The Tao of the Dhow

By Jheri St. James

All things are produced by the Tao, and nourished by its outflowing operation.  They receive their forms according to the nature of each, and are completed according to the circumstances of their condition.  Therefore all things without exception honor the Tao and exalt its outflowing operation.  This honoring of the Tao and exalting of its operation is not the result of any ordination, but always a spontaneous tribute.  Thus it is that the Tao produces all things, nourishes them, brings them to their full growth, nurses them, completes them, matures them, maintains them, and overspreads them.  It produces them and makes no claim to the possession of them; it carries them through their processes and does not vaunt its ability in doing so; it brings them to maturity and exercises no control over them; this is called its mysterious operation.*

The Souck (Marketplace)



Bahrain’s history goes back as far as civilization itself.  It has always been a focal trading point in the Middle East with Dilmun, an ancient trading empire that lasted for 2,000 years, based here from around 3200 B.C.  From that time on, the locals have always been known as traders.  And while these days much of that trade is in the lucrative oil industry, Bahrain is also a center for banking and finance. Bahrain holds a subtle blend of old and new, east and west, conservative and . . . more conservative.  A Muslim country, Bahrain is an unlikely tourist destination, but upon arrival on the 30 mile long by 10 mile wide island, visitors are usually surprised by the atmosphere.  Far more liberal than its near neighbors, Bahrain has many natural attractions and historical sites.  The capital is Manama, a new city with gleaming government buildings, museums, mosques, the souq consisting of 60-year-old shops and dwellings.  Away from Manama, there are 16th century forts, pre-oil mansions, the astonishing 16 mile King Fahad Causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Bahrain and the mysterious and symbolic Tree of Life.  This broad, flourishing tree stands alone, surrounded by 1.2 miles of desert.  Although there is a steady supply of fresh water beneath Bahrain, this tree symbolizes Bahrain’s strength and success against the odds and is revered by locals.


The Tree of Life












The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout;

 the tower of nine storeys rose from a small heap of earth;

 the journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step . . . *


Bahrain has been populated by humans since prehistoric times, and has even been proposed as the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden.  Its strategic location in the Persian Gulf has brought rule and influence from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and finally the Arabs, under whom the island became Muslim.  Bahrain was in the ancient times known as Dilmun, Tylos (its Greek name), Awal, as well as the Persian name Mishmahig when it came under the imperial rule of the Persian Empire.  “Bahrain” is an Arabic word meaning “Two Seas,” and is thought to either refer to the fact that the islands contain two sources of water, sweet water springs and salty water in the surrounding seas, or to the south and north waters of the gulf, separating it from the Arabian coast and Iran, respectively.

There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it;--for there is nothing so effectual for which it can be changed.

Everyone in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice.*

            A strategic position between East and West, fertile lands, fresh water, and pearl diving made Bahrain a center of urban settlement throughout history.  Some 2,300 years BC, Bahrain became a center of one of the ancient empires trading between Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the Indus Valley (now the region near India).  This was the civilization of Dilmun that was linked to the Sumerian civilication in the third millennium BC.  Bahrain became part of the Babylonian empire about 600 BC.  Historical records referred to Bahrain as the “Life of Eternity”, “Paradise”, etc.  Bahrain was also called the “Pearl of the Persian Gulf”. 

The Pearl Monument and a Picture of Manama, Capital of Bahrain

Nowadays, Bahrain is called “The Golden Island”.  Its small size and central location among Persian Gulf countries require it to play a delicate balancing act in foreign affairs among its larger neighbors.  Facing declining oil reserves, Bahrain has turned to petroleum processing and refining and has transformed itself into an international banking center.  The amir installed in 1999 has pushed economic and political reforms and has worked to improve relations with the Shi’a community.  In February 2002, Amir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa proclaimed himself king. 

Great, it passes on.  Passing on, it becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns. 

Therefore the Tao is great; Heaven is great;

Earth is great; and the King is also great.

In the universe, there are four that are great,

and the King is one of them.

Man takes his law from the Earth;

the Earth takes its law from Heaven;

Heaven takes its law from the Tao. 

The law of the Tao is its being what it is.*

Bahrain is sometimes described as the “Middle East Lite”: an Arab country that mixes thoroughly modern infrastructure with a definite Gulf identity, but unlike other countries in the region its prosperity is not solely a reflection of the size of its oil wealth, but also related to the creation of an indigenous middle class.  This unique socio-=economic development in the Gulf has meant that Bahrain is generally more liberal than its neighbors.  While Islam is the main religion, Bahrainis have been known for their tolerance, and alongside mosques can be found churches, a Hindu temple, a Sikh Burudwara and a Jewish synagogue.  The country is home to several communities that have faced persecution elsewhere.

Two Bahraini Mosques

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            Julie Berquist was the soil collector for Bahrain’s contribution to Common Ground 191.  Living in Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain, she had this to say about her site, which was the . . . “Bahrain Fort, Seef, Bahrain.  A restored fort surrounded by date palms and veggie gardens on the northwest coast.  It is a very peaceful place to visit with lovely views and one of the few historical sites remaining.  (Threw out the soil from ‘Tree of Life’.  Not a nice place to visit—tree full of graffiti and rubbish—drive there not worth it.)”  Thank you, Julie, for making two trips to collect meaningful soil for our project. 

Therefore the sage desires what other men do not desire, and does not prize things difficult to get; (s)he learns what other men do not learn and turns back to what the multitude of men have passed by.  Thus (s)he helps the natural development of all things and does not dare to act with an ulterior purpose of his(her) own.*

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            A dhow is a traditional Arab sailing vessel with one or more triangular sails, called lateens.  It is primarily used along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, India, and East Africa.  A larger dhow may have a crew of approximately 30, while smaller dhow have crews typically ranging around 12.

            For celestial navitation, dhow sailors have traditionally used the kamal.  This observation device determines latitude by finding the angle of the Pole Star above the horizon.  Up to the 1960’s dhows made commercial journeys between the Persian Gulf and East Africa using only sails as a means of propulsion.  The freight was mostly dates and fish to East Africa and mangrove timber to the lands in the Persian Gulf.  They sailed south with the monsoon in winter or early spring and back again to Arabia in late spring or early summer.

10 Dinar Note with Picture of a Dhow

The kamal was used primarily by the Chinese and Arabs in the 18th and 19th century.  It consists of a rectangular wooden card about two inches by one inch, to which a string with several equally spaced knots is attached through a hole in the middle of the card.  The kamal is used by placing one end of the string in the teeth while the other end is held away from the body roughly parallel to the ground.  The card is then moved along the string, positioned so the lower edge is even with the horizon, and the upper edge id occluding a target star, typically Polaris because its angle to the horizon does not change with longitude or time.  The angle can then be measured by counting the number of knots from the teeth to the card, or a particular knot can be tied into the string if traveling to a known latitude.  The knots were typically tied to measure angles of one finger-width.  When held at arm’s length, the width of a finger measures an angle that remains fairly similar from person to person.  This was widely used (and still is today) for rough angle measurements, an angle known as issabah in Arabic, or a chih in Chinese.  By modern measure this is about one degree, 36 minutes, and 25 seconds, or just over 1.5 degrees.  Due to the limited width of the card, the kamal was only really useful for measuring Polaris in equatorial latitudes, which perhaps explains why it was not common in Europe.  For these higher-latitude needs somewhat more complex devices based on the same principle were used, notably the cross-staff and backstaff.

The Tao is like the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness. 

How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of all things! 

We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things;

we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others.

 How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!*

Picture of a dhow at Muharraq, Bahrain

Modern, urban Bahrain, floating on one of the earth’s oldest human proving grounds, combines a yin/yang of elements: two seas, east/west, old/new, spiritual/material, water/soil or maybe sand, nature/mankind—and does so with the wisdom of the sage.  Bahrain itself is like a ship, a dhow, sailing in the middle of Persian Gulf, but with its long bridges to other countries, it sails not alone, and its fortunes will affect the rest of the world. 

As a pole star, the principles of the *Tao Te Ching (prounounced dow tay ching) of Lao Tze, written in China in the 6th century, give guidance on the nature, origin and purpose of human life.  It is one of the world’s great books, the most translated in all of Chinese literature.  Like the Tao (the way), its central precept, the origin of the Tao Te Ching and its putative author, Lao Tzu, is rather elusive.  By one account, possibly legendary, the book was written in its entirety 2,600 years ago by Lao Tzu (old master or master Lao), the chief archivist in the royal court during the Chou dynasty.  A revered sage—Confucius reportedly sought his counsel—he abandoned the court during the decline of the dynasty and traveled westward; at Hsien Ku pass the gatekeeper, Yin His, detained him and bade him compose a treatise on the “way” (tao) and “virtue” (te).  In two sections of five thousand words each he produced the Tao Te Ching, thereafter wandering off, never to be seen again, although some legends claim that Lao Tzu reappeared as the Buddha.  Recently scholarship views the text as the work of several hands, with a probably origin of about 300 B.C.  The kamal was used by both Chinese and Arabic sailors as a navigation tool.  All people could use the Tao Te Ching as navigation through the sometimes rough waters of human life.   The word for peace in Arabic is “Salaam”. 

The Tao which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the mother of them all.  When the mother is found, we know what her children should be.  When one knows that he is his mother’s child, and proceeds to guard the qualities of the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from all peril.  Let him keep his mouth closed, and shut up the portals of his nostrils, and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion.  Let him keep his mouth open, and spend his breath in the promotion of his affairs, and all his life there will be no safety for him.  The perception of what is small is the secret of clear-sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength. 

(Thanks to Brian J. McMorrow and for the great photos of Bahrain.)    

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