Beauty From The East
“One fine Arabian morning in the middle of December 1955, I walked into the palace of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman.” It is the sort of opening sentence that inspires confidence in a book. And it is the way in which the celebrated British writer Jan Morris – who was still James Morris at the time – starts Sultan in Oman, a highly amusing, and at times rather lyrical, account of a trip across the country, the narrator being accompanied by its ruler.
The book offers a wonderful snapshot of a fascinating part of the world at a time of great change. At times it reads like a perfectly hilarious picaresque novel, as the Sultan and his caravan of lorries laden with baggage, provisions (some of which started the journey alive), courtiers, servants and slaves career across a country in the making: rebellion is quelled in the north; a border established with the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi in the east; and sundry rugged mountain tribesmen, ambitious oil prospectors and a British soldier of imperial mien are presented for the readers’ amusement.
In many ways, Oman is depicted as a medieval country accelerating through half a millennium of history to join the 20th century. At one point Morris takes a break at an oasis. “I sat down for coffee with a group of friendly and eager tribesmen, and one of them, looking as if he had lived all his life on the back of a camel, suddenly reached across and grabbed my wrist. He wanted to see my watch, he said. Was it a Longines? I understood this well-informed interest, for I knew it was the practice of the Saudis to distribute gift watches according to makes: the more important the recipient, the more distinguished the watchmaker. Thus, since the cases were almost always gold, the best way to size up a man’s significance to the Saudi cause was to discover the maker’s name, and many a poor politician or journalist, returning from a visit to Riyad [sic], had flourished his handsome present from the court without knowing how surely it stamped his status in the Arab world. My Arabs looked a little baffled, for my watch was made by a firm not patronised by the royal house, so that I might have been either desperately important or not worth a second thought.”
The oasis was in the border region of Buraimi, where Morris deduced from the horological awareness of her hosts that Saudi Arabia had been courting local opinion. It is somehow reassuring to know that horological brand literacy and snobbery was one of the first benefits of modern Western ‘civilization’ to make its appearance in this remote corner of the Arabian Peninsula.