea.

I was not going to understand a word of his classical Arabic but Abu Sadi’s performance was no disappointment. The story began.  I believe it was part of the story of Antara from the Sirat Antar, a pre-Islamic romantic story of chivalry.  Antara was born a slave to an African mother.  From this humble beginning, Antara became a great knight and poet.  Antar is an eternal hero in the Arabic-speaking world, equivalent perhaps to the Knights of the Round Table in our own mythology.

Abu Sadi told his story with gestures, his voice rising and falling with the action.  Exciting actions were marked by banging his stick loudly on the platform.  His face and eyes ranged across the spellbound audience.  He seemed almost to be seeing the action unfold before him.

The story was obviously a familiar one. Urged on by the story-teller, the audience called out well-practised responses.  There were elements of an English pantomime.

The story came to and end, I sat back, exhausted by the drama of which I had not understood a word.

Sailing an Outrigger Canoe off Dar-es-Salaam

And here is another, more recent nautical tale.

A warm breeze was blowing in from the Indian Ocean. I checked the sheet, the leeward outrigger dipped into the green blue waters of Msasani Bay and the canoe leapt forward on a broad port reach.  This was pure, simple sailing; one of those golden moments.

A couple of hours earlier I had wandered down to the fish market in the village and idly watched a man with just an adze building a small fishing dhow from scratch on the beach.  He had no plans, no rule: just a good eye and a skill passed down the generations. Small dhows and fishing canoes were drawn up on the beach or lay in the shallow anchorage a few feet offshore.  My presence as a stranger, as I hoped, attracted attention.  I was soon talking to a couple of the fishermen.   My few words of Swahili and their few of English made communication difficult but we both understood that I would like to sail one of the outrigger canoes.  Baba (Grandfather) was fetched as he spoke good English.  A deal was done and money changed hands.

I waded out to the canoe.  In my honour, the inside of the hull was rinsed out with clean seawater using the bailer — a cut down plastic jerry can.  The long deep hull had been formed from a single dugout palm trunk.  The freeboard was increased by nailing a broad, single plank on each upper surface of each side.  These were nailed down through neatly recessed holes with great iron nails, the only metal in the whole construction.  The log had been faired off to a fine raked bow and a cutter stern supported a wooden rudder and tiller.  Two segmented spars crossed the hull and supported the outriggers on each side.  These were finely cut planks of palm worn smooth by years of slicing through water.  Too busy to catch each other’s names in the excitement, we called each other “Captain” much to our mutual amusement.  Captain One lifted the sturdy mast and stepped it though a hole in the forward spar down into a socket in the keel.  The halyard passed forward to aft through a well worn fairlead near the top of the mast.  As Captain Two and I hauled the yard aloft, Captain One raised the mud anchor — the rusty crankshaft of some long dead car.

The lateen sail was made of faded cotton.  It was a triangle but the apex had been cut off to provide a short luff and the classic leg-of-mutton shape.  The halyard hoisted the single yard so that the mast was about one third from its forward end.  The tack was hauled hard down to the bow.  We set off on a starboard tack.  The yard was slung to the port side of the mast, close to the fairlead and we hauled the tack hard back and secured it round the after outrigger spar.  Finally, a single shroud led from the yard to the windward outrigger.  This gave the mast support and held the sail close to the mast.  It set beautifully.  It was an almost perfect foil and an example to any Bermudan rig.  With a Force 2 and so little weight, we quickly gathered speed and sailed close-hauled across the bay.  I reckoned we could just about get to five points off the wind.  The technique was to use speed rather than every last windward degree.  The best indicator that the canoe was sailing sweetly was the fine bow wave on the leeward outrigger; the speed quickly fell off if I sailed too close to the wind or too far off.

On this tack, the next stop would be Zanzibar and I began to think about how we would change tack.  I guessed that we could not go about; the canoe would not have enough momentum to take the hull and both outriggers through the wind.  Sign language indicated that, as expected, we should wear ship.  I had in my mind that we would dip the lug but I was not sure how it would work.  Some lateen rigs leave the yard on the same side of the mast, giving one bad tack.  What happened was neither.  First the shroud was released.  As we went round the long part of the yard was swung round forward of the mast on the halyard.  I missed the moment when the sheet and the sail were quickly passed round the mast and hauled aft.  This time the sheet was hooked to a notch in the after spar out near the outrigger to allow the sail to set across the hull for a broad reach.  The shroud was then secured to windward.  It was as we picked up speed on the port reach that I experienced that golden moment.

I tried to describe my own gaff cutter to my fellow Captains.  I thought I was having little success in making myself understood.  A few minutes later we spotted a modern Bermudan rigged yacht.  “Cutter” cried my Captains with more enthusiasm than strict accuracy.

The sail did not flap, though it frayed edges fluttered prettily.  The only slight sound was of the hull and outrigger parting the water.  The tiller needed only the lightest touch and we raced back towards the anchorage.  My Captains appeared to have decided that I was basically competent and refused my offer to give up the helm as we approached the shore.  It was crowded with men in the water cleaning their nets, canoes at anchor and small dhows setting sail.  They pointed at an impossibly narrow space on the beach and we surged towards it still under full sail.  My two companions seemed relaxed about it but I was not; it wasn’t my boat to wreck.  But they were right; about two boat lengths from the beach, the breeze dropped, the speed came off instantly and with a satisfying hiss we rode gently up onto the sand and dropped the sail. I stepped ashore dry-


I had been sailing in a boat of a design that is thousands of years old and now to be found from Africa to the Pacific.  It was sailing as it has always been and as it always should be.

1967 Indian Ocean 4 degrees, 37 minutes North

For my first post, here is a memory of a travel moment on a voyage from Singapore to Bahrein from more than 50 years ago.

All I could hear in the hot, humid control room was the roar of the great diesel engines as they sucked a gale of air through the conning tower hatch.  A forty-foot climb up a ladder to the bridge of a submarine on surface passage across the Indian Ocean brought me to a new world.  I breathed in air that tasted and smelt of nothing, clearing my nose of the constant smell of diesel and unwashed bodies below.

In the control room, everything had been close enough to touch.  On the surface, there was no solid object between me and the horizon, nor had there been for three days.

The inky turquoise disc of the sea met the perfect dome of the sky all the way round.  At the horizon, the sky was pale blue, darkening to deep azure overhead.  I took out my sextant.  I fitted the darkest red filter to the upper telescope.  I put the sextant to my eye and found the horizon in one half of my view and the reddened disc of the sun in the other.  With the micrometer wheel, I brought the sun's image down until it kissed the horizon.  I kept turning the wheel to follow the sun's ascent to its highest point as it crossed the Meridian at noon.  My fingers stopped and I knew that the sun had reached its zenith.

The reading would give me our exact latitude but I paused because, just at that moment, I was physically aware that I was perched on the outer surface of a sphere rotating under the Sun.