It was because he would not do as he was told that Nabil, the eel, nearly lost his life.

“It is time for eels in our stream to swim down to the sea,” his mother had told him. “Get ready to come,” she added. “Our stream dries up in summer when birds are a special danger.”

But wriggling off to play, Nabil ignored his mother’s words. And when other creatures in the stream spoke of the annual eel migration, he simply laughed and swam away.

“Eels are lucky they can live in saltwater as well as fresh. Unfortunately, I have no choice,” said a golden fish.

“But I like it here,” said Nabil, turning somersaults with his paddle shaped tail.

“Your mother knows best,” croaked a brown toad.

“Do the right thing,” advised a small terrapin.

“Hiss-lissssssss-ten, hiss,” whispered a water snake.

But Nabil did not heed their advice.  He continued playing among the weeds and chasing baby shrimps. He even splashed a sheep that had stopped to drink.

Nabil was having so much fun he did not notice the stream was drying up. Then one afternoon he found himself alone. The fish had disappeared. The toad had burrowed into the mud and the waterfall feeding the river had ceased to flow.

“Help,” cried Nabil. “I want to come with you.”

But the other eels could not hear him. They had already joined the river and were swimming down to the sea.

“Save me,” he cried, splashing in the warm, shallow water. “I`m being cooked alive.”

“I will help you,” responded the terrapin who was sheltering under a stone. “You may be a disobedient little fellow, but you don’t deserve to die.” And that night when the ground was damp with dew, the terrapin took Nabil gently in its mouth and placed him on the bank. “Hurry,” he advised. “You must reach the river before sunrise.”

For hours Nabil wriggled towards the sound of the river. Stones cut his skin and he was tired and hungry but when dawn found him, he was still far from safety.

Daylight brought new dangers. The first enemy to attack was a falcon. Dropping out of the sky, it picked up Nabil in its claws.  “Help! Save me from becoming a meal,” shouted Nabil.

Suddenly something startled the bird and it dropped Nabil and flew away.

“Next time, young eel, you must listen to your mother,” said the sheep that Nabil had splashed the day before. “Climb up and I will carry you to the river,” he said.

Nabil wriggled gratefully into the wool. And on reaching the river, he slid down the sheep’s leg into the water.

“Thank you,” Nabil called back. “I promise never to be rude again.”

“Baa,” said the old sheep, “baa-baa.”

After the night’s adventure, it was wonderful to feel the cool water. Closing his eyes, Nabil let the current carry him downstream but when nearing the sea, he found himself caught in a net stretched across the river mouth.

“This is a nice surprise,” said the fisherman, pulling the net ashore.

“Eel is good bait for hamour,” his friend replied.“ Let’s drive to the beach and try our luck fishing in the sea.”

They put Nabil in the basket which they placed in the tray of their vehicle. With the rough track and in the hot basket Nabil could hardly breathe.

Bump! Bump! Suddenly the basket bounced up and out, and burst open on the sand.

Untangling himself from reels and lines, Nabil wriggled painfully towards the tidemark where he lay, unable to go any further.

Suddenly a big wave surged up the beach sending him rolling over in the foam. Over and over…over and over…

Now Nabil was awake. He opened his eyes to find himself in the familiar stream.

“Wake up Nabil,” his mother was saying. “Today we are meeting in the river for our annual journey to the sea.”

The other eels were very surprised when Nabil obeyed. The fish, the toad and the terrapin noticed he was even smiling.

They would never call him disobedient again.


This little story I wrote was not used in my recent book Wajid and The Perfect Pearl. The original version, illustrated with drawings, was published in 1980 by English Language Teaching for the Arab World, Oxford University Press, Lebanon.



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WAJID & The Perfect Pearl: Tales from Old Araby

The old axiom a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ asserts that a single striking image conveys a sense of place more effectively than a lengthy description; in Wajid & The Perfect Pearl I have reversed this belief in writing a ‘thousand’ words around the photographs.

The idea occurred to me when I saw a photo I’d taken of a cat in Muscat capital of the Sultanate of Oman. I would see him on my daily strolls, sitting outside an incense shop, eyes closed, lost in cat dreams as the scent of frankincense drifted through the bazaar.

A Cat Called Aziz became the inspiration to write, not only his imagined story, but others around the photographs in this little book. Now, many years later, I have finally written some fact-based tales of traditional characters encountered in Old Araby.

Words and images have always been the warp and weft in weaving articles and in my books published in the United Kingdom and more recently in Australia where I now live following more than fifty years of travels.

Wajid & The Perfect Pearl is likely my swansong. It is listed on all major bookseller websites and has reviews on Amazon.


I took the photo of the “perfect pearl” of the title in Bahrain while researching my first book The Gulf States and Oman. The small island state once employed as many as 50,000 men in the pearl-diving industry which had died out by the mid-20th century due to competition from the cheaper Japanese cultured pearl.

One cannot travel far in the Gulf States without seeing a date palm. Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of dates from an estimated 34 million palms. In interior villages like that in the tale of The Benevolent Date Palm a man’s wealth is still equated with the number of palms he owns. I took this picture of the dates in Nizwa, the old imamate capital when the country was known as “Muscat and Oman”.

The first photo in Ahmed the Red Sea Fisherman was taken in Dhofar Province in Oman. I was walking along the beach as fishermen were landing the night’s catch when I grabbed a shot of this old man of the sea. The photo was later published on the cover of The Geographical Magazine in London.

The Black Ribbon Road is based on the true story of the development of Abu Dhabi,  capital of the United Arab Emirates. My photo from a Gulf Air flight in 1978 shows the channel separating the island of Abu Dhabi from the mainland. Bedouin from the desert hinterland once used to wade across on camels to buy goods from visiting dhows. The original Maqta Bridge, built in 1968, is seen.

The wonderful white falcon photographed at the World Falconry Conference in Abu Dhabi in 1976 prompted my writing of a bird who longed to be free. While today there is Formula One Motor Racing and international tennis tournaments, hunting with falcons remains popular in sheikhly circles. A well-trained falcon may fetch as much as $100,000.


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A good example is Mr Juma, an octopus fisherman living in the Mafi’a archipelago, a group of coral islands slung across the Indian Ocean about 100 miles south of Zanzibar.

A wiry figure, I would guess in his mid-forties, Mr Juma supplements a meagre income by taking the occasional tourist out in his wooden pirogue.

His hand-painted sign Traditional Fishing Trips had caught my eye at Kinasi Lodge where I was staying on Mafi’a (from the Arabic morfiyeh meaning group). Excellent, I decided. A little local colour will be perfect for photography.

“Mr.Juma will collect you at 10 o’clock,” said Kinasi’s receptionist so returning to my bungalow, I prepared for the day ahead.

Unwilling to risk both cameras on the water, I decided to limit myself to one and conscious that Mafi’a is a conservative Muslim society, I selected an extra-large T-shirt to wear over my bikini.

At precisely 9.45 next morning, a lateen sail appeared on the horizon and borne across the bay on a light breeze, a traditional ngalawa pulled up on the beach.

Wearing a faded blue baseball cap, ragged shirt and brown trousers rolled up to his knees, Mr Juma jumped out and said “Jambo and how much are you going to pay me?” all in a single breath.

“2000 shillings,” I said, taken aback.

He shook his head. “5000 shillings.”

“2000 shillings, or no trip,” I said overcoming my embarrassment at having to bargain for my day out on the water.

Okay, okay,” he grunted and taking my camera-bag, he strung it on a mangrove pole laid between the gunwales.

Stepping delicately in, I turned to wave at no one in particular, a puff of wind caught the sail and we set off.

Recorded in Ptolemy’s Geography written nearly 2,000 years ago, the ngalawa is still used for inshore fishing on Indian Ocean islands. About 12 feet long, ours had two planks  fore and aft, where we faced each other with my camera-bag swinging in between us.

Gripping the tiller with his big toe, Mr.Juma extracted a plastic packet from his shirt pocket and unwrapping it carefully, he removed one of three cigarettes. Scraping a match along the side, he lit up and sat back as we skimmed across the lagoon, sending flying fish skipping across the surface.

After travelling half a mile or so, Mr.Juma narrowed his eyes and peered over the side. Satisfied he had found the spot, he then lined us up with a distant coconut palm, sucked a final drag of tobacco and spat out the butt.

Crawling past where I crouched on the narrow plank, he heaved a coral stone anchor overboard. Was Mama going in he wanted to know?

Ndio,” I uttered my only word of Swahili. “Pictures first, then maybe…” but my sentence trailed off as Mr.Juma had removed his trousers and wearing only faded red underpants sat busily cleaning his mask.

The sight of  fishermen in scanty wearing apparel is not unfamiliar in Africa, but Mr. Juma was something else. To say he had a big lunch-box is putting it mildly: Mr.Juma was the size of a Zanzibar chest!

Legs splayed he adjusted his equipment: a stick for pulling the octopus out of its hole and a wire for spearing it through the head.

Confronting such a spectacle, I lowered my eyes and applied more sun-block and on looking up, I discovered Mr.Juma had disappeared.

The narrow ngalawa was mighty uncomfortable, but by hooking an arm around the mast, I felt able to operate my camera without falling overboard.

An azure sky dotted with cotton wool clouds made it ideal weather for photography. A fish eagle floated in the hot air currents and a dhow heading for mainland Tanzania, tacked back and forth on the horizon.

As the day grew hotter, I scrutinised the boat. Hewn from muninga wood and with a mangrove mast, it floated high and steady in the water. If you do go in, I told myself, it is unlikely you will get up again without a hand.

At this moment Mr. Juma popped up with an octopus struggling on his spear. Pausing to turn it inside out, he banged it on the gunwale and it slid into the boat.

Soon a second victim was chucked in. Then another.  And another. And after an hour of sitting up to my ankles in octopuses, I was dying to go for a swim.

Taking a break from traditional fishing, Mr. Juma hauled himself up in wet underpants now even more revealing than ever. I was paying him 2000 shillings, wasn’t I coming in, he wanted to know?

 “N’dio,” I replied, tying up my hair and pulling on my dive mask.

 Nice mask,” Mr. Juma gestured. Bet it cost a lot.” And he somersaulted over the side.

Dropping into the lagoon, I marvelled at the underwater life. Blue parrotfish drifted around a pink stag-horn coral and a school of silver jack rose and fell in the outgoing tide.

Soon out of breath, I swam up to the surface, but Mr. Juma paid no heed. With a wife and five children to feed, spearing octopus was a necessary chore and swimming strongly, he skimmed over the coral poking his stick into every nook and cranny.

I tried to keep up but he was much too fast and on raising my head, I saw I was practically out in the open ocean and fearful of a lurking shark, I took off, swimming for my life.

But it was just as I’d suspected. On reaching the ngalawa, I could not haul myself up and hanging from the crosspiece, I expected to lose a foot at any moment.

Finally after what seemed an eternity, Mr.Juma swam up with a string-bag full of octopuses trailing sepia ink.

“You’ve hardly been in,” he spluttered in a mixture of Swahili and English. “Do you really want to get out?”

Yes, I did! Ten years ago, it would have been easy, I muttered as Mr. Juma, Y-fronts taut with the effort, hauled me back on board.

“Has Mama, had it?” he asked.

Safely back on land, but haunted by the spectacle of Mr.Juma’s underwear, I set off for the market where traders helped me search for a swimming costume through a mountain of imported second-hand clothes.

The problem was that I could not make them understand they were not for my husband, but a fisherman at Kinasi, I heard myself shout.

And when one youth, bolder than the others, held up a pair of Y-fronts to my waist, I discarded the idea and instead bought a fishing line in Coastal Traders,the island store.

I did not encounter Mr. Juma again, but I left 300 yards of 30lb breaking strain and ten 6/0 hooks for him at Kinasi.

I felt this would be more useful than a decent pair of shorts and the chance of other middle-aged women tourists going octopus fishing seemed unlikely.

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