​Book Review: To New York in 87 Days - Wisdom from the sea

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

Ila New York fi 87 Yawman (To New York in 87 Days), Emad Blake, Alexandria: Ibiidi Publishing, 2019

The Sea brings


The sea has always been an inspiration for writers. Commanding ships, reaching ports, and living the non-traditional life between land and sea were pictured mostly as a triumph for mankind over the sea. Novels like Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Oldman and the Sea -- to name a few -- are masterpieces that continue to inspire readers and writers alike. In their footsteps Emad Blake wrote To New York in 87 Days.

The novel presents two facts: the first Omani and Arab ship, Al Sultana, to reach New York was in 1840; and the main character Ahmed Ben Nooman Al-Kaabi was the chief officer of the ship. 

In the book, the reader cannot tell facts from fiction. The author manages to get the reader involved in the journey, its details, and the characters that were instrumental in making the trip a success. In other words, the novel could have happened exactly the way Blake wrote it.  

The writer uses the omniscient narrator style to engage the reader in the novel – the one who has greater insights about the events, the characters, their motives, unspoken thoughts, and experiences. The narrator is Al-Kaabi himself, the commander, the man responsible for the ship and the personal representative of the sultan of Oman to the US. 

The author forged Al-Kaabi's personality in a slow captivating style, built his family background, and showed the wisdom that he acquired over the years. It was through him that the writer shared his opinions about the ruler Sultan bin Said.

Al Kaabi served in the ruler's palace as an administrator and saw him as a wise, fair, and ambitious man. Bin Said managed to rule a large kingdom split by the Indian Ocean -- Oman and Zanzibar.

His ambition extended beyond his kingdom; Al Sultana's trip itself was motivated by starting commercial relations with the "New World".

The innovation in Al-Kaabi's persona is that he was ascetic, not really interested in the joys of life, be they money or power.

Drawing close to the ruler is contagious; the men around him become small rulers themselves.

Al-Kaabi was not like that, he did his job with dedication and passion in the service of the sultan.

Women in Al-Kaabi's life were almost non-existent; he had a platonic relationship with an Omani girl but did not marry her.

He did not have any children and did not give in to sensual pleasures. He is nearly a saint, he met treason with forgiveness, stood for what's honest and just, and always took other people's welfare into consideration. Al-Kaabi described himself as "a man wrapped in sorrow, longing for mysterious things in this world that are hard to grasp."

Here, many readers can relate to Al-Kaabi; people experience this feeling and wonder about their purpose in life.  

The experience Al-Kaabi acquired during his travels as a sailor and an assistant in the sultan's palace allowed him to evaluate the various characters he met in his life and to bring out the best in them. One good example is the ship's British Captain William Solomon, who took Al Sultana from Muscat to New York. Solomon had many contradictions: he was an obnoxious man who spent most of his time drunk and being aggressive with the crew; then he becane kind and helpful when he was sober.

Al Kaabi managed to limit the captain’s contact with the crew while using the help of many enthused young chief mates. They were eager to learn and capable of handling the dangers of the sea. 

While working for the sultan of Oman, Al-Kaabi stumbled upon a story of another ruler of Oman who managed to set a kingdom in Mali, West Africa in 1311 AD.

The story told that king Abu Bakr left his kingdom and travelled in the great sea and nothing was ever heard of him again.

Blake played with the reader's imagination on the possibility that Abu Bakr's campaign reached the New World more than 100 years before Columbus did.

Details about the campaign's 200 ships, how they were built, the training that the sailors had and the intention of the trip of not returning to their homeland were described in the novel.

Whether this story is true or not is something for researchers to investigate.

The story in itself is simple -- a ship that travelled from Muscat to New York. The real addition that the writer gave to the reader was the recipe for a grateful, happy life. He shaped pieces of wisdom intelligently and Al-Kaabi inserted them in the narration when he saw fit.

For instance, when talking about people, he revealed that they, in general, tend to create for themselves heroic roles in made-up stories; they substitute the world that they live in with another one where the failures and disappointments they suffered in their lives do not exist -- a fallacy that the man creates to meet the harshness of reality. That trait was practised by all humans at one point or another in their lives, which gets the readers to relate to the novel. 

He talked about the way he was raised, controlling the curiosity about others, asking no unnecessary questions, concentrating on himself and mending his flaws. These simple rules are a recipe to live as a kind good human being, he explained.

Preferring silence over speaking is a hard task that not many people can practise, yet it defuses conflicts, problems, and tensions among people.

The author gave his view on the ultimate way to understand life; "it requires that humans work hard to reach hope and wishes that might be ambiguous at the beginning, but with persistence the road becomes clear."

Again, a hard pill to swallow, but that's the way he saw it.

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