Some years ago in a charity fundraiser I won a raffle prize: a book entitled ‘Sons of Sindbad’. Written by Australian journalist and master mariner Alan Villiers, the book vividly recounts a voyage from 1938 to 1939 on Al Bayan, an old Kuwaiti sailing ship, known locally as a boom.
With the blessing of the Al-Hamad brothers, the Kuwaiti merchant family who owned Al Bayan, the 35 year-old Villiers set sail from Aden spending the next months travelling to ports in East Africa, Oman and finally, Kuwait.
Villiers was an intrepid mariner determined to document the last days of sail, shooting both stills and cinÈ film of his journey, recording the hardships and the heroism of the Kuwaiti crew and the infinite skills of the captain, Ali bin Nasr Al-Najdi. His humor and humanity filled the book. On land too, he captured daily life in Kuwait in the last decades before independence.
Captain Najdi navigated with no modern instruments, using the stars, winds and ocean currents as his guide. In dangerously shallow waters, a line weighted with a block of camel fat was dropped from the bow periodically to check depths. If the fat picked up sand the captain knew to change course.
Villiers’ respect for the Kuwaiti crew was evident, no more so when an infant falls overboard and he tells how the captain deftly maneuvers the huge vessel around in time to save it from the shark-infested seas.
After reading Villiers’ book in 2016, it struck me it was almost 80 years since his journey. Over the weeks and months I traced the large archive of Villiers’ films and photographs and started to put together a proposal for a project that included a TV documentary that would celebrate Alan Villiers’ contribution to maritime heritage in the Gulf.
A chance trip to the dhow-makers diwaniya in Sharq introduced me to an apprentice carpenter called Mohammed Al-Qallaf. Villiers had photographed one of his family members, Khaleel, who had been the ship’s carpenter on that same voyage. Even today, Kuwaitis hold Villiers in high esteem.
After a long search, I was put in touch with the Villiers family in England, where Alan had settled after World War II. They loved the idea of the project and offered to meet me.
One bright May weekend, I found myself in the company of Alan Villiers’ daughter Kathy Chetwynd, and his sons Peter and Christopher ‘Kit’ Villiers. They had just attended the Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture held annually at a college in Oxford. We talked about Alan’s life and work; they were affable, supportive and gracious enough to invite me to the family home, where they care for Nancie, Alan’s wife, who is 103 years-old.
Alan Villiers’ former home in north Oxford turns out to be two houses not one, next door to each other. This arrangement, explains Kit Villiers cheerfully, allowed his father to live in one house and go next door to a study overlooking the River Cherwell to write his books.
A blue memorial plaque dedicated to Alan, hangs by the front door, in official recognition of Alan’s maritime contributions.
At the house I was joined by a fellow Villiers enthusiast and Kuwaiti historian Dr. Hasan Ashkanani and his nephew, who were visiting Oxford. They had brought from Kuwait a first edition copy of ‘Sons of Sindbad’ signed by Alan. As the talk turned to Kuwait, Alan’s daughter Kathy produced from the closet some unexpected souvenirs from the 1930s: an old model dhow, light Yemeni-style dishdashas, two old-fashioned types of ‘agal’, one of black Iraqi silk and one of white rope, and a variety of cotton ‘guttrah’. To my surprise, they mentioned that their father and mother had returned to Kuwait in 1967.
Kit and Kathy then took us down to the riverbank to the small boathouse just a few meters from Alan’s study. Even after a life at sea, it seems Alan Villiers could not be separated from water.
Alan died in 1982 having prolifically documented the last years of sail not just in Arabia. Throughout his life, he steered countless ships, circumnavigating the globe twice. He was courageous too – he could not swim.
As we said our farewells and left the upstairs living room filled with paintings, model ships, family photos and sailing mementoes, hidden in the corner I caught sight of a large sandouq, a traditional Kuwaiti wooden chest with brass rivets.
Maybe just as the memory of Alan Villiers remained with the young ships’ carpenters in Kuwait, a part of Kuwait had remained with him in Oxford in the form of that sandouq; a legacy of an extraordinary voyage made 80 years ago; a journey borne of courage and humanity that should not be forgotten.
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.By C. Shalgosky