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Words of hope can travel the globe

12 September 2014

The language of the sea is the language of faith, says Paul Burt, of his work with seafarers


Open channels: Paul Burt (right) with seafarers

Open channels: Paul Burt (right) with seafarers

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 such trouble.

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 Farsi").

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 It does not take much reflection to notice how, in this exchange, the language barrier is superseded by the powerful dynamics of hospitality and giving, in a context of shared experience and openness.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 party.

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 it right.

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 news.

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 language.

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 distress."

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 had news.

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.

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