Star used by fishermen in Oman
While carrying out research on star use for timing falaj water shares, I collected some information for other star lore. This started by chance: on the way to Sudayra (near Sinaw) on 1 May 2006 to meet the wakil and Arif of Falaj Sedran, Hamad bin Shinun Al Hashmi, I stopped to give a lift to a hitchhiker, Salima bint Kharaybish Al Musalimi, who was on her way home to Sudayra from Ibra hospital. Accepting her invitation to coffee on my next visit, I found that she and her father knew a lot of Bedouin star lore.
This stimulated me, with help from Ali Al-Mahrooqi and Said Al-Yahayi, to ask different groups of people about their star knowledge, including fishermen in Qantab, who settled in Bedouin near Adam, and a woman from Masirah Island (Figure 1) who came, with many others owning date palms on various falaj systems, to Sharqiyah for the date harvest. This work was published in 2016, when I was working with Nasser Al Hashmi (Oman Astronomical Society) to reinterpret interviews with fishermen and seafarers carried out for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 2009, and published by the Ministry. The book does not have an ISBN number and so is only available to those who already know about it. Many of the interviews list storms at sea, often named after the star rising at that time, and our aim is to identify who gave what information, and which part of the coast it applies to and to disseminate the information more widely. Navigators had access to pilot charts and most Omani navigators were familiar with the work of Ibn Majid, an Omani navigator (b. c. 1435), and Ibn Qatami. a Kuwaiti boat captain in the early 1900s. This means that they were, on the whole, using the same stars for direction. This star chart (Figure 2) shows the navigation stars described by Ibn Majid. There are 16 stars with their directions for rising and setting. However, navigational stars and the Islamic stellar Stations of the Moon do not shed much light on the oral tradition of what is sometimes called indigenous knowledge. The oral tradition tells us more about how local communities used stars and the variations in star (or planet) names according to purpose. from one place or community to another.
In Qantab, stars were used to delineate fishing rights between two teams of fishermen during the most productive period, between the rise of Suhayl (Canopus) and the setting of Haymer during September and October. This use of stars has not yet been identified elsewhere.
Many of the fishermen interviewed by members of the Oman Astronomical Society in 2009 gave lists of stars heralding storms at sea, and other indicators of when a storm could be expected, such as a change in the smell of the air or the strength of currents. As with stars used for timing falaj water shares, the period usually starts when that star is the last to be seen rising above the horizon at dawn (heliacal rise). They were not always accompanied by a storm, so it was considered good practice to stay on shore for several days to be sure there was no great danger. It may seem that these storms were regular, but many interviewees only experienced them a few times in their lives, which raises the question of how useful they really were as indicators of danger. One example of local variation in star names is that the planet Venus is considered a star by many people. It is seen in the early morning and evening and is usually called Al-Zahara (the shining one). This description could apply to any bright, single star and in Al Fath, for timing falaj water shares, this name was given to Capella (Ayooq al-Thurraya in Arabic astronomy). However, Thamna Khamis Hilal from Masirah knows it both as Zahara and as Halaabah: a sign of dawn and time to milk the animals. The other stars she knew were related to winds and storms, telling fishermen when it was safe to go to sea.
With climate change in modern times, including more variable rainfall and more frequent cyclones, much of the star lore related to storms at sea has less relevance than formerly. For navigation at sea and in the desert, stars have been supplanted by GPS and compasses, and for timing water shares by clocks and watches. Modernisation is inevitable, but it is sad to witness the decline of traditional knowledge and uses.