In the village of Sha'am, you can hardly forget you're in the UAE. The lamp posts, roundabouts and even the mountain tops are bedecked with UAE flags. In the residential neighbourhood of this quiet fishing village you will find other telltale signs that you are in the emirates: goats, date palms and the legendary hospitality of Emirati families.
Sha'am, at first glance, is a dusty, forlorn border town at the northernmost tip of the UAE. Hundreds of people pass through it on their way to dolphins and dhow tours in Oman's Musandam peninsula without giving Sha'am a second thought. But people here know they've got something special. Huddled between the mountains and the sea, residents are a two-minute walk from azure waters and white sand beaches and a five-minute drive from the base of the spectacular Hajjar mountains.
It is a world away from the skyscrapers and glitz of Dubai. In Sha'am's single residential neighbourhood, boys hang out at Mumtaz Supermarket after school or meet up at the popular hillside hangout under a giant UAE flag. Afternoons are spent playing football and fishing; evenings are spent with family. People new to the neighbourhood will find a warm welcome and may be invited to enjoy dinner with a family in their majlis and share stories over macaroni, mango juice and syrup-soaked qimat dumplings.
When you come to Sha'am, it doesn't take long to feel at home. The town's main road is a jumble of single-storey cafeterias, laundries, tailors and shops selling bits and bobs. It has changed little in the last 10 years but, in its day, Sha'am was a shopping centre for people coming in from the mountains or south from Musandam. A new road has made the trip to RAK and Dubai fast and easy, and business has slowed down. Sha'am still sees its share of visitors from the mountains - farming families who pull up for petrol in pickups loaded with fodder, or wrinkled tribesmen who visit the town to get their formidable beards trimmed in its salons.
Most residents are Emirati and even the expatriate men who work in its stores have long histories here - men such as Farook Jailafudeen, a tailor who moved here from Kerala in 1987, when he was 18 years old. "I was thinking, this isn't a city, this is a small village. But my father was here," he says. "In '87 there were no stores here. It's on the border so people would come from Oman. Before, business was OK but now it's not so good. Now they go to RAK or Dubai. Before, they didn't have cars."
Today at Riyaz Gents Tailoring he continues his father's work amid rolls of blue and white fabrics that he makes into khandouras. The houses of Sha'am, built big to hold large families, are clustered near the waterfront, where sandy beaches are strewn with purple and white clam shells. Shoals of fish dart to and fro in the clear shallows. While sunbathing is not possible due to the neighbourhood's more conservative values, fishing is a favourite activity for the men. For dozens of them, fishing is still a way of life. Thirty-three motorboats laden with nets, and a few regal dhows float serenely in the harbour.
Flip flops piled on doorsteps mark the homes of fishermen, who head out each afternoon for the day's catch. Most of the fish is destined for Ma'aridh fish market in Ras al Khaimah, though a few choice pieces are saved for the fishermen's own lunch and dinner. "We like this work," says Jahan Kennedy, a 37-year-old fisherman from Kerala as he shares his lunch with a well-fed tabby cat. Sha'am is not for people who seek the fast life and glamour of the big city - but for those who treasure tradition, culture and community, the neighbourhood has plenty to offer.
Young men and women in Sha'am are well educated, many having attended university in the country's larger cities or abroad. Residents often commute to work in RAK, Dubai and Abu Dhabi but their home always will be in this Sha'am neighbourhood. Parents, brothers, and sisters feel that coming home to their families and the natural beauty of Sha'am makes it worth the long commute. "It's a small area and here we're all together, all held together," says Ahmed al Bayer, aged 20. "It's like a big family. I can find everything here - supermarkets, computer stores; one way you can see the mountains, one way you can see the sea.
"Sometimes I stay in Dubai one, two, three days, sometimes I stay a week, but after that I must come back, not because of my father or my mother but because I miss it and I want to be here."
Abdulrahman Mohammed, UAE It's a beautiful life; it is a good place. My heart is in Sha'am. Mohamed Kasih, UAE Sha'am is beautiful. The people are kind. We go fishing, we play football, volleyball, go swimming. This is my country. Ahmad Sultan, UAE Here we are so quiet, we are near the sea, we have everything here. And we are near nature; we have fish, and trees with bananas and mangoes. We have too much. Hamza Mohammed, India There are not many people here. My job is here so I like it. In Kerala, where I come from, it's a natural situation and here there is the same feel. It's a village atmosphere.