SHARJAH // At a time when identity and position are defined by passport and place of birth, it is hard to believe it was once possible for a white man of honour and courage to defy borders - and the colour of his skin - to become sheikh of an Arabian tribe.
Almost as far-fetched is that the American actor Patrick Swayze, the star of such 1980s films as Dirty Dancing, Ghost and Roadhouse, would be the one to influence the ruler of an emirate to tell the tale. It all started in 1995 when Swayze, who died last September 14 of pancreatic cancer, travelled to visit Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, in search of an Arab hero he could use as the centre of an epic film - one in which he could play the lead.
Reminded by his agent that he did not look like an Arab, Swayze suggested another option: fiction, perhaps an American soldier from the Second World War lost in the Sahara rescued by a tribe he would one day lead. The conversation got Dr Sheikh Sultan thinking. "What would you say," he asked the actor, "to me writing you a true story?" Within a year of that conversation, the Ruler had published The White Shaikh: the story of an American sailor boy from a town called Salem who went to sea as a nine-year-old cabin boy and rose to become one of the sheikhs of the Mahra tribe of Oman's south-western province of Dhofar.
"It was customary among Salem folk to embark their sons in their tenth year to work as cabin boys aboard ships, so that when one of them reached 18, he had become an experienced seaman," wrote Dr Sheikh Sultan, who in his research drew on historical documents and visits to Salem and Oman. Filled with adventure and drama, the story of Johannes Herman Poll began after a bloody incident in 1806 in which the crew of an Essex ship seeking coffee beans in the Yemeni coffee port of Mocha was killed off by the men of Sayyid Muhammad bin Aqil, a major Red Sea merchant and trader. Only an Arab interpreter and Poll, the cabin boy, were spared by Sayyid Muhammad.
According to the book, Sayyid's wife intervened to save the youth. "Sayyid, oh Sayyid, I want to intercede for him, please save him for me," she said. The couple had been in mourning over the loss of their own son, who had died in infancy several years before, so they adopted Poll and renamed him Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Aqil. Over the course of his life, Abdullah proved himself a great sea captain and a leader, taking over after his father was assassinated by the Qara tribe. In the end, he also won over other tribes and his story was passed down as the "white sheikh" of Arabia.
Yousuf Aydabi, advisor to the Ruler of Sharjah, was heading the Sharjah Book Fair in 1996 when the book was launched, drawing an appearance by the great-grandson of the White Sheikh, Sayyid Abdul Khaliq bin Salim bin Rabi of Dhofar. "It was astounding, for here he was, the great-grandson of the white sheikh, just standing there coming to shake hands with the ruler for writing his grandfather's story," recalled Mr Aydabi.
Unlike his ancestor, Sayyid Abdul Khaliq blended in with the masses: dark-skinned, with light eyes and ancestor traditional Omani dress. He thanked the Ruler for keeping the story of his grandfather alive. "He was Omani, no longer American," said Mr Aydabi. "He was proof that a great man like the white sheikh once existed." The historian Ali al Matroushi, who has written extensively on Arabian tribes in the region, said the story of the white sheikh was not unique. Throughout history, tribes have elected outsiders as heads when they failed to find someone in their ranks.
"Before, if you proved yourself worthy by being brave, honest and honourable, you could rise above and be chosen to lead a whole tribe," said Mr al Matroushi. The discovery of oil and introduction of borders on the "geographic and social level", however, removed those opportunities. "Values have changed, where characteristics that were once deemed important have fallen at the sides," he said. "Now, it is quite impossible for anyone, Arab or foreign, to reach into such a high position like a sheikh unless born into it."
The book remains one of the most popular written by the Ruler and has been translated into six languages, most recently into Urdu last year. Swayze, who loved Arabian horses and travelled to the region several times, was never able to get a film version off the ground. But the idea has not gone away. "Everyone likes a hero's story, and so it is those kinds of stories that outlast others," Mr Aydabi said.