Sultan Qaboos left this world on Friday, January 10, 2020. The peaceful Sultanate of Oman, located South of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching between deserts and the Arabian (or Oman) Sea, has been shaped by the elements. Placed between the East and the West, the Sultan soon understood its exceptional role on the Silk, Incense and Spice routes. With patience and consistency, he has been able to endow Oman with an internationally recognized historical and cultural capital.
It is in the clairvoyance of the late Sultan that my story begins with this country reputed to be that of Sinbad. This legendary merchant sailed to India, Serendib and China, transporting coveted goods which he sold at a considerable price, hoisting him among the notables of the region. Also, as a tribute, I will say, in a few words, the story of a very strong connection with a historical vision and a cultural perspective supported by the Sultan and which led me to be a close observer of the development and influence of Oman for the past 20 years. This is the core meaning of my personal tribute to Sultan Qaboos, drawn from my lived experience.
A country open to the humanities
Before my research on the history of shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea in the 1990s, Oman was an unknown country. I had made 3 documentaries at the time. In 1998, I realized that we had to make a film about the sea, seen from the Indian Ocean perspective. My readings took me regularly to Oman. Sinbad, it was said, probably came from the town of Sur or Sohar (also home to the famed pilot, Ahmad bin Majid, born probably in 1432, when Admiral Zhen He’s fleet reached Jiddah), where old sea wolves were still hanging around, smoking their finely chiseled pipes, the massar, kumma or turban screwed on their heads. To crown it all, the famous dhows or sambuqs, majestic vessels made of acacia or teak wood that Sinbad would have used, were still being built there. A land of legendary seafarers had become reality. I knew that we certainly sold goods there, but we also shaped the humanities in immemorial exchanges.
I wrote to the Embassy of Oman to tell them that a documentary was missing from this page in Maritime History. A few weeks later, the Sultanate expressed interest in my project. I was surprised because I did not have the credentials of an international television team to confront such a massive project… HE Al Rashdi, the Minister of Information at the time, invited me to meet him. With the support of the Sultan, he was eager to highlight the maritime history of his country. The first trip was a delight. Oman opened up to me at the highest level. I was greeted there in a memorable, warm way and with all the professionalism I asked for.
It was agreed that I needed to deepen certain points in my film, in particular shipbuilding and the trading posts on the Indian Sea. The budget was decided without haggling. A frank handshake meant that confidence was granted for this ambitious film to be shot in 12 countries. I had never carried out such a grand scale project, which required flawless logistics. The Sultan trusted me: Oman put everything at my disposal in terms of its heritage and its international openings. I was very touched by this unique openness and mark of confidence.
In 1999, I came back with Philippe Fivet, virtuoso cameraman of the French television, to start filming. Everywhere, we were helped by technicians and people in the trade. Exceptionally, Oman opened its museums to me; everything I wanted for the film was available to me. I felt how much Omanis were aware of their past, of which they were proud. The country, at the time, had no motorway network per se. But it was quietly following its path to the quiet, rowdy progress that was the prerogative of the Sultan. As a visionary, he gave priority to education, training and health. Oil was to help provide decent income for all. Sultan Qaboos was an active guardian of Oman’s biodiversity, making it a duty to keep tourism at acceptable limits. And I saw, on each of my visits, how the country was developing in depth.
I never met His Majesty, but I felt all his kindness and confidence in me. Without being a licensed director of the BBC or any other major international channel, I was responsible for making a film about Oman on the international stage. We were in the frontal shock of September 11, which created a fracture between East and West. As a counter-narrative, our film wanted to provide a bridge between these two mental and cultural geographies.
The Sultan, an exceptional visionary, understood the issue of this « clash of civilizations », developing a diplomacy for peace by highlighting the inclusive maritime history of his country and the Arabian peninsula, which linked Africa, Europe and Asia during the sumptuous days preceding steam navigation. At that time, it was essential to hear peacemakers like him, men sure of their culture of openness, of the richness of their traditions. Sultan Qaboos was at the vanguard. As the region burned from the geopolitical chaos that we experienced before and after September 11, Oman continued to be a haven of peace and understanding.
Sultan Qaboos, steeped in the great history of his country, placed on the Incense route and the sea routes of Silk, continued to work for the understanding between peoples, defusing situations of conflict. He was regularly chosen for thorny mediations between belligerent parties. All this, I say without being mistaken, comes from a fact: the Sultan was a worthy heir to the History of his country, open to that of the region and the Indian Ocean, this matrix of globalization and ocean-engine of History, as the emergence of Asian giants and the new economic and petroleum contexts still prove today. He combined, like his people, the patience and resilience of the inhabitants of the desert and the openness and the daring vision of a people turned towards the sea. The wisdom of the desert bathed by the sea was there, on the lookout, allowing him to avoid many pitfalls to his people, in an area of all dangers.
Sultan Qaboos enabled me to visit History in depth
It is this openness and this creative vision of History that allowed me to work for a documentary crowned with the Golden Award of the Arab Media Film Festival of 2000 in Cairo, bringing together media professionals from the region. UNESCO considers it the best document produced on the subject. « The Maritime Memory of the Arabs », my Omani film paying tribute to the cultures of commerce and navigation, was screened during the celebration of the 30 years of the Silk Roads by UNESCO in Paris 4 years ago, in the presence of a Chinese delegation from Quanzhou (ground zero of the Silk sea routes), the Ambassador of Oman and delegations from around thirty countries.
Dr Doudou Diène, ex-director of Routes of UNESCO, who had led, 30 years before, the UNESCO mission on the Silk Roads, from Paris to Quanzhou, testified that Sultan Qaboos had made his personal yacht available to his team of experts, sailing them to China. They had made a film on these historic routes, broadcast on Arte Channel.
Dr Diene reminded me of a human fact: not far from Quanzhou, the royal yacht rescued Chinese fishermen who had been wrecked. It was around the New year. His crew was therefore greeted as heroes in this city visited by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Quanzhou preserves many monuments of these exchanges between the “Western” countries and China, since the remote times. This link is still treasured, as I witnessed during my trip to this city in October 2019. I visited the Omani mosque, built next to the oldest mosque in Quanzhou. I also visited Jewel of Muscat, the 9th century remake of a dhow stitched with coconut ropes that Oman sailed from the mainland to Singapore and which is in the Sentosa Maritime Experiental Museum, proof of a real maritime diplomacy which continues unabated.
Indeed, at the inclusive Museum of Civilizations in Singapore, the very first texts and films that the visitor meets, as I could see firsthand, are those relating to Oman and its maritime culture, testifying to the still powerful links between two parts of the world that have shaped the humanities through all-out exchanges.
Needless to say, the Sultan, by encouraging me to explore this dimension, had propelled me towards the History of my native Indian ocean, the ocean of globalizations. This exploration led me from Oman, to China, India, Morocco, Tunisia, France, England, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Madagascar for footage.
A conspicuous mark of the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos was the active anchoring of his diplomacy in the depth of the caravan and maritime routes, open to otherness. In the wake of the recognition of Oman’s role on the international scene, during the commemoration of the 170 years of the Battle of Grand Port, the only naval war won by Napoleon, I was mandated by the Mauritian government to accompany the representative of the Sultan in Mauritius, who delegated Abdullah Al Suheili, ex-director of documentaries for Omani television. It was an opportunity to strengthen the diplomatic ties between Oman and Mauritius, which could have been visited by the intrepid Omani sailors, from Zanzibar and Madagascar, when Mauritius was still called Dwipa Moraze, as attested by the Cantino world map, kept now at the Lisbon Maritime Museum.
It goes without saying that Sultan Qaboos’ diplomacy of openness and peace continued in other spaces, mixing beauty, knowledge and peace. Passionate about opera, the Sultan had built an impressive royal opera house in Muscat, twinned with that of Lyon, France, which I was able to visit during the works on one of my Omani visits, in particular to discuss audiovisual projects.
To conclude, (but can I really?), I would say that I have rarely seen a head of state develop an inclusive vision that has become so visionary. A work all in discretion, but in depth and in historical continuity: this was the mark of the Sultan. As proof, two years ago, I was invited by his collaborators to the inauguration of the new library of Al Biruni (the Uzbek scientist who invented anthropology and hailed as a universal genius) in Tashkent. Funded by Oman, it was a lavish gift that Sultan Qaboos made to world culture, as the book holds for him a timeless marker of civilizations. The library is on the World Heritage List.
The current Sultan of Oman, HE Sayyid Haitham bin Tarek, whom I was able to approach during this event, was filled with calm and serenity, reminding me of Sultan Qaboos. I think it was among the first major events he chaired in anticipation of the succession of Sultan Qaboos, who was unable to make the trip to Tashkent, being ill. The PM of Uzbekistan, Abdullah Aripov, expressed his gratitude, stating that the work of digital transformation of the documents was on the way. HE Sayyid Haitham listened with great attention to the explanation of scientists responsible for preserving rare and precious manuscripts, books and parchments of the world’s literary and scientific heritage (there are more than 80,000), sparing no effort to visit the spaces of this architectural and scientific jewel offered to Uzbekistan, which like Oman, is a vibrant heart of cultures on the roads of civilizations, Uzbekistan being a crossroad of the land circuits of Silk routes in Central Asia and Oman being a recognized maritime node of the Silk Routes in the Indian Ocean. It was for me the marriage of two crossroads of prime importance in World History. I saw there an extraordinary convergence between two formidable geostrategic destinies, the seal of wisdom that the visionary Sultan of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, offers to our humanities and desire to build a better world, with sagacity and generosity.
On these days following his demise, a great loss for Oman and beyond, may I be allowed to invite us to visit this magnificent Al Biruni library and its treasures, which contains much of the Sultan’s love for science, the frailty and persistence of beauty and the need to share knowledge as a natural right of Mankind. This legacy stands on the modern Silk Routes as a reminder of Sultan’s Qaboos far-sighted policies and a living testimony of his wisdom. In addition, let me invite the reader to know the richness of Oman, the pearl of the Arabian peninsula, and its discreet and effective presence in the world, which constitutes for me one of the major legacies that Sultan Qaboos leaves to an authentic, inspiring country and beyond.
I am confident that Oman, a beacon of stability, through the wise vision of the late Sultan, will continue to lay maritime and terrestrial milestones for an inclusive world culture. These constitute the obvious signs of a historical depth and continuity that has shaped Omani wisdom, an essential ingredient in a world tempted by the closure of hearts and routes of cultures and history.
It is therefore with great sadness and deep gratitude that I finish these lines, knowing that Sultan Qaboos has been on my way as a man of culture and has reached out to me for a more open and peaceful world. It’s a real treasure that he shared with me and other peace lovers. This itinerary will continue through the philosophy of the House of Wisdom Fez-Granada and my other activities.
The Sultan is no more, but his work remains, and the current world will find there a vision drawn in a haven of peace and fraternity. We must all be his heirs to continue building peace in hearts and minds.
Thank you Sultan Qaboos for this work of patience and rare consistency. You will keep inspiring me…
© Dr Khal Torabully, 21st of January 2020
This paper has been first published by Oman observer.
Note on the writer: Dr Khal Torabully is a Franco-Mauritian semiologist, film director and writer who graduated at Université Lumière in Lyon, France. He directed The Maritime Memory of the Arabs in 2000 for the Omani Ministry of Information. He is a UNESCO expert for the Interactive Atlas of the Silk Routes and founder of the House of Wisdom (Fez-Granada), to promote peace and understanding. He is a cultural friend of Oman, which he treasures as a genuine land of navigators.