The Corsair

The Corsair

Title: The Corsair
Author: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (English translation: Amira Nowaira)
Publication date: 2011
Country/culture: Qatar


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)


The CorsairWhat’s it about?

In early 19th-century Arabia, British military forces are fighting the piracy that threatens international trade, and alliances are being sought – and broken – throughout the region. The legendary corsair, Erhama bin Jaber, plays a central role in the conflict, while his rebellious son forges an unlikely friendship with an English major. Personal betrayals mirror political intrigues, and the reader is left pondering the relative success of armed force versus mutual respect in the building of relationships.

What did I find out?

I discovered a great deal about the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. In the story, which is based on real-life events, there are many opposing forces who nevertheless agree to make alliances with each other for short- or long-term mutual benefit. Each agreement involves making certain sacrifices, and ground must be given to achieve the greater objective; losses must be weighed against gains in order to determine whether a good deal is being brokered.

Alliances are sometimes instigated by threat of force, and sometimes by genuine mutual concern. Some are broken as soon as one party has achieved what it wants; others are never intended to be kept at all; and there is a recurring theme of mistrust throughout the novel, as each side accuses the others of breaking promises and betraying commitments. A rare few alliances stay the distance.

The need for diplomacy within and between societies and nations has not left us; diplomats are the unsung heroes of peace, teasing out the non-negotiable from the ‘nice to have’ and aiming for a harmonious outcome. That we still suffer conflict on a global scale indicates just how difficult this process is, and The Corsair illustrates this perfectly.

What do I now see differently?

The characters of Erhama bin Jaber and Captain Loch are presented as a striking contrast between two approaches to decision making. Bin Jaber says, ‘I envy people who can forget the past or change their decisions according to circumstances. Unfortunately I can’t.’ Conversely, Loch is portrayed as someone who has no problem changing his mind about a decision whenever circumstances alter or a plan goes awry; it almost seems as if he thrives on change: ‘Loch was happiest when devising a strategy.’

This ability to think on the hoof and constantly re-evaluate strategy reminded me of my own inclinations in this area. I am naturally a ‘big picture’ person; I can see very clearly what I want my end result to be in any project – but this does not mean I am ignorant of the detail required to get me there. On the contrary, as a bit of a control freak, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and struggle to make noticeable progress toward my end goal, even when I can see it dangling there, enticingly, ahead of me.

I struggle because, unlike Loch, I am not very good at delegating, or asking for help. I frequently feel the need to do everything myself, and when my plans and dreams are as big as they are, this turns an exciting challenge into an insuperably difficult task. Reading this novel has reminded me that I need to get my act together and start asking for help more often.

How will this inspire my writing?

The action of The Corsair takes place in a world of political intrigue and diplomatic virtuosity, as described above; men are shown to make decisions and pursue allegiances based on cold, hard concepts such as trade and power. My own novel currently does not give much thought to the political infrastructure of the world I am writing about, and I’m now thinking I need to pay more attention to this aspect.

Even though most of the action in my novel takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ – the supernatural home of ghosts, fae, vampires etc – my characters still occupy positions and fulfil roles that determine their place in the ‘pecking order’ of this society. Vampires are the aristocrats, zombies are the labourers, other characters and species fit into a variety of roles. All of this screams ‘class issues’, at the very least, and I’m not unaware of the risk of potential stereotyping.

So, while I do make reference to the differences between the characters and their perceived status – and the story will certainly feature some clashes and their resolutions – I need to consider whether I should be addressing this more overtly. This will involve deciding how much to include and how much is merely unnecessary back story; I don’t want to bore people with irrelevant facts, but want to ensure readers fully grasp the way this society works. I’m hoping that I will have fun figuring this out.

A musical interlude

Although this song features ships as a metaphor rather than as real physical entities, the lyrics fit neatly with some of the themes raised in The Corsair, i.e. the pursuit of money and power over peace, love and understanding.