Image: Brijesh Patel
November 16 2010
When travelling to an unfamiliar destination, I like to familiarise myself with it as it was seen by an earlier generation of visitors. It is part of my ongoing, rolling programme of nostalgia. For instance, before I visited Naples for the first time I made sure that I had finished Norman Lewis’s classic account of arriving in the city with the British Army, Naples ’44. And should I ever visit the Khanate of Khiva, I will of course be consulting Colonel Fred Burnaby’s 1880s masterpiece, A Ride to Khiva.
So when I was recently asked to Oman to attend the launch of a new Bentley, the son of Continental GT, which bore a strong resemblance to its august parent and is, I suppose, more of a pronounced evolution of the model rather than anything too radically different, I prepared myself by reading Jan Morris’s 1955 classic, Sultan in Oman.
It is a triumph, great fun, an evocation of a distant time, when the embers of the British Empire were still aglow. But, apart from the abundance of local colour and Morris’s eye for a telling vignette, what this travelogue really brought home was not so much how exotic Oman was, then in the process of being dragged straight from the Middle Ages into the second half of the 20th century, but rather the changes that have occurred in England since it was written more than 50 years ago.
For a start there are the acknowledgements. With the exception of His Highness the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, the list is made up largely of British military personnel on secondment or otherwise serving in the Arabian peninsula.
Almost like the negative of a photograph, Oman is defined by comparisons to England; the sultan’s father-in-law is described as having “a reassuring country respectability about him redolent of prize givings and parish committees”, while a wadi looks “for all the world like some unfrequented lake in the English shires, fished by railwaymen in the long summer evenings”. At times Morris gets carried away on a tide of lyricism: the foothills of the Qara mountains put him/her in mind of Housman and Hardy, who “might well have expected some pungent Dorset countryman to appear over the next ridge”. A slave jumps nimbly from the back of a car as “promptly and neatly as any duke’s footman”, and sheikhs shake out their robes like debutantes’ ballgowns.
As I read more of the book, it dawned on me that it was not Oman that was strange and different. While the 20th century has been and gone, much of the character of Oman that Morris chronicled has remained, especially when you go up country. Instead it is the England of this book, with its ducal retainers and parish committees, that would appear to have vanished.