The Way to Madness

On the map, the Musandam Peninsula is the pointy bit of Arabia once described by a geologist as projecting like a spur into the vitals of Iran. Today it is part of a geopolitical problem, the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large number of the world’s oil tankers pass. The UAE, worried that Iran might choke off the flow of oil through the narrow strait, built a pipeline through the desert to bypass it; that pipeline now terminates at Fujairah on the shore of the Arabian Sea.

But Musandam is interesting in other ways. Its striking geological appearance is partly explained by the movement of tectonic plates, which are forcing the Arabian plate under the Eurasian. The result we see today is a contorted, dipping landscape, rather like the front end of a Volvo caught under the chassis of a large truck. The origins of its people are a mystery. They were migratory, descending in the summer from the mountains to live in simple huts and harvest date plantations on the coast. In winter, they cultivated enough wheat and barley on small terraces to feed themselves, tending goats and keeping to themselves. They spoke a strange language, a mixture of Arabic and Iranian, which outsiders could not understand. Although practising Islam, they still recognized the old superstitions: jinns, janns and umm-subiyas, the she-devil, were all part of their system of belief.

The uncrowned king of the Gulf

I have come across Musandam many times in my research. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great’s fleet saw this great promontory in the distance as they sailed up the Gulf, calling the range the Black Mountains. For early sailors navigating around the Strait of Hormuz to Oman it was dangerous, with whirlpools and hidden rocks awaiting them; many chose the overland trails instead. Perhaps this is why sailors called it the ‘sainted cape’ and cast fruit into its waters for good luck. The Portuguese did little to improve its aspect. In 1624 Admiral Ruy Freyre de Andrade arrived at Limah on its eastern side to find a Persian garrison ensconced there: his men put to the sword all those they found and razed the fortress, ‘not leaving anything alive in that place nor one stone upon another.'

In the nineteenth century the British, more interested in maritime affairs than dramas on the Arabian shore, largely avoided Musandam. However in the 1860s the Political Resident, Lewis Pelly, hatched a harebrained scheme to transform it. At that time, Great Britain was the protector of the Arabian Gulf territories, and Pelly was the chief British representative in the Gulf – a role often referred to as the ‘uncrowned king of the Gulf’. He was keen to expand the area’s trade and saw Musandam as a future entrepot of the East on a par with Singapore, but his grandiose plan for a deep-water port never materialised. If only he had gone out in the midday sun more often: he would surely have realised that the heat was unbearable for Europeans. In 1868 a telegraph station built on one of Musandam’s islands was abandoned after two personnel died there.

Visitors in the Musandam

Relations between the British and the tribes were occasionally tense, and visitors were not welcome. In March 1930, a sheikh of the Shihuh warned the British representative of the consequences if their way of life was threatened:

'We will declare jihad and kill whosoever arrives in our quarter and will allow none of them to return. … This is what we have told you, we drink the blood and we do not care.’

The myth of Shihuh ferocity endured. One RAF officer likened them to Ethiopian tribes in taking the testicles of their victims as trophies. There was no evidence to support this claim but, from the Shihuh point of view, this was not all bad since a fierce reputation helped to keep outsiders away.

My late father was a geologist and the deputy leader of a Royal Geographical Society expedition to the peninsula in the 1971-–2 season. They arrived a few months after the sultan of Oman had lifted a ban on travel there and the SAS had ‘cleared’ it. Among my father’s papers was a letter from Squadron Leader A.J. Young asking him to look for debris from the crash of an Imperial Airways aircraft, Hannibal, which had gone missing on a flight between Jask and Sharjah in March 1940. The writer asked him to make enquiries among the Shihuh about the crash and about any aircraft parts that might be found in their villages; a wing strut used to prop up a roof, for example. My father never revealed how he went about this delicate task, but he never found any trace of the missing aircraft and emerged intact from the experience.

Going round the bend

The phrase ‘going round the bend’ is inextricably linked with Musandam. It was fashionable in naval circles to talk about voyages to and from the Persian Gulf as going round the bend of the Strait of Hormuz, and the cable layers of the nineteenth century talked about taking the telegraph round the bend. By the time Nevil Shute came to write a novel published in 1951 about early aviation in the Persian Gulf, the phrase had a certain meaning and provided the title of his book. ‘People are saying that I’ve been too long out in the East and it has driven me around the bend’ the narrator Tom Cutter remarks. But where does the association with madness come from? It probably reflects the experience of the Musandam telegraph workers who could not bear its isolation. As a director of the telegraph wrote: ‘The heat… the high encircling rocks and limited view to seaward must have a depressing effect upon Europeans, especially during the hot season.’

Today, ‘going round the bend’ is a catchphrase for visiting Musandam, guaranteed to quicken a travel writer’s pulse and light up the dullest tourist brochure. On this point, I can speak from personal experience, having visited Musandam in 2006. It is a place of high peaks and welcoming people, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in exploring that part of the world. The only sign of madness you will find are the crumbling remains of the telegraph station that stand as a poignant reminder of another time.

— Michael Quentin Morton

Michael Quentin Morton is the author of a number of books on the history of the Middle East, including Keepers of the Golden Shore: A History of the United Arab Emirates. His new book, Empires and Anarchies, is out in August 2017.