In Search of Sindbad

Ali Juma Al-Araimi rubbed his chin. “No, I don’t know anything about Sindbad,” he said, and leaned on the heavy teak door of his workshop, masts of replica miniature dhows rising behind his shoulder. “But ask on the shore around sunset. People might know.”

It had been six months earlier, in a tourist guidebook to Oman, that I’d read: “Along with Sohar, it’s been said that Sur was the home of the legendary sailor Sindbad.”

In the West, Sindbad (or Sinbad) is a fairy story, the subject of swashbuckling movies for children. Visiting the home of Sindbad would be like making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Indiana Jones. Yet Sindbad is a key character in the Thousand and One Nights, a merchant who, while seeking his fortune in the East, survives terrible dangers and battles outlandish monsters. But how real could he be?

I started googling – and there he was again, on the Omani Ministry of Information website: “The legendary sailor Sindbad is thought to have originated in Sur.” Virtually every site I found about Oman dropped in a line about Sindbad – but not one pursued the idea beyond recycling the claim.

Yet when I went back to the Thousand and One Nights, the text was unequivocal: “My father,” Sindbad says, “was the chief merchant of this city [Baghdad].” Later, he adds: “I bought merchandise and set sail [from] Basra.”

So Sindbad was Baghdadi. How, then, did the idea arise that Sindbad came from Oman? And was there any evidence for the claim – written or verbal? I asked Dionisius Agius, an expert on Arab seafaring traditions at Exeter University in England. “There is no written evidence to back Oman’s claim that Sindbad was Omani,” he told me. “It is a genuine, lingering folk tale: coastal Arabs want to associate themselves with a legendary figure.”

That piqued my curiosity even more. Was the story of Sindbad’s voyages still being told? What kind of folk memory was being kept alive in Oman? I vowed to try and find out.

First stop was the Beit Al-Baranda historical museum in the Omani capital, Muscat, a splendid old house set back from the bustling Muttrah harbourfront. The director, Malik Al-Hinai, explained how the tales of Sindbad probably originated in India, with the Sanskrit Panchatantra story cycle, and had become inextricably linked in popular imagination with the exploits of Ahmad bin Majid, an expert navigator who helped Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama discover the sea route from Africa to India in 1498.

But long before Bin Majid, Al-Hinai added, Omanis had been famed for their maritime skill: in the 9th and 10th centuries, Sohar – just up the coast from Muscat – had been the largest port in Arabia, burgeoning on the back of trade links established by Omani seamen with Baluchistan, Yemen and Zanzibar.

Those maritime roots run deep: thirty years ago, when Irish explorer Tim Severin arrived in Oman to recreate Sindbad’s legendary voyage from Arabia to China, the old stories resurfaced. Severin worked with local craftsmen in Sur, a port south of Muscat, to build his ship according to traditional methods. The voyage was a success and the vessel, named Sohar, now resides atop a traffic roundabout on the edge of Muscat.

So, I asked Al-Hinai, are there actually any links – literary or otherwise – between Oman and the Sindbad tales? His eyes twinkled. “Omanis are famous for travelling, and Sindbad was a traveller,” he said. “So let’s have him as Omani!”

Sur sprawls across broad sandy beaches, almost at the easternmost tip of Arabia, its low, white façades peeling in the salty air. I stopped first at the dhow yards, ranged along one side of the lagoon – a natural harbour that safeguarded Sur’s position as a fulcrum for maritime trade. Keralan workers were busy carving, sawing and planing half-built replica dhows for the tourist trade.

But when I asked the boss, Ali Juma Al-Araimi, about Sindbad, he knew nothing. Following his advice, at sunset I went down to the Fateh Al-Khair, a full-size dhow that is the last remnant of Sur’s ocean-going fleet, once Oman’s main link with Zanzibar. Lean, dark-skinned teenagers hurried past to join the twenty-a-side football match already under way on the beach. A group of middle-aged men sat out beneath a gazebo, eating ice cream and rolling chilled bottles of mineral water up and down their ankles. Everything smelled of the sea and hot sand. Nobody could tell me about Sindbad.

Masoud Al-Mamiry, an Omani born and brought up in Zanzibar, gave a twisty smile when I asked him about Sindbad’s origins. “Well,” he grinned, “why shouldn’t we claim him as Omani?”

Masoud and I roamed the town centre, crossing to Al-Ayja, Sur’s crumbling old quarter across the lagoon. There, on a back street, we found a little shop selling stationery and children’s toys named Sindbad Sur Trading. It was my first opening.

“People have come in before asking about Sindbad,” harrumphed the owner. “But it’s just the name of the shop.” He looked away. “Kids see Sindbad in cartoons. They want to be like him.”

I left Sur to forget its past and headed up the coast to Sohar, the other Omani claimant to be birthplace of Sindbad – a port described, in the 10th century, as the wealthiest city in Oman, gateway to China. I walked the long, breezy Corniche, looking for any remnant of past glories, but there was nothing: even Sohar’s harbour was gone, long since silted up and built over. Only the pristine white fort remained, raised in the 19th century over an 8th-century predecessor. Three kids were kicking a football under the battlements. “Sindbad? Wasn’t he Iraqi?” said one. He was spot on – but his mates laughed and threw the ball at him.

In Sohar’s handicraft souk, Juma Al-Hamdani, born in 1947 into an old Sohari family, shook his head. “There’s nothing left,” he said. “Sindbad was a real man, who lived in Sohar a thousand years ago, but all these stories have faded away. I’m proud of them; it’s our history, but you can’t sit with your grandchildren like you used to.” As he was speaking, a young Omani walked in to have his belt repaired. While the old man bustled away, I talked to the newcomer. “Sindbad?” he said, suppressing a laugh. “It’s just a story.”

I started back towards Muscat. On the highway, a few minutes outside Sohar, I suddenly noticed a roadsign pointing inland. “Sindha 13km,” it said. Sindha? It was worth a look.

A few breezeblock shacks nestled in the scrubby dunes. I stood in the fierce heat with Salem Al-Badi, white stubble peppering his hollow cheeks, exchanging pleasantries, then feeling like an idiot for asking whether his village might perhaps have been named after Sindbad.

“Sindbad?” He thought for a long while before responding.

“I don’t know anything about this – and the people here who did know are all dead. If you want to find out, go and look for them in the sand.”

And he lifted an arm, gesturing into the parched desert.