pril 1820 - Mrs Thompson
A Letter from Ras al Khaymah
United Arab Emirates
Here am I (where shall I not be next?) sitting in what was formerly the Hareem of Sheikh Hassan ben Rahma, the pirate chief of Ras al Khyma - and at times I look from the high lattice over the 'Green Sea wave' – [Thomas Moore's name for the Persian Gulf. See »Fire-Worshippers« (II. 1-4) in Lalla Rookh.] if perchance I may descry a ship from India bringing tidings from that Isle of the West, where though there are neither 'pearl' nor 'palms', there are lovelier and dearer things … We are in the very midst of the scenes of Lallah Rookh, not two days' sail from Bahrain's groves of palm, and but a few hours from Kishma's amber vines. The chief of the latter place sent us the other day ‘103 berries of the pomeygranite, meats of salubrity for the little child, may the mercy of God be upon him'; and he has invited us to go over in the hot weather and cool ourselves under the shade of his date groves. The ruby of Shiraz blushes in our - I would willingly say goblets, but my conscience is untractable. They are such very wine-glasses - bought in Bombay for six rupees a dozen - that they will not be twisted or turned or softened into anything better. But though our 'liquid ruby' does not turn into anything very romantic, it runs out of the very same vessels from whence I imagine Hafiz drew his Inspiration and his theme. As for pearls - when I rebuke the servant for having no fish for dinner, his excuse is that the fishermen have gone to dive for pearls. So here we are, with hareems, and the lattices, and Shiraz wine, and banks of pearl, and groves of palm, and all the rest of it; - and altogether, if you will know the truth, it is but a dry and dusty view, and moreover hath an ancient and fish-like smell owing to the heaps of oyster-shells which, if one will have pearls, I fancy can hardly be dispensed with in reality, however they may in poetry. Thompson begs that I will tell you that he has been diligently looking out for 'AI Hassan's blooming child' [Hinda, the heroine of the Fire-Worshippers], but that if he has ever been in any way of discovering her, it has been behind so dirty a mask that his heart would have failed in attempting any very accurate examination.
You say that we shall perhaps be in some measure able to judge of the truth of Moore's descriptions. What strikes me on the subject is that if Moore had visited the scenes of his poem he would never have written it. Here is almost all that he describes, but the impressions you receive from reading his poetry and from viewing the reality are totally different. In his descriptions, all is fresh and blooming and luxurious and per-fumed and spicy. In the reality, all is faded and dirty and mean and dusty and fishy. For instance, I daresay you might find the 'gallery's shades' in every Mussulman house, but they would be sure to be anything rather than silken, or if they were, they would be faded and covered with dust. Nothing would be so easily met with as a damsel wearing a chaplet for her head, but it assuredly would not be a 'fresh, cool chaplet'. I never could find out that in India anybody knew the difference, or at least the difference in vahie, between dead flowers and fresh. You might easily find a favourite antelope with silver bells; but if it had a silver bell on one leg, it would inevitably have a piece of dirty rag on the other. The latter is an ornament that the Indian women in particular are much attached to. It always seemed to me intended to mark the place where a ring or a bracelet ought to be. If there was a jasper fountain at one end of a room, there would he most probably an unglazed earthen pot of ghee (salt butter) at the other, and you might bless your happy fate if the owner of it and of the fountain was not in the act of scooping it out with his hand and eating it. 'Oh I have seen what' … clean and Christian people 'know not of - so foul a sight!' You might see dancing girls, and they might have bells in their long, dark tresses, and they might sing - and you would most probably be in doubt whether the bells or the voice produced the most intolerable din. As for the dark tresses themselves they would be sure upon a particularly festive occasion to have been freshly dipped in the ghee-pot. In short, far as I can judge, Moore's outline is strictly oriental and displays infinite knowledge of the manners and habits of the eastern world, but his colouring - his beauty and softness and feeling and sentiment and deliciousness - is all from the West ... As for the pictures and the 'glowing pencil' which 'paints of pleasure but the purer part', etc., Moore surely, as far as I know at least, has lost sight in this instance of his Orientalism. The Mohammedans never make representations of living objects, and I should think a Persian painting seldom went beyond a portraiture of Rustam on horseback, which might lead you to imagine that the artist had Mohammedan scruples and had endeavoured as much as possible to avoid the sin of making the likeness of any thing upon the earth. However it is possible they may have paintings, but I never heard of them. The quantity of information which Moore has possessed himself of, on all subjects relative to the East, is wonderful; and it is really mortifying to see a man who never has been in the country know so much more of what is in it, or at least of what has been written about it, than oneself. The description of the Arab chief gives exactly and without exaggeration the character of the people of this country - every horrible particular, as far as we may trust to all we see and hear, is exact … Such are the men who go familiarly in and out of our house without notice, except perhaps the curse not loud but deep of some sepoy who points out the man who murdered, or who he fancies (for as you may imagine, their feelings produce abundance of unfounded and exaggerated stories) murdered his brother or his comrade. And what is a great deal worse, such are the men 16,000 of whom are reported to be assembled for the purpose of attacking us. Thompson, as you have probably heard from some of my letters, has been left in command here; and he is digging ditches, and scraping walls, and making stockades and all sorts of defensive preparations. He issued orders the other day for the direction of the troops in case of an attack - 'Three guns in quick succession from the Sheikh's house' (where we live) 'will be the signal for a general alarm by day or night. I believe these guns will be enough for me without any others.
We are to have a store of water sent from Bombay, which we hope will arrive before very long; but if it should fail from any unexpected accident, the Arabs have but to cut off our communication with the wells from whence we draw our daily supply, in order to render our defences of no avail. In that case, the garrison would be obliged to quit the fortifications, and to combat the whole population of the country in the open plains; for, according to the report of the medical officers, there is no water in or near the town capable of supporting life. However, upon the whole, it is much more likely that they will not attack us. There are some five eighteen-pounders which would salute them before they were well in sight of the town, and we expect that these would be held in considerable reverence by the sons of Ishmael. I assure you, for my own part, I find so much satisfaction in the presence of these guns, which have just been placed in readiness, that I have had some conception of the feeling of the native artilleryman who, according to the story, after having fired his gun, patted it with his hand, and ex-claimed 'Wah, wah, baba!' Baba is child, but the caressing kindness contained in wah, wah is untranslatable.
There is one curiosity here which I have not seen - the mirage. Thompson saw it in great perfection on a sandy plain between this and a place called Zyah, about eight miles distant. The heat has been very tolerable hitherto, but we are told terrible stories of what is to be. Even the Arabs tell us that it is impossible to remain in Ras al Khyma during the hot months, and that they used at that time to leave it and go into the date groves; and they likewise confirm the story about lying in water, which I see is quoted in Lallah Rookh; they say that they fill holes in the ground with water, and sit in them. However, I have not much dread of the heat, and do not expect to suffer so much from it as I did from the cold a few months ago. Thompson has been making a model of what he imagines to be a 'wind tower', and we are going to try to have one constructed on the top of our house, to try to 'win a breath from heaven' during these heats. You can have no conception of the intense glare of the sun here. It is bad in India, but nothing to this. The number of people who are blind or one-eyed proves the effect it has upon the sight. You hardly ever see an Arab with sound and perfect eyes.
Do you recollect the note in Lallah Rookh which says upon the authority of some traveller that the dew in the climate of Shiraz will not rust polished steel? I have not been able to ascertain whether there is any truth in this, and should be inclined to think that it is an exaggeration; but it is very probably founded upon an idea which certainly prevails here, that you may lie all night exposed to the dew (which is sometimes remarkably thick and heavy) without injury; the very contrary of what is the case in India where exposure to the night air is exceedingly dangerous.
Perhaps you are curious about Shiraz wine. The white I am not very well acquainted with. What I have tasted was like sherry with a little beer in it, but I believe it was not good. The red is stronger than claret, but very much like it, and is very good. The Shiraz pomegranates are so much finer than any others as to be almost a different fruit. The apples are nearly as good as the common sort of English apples, though far beneath the Hesperian fruit in the basket in Thirkleby parlour doset. The pears are not good. I hear the grapes are very fine, but we have had none yet...
If we should ever meet again in Thirkleby parlour or elsewhere, what a respectable party of staid middle-aged persons we shall compose instead of the blooming gay young ladies and gentlemen we were when we were last together. If you were to see Thompson with his hoary head and large mustachios, and moreover a tuft on his chin upon which he bestows no small care and cherishing, you would think one of the old Round-heads of Charles the First's time had walked out of his grave only a little more grisly than he was wont from his long residence there... However, 'though grey be somewhat mingled with our brown', I know no reason why we should not be very merry. Thompson boasts that though his exterior is somewhat worn and faded, yet the inner man never was younger nor fresher. For my own part, I always thought this a merry world and I think so still - that is when I have what I like in it, which is not the case at present.
Since I began this letter a ship has arrived from Bombay and brought us not a single letter from England. We have got an immense packet of Morning Posts filled with the disturbances in Manchester [the Manchester or Peterloo Massacre on August 16, 1819] and other places. The papers leave us in the most vexatious suspense as to the result of these commotions. I hope and trust long before this all is quiet. The Government seem to have acted rashly, but as far as we have intelligence there was still time for them to recede before the cause of freedom was identified with that of revolution, l assure you ‘them little riots just to show we're free men' have a most fearful look to people who have reposed five years in the quiet of Oriental despotism.
We get on pretty well here with regard to health, though people in Bombay have a greater horror of this place than those in England have of Bombay. Our Indian servants have suffered very much. We have all in turn had slight illnesses, but we have none of us suffered from them.
The Pirates of Trucial Oman