Small Wars Journal

A Primer for the Unique Language of Arabs who Sail the Persian Gulf

Sun, 03/25/2012 - 9:03am

As the United States Navy increases its presence in the Persian Gulf amidst a hostile Iran, it is important to understand the maritime terrain of this region.  When conducting Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIOs) and other duties in the Persian Gulf, we often observe a collection of wooden sailing vessels that ply the warm waters of the area of operation.  Few U.S. Navy Sailors and Marines however, reflect on the distinct subculture developed over centuries by the region’s sailors, stevedores and ship builders along the Persian Gulf coast.  So distinct is their lifestyle that a unique form of maritime Arabic has developed that is influenced by trade with India, Iran and East Africa.  This essay is an attempt to provide U.S. Navy personnel operating in the Persian Gulf a better appreciation for the maritime landscape of this unique area of operation.    

The late Kuwaiti scholar and customs official Ahmed Al-Bishr Al-Roomi (1905-1982) cataloged the different Arabic words and terms used by Persian Gulf sailors.  His dictionary was posthumously published by his son in 1996 and is entitled, “Lexicon of Kuwait’s Maritime Terms,” (Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait, 1996).  Although in Arabic, it is truly a unique book.  It is invaluable for Arabic linguists operating in the Persian Gulf aboard U.S. Navy and allied warships.  The book contains a description of the types of Dhows, Booms and many other sailing craft that travel in the Persian Gulf.  Chapters include Persian Gulf Arabic terms for specific seaborne illnesses, types of sail, lines, tools and sea creatures of the Gulf.  The following is an excerpt of the chapter on the types of ships and boats used by traditional Gulf sailors.

Boom: A type of wooden sailing vessel that is has a sharp fore and aft.  Small Booms are used for (pearl) divers, medium booms for coastal transportation and larger Booms for travel to India and West Africa.  The first mention of a Boom is written Arabic was in the early seventeenth century is a poetic story by Abu-el-Bakr el-Jaafar.

Jalboot (Jal-BOOT):  A smaller ship specifically designed for use by divers and fisherman.  They are found primarily in Kuwait and Bahrain.

Al-Khashb (Khash-EB):  A term used to denote a flotilla of ships sailing as a group.

Doomee (Doo-MEE):  A description of any water vessel propelled by sails.  It is also used to describe the main sail of a ship.

Safaar (SA-faar):  A term used to denote sailing cargo ships that travel between Kuwait, Iraq, and East Africa.  To qualify for this description the ship must be able to carry 575 tons or more of cargo. 

Sanbook (San-BUK):  A sailing vessel that comes in many sizes, but is characterized by having a series of sails in addition to oars.  They are used to conduct (pearl) diving, cargo and passenger transport.  The term was used in the eleventh century to describe a dual masted warship with ten or more oars on each side.

Bagalah (Bagaah-LAAH):  A two to three lateen sail vessel crewed by 25 or more sailors and used for deep sea sailing in the Indian Ocean.  It typically travels 9 knots under sail, and is a large cargo vessel capable of carrying 150 to 300 tons and sailing to India, Malaysia, East Africa, and Indonesia from the Persian Gulf.

Qataah (Qaa-Taa):  Cargo and passenger sailing vessels that carry no more than 60 tons and is rated for travel only within the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.  Its maximum range is from Umm Qasr in Iraq to the Omani capital Muscat. 

Hoori (Hoo-REE): A form of canoe that carries no more than five persons.  They are made from a single tree bark and imported from Calcutta, India.

Keet (Kit):  A small boat attached to a larger vessel that is always kept in perfect condition, with etchings and decorations.  It is used for ship to shore transport and is equivalent to the Captain’s gig.

Warjah (War-JAH):  A one-man rowing boat made of reeds and palm rope.  They are used to move in between sailing ships docked in many Gulf ports.

Drawing sketch of a Bagaa’lah deep sea sailing cargo vessels used for the India and East Africa trade.

The book contains hundreds of words and is a major work of maritime scholarship in the Arabic language.  Arabic linguists serving in the Persian Gulf can acquire a copy through inter-library loan or by obtaining it directly from The Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait (CRSK), P.O. Box 65131, Al-Mansouriya, 35652, Kuwait.  Their telephone is (965)-257-4081.  Other books of maritime interest published by CRSK include Captain Issa Abdullah Al-Usman’s, “A Guide to Traditional Navigation in Kuwait,” as well as the logbooks of several experienced Kuwaiti seafarers. 

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  



Thu, 08/29/2013 - 6:36pm

In reply to by shfranke

Thanks for the update Stephen!


Thu, 08/29/2013 - 5:14pm

Greetings to all in this thread.

The archives of the national museums in Bahrain and in the emirates of Ra's al-Khaima and al-Sharjah in UAE have some very-similar guides to the terminology for watercraft and maritime equipment, as well as techniques used in sailing, cargo-transport, navigation, pearl-diving, and fishing in the waters of the Gulf and the Arabian Ocean.

The museum in Ra's al-Khaima also has some large and probably-unique illustrated charts and wall posters displayed in the lower level of the building, along with displays of relics and old equipment.

Several of the well-researched and illustrated books on Oman, the Trucial States (=> UAE, 1971), and "Customs and Courtesies in the Gulf Region" by the late Sir Donald Hawley, HM Ambassador to Oman, include English and Arabic word-lists of common terms across a range of topics.

Hope this helps. Today is Thursday, 29 August 2013.


Stephen H. Franke
(FAO 48G "Gulfie")
USAR (Retired)

Having spent six months at sea in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, my experience was that Tamil and Hindi were much more useful than Arabic for interacting with the seafarers in the Gulf.

Mark Pyruz

Sun, 03/25/2012 - 11:43am

Interesting how the rising intonation of many of these terms are very much Persian.

There are a number of Afro-Arab Iranians as well as Arab-Iranians, home to the coastal area of Iran. After viewing "Black in Latin America" on PBS I attempted to contact Henry Louise Gates, Jr. to see if he could provide any historical knowledge of this Afro-Arab Iranian people. Unfortunately, he ignored my request.