The Arab Chest
BOOK REVIEW by Frances Gillespie
Malabar...Shiraz...Shisham...Makran...Surat. The names are redolent of the long-gone days when fleets of Arab and Persian trading dhows sailed up and down the Arabian Gulf and criss-crossed the Arabian Ocean, bearing cargoes of spices, teak and sandalwood, fine silk and cotton textiles, pearls and precious stones, to exchange for woollen cloth, gold and silver, glass, beads and weapons and even fine thoroughbred Arab horses.
On board each dhow was at least one finely decorated padlocked wooden chest, in which the nakhoda [capain] kept his personal belongings, papers and store of cash. Such chests were in use for centuries, until the coming of the oil era rendered them obsolete and they were eagerly snapped up by the tide of Western expatriates who hunted for specimens of traditional craftsmanship as souvenirs of the countries in which they had come to work.
The chests varied in style according to where they were made, and many bore the names listed above, although the name does not always indicate its provenance. Westerners generally referred to them as 'Kuwaiti chests', as Kuwait was the largest dhow port in the Arabian Gulf.
This book, which incorporates the most detailed and intensive study of these traditional chests ever made, is the story of two journeys. One is the remarkable quest made by an Englishwoman, the author Sheila Unwin, who in the late 1940s accompanied her husband on an upcountry posting first to what was then known as Tanganyika and some years later to the coastal town of Dar es Salaam. She became interested in the old chests she saw and decided she would like to acquire one. By an unexpected turn of events, on a visit to Mombasa she became the owner, not of one chest but of 40 fine specimens, and so quite accidentally became not only an occasional dealer in Arab chests but a person to whom others soon turned for advice on the subject.
This led to many years of travel, as she journeyed all over Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and India, doggedly seeking information, buying chests here and there, and learning about how and where they were made. Among the many excellent photographs illustrating the book is one taken in the magilis of the Old Amiri Palace in Doha, Qatar in 1977, just after the building had been restored and had become the present National Museum. A fine, brass-studded chest stands against the decorated gypsum plaster of the wall in a sunlit room carpeted with Persian rugs.
The other journey is the one made by the chests themselves, as they travelled from port to port, often under mounds of fish which left them in a smelly and stained condition. Cast on shore at last, they were often roughly cleaned before being sold, and needed careful restoration to restore them to their former glory.
Besides the sea-going chests, the author describes how they were also in use by settled Arab families on land, although never of course by the nomadic bedouin to whom such large and heavy objects would have proved too cumbersome to transport. Traditional houses needed little furniture, and people sat on the floor on carpets or mats and ate communally from food which was placed on large circular trays.
Beds were simple rope-strung charpoys. But pride of place in the main room of the house would be taken by one or more chest, decorated with brass, in which anything from blankets to weapons were stored. Above them in the wall were alcoves which housed displays of the household's best china and glassware.
Such chests containing dowry gifts often accompanied a bride to her new home, and were stained red, the 'marriage colour', as red was the colour of blood and represented fertility. In old chests, Unwin observes, this may have worn away but is still visible at the back where the chest stood against the wall.
Besides the fascinating account of the author's quest for information, there is a useful chapter summarising the historical background of the centuries-old trade in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, involving not only traders from these countries but also Portuguese, Dutch, British and Germans.
The second half of The Arab Chest concerns the chests themselves, with many excellent colour photographs and drawings of the multitude of styles and information about them. They are classified on the basis of decoration rather than where they were made, which is often impossible to certify owing to the spread of styles and decorative motifs. Chests known as Shirazis, with their rather restrained decoration, did not come from Shiraz any more than Kuwaiti chests originated in Kuwait. Surat chests were ornately decorated with brasswork, Malabar chests were distinguished by their handsome carving, and Shisham chests were made of a kind of rosewood and the brass-studded design on the front sometimes depicted a stylised rosewater sprinkler.
Arab chests are still very much in demand by Westerners and also by hotels and commercial companies as decoration for foyers and entrances, although nowadays most have to settle for modern reproductions. A small section of the book describes where these are still made. Finally the author gives practical information on the repair of antique chests and adds a tried-and-tested recipe for a cleaning material made by boiling tamarind pulp.
Readers living in Qatar may like to note that besides the National Museum [at present closed] the Emiri Diwan has a fine collection of antique Arab chests, and more are on display in the private museum of Sheikh Faisal bin Jassim al-Thani at Shahaniya.
by Fran Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar