Gwadar: Song of the Sea Wind
By Salman Rashid
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693533385
144pp.

For long, images of the golden, unspoiled beaches of the Makran coast had “captured the imagination of the romantically inclined” as a place where one could “actually be away from the madding crowd.”

Other images, showing hills in “crumpled disorderly piles devoid of every shred of vegetation”, would tempt the wilderness enthusiast. But reaching the coast was not easy and, hence, the place remained unexplored.

However, things are changing fast and Gwadar — on the Makran coastline — is poised to become a bustling seaport and industrial city, mostly because of the much-celebrated China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Ever since Gwadar became easily accessible by road from Karachi, via the Makran Coastal Highway, there has been a regular inflow of tourists to the city, though foreign tourists are still to discover it.

With the growing importance of, and government attention on, Gwadar in mind, Shahzeb Khan Kakar, Director General of the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA), came up with the idea of preparing a document that presents an introduction to Gwadar and its promise of being a city of the 21st century. Well-known travel writer and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid, undertook the task of writing the book.

Salman Rashid’s lovingly written and beautifully produced treatise is a perfect travel companion to those who wish to visit Gwadar

The book, Gwadar: Song of the Sea Wind, tells the story of not only Gwadar, but the entire coast from Sonmiani all the way to the last outpost Jivani, about 60 kilometres from Gwadar in the east and 115km from the Iranian port of Chabahar in the west.

Rashid chose to follow the route taken by Nearchus, a general in Alexander the Great’s army during his invasion of India. On retreat from India, Nearchus commanded a fleet of ships and war galleys and sailed to the Indian Ocean for the westward journey to Babylon from the Makran coast.

The book uncovers the history as well as the geographical details of the Makran coast in an engaging manner. Readers also learn about the origins of the names of the places when the Greeks travelled through, as Rashid has used the nomenclature of the Greeks, those given locally in the Baloch and Persian languages, and corresponding names with which the places are known today, justifying them by geographical location.

Contrary to popular belief, Makran is a melting pot of ethnicities. People from various origins live here, such as the Baloch, Jats, Africans, Brahuis and Gichkis. Some arrived in the area as traders and seafarers centuries ago, while others fled trouble in their native lands, mostly during the 16th century. We read of the myths and legends related to the Makran coast, especially about the origins of people with blue, green and pale yellow eyes and fair skin and hair, but whether they are descendants of the crew of the Greek ship that sank centuries ago, or of Turkish sailors who availed of the hospitality at Gwadar while fleeing Muscat when threatened by the Portuguese, will always remain a mystery.

In his captivating manner, Rashid tells readers about Astola Island, believed — according to Greek mythology — to have been claimed by the sun god, the myth about the daughter of the sun god and the superstition that anyone who went there was never seen again; hence, it being enchanted. The myth gained weight after an unnamed Greek ship manned by an Egyptian crew disappeared near the island.

The legend continued even in the 19th century, as British engineers laying down telegraph lines had been warned that it was dangerous to land on the enchanted island. The British believed Gwadar to be “suitable as the headquarters for the management of the telegraph” as it was situated midway between Karachi and the Iranian port town of Bander Abbas.

Travelling through, the Greeks discovered Makran to be a place of hardy people, where everyday life was a struggle because of its climate. While other towns were smaller and undeveloped, Pasni and Gwadar were much richer and civilised, with parks full of flowerbeds and trees.

In 1294, Venetian explorer Marco Polo passed through, and noted that the people of Makran were “professed traders” who took their business “by the sea and land in all direction.” Polo noted: “the staple in Makran was no longer fish as it had been at the time of Alexander” — there was a plentiful supply of rice, corn, meat and milk. As trading grew manifold, fishing was relegated to a secondary position, though — as Rashid points out — all this could only have been possible by a substantial increase in maritime trade.

Gwadar Beach below the Hammerhead | Image from the book
Gwadar Beach below the Hammerhead | Image from the book

Rashid reminds us that many of the world’s islands were not always islands, but were probably created when the Ice Age ended and floods from the melting ice raised sea levels by up to 30 metres. It is believed that Astola was connected to the mainland until the rising waters cut it off, turning it into an island. Whatever wildlife existed there mostly perished because of food scarcity, except for rats, snakes and lizards. Today, however, its sandy beach provides nesting grounds for many species of birds and the endangered green and hawksbill turtles, as in the British time, and its waters are home to several species of fish and dolphin.

There are reminders of historical events that influenced the region. For instance, how Gwadar’s ownership went from the Khan of Kalat to Oman, from which it was bought back by the Pakistan Government in 1958; or the plundering of Gwadar and Pasni by the Portuguese in the 16th century after they had driven the Turks from Muscat, which the Portuguese laid claim to and where the Turks were gaining a foothold.

The construction of the Makran Coastal Highway is not only opening opportunities for tourists, but also helping local fishing communities; they no longer have to salt and dry their catch and wait for Sri Lankan boats, as they did in the past. Now, refrigerated lorries wait to collect the fish and transport them to Karachi and onward to other parts of the country.

There are interesting descriptions of the architecture of Shahi Bazaar, which gained its character from the abundant use of timber, the graceful two-storeyed houses that memorialise Gwadar’s past affluence and of the gold-mining that continued through the 1990s. The various ancient buildings and the stories behind them are described in a manner that lets readers feel as though they’re travelling with the writer. It is heartening to learn that the GDA has taken note of the crumbling Shahi Bazaar and adjacent residential lanes and has plans to restore and preserve them.

The book is important since, after work done by British explorers and geographers in the 19th century, no such study had been carried out in the area. With Gwadar poised to receive world attention, Song of the Sea Wind is a treatise to be read and cherished. Printed on glossy paper with beautiful photographs, it will serve as a perfect travel companion to those who wish to visit the place.

While the entire Makran coast is a delight for the traveller, explorer, tourist and naturalist, in Rashid’s words, “It is Gwadar, the headquarters of seaboard Makran, that promises to be the gem.” He sees Gwadar not merely as a place of fun and frolic, focused only on tourism, but as a city of port and industry. There are also plans to establish an “Educational City” with all facilities such as a university, vocational training centre, medical college and nursing school.

The future envisaged for Gwadar is of a city drawing businesspeople from across Pakistan and abroad. It is to be a city with glittering malls, brightly lit streets and factories, all powered by electricity generated from wind, sun and coal.

One wishes that the plans for Gwadar’s development soon materialise, as this will not only be development of the region, but of the whole country.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist. She tweets @naqviriz

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 26th, 2021

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