LONG before oil was discovered in the Gulf, Dubai was a
prosperous trading port. Its dhows sailed to India and East Africa
with, among other things, pearls, returning with gold and spices.
The dhows are its most visible connection to Dubai's past, because
they still tie up at the creek. Nowadays, they are more likely to
be loading motorbikes, fridges, air-conditioners, and clothing.
Each Ramadan and Christmas, the Mission to Seafarers team
distributes hundreds of gifts to the crews of the dhows, in
recognition of their contribution to the local economy, and in
solidarity with those who live and work at sea. Most of the crews
are Iranian. Many are surprised that Westerners like us should take
They express their thanks in Farsi, of course. This gives me the
opportunity to reply with the only sentence of Farsi I can remember
from a few months spent teaching the Shah's air force personnel in
the 1970s: "Farsi balad nistam" ("I don't speak
Most of them have a good laugh, once the contradiction has sunk
in. It does not take much reflection to notice how, in this
exchange, the language barrier is superseded by the powerful
dynamics of hospitality and giving, in a context of shared
experience and openness.
In the giving and receiving, which operates in both directions,
as the sailors make their space and their lives available to us,
learning takes place. These informal representatives of Britain and
Iran find common ground, slightly ironically, in the world of the
sea. Body language takes over where ordinary language fails.
JUST up the coast, at one of the many new ports on the UAE
coastline, an abandoned ship languishes. Its skeleton crew have
been, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned because the
ship-owner may have gone bust, or is in dispute with another
The men cannot leave because they have not been paid, and have
no funds for the expensive fares home; often, in such cases, they
are not entitled to leave the port because of complex visa and
security questions. I visit them regularly, usually bringing food
and water. The two Filipino crewmen appreciate the supplies, but
what they really want me to bring to them is words - words of
progress in my efforts to broker their release.
When working on their case, my only weapon is language, of the
persuasive sort, as I try to convince a determined ship-owner, a
frustrated agent, and a distracted harbourmaster that these men
need to go home to their families and restart their lives.
AS LABOUR unions are banned in the Gulf States, the Mission to
Seafarers' chaplains become, in practice, independent employment
representatives, but without the contractual leverage that the big
unions could bring to bear. Instead, we rely on informal mediation
skills, patience, and determination.
There are no rules about what sort of language is going to work.
Should I cajole, or plead, or shame, or tease? The only guide is
experience of the personalities involved, but I do not always get
The hardest words to find are those that I must use when I have
no good news for the crew. There have been so many false dawns over
the past two years that I hesitate to share even encouraging
I know that it is not just these two men who hang on my words,
but at least 20 family members in the Philippines, who have been
reduced to subsistence living since the men's salaries ceased in
2012. When I step off their ship after another difficult visit, the
men usually say: "Father, pray for us."
WHEN I have meetings with shipping-company executives in their
spacious offices near the top of one of Dubai's newest skyscrapers,
the language of faith seems very distant. Much closer, and
necessarily so, is the language of spreadsheets, costs, investment,
and profit and loss. Money talks, apparently, and it has its own
This does not mean that in those boardrooms there is no room for
the language of faith. It is probably employed, albeit privately,
when crises erupt.
At sea, and in the pressure-cooker of the steamy living quarters
of a ship with no fuel and, therefore, no air-conditioning in the
Arabian summer, the language of faith is second nature.
Life at sea involves being exposed to the elemental forces of
nature which can still overwhelm even the most modern technology.
In coping with these realities, seafarers have always found comfort
in the language of faith.
To them, the words of Psalm 107 are not merely of historical
interest: "Some went down to the sea in ships. . . Then they cried
to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their
The language of faith expresses the hopes and fears of their
lives. And, because the challenges they face are common to all
seafarers, regardless of their background, religious faith for
seafarers is not something that separates, but something that
unites. A Muslim crew knows that a Christian chaplain speaks the
language of faith. What they share with him in this is more
important to them than what they do not share.
CAPTAIN HUSSEIN is a Syrian Muslim. Sitting in his cabin, I
listened as he talked about his fears for his family, as the civil
war rages. I asked when he last spoke to them. "More than two
months ago; I only hope that they are still alive. I pray to Allah
that he will protect them." I asked him to phone me as soon as he
Three weeks later, my phone rang. It was Captain Hussein, who
told me that he had heard that his family had reached one of the
remaining areas where there was no fighting. "Thank God," we
chorused, almost in unison.
At an obvious level, the language of the sea is English, the
dominant language of international communication. At a deeper
level, however, the language of the sea is the articulation of what
it means to provide for those that you love, as thousands of
seafarers endure isolation, danger, and sometimes exploitation for
the sake of making their loved ones' lives better.
The Revd Dr Paul Burt is Regional Director for the Gulf and
South Asia for the Mission to Seafarers.