The well-known observation that history is written by the victors, coined by the British wartime leader Winston Churchill, has morphed from its original purpose – of shocking Britons into action by reminding its citizens that without victory against Germany, there would be no survival – into a handy condemnation of all things Empire.
It implies that what we know, or think we know, about Britain’s imperial past comes to us through the unreliable lens of the British perspective, a lens often clouded by arrogance, self-justification and cultural insensitivities.
Less well known is Churchill’s complementary bon mot, that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. This began as a metaphorical war cry and became a literal fact: all six volumes of his epic account, The Second World War, published between 1948 and 1953, remain in print.
That observation also carries another meaning, especially in a region that was not only dominated for so long by the “victors” but which also lacked the ability to create its own written records, leaving its past perched precariously on the frail branch of oral history, prey to the fickle winds of memory, national pride and imagination.
That meaning, quickly understood in the Gulf nations as literacy rose on the tide of oil, is that history will also be a lot kinder – or, at least, a lot truer to one’s own perspective – to those who take the trouble to rewrite it in their own words.
Given time, it seems, there can be advantages to having had no written history.
In the UAE, the reclaiming of history began with such books as Mohammed Morsy Abdullah’s The United Arab Emirates: A Modern History, published in 1978, while the pre-unification experiences of many Emiratis found voice in Mohammed Al-Fahim’s ever popular 1995 personal history of Abu Dhabi, From Rags to Riches.
Fiction, of course, offers the best chance for an even more fluid re-imagining of the past, and a new book from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, first published in Arabic in October and expected to be published in English in December 2012, illustrates vividly what can be achieved, not only in refocusing the Arabic sense of “us” but also in inviting a postcolonial expatriate reappraisal of “them”.
The author is Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, a Qatari engineer who studied in America and the UK, and his first novel, Al Qursan (The Pirate), tackles the historical debate that perhaps best illustrates the susceptibility of the past to partisan interpretation. Piracy was, after all, the reason Britain engaged in the Gulf in the first place, at first with swords and guns and later with the treaties that would bind the peoples of the region together as the Trucial States.
The pirate in question is Arhama bin Jaber, an historical character feared and hunted as a brigand by the British in the 19th century, and yet remembered today in the Gulf as something of a folk hero: the new Erhama Bin Jaber Al Jalahma shipyard at Ras Laffan, Qatar, which opened last year, is named for him.
The debunking of the Empire view of the 18th and 19th century Gulf Arabs as maritime marauders whose “occupation is piracy and their delight ... murder”, in the words of one contemporary British account, has been attempted before, most notably in the 1989 book The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. This was written by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah and a descendant of what he saw as the much-maligned Qawasim, a “normal people with normal human ambitions” who were victims of “the introduction of a foreign people whose aim was to dominate and exploit”.
For Al Qasimi, the picture painted of the Qawasim by the British was a “Big Lie”, told in the ruthless pursuit of the commercial interests of the East India Company. The people of the Gulf were interested only in “the peaceful pursuits of pearl diving and trading”.
For their historical facts Al Mahmoud and Al Qasimi alike were dependent on the British written record, and even the process through which the novelist had to go to access that record speaks volumes about the consequences of leaving any nation’s history in the hands of another people.
Al Mahmoud says his interest began while he was in the UK in 1996, visiting RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire as an engineer with the Qatari air force. Wandering into the base library one day, he stumbled upon an entire shelf of old books about the Gulf, written mainly by former British military personnel or members of the East India Company.
“I hadn’t seen such a thing before” back home in Qatar, he says. “And when I started reading them – it was just a few pages, but I found that every line was full of information that I didn’t know.”
The chief surprise, he says, was learning how his country and others in the region had been formed.
“It is not widely known, and governments are not really interested in putting this kind of information out for everybody. The Gulf states were not formed through military struggle or a normal process. They were formed because somebody wanted them to be formed that way and accordingly they are small states, with small populations.”
The seed of curiosity remained dormant in him for 15 years, when he found himself in another library – this time in Jordan – and discovered a book in Arabic, translated from the English, with the title The Pirate Coast – a description that sat uneasily with him.
On the spot, he says, “I decided to gather as much information as I could” and he began buying every book he could find. And as he began to consider the Arab perspective on the piracy question, he ran into another difficulty – that even the “people in this region don’t have a unified opinion about the ‘pirates’.”
It suddenly struck Al Mahmoud that producing a history book, which risked being “dry, very academic and boring”, was not the way to go. Instead, he would try to introduce Arabic readers to their own past by humanising history with a novel.
His book begins in 1818 with Captain Lock of the East India Company being despatched from Bombay on board the warship HMS Eden to wage war on the pirates in the Gulf. This he did most successfully, as an account of one of dozens of actions in the Company’s Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for the last quarter of 1819 indicated.
On January 10 the Eden “fell in with eight sail of Joasmee Vessels, two of which were destroyed, and a third so much damaged as to make it impossible for her to reach any of the piratical ports, having several grape and one thirty-two pounder shot through her hull”.
Dry and boring the novel is not, yet Al Mahmoud resists wild flights of fancy. When he began, “I was writing it for westerners; I was trying to explain for them how the people here were, how they behaved, how they interacted with their tribal leaders. Many Westerners don’t even understand the way we drink coffee.”
As the book progressed, however, it became apparent that it might have a more significant purpose, among modern Arabic readers.
“We lack something in this part of the world. We don’t write our own history. It is always other people who write it for us and even if we do write it, we write referring to other people.” The Pirate concludes, as Al Mahmoud puts it, “by making two cultures talk to each other”, in the form of a meeting between a British officer and his supposed enemy. By talking, the two men become friends, and “this friendship between someone from the Peninsula and a British officer, and how each of them influence each other’s way of thinking”, is intended to be both unashamedly symbolic and vitally resonant in today’s world of East-West tensions.
“You have to understand people before just marking them as your enemies,” says Al Mahmoud. “Sometimes people fight, they kill each other, because of misunderstandings. But if they understand, all that enmity will die down.”
That, he says, is the message of the book, and the history that it has rediscovered, for the modern reader, Arab or westerner. “Hopefully,” he says, “they will understand it.”