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Book Review – Dhow culture

For centuries the dhow, the traditional Arab sailing vessel common along the shores of the Indian Ocean, operated according to the principles of free trade, carrying sailors, traders, passengers, and cargo along the long arch from Kilwa in Tanzania to Kerala in India, and beyond. Following the rhythm of the monsoons – its only propeller being the wind – the dhow was a vibrant means of social interaction, and the goods it carried embodied a great deal of social and cultural meaning. One could say the dhow gave birth to a number of cosmopolitan peoples and cultures, establishing and maintaining a genuine dialogue between civilizations.

By the fifteenth century, the people living along the shores of the Indian Ocean had matured commercial and cultural links, while Islam had become the dominant religion. The faith spread mostly by peaceful commerce but also with some violent conquests. In any case, the heroes of this world were not continental empires but a string of small port city-states. Their influence penetrated deep into the economies, societies, and cultures of the continental hinterlands.
This world, which for centuries seemed working seamlessly was turned upside down by two major events: the Chinese expeditions launched at the beginning of the fifteenth century and the Portuguese explorations conducted at its close. The contrast could not have been starker between the dhow’s long-standing tradition of free trade and Vasco da Gama’s epoch of armed trading, which ultimately led to colonial domination.
The author – director of the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute and the author of three major studies on the history of maritime East Africa – unravels this rich and populous history, recasting the roots of Islam as they grew within the region, along with the thrilling history of the dhow. In this book, Abdul Sheriff offers a rich overview of the birth and development of the cultures linked by this vessel. Of particular importance is the presentation of the Swahili culture. Sheriff describes the background of the culture and its most important aspects. The chapters devoted to the Swahili Coast are particularly important because they make the case for the uniqueness and internal coherence of Swahili culture. For centuries, Arab and European sources looked down on the Swahili people, considering them half cast and without their own culture and language. In reality, Swahili is a culture on its own right, and the language cannot be considered a simple mix of Bantu and Arabic. It has been proved that elements of the Swahili culture – for instance building techniques – were borrowed by Arab, Persian and Indian cultures. Of course, the lending of ideas, techniques life styles went on for centuries and it was mutual. It is no surprise, then, that similar attitude to life or ritual aspects of life be similar in Oman, Zanzibar or elsewhere along this long coast. Dhow Cultures and the Indian Ocean is a must read for those interested in this yet little known cultural cosmos.

Abdul Sherrif , Dhow Cultures and the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam – 2010, Cloth, 384 pp.

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