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  Book review

The Arab Chest 

by Sheila Unwin

Arabian Publishing, London, 2006. Foreword by Sir Terence Clark. Illus. Glossary. Bibliog. Appendices. Index. Maps. Hb. £25. ISBN-10: 0-9544792-6-2. 

This book is a treasure. Its pages conjure up a dreamlike procession of exotic places, objects and memories. 

Brassbound and decorated ‘Arab’ chests are found throughout the Gulf region and Indian Ocean littoral where Arabs settled and traded over the centuries. It is generally assumed that the chests were made by Arabs, but until relatively recent times they came mainly from India, and even bore stylistic influences traceable to the Dutch and Portuguese. 

For colonial administrators, diplomats, and other expatriates working in the region, the ‘Arab’ chest conveyed a strong sense of place and atmosphere, and represented a prized link with a vanishing culture. Possession of such a chest was a ‘must’as a souvenir of time spent south and east of Suez; and by the mid-20th century in the West, the ‘Arab’ chest had become a collector’s item. But no detailed research was ever done on this very distinctive piece of furniture until Sheila Unwin embarked upon her study. 

Her book is the fruit of a lifetime of research and travel. She seeks to set the chests in their true geographical and historical context: to map the origins and to dispel the myths, such as the belief that chests were made on board dhows, in the sailors’ spare time, for sale in their ports of call. 

The book is an invaluable guide, but it is much more than a collector’s guidebook. Sheila Unwin, who was first introduced to the Arab chest in East Africa, gently invites us to accompany her on a journey around the shores of the Indian Ocean with their history of invasion, settlement, trading and colonisation, to enable us to understand the influences behind the evolution of the ‘Arab’ chest. We learn that it was made in many different places, that it is not Arab in origin, and that its evolution over the centuries should be seen as a material part of a broad confluence of cultural influences embracing the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. 

The author traces the origins of the ‘Arab’ chest to three basic models: the teak chest from Shiraz, Surat and Bombay; the carved chest from the Malabar coast; and the rosewood or Shisham chest from South India. The wealth of factual and pictorial detail which she provides will allow those fortunate enough to possess a chest to identify its likely provenance. But as Sheila Unwin concludes, the precise origins of any particular chest must remain conjectural. 

The book is lavishly illustrated and will appeal to the armchair traveller as well as to the collector. The pleasure of reading it is enhanced by the fine quality of the printing and paper, not to mention the skilful editing. 

Werner Daum