This week I became the proud owner of a very old tartan coach blanket for a mere $10. Granted it had a couple of moth holes in it, but the quality and age of the fabric was unmistakable. My dad owns a blanket just like it, which belonged to his great grandfather, who was a coachman at one of Britain’s stately homes.
Having got my treasure home, I wasn’t sure what to do with it, until this evening. That is when my “history lesson in reverse” happened.
I took a mental journey back to 2001. I was on business in a country in the Arabian Gulf. Half way through an important negotiation I heard the excruciating sound of bagpipes being strangled outside. At first my brain couldn’t process sitting in 45 degrees Celsius and hearing pipes wafting through the windows. I quickly made an “Ah, the British were here, and they must have taught the local military boys to play the pipes on parade” connection. But this sat uneasily with dark skinned musicians in long flowing white robes, and for another reason that I couldn’t quite place.
This evening I decided what I was going to do with my amazing blanket – recover some large cushions that we put on the floor to sit on. The cushions were purchased in Oman, and made up a Majlis set, comprising a large oriental rug and eight heavily padded cushions. They are designed to prop against the wall, to make reclining on the floor more comfortable.
As I was happily swathing my Arab cushions in tartan, I suddenly realised I had my history back to front. The British didn’t introduce bagpipes to the Arabs; it was the other way around. The concept of a sheep skin filled with air and played in a musical register alien to the European ear was a Middle Eastern invention, most probably taken back during the Crusades or on the many trading ships of earlier centuries.
Wrapping a heavy plaid around a piece of Arab furniture made me realise how easy it is to get things the wrong way around.