Doug's Blog

Queen of the Gulf, Part 5

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 fourth part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

The Gulf is light green — the water is not so deep. The first morning at sea is bright, but misty far off. From the promenade deck I can see supertankers in the mist, crossing the horizon in a long irregular line.
     They are a brush’s bare strokes on a watercolor horizon. Each one is a long, long stretched-out hull, barely visible above the waterline, and a bit of housing at the far back. 
 
Supertankers move so slowly they seem not to be moving at all. The captain, stopping by, says they travel slower than they could, to save fuel. They can’t come into Gulf ports, they’re too big; the loading stations are miles offshore, the huge storage tanks are underwater. The supertankers diverge out the funnel of the Gulf, take weeks to get where they’re going. I say to the captain, they barely look real. Down inside each of those creatures, the captain says, is a quarter million, maybe half a million tons of oil. They are real.
    Now and then a dhow chugs by, moving crosswise to our lane, tiny even next to us. As the dhow approaches it too looks empty in the center, its wood prow upcurved and its afterdeck raised behind, the middle scooped out. Then looking down into it you see a clutter of cargo and people in the hollow, open to the sun. The dhows are supplying Iran, crossing from Dubai to smaller, older ports with cargo that can no longer pass through the bombed-out big Iranian harbors to the north. The dhows slip under, around the events of separate ages. They are so much older than our steamship. and more resilient. The supertankers are newer and fashioned to a different, out-of-human scale — and they are much more fragile. We are from some outmoded middle time. As the dhow goes by (“plying its undying lane,” I write in my notebook), its diesel leaves an oily track.
    We may see American warships, says the captain, just a little devilish.
    “Here? They’re inside the Gulf?
    His eyes flash. “Damn well shouldn’t be, but they are.” The Americans radio to him, he says, when he passes the Strait of Hormuz. As if he’s been “interfered with.”
    "One day I got a little annoyed. I asked them if they realized these were Omani waters, not international. And I said I had never” — he issues his words slowly now — “been interfered with by anyone, in any way.”
    He starts to go. When we get beyond the Strait, he says, we’ll see the Russians.

I have a cabinmate, a smooth handsome Indian named Alberto, who wears slick shirts but is a nice guy, open-faced and thoughtful. As does much of the ship’s crew, he comes from Goa, the tiny Catholic province on the west coast of India that was colonized by Portugal and has long been accultured to the sea lanes. Lounging on his bunk with his shirt open, hands behind his head and a gold chain on his neck, Alberto tells me he is descended from a Portugese nobleman. Says he speaks English, Hindi, Goanese, Portugese and Arabic, along with, he says, 67 Indian dialects. He supervises installations for a Japanese elevator company in Dubai. Is going home to visit his wife and two children in Goa, in their villa by the ocean.
    Lunch is announced by the playing down the corridors of a small portable xylophone. In the dining hall the Queen’s portrait and the captain preside. The tables are never half full; the long linen tablecloths lie mostly unset. At the captain’s table sit only a middle-aged Indian couple, returning diplomats, and a blue-eyed young British officer, the third officer (the second is, apparently, somewhere else). At our table are only Alberto and me.
    But all those families in cabin class — where are they? They take meals in their cabins,Alberto says. “For privacy.”

I sit here on a deck chair, and midday passes into afternoon. Afternoon settles (tea at four) into evening, and at sunset we come to the Strait of Hormuz. The barren mountainous edge of Oman is crowded black above the water. The orange light of sunset forms a canopy behind, in a fading blue sky. Night comes and the lighted canopy dims, uncolors, but stays a while.
    And I think, leaning over the rail, what a thing this is, to be here — that there is a place, Oman, a cliffed empty coast and barren mountains, and whatever is behind ... a place where I can never go. Never enter. Never, most likely, see again.
    Absolute emptiness on that coast. Then it’s dark, and at the base of the black cliffs two small, close-together lights come on, just above the sea.

The Last Steamship
Queen of the Gulf, Part 4
 

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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

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