The Land of the Date

by C. M. Cursetjee

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In December 1916 the SS Zaiyanni left Bombay bound for the port of Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. On board was C. M. Cursetjee, a 69-year-old Oxford-educated Indian Parsee, on his way to see his nephew who was serving in the Indian forces. The boat, carrying much commercial cargo, stopped at all the major ports on the voyage, and the author kept a diary of this remarkable journey upon which this book was based.  

The Land of the Date is an exceptional study in that it provides important information in two areas. On the one hand, it furnishes a unique and highly entertaining record of life in the Gulf ports in the heady days of the First World War. Cursetjee brings the feel of the times vividly to life: from the pearl divers of Bahrain to the street traders of the bazaars of Basra, all are discussed and described, often with a dry humor.  

The book also, however, serves to bring an Indian perspective to bear on the situation in the Gulf which, considering the large Indian involvement with the Empire’s ventures in the region, has been greatly overlooked. Cursetjee emerges as a stanch imperialist, referring throughout to the greater potential for the future offering to the inhabitants by British rule and fully believing that the Gulf should be British after the war. He also encouraged Indian entrepreneurship in the region, seeing considerable commercial opportunities.  

The author clearly foresaw strategic importance of Kuwait, due to its geographical relationship to the prime port of Basra, as well as the power that oil would have in the area’s future. Whilst fully supporting the British in their Middle Eastern endeavors he was tellingly critical of their attitude in occupied areas, “if only British rule were impressed…with less of that overweening self-importance, haughty aloofness and mischief-brewing superciliousness with which the Britisher makes himself obnoxious in many lands.”