Silk Road Conversations with Rahma Qassim Jabir Al-Farsi (UNESCO)

Silk Road Interviews are inspired by Silk Road Week, an annual event conceived by Chinese Museums Association, International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), and China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The theme for #SilkRoadWeek 2020 is “The Silk Roads: Mutual Learning for Future Collaboration.” We thank IN ZHEJIANG, our media partner in China (on Facebook).

Name : Rahma Qassim Jabir Al-Farsi | Country : Sultanate of Oman | Years Active : Focal Point Silk Roads of Sultanate of Oman since 2016 | Website : UNESCO 

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?

I am the Director General of Museums at the Ministry of Heritage and Culture of Sultanate of Oman, and the Chair of the National Committee of Museums. I am also the Director of Media and Communication for the Sultanate of Oman Focal Point to UNESCO Silk Roads Program.   

Our work includes collecting, analysing and transmitting information and data on Silk Roads heritage and activities in our countries to be integrated in the UNESCO Silk Roads Online Platform. We inform national stakeholders about the activities related to Silk Roads undertaken by UNESCO and its partners. And, we also encourage and advise national authorities and stakeholders in initiating, implementing and promoting activities related to Silk Roads. Then, there is the exchange of experience and expertise with other members of the Network to facilitate cooperation and partnership. Lastly, we contribute to the promotion of mutual understanding, intercultural dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation among nations and people sharing the Silk Roads common heritage.

Q – What inspired you to become a curator?

I studied archaeology at the Jordanian University in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan during which I was exposed to the glorious cultural heritage of the Sultanate of Oman which extends for more than 5000 years. Oman’s strategic geographical location, its central role in maritime navigation in the Indian Ocean as well as the trade and cultural links with neighboring and farther countries, have contributed to its formation as a meeting-point between various civilizations through the ages.

My work and experiences in archaeology and the museum field have enriched my understanding of the Maritime Silk Roads. Collaborating with different archaeological missions in Oman has enhanced my work in this field, in addition to my experiences in media and communication which contribute to representing my country in UNESCO’s Silk Roads Program.

“Sohar” Ship in the (Sindbad Trip), November 1980, courtesy Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Oman

Q – Why did you choose this particular field (of research)?   

I really appreciate The Silk Roads’ focus on dialogue, diversity and development. I feel deeply committed to these three ideas.

My responsibilities are to promote the historical role of the Sultanate of Oman at crossroads of commercial and cultural routes; the role of Omani sailors in ensuring marine exchanges along the Silk Roads; Oman, the cradle of cultural interactions and tolerance; and, Oman as the anchor of stability and a platform for collective sustainable development in today’s globalized world.

Lion of Sohar, ‏courtesy The National Museum of Oman

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

I’ve helped organize many exhibitions relating to archaeology which has presented me with the great opportunity to learn about many objects, from different eras.

One example is the “Lion of Sohar”which is a small ceramic artifact which depicts a seated figure on top of a lotus flower, on the back of a lion. It is considered the most important piece of all archaeological discoveries in Sohar-Sultanate of Oman. The object was discovered in 1981 during the excavation of French mission working in Sohar from 1981-1986. The piece originates from China, dating back to circa 13th century AD, during the late reign of “Sung” dynasty (ruled from 960-1279 CE) or the beginning of the reign of Yuan dynasty (ruled from 1279-1368 AD).

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

It was the first time I read “The Integral Study of the Silk Roads, Roads of Dialogue 1988-1997”. The UNESCO Maritime Silk Road Expedition was one of the highlights of these collaborations between the Sultanate of Oman and UNESCO. The expedition was organized thanks to the generosity of the late His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said of Oman, who granted the use of his Royal Yacht, the “Fulk Al-Salamah” to UNESCO for more than six months (October 1990 to March 1991). About 100 scientists and 45 journalists from 34 countries were able to participate in this 154-day study trip, and exchange ideas about the cultural interactions, common heritage and plural identities that emerged and developed along these maritime routes over the centuries. The UNESCO expedition travelled over 27,000 kilometers from Venice (Italy) to Osaka (Japan), visiting 27 historical ports in 16 countries along the Maritime Silk Roads. 

This expedition was an appreciation of the late His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said of Oman to the scientific benefits of the integral study and its positive results. One of the most important goals of the expedition was to understand the extent to which civilizations and cultures in the East and the West have influenced each other. It was also to discover all the technical and scientific information that have been transferred through commercial exchanges of various commodities, especially silk, which attracted the interest of kings and wealthy people since the 2nd Millennium BC.

The late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Royal Yacht the “Fulk Al-Salamah”, courtesy Ministry of Heritage and Culture
Valencia Fallas festivity, Spain, Inscribed in 2016 on UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?

I have travelled to many countries alongside the Silk Roads such as the historical city of Ateshgah in Azerbaijan, and Ashq-Abad in Turkmenistan. Also Iran, Turkey, but the most memorable experience was in Valencia-Spain, the Fallas Festival (March 15-19, 2016) as one can witness the most beautiful silk dresses parade in the streets. Visiting the famous central market, the old town and the historical sights were equally memorable.

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?

China.

Al-Idrisi’s world map from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456.

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study?

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to study any language yet, I wish to study the Chinese language. Also, I would like to add that the Arabic language is the most common language for some countries located along the Land and Maritime Silk Roads and I encourage everybody to study it.

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

To promote and update the new generation especially the youth about the “Silk Roads” as we have to work hard through different media platform to reach out to this demographic.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

Design a cultural-maritime tourist route along the Sultanate of Oman coastline, concentrating on the historical ports that relate to the Maritime Silk Roads.

Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?

The geographer Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi: In the 12th Century the Idrissi confirmed that the city of Sohar in Oman was prosperous and that there were ships sailing from there to the shores of China. Also, Abu Obeida, Abdullah bin Al-Qasim from the town of (Siya) near Bahla in Oman. He travelled to China in 750 AD to create a commercial ties during the rule of the Tang dynasty.

Tim Sivrin guided Omani shipwrights in the construction of the “Sohar”, courtesy Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Oman

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

Sinbad Journey (3) parts Sohar Ship – produced by Sultanate of Oman TV 1983.

SYND 2 12 80 British Adventure starts SINBAD style voyage from Oman on ancient vessel Sohar.

SYND 3 12 80 Explorer getting ready to travel from Oman to China on replica of ancient vessel.

(About Sohar Ship) :

On the occasion of the Sultanate of Oman the 10th National Day in 1980 and its well to promote the historical relations with People’s Republic of China. The late His Majesty Qaboos bin Said al Said, Sultan of Oman instructed and directed the (Sindbad Trip) which was activate  through the reconstruction of an Omani commercial ship (Sindbad Trip) following the model used in the middle ages and the first centuries of Islam, as these kind of ships used to sail across the traditional routes used by the Omani Sailors who were known as a seafaring nation pioneers.

The ship was constructed in traditional way in seven months using hand-sawn wooden planks sewn together, with nearly 400 miles (640 km) of hand-rolled, coconut-husk rope. The ship sailed from Oman to China using astrology, astronomy and navigation tools. “Sohar” ship  left Oman on 21 November 1980. Navigating by the stars, Tim Severin and his crew of 25 travelled nearly 6,000 miles (9,600 km) in eight months. From Sur they sailed east across the Arabian Sea, south down India’s Malabar Coast to Lakshadweep and on to Kozhikode, India. The next phase of their voyage took them down the coast of India to Sri Lanka. They were becalmed in the doldrums for nearly a month, suffered broken spars, and were nearly run down by freighters, but arrived in Canton, China on 6 July 1981. 

Nomad Games Oman, courtesy Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Oman

Q – What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?

There are many Arabic soundtracks but the most recent one in 2020 is a soundtrack of a new Syrian series titled “Silk Market (Souq Al Harir)” composed by Iyad Rimawi. Also, music from Asia & Arabia -The Silk Road Lounge – Music for the Soul. And, of course, let’s not forget Turkish music.

Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?

I think fundamental change(s) are:

– Work will concentrate more in digital in communication.

– There will be more trends toward 3D videos for the museums, important historical monuments and touristic location attractions…etc.

– [We will be] creating more apps for the youth to promote the Silk Roads concept.

Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?

The shared heritage along Silk Roads remain in: Traditional Sports, Traditional Games, Traditional Festivals, Food and Gastronomy.

Stay tuned for MUSEUMVIEWS’ forthcoming #SportsHeritage celebrations on the #SilkRoad during the first annual #SilkRoadWeek, June 19-24, 2020.

Nomad Games Oman, courtesy Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Oman