Queen of the Gulf: Part 1
In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the first part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.
The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.
The terminal inside is a bare room, bare-floored. Some officials stand unstirring in the boarding-control area at the front, and from their feet a long line of men in plain cotton squats across the floor. These are workingmen, taking passage home, and they are sociable: some play cards and several hold cassette players, the big, silvery, twin-speaker kind.
A large mound of baggage is also on the floor, and two people are sitting on the mound. A clutch of middle-class families, Indian or Pakistani, is drawn with children against one wall; a solitary gowned Arab perches on a side bench. A couple of refrigerators and two sizeable wooden crates are stood up by the cargo door.
I stand a minute, then decide to join the line. Awkwardly I squat. A young Pakistani in front of me turned, puts out his hand. “Friend,” he says. I say “sure,” and shake it. The young man’s companions all turn, look at me, chatter and laugh. Then they turn back.
As we sit ignored by the officials in front, the collection of cargo at the rear begins to multiply. Porters in colored pajamas truck in another refrigerator, a color TV, enormous suitcases bound in colored rope and great rolled bundles of bedding, likewise tied. Appliance crates and stereo boxes; more metal cases. Around the cargo door now is all the action — people giving orders, more porters scurrying, disputes at high syllabic speed. All the clatter rises with the pile, and the pile builds to monumental size.
An official-looking Indian bustles past our line, holding a bunch of tags. He sees me and stops.
“Yes, ‘B’ cabin,” I say, and hold up my ticket; but he doesn’t look at it, he waves me up the line. “You must go to the front. This line is not for cabin class. Don’t you see it?”
“Oh. Well.” I get up, unbend my legs, haul up my stuff. On the floor the men all grin.
The tag-strings hang in a tangle from this man’s hand. “Where are you going,” he says.
“You will visit Pakistan.”
He stands a minute. Then, “Don’t worry,” he says.
“Oh — I’m not.” (I am.)
“You will like Pakistan.”
“Yes, I think I will.”
“People are very nice there,” he says. “They will respect you.” Then he goes off, trailing his tags.
At the window up front I watch while Arab soldiers in khaki thumb through my passport, lean over it, pass it around. It disappears into an inner room, where more soldiers are. When it reappears finally and is handed back I’m waved to the dockside door. On the way stands a young British ship’s officer, in white with blue shoulderboards and officer’s cap. He keeps an eye on the squatting line.
The men are deck passengers, I can see now: they are at this moment considered to be cooperative. I ask the officer if they’re Pathans, the people of the Northwest Frontier. He seems surprised.
“Pathans, yes — and all kinds,” he says. “Every type imaginable.” I don’t think he knows. I go out and get on the bus, for the boat.
We step off the dock and there, drawn up and swarmed over, is the last of the steamships.
Her white hull is low to the water and she has simple, graceful lines. Her broad and squarish middle decks are white, the whole ship is white and immaculately trimmed, one clean funnel on top. The ship is compact, almost short, but broad or beamish, and in the midst of this clamor of loading and boarding she has a steady air. Around her are freighters, all far larger, but the steamship holds your eye. A blue banner down her gangway at midships reads, “RMS Dwarka — Queen of the Gulf.”
That gangway is thick with moving people, and all down the deck rails people lean out, shout and wave their arms as a crane on deck lifts a load of appliances in crates from the mountains on the dock — swings the load up in its net, over the rails and down in the hold, as the crowd exuberantly offers directions. Ship’s officers in white more quietly direct, they stand holding radios amid the milling throng on the quay.
That crowd ebbs and flutters around the great piles of crates and sacks and baggage. Porters haul up more, on carts and backs and hand trucks, as Indian shipyard officials move about holding clipboards. Young smoothies in open shiny shirts and pointed shoes shift attitudes, and Arab soldiers in berets and razor-pressed kkakis stand about and do nothing at all. Off to the side are the regal Arab businessmen, aloof and watching, gold Cross pens in their pockets.
I join the crowd moving up the gangway, squeezing in behind a small boy who struggles, step to step, with a very large plastic water jug. At the top a tall young British officer with cool blue eyes stands unruffled as people shove and clamor past. Lifting his walkie-talkie, he radios down to hold the people a minute. He grins at me, his blue eyes unharried.
“Like Picadilly Circus on a Saturday afternoon, this is,” he says, and he gazes down again, at another morning in an Arabian port.
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