Friday 19 February 2016

Arabia - More Travels in Time by Katherine Webb

My new novel, The English Girl, comes out next month, and it led me to discover a fascinating piece of British military history, as well as a fascinating country - The Sultanate of Oman, which occupies a small, beautiful corner of the Arabian Peninsula. I set myself the task of capturing the allure, beauty and dangers of a place completely alien to me, in two different time periods - the age of early exploration, in the 1900s, and during the Jebel Wars of the 1950s.

Muscat, the ancient capital city of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman

In the fifty years between these two eras, however, Oman barely changed at all. Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled until his son Qaboos deposed him in 1970, was deeply conservative. Claiming poverty, he built no hospitals or roads; he built no schools, saying that education was why the British had lost India. The poor of Oman were stricken with easily treatable diseases like trachoma, and complications surrounding childbirth. There was Tuberculosis in the milk, and Typhoid in the water. The Sultan kept to his seaside palace in Salalah, and hardly ever visited Muscat. He didn’t want to hear the supplications he knew were waiting for him there. So, when rumours of oil in the desert began, and the Sultan, who had traditionally only ruled Muscat and the coast, (hence the 'Sultanate of Muscat and Oman' - Oman being the interior), began to assert his sovereignty over the desert interior as well, the time was ripe for rebellion. 

Jalali, one of two fortresses guarding the entrance to Muscat harbour. Built by Portuguese conquerers in the C17th, at the time The English Girl is set, it was in use as a prison of fearsome reputation.

Britain had had a close relationship with the Sultan since the early years of the C19th, and Oman was still a British Protectorate in the 1950s. Initially, the British gained a valuable hold over the key shipping lanes of the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman from the relationship. But once oil had been sniffed in the Arabian Desert, there was an even greater potential advantage. So, when a new Imam, Ghalib, was elected in 1954, to rule the interior from the ancient seat of the Imamate at Nizwa, neither the Sultan nor his British backers were prepared to share, or relinquish power. Most of the tribal sheiks of the desert and the Hajar Mountains declared for Imam Ghalib, and war began.

A gorge on Jebel Akhdar, The Green Mountain; steep, hard and parched territory in which to hunt enemy snipers...

There were swings in fortune for both sides. Imam Ghalib was forced to abdicate in 1955, but soon returned; by 1958, when my character Joan Seabrook arrives in Muscat, the Imam’s men had fallen back to caves and positions on Jebel Akhdar - The Green Mountain; as impenetrable a natural stronghold imaginable. British officers, under Colonel David Smiley (whom, it is rumoured, inspired the character of James Bond), led the Sultan’s troops as they attempted to drive them out for good. However, it wasn’t until two divisions of the recently formed SAS were sent in to help that success was finally achieved, early in 1959. When oil was discovered in the Omani desert in 1963, there was no longer any question as to who it belonged to.

The ruins of Tanuf, the home village of Sheik Suleiman bin Himyar, 'The Lord of the Green Mountain', one of the Iman's key allies. It was destroyed by the RAF in 1955, but the villagers were warned in advance, so there were no casualties.

This was a pocket of history I’d had no inkling of before I started my research for the novel, and it made my trip over there - to experience the sights, smells, and sounds of my settings - so interesting. I visited the ruins of Tanuf, home village of one of the rebellious sheiks, bombed out by the RAF in 1955. I went up onto the Green Mountain and saw just how wild the terrain was - and how daunting a task the Sultan’s men were faced with. And I went into the Empty Quarter, to get a taste for the vastness and silence of the desert - and an inkling of the superhuman task faced by my early explorer character, Maude, crossing that wilderness - a different kind of war, but a war all the same. Oman is a wild and beautiful place, and I hope my infatuation with it comes across in The English Girl.

The dune sea of the Empty Quarter in Oman, the world's largest continuous sand desert. Alien, silent, beautiful and pitiless. A place out of time, where history has no meaning.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Katherine - loved those photos - what landscapes!

Celia Rees said...

Fascinating research, thanks for sharing it with us. My husband visited Oman in the '90s with the British Council and thought it incredibly beautiful and almost unspoilt.

michelle lovric said...

a really excellent history. I am working on Oman too (a completely different period) and visited all the places you describe so well. I can't wait to read your book.