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Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud: القرصان (The Corsair)

Though the title refers to a ship, the book is about the captain of the ship, Erhama bin Jaber, a fierce pirate who was born in what is now Kuwait but moved to Qatar when he was young. As a young man, he wanted to be a trader, particularly a trader of horses. He had worked with the al-Khalifas (now and then (early nineteenth century) rulers of Bahrain), to whom he was related, as both were members of the Utub tribe. However, they had cheated him (in his opinion) so he had turned against them, despite having supported them earlier in their successful efforts to take Bahrain from the Persians. He had to come realise that the only way to live was to take what you wanted and so he became a pirate, feared by many, particularly the Utubs.

When this novel was set, the Wahhabis, (fundamental conservatives) were on the rise. Erhama was not a Wahhabi but he supported them as it was politically expedient and they were the enemies of the Al-Khalifa. At the same time, the British in the Middle East were getting very concerned with the rise of the Wahhabis, not least because their rise interfered with British trade. Britain had now effectively taken control of the trade in that area (Arabian Gulf-India), having driven out its European rivals. Erhama has a tacit agreement with the British not to attack their ships and the ships of their allies and, in return, they leave him alone.

This story follows Erhama and, to a lesser degree, his son, Bashir (of whom little is known historically), on the one hand, and the various British participants. These latter include HMS Eden, captained by the somewhat aloof but ambitious Captain Loch, which journeys from Portsmouth to the Gulf; Major Sadleir, who speaks, badly, Arabic and Persian, and who is entrusted with delivering a jewel-encrusted sword to the Emir Pasha of Egypt, who, the British hope, will be bribed to use his army to defeat the Wahhabis; and various British officials in Bushehr and Bombay.

The novel is essentially plot-driven. Erhama will not join the British in their fight against the Wahhabis, as that would mean being on the same side as the Al-Khalifas. He will raid and attack other ships and does, including one carrying the son of the Al-Khalifa sultan and a British warship disguised as a commercial vessel, carrying Major Sadleir and the sword, which Erhama takes. Much of the early part of the story is Captain Loch’s attempt to recapture the sword as well as Erhama’s problem with Bashir, who puts love, even love to an Utub, before his duty to his father.

The latter part of the book deals with Erhama’s activities, driven by his hatred of the Al-Khalifas and the British using whoever they can use to make Southern Arabia safe for British trading interests. There are plots, counter-plots, corruption, betrayals, conspiracies (In the years I’ve spent in this country, I’ve seen little beyond conspiracies. People here live and breathe plots, says one British resident), cruelty and dirty deeds galore before the British (more or less) get their way and make the world safe for capitalism.

Of course, part of the story is showing the story from the Arab perspective. Indeed, when Captain Loch is in Madeira, the British consul there tells Captain Loch that he should make an effort to understand them and not just consider them as barbarians. He takes the view that all people, whoever they, essentially want to live in peace and get on with their lives. Captain Loch does not agree and shows this throughout the book. While not overwhelmingly damning of the British, Al-Mahmoud clearly shows that the British had, not surprisingly, only their own narrow interests at heart and did not care in the slightest for the welfare of the unfortunate Arabs who lived in that part of the world.

Al-Mahmoud tells an exciting story, as someone is always trying to kill someone, or deceive someone or outmanoeuvre someone. No-one comes out of it well. Most of the characters are duplicitous, conniving and dishonest. The few that are not, such as Erhama, are often cruel and ruthless. Erhama, however, is the hero and it is clear for al-Mahmoud that his honourable nature outweighs his cruelty and ruthlessness. For Westerners, it is interesting to learn about a character and a period of history that most of us know little about.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
First English publication by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in 2012
Translated by Amira Nowaira