The Sons of Sinbad: The Photographs
BOOK REVIEW by Frances Gillespie
Title: Sons of Sindbad, The Photographs
Alan Villiers, an Australian who made a name for himself as a maritime adventurer in the 1920s and 1930s and also after the war, published some 40 books about his experiences at sea in many parts of the world. Quite early in life he realised he had a natural talent for writing, and thereafter combined his voyages as a working mariner with a career as a pioneering photojournalist.
Villiers had a passion for sailing vessels and he signed on with them whenever possible, realising that their days would inevitably soon come to an end. In 1938, having just completed a three-year voyage around the world in his own schooner, Joseph Conrad, he travelled to Arabia, setting himself a mission to record the daily lives of the men who sailed the Arabian Gulf, both through written records and with his camera.
At Aden, he searched for a dhow master prepared to take on a Westerner as a crew member. After one short voyage he searched for a ship making a longer journey and had the good fortune to meet Ali bin Nasr El-Nejdi, a remarkable man only a few years younger then himself who was captain of a great Kuwaiti trading boum, the Bayan. His friendship with El-Nejdi was to last for many decades.
The Bayan had already completed a voyage from the Shatt al-Arab to Berbera with a cargo of dates when Villiers joined her at Aden and he sailed on her for the rest of the trip to Hadhramaut and on to Zanzibar and Tanganyika where they collected a cargo of mangrove poles and returned to Kuwait via Bahrain, where they got an excellent price for their mangrove poles from the King of Saudi Arabia.
Although Villiers took thousands of superb photographs on this voyage, when he published his account, Sons of Sindbad, in 1940, only a small selection accompanied the book. The bulk of the collection has remained, unpublished, at the National Maritime Museum until now.
Arabian Publishing re-published the complete text of Sons of Sindbad in 2006, and Sons of Sindbad, The Photographs is the companion volume to Villiers' account of his Arabian adventure. These photographs, now seen by the public for the first time, are among the finest ever taken of life on board a sailing dhow, and there are many pictures of the harbours they visited and portraits of the people Villiers met along the way. Oil money was just beginning to trickle into some of the Gulf states, and in one or two photographs taken in East Africa and in Bahrain small modern buildings make an appearance, but for the most part they are of scenes that cannot have changed for centuries.
Alan Villiers is to the Arabian sea what Wilfred Thesiger was to the land both were great writers and intrepid travellers who had the ability to treat the men they travelled with as companions and equals, and both showed a profound respect for the Arabs' superior survival skills. But whereas Thesiger became a household name after the publication of his epic account of his desert crossings in Arabian Sands, Villiers was less well known, perhaps because he published his book during the dark days of World War II.
The production by Arabian Publishing of Villiers' book and the handsome new volume of his photographs should help to put his name firmly among the names of the great Arabian travellers. Sons of Sindbad, The Photographs contains an introduction by William Facey, Yacoub Al-Hijji and Grace Pundyk providing a biography of Alan Villiers, including an account of his long career at sea and his distinguished wartime service. Excerpts from Sons of Sindbad accompany each page of photographs and add greatly to the enjoyment and understanding of these remarkable images.
Unlike Thesiger, who hated the idea that the lives of the bedouin should be changed by so-called progress, Villiers recognised that he was witnessing the end of an era and was realistic about the inevitable need to adapt to modern technology. His photographs provide a graphic record of the Arabian maritime world immediately prior to World War II, and the accompanying text is enlivened and enriched by his description of the customs and conversations of its people.
Thirty years after Villiers made the voyage with Captain El-Nejdi he visited his old friend again in Kuwait. The two men talked of the old days and the Kuwaiti concluded wistfully by saying, 'It was a good life that my sons can never know no Kuwaiti sons shall know. We cannot bring those ways back again.'
by Fran Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar