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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Queen of the Gulf: Part 2

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the second part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.

In a while, my baggage stowed, I am in the passageway and the steward reappears. Serenely he shows me around. At ends of the halls, through glassed and curtained doors and paneled in oak, are the dining saloon, the library, the bar. Curtains are drawn, shutters closed against the sun. It is cool in here.

The steward leaves me in the library, among two felted bridge tables, two deep couches and two enormous old standing air conditioners, louvred and varnished boxes on the floor. Some books are inside a couple of small cases on writing tables. Inside are rows of dark-bound volumes, the titles running to mysteries (A Three-Pipe Problem), adventures and romances (The Ninety-Second Tiger), popular histories (With Smuts in the Boer War), and oddments (The Wandering Osprey, Portrait of the Pennines). Wondering what I’m going to read, I settle into a desk chair.

Shortly the door opens and the steward reappears. “Luncheon, sir,” he says. We go down a mahogany-trimmed staircase, through swinging doors into the dining saloon.

On this busy day lunch proceeds with quiet efficiency. Three long tables are covered in white linen. At one sit some customs officers, guests of the ship. At the central table are three Arabs in white, a dignified Indian couple and two British officers, caps removed. Behind them on the paneled wall a portrait of the Queen presides.

I am seated at the end of the empty table. A silver clip holds my menu, the setting is silver, the servers dish three courses from covered silver trays. Barely can one settle an empty water glass before one’s server is refilling it, from a silver pitcher; the silver buttons on his tunic are embossed with the Crown. Conversation is a murmur among soft clinking sounds.

After custard pie and coffee I wander back outside, where the shouting and activity boil unabated. The deck passengers still throng the rails, for and aft — they wave and dispute and clamor, as does the crowd on the quay, while nets and hooks steadily fill the holds that evidently are bottomless.

On the decks below, around the open holds, townships have appeared. Men and women have spread bedding and cloth and set up stations for cooking, and have made suitcases into barriers of bright-checked canvas and colored molded vinyl. 

Surrounding the encamped families are the cassette players and the electric fans, the attache cases, coolers, televisions, foam beds and insulated plastic water jugs that they are bringing home, fruits of their salaries here in Dubai. Women are cooking already, on small kerosene stoves. Men socialize, recline, play cards. Some people are sleeping. Others wander the decks, hands behind their baakcs. Two men pray, lifting and lowering on small ornamented carpets, under a lifeboat. 

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 3
Queen of the Gulf: Part 1
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