The well-known observation that history is written by the victors, coined by the British wartime leader Winston Churchill, has morphed from its original purpose – of shocking Britons into action by reminding its citizens that without victory against Germany, there would be no survival – into a handy condemnation of all things Empire.
It implies that what we know, or think we know, about Britain’s imperial past comes to us through the unreliable lens of the British perspective, a lens often clouded by arrogance, self-justification and cultural insensitivities.
Less well known is Churchill’s complementary bon mot, that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. This began as a metaphorical war cry and became a literal fact: all six volumes of his epic account, The Second World War, published between 1948 and 1953, remain in print.
That observation also carries another meaning, especially in a region that was not only dominated for so long by the “victors” but which also lacked the ability to create its own written records, leaving its past perched precariously on the frail branch of oral history, prey to the fickle winds of memory, national pride and imagination.
That meaning, quickly understood in the Gulf nations as literacy rose on the tide of oil, is that history will also be a lot kinder – or, at least, a lot truer to one’s own perspective – to those who take the trouble to rewrite it in their own words.
Given time, it seems, there can be advantages to having had no written history.
In the UAE, the reclaiming of history began with such books as Mohammed Morsy Abdullah’s The United Arab Emirates: A Modern History, published in 1978, while the pre-unification experiences of many Emiratis found voice in Mohammed Al-Fahim’s ever popular 1995 personal history of Abu Dhabi, From Rags to Riches.
Fiction, of course, offers the best chance for an even more fluid re-imagining of the past, and a new book from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, first published in Arabic in October but now also available in English, illustrates vividly what can be achieved, not only in refocusing the Arabic sense of “us” but also in inviting a postcolonial expatriate reappraisal of “them”.
The author is Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, a Qatari engineer who studied in America and the UK, and his first novel, Al Qursan (The Pirate), tackles the historical debate that perhaps best illustrates the susceptibility of the past to partisan interpretation. Piracy was, after all, the reason Britain engaged in the Gulf in the first place, at first with swords and guns and later with the treaties that would bind the peoples of the region together as the Trucial States.
The pirate in question is Arhama bin Jaber, an historical character feared and hunted as a brigand by the British in the 19th century, and yet remembered today in the Gulf as something of a folk hero: the new Erhama Bin Jaber Al Jalahma shipyard at Ras Laffan, Qatar, which opened last year, is named for him.
The debunking of the Empire view of the 18th and 19th century Gulf Arabs as maritime marauders whose “occupation is piracy and their delight ... murder”, in the words of one contemporary British account, has been attempted before, most notably in the 1989 book The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. This was written by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah and a descendant of what he saw as the much-maligned Qawasim, a “normal people with normal human ambitions” who were victims of “the introduction of a foreign people whose aim was to dominate and exploit”.
For Al Qasimi, the picture painted of the Qawasim by the British was a “Big Lie”, told in the ruthless pursuit of the commercial interests of the East India Company. The people of the Gulf were interested only in “the peaceful pursuits of pearl diving and trading”.