Mohammed Abdulla learnt how to forge the axe that his grandfathers carried when he came of age. Today, he is one of only a handful of smiths who continue to make the gerz which for generations has symbolised strength and independence for the mountain tribes of the UAE and Oman.
No one quite knows how far back the gerz can be traced. According to David Insall, writing in the journal New Arabian Studies: "The discovery of similar axes in excavations over a wide area of Oman and the UAE supports the view that the axe culture has survived several thousand years ... not merely in formerly isolated areas such as Musandam, but indeed throughout most of Oman and the UAE."
The small, long-handled axe "has been compared with similar small axes found in excavations at early sites in eastern Arabia, indicating 4,000 years of cultural continuity."
Although the axe is celebrated as a national symbol in the UAE, Mr Abdulla has no passport and does not hold citizenship. He is a bidoon, one of the "without". His family came from Pakistan’s Baluchistan, decades before unification. They were never granted citizenship, yet they have been in the UAE for generations and he continues a family trade that is unique to the Emirates and Oman region.
He was seven when his father died. A year later, his mother remarried and they moved from their mountain home in Shimal to the coastal neighbourhood of Sherisha, near Julfar.
When it was Mr Abdulla’s turn to marry, his father-in-law, Charchambi Daad Mohammed, taught him to make the axes used by his family and the mountain tribes.
At the age of 15, and soon to be a father, Mr Abdulla had to support his new bride and family. "I got married in 1992," he says. "Instead of going to school I went to learn how to work."
Today, he works from the family home, a modest house he shares with his wife and her father, three brothers, their wives and 22 children.
In cooler months, he works on a carpet outside, by a garage decorated with tinsel and UAE flags. In summer, he is forced to work indoors.
As he sits on the floor of a bright yellow room, Mr Abdulla’s concentration is unbroken by the scorching heat or the brightly dressed children playing near by. With just a few deceptively simple movements, he takes mere minutes to carve an intricate pattern of triangles around the handle of the axe on which he is working.
On average, he says, it takes him three hours to make an axe head – one hour to heat the iron, one hour to shape it and one hour for the design.
He uses basic metal tools. He has a number of different clamps, hammers and chisels, metal rods to make a hole for the axe shaft, and an electric machine with discs to polish the metal. This concession to the modern world has made the process much quicker: "In the past it would take two days but now we just use the machine so it only takes about an hour."
For the shafts, Mr Abdulla buys different types of wood from the mountain tribes. Because he is not Emirati, he is not allowed to collect the wood himself. It usually costs between Dh50 and Dh60 for a branch, or the deal is done through barter.
"There is trading between us," says Mr Abdulla. "I don’t always pay cash; sometimes I pay them by giving them gerz or knives. Whatever they want I make for them."
Sometimes, he uses wood from Pakistan: "My wife’s father brings it from Karachi."
Mr Abdulla shaves the bark then shapes and smoothes the branches with sandpaper. Sometimes he adorns the handle with the same tiny geometric patterns he uses on the axe head. For added detail, wood engravings can be stained with charcoal, which Mr Abdulla keeps in a freezer outside.
The designs have no meaning, he says, beyond their aesthetic effect; he makes "whatever comes in our head". Sometimes, customers have requests for special patterns or details, old and modern. "The most popular thing is the falcon of the UAE".
Mr Abdulla also makes canes with wood from the UAE, Europe and Pakistan, and knives, using dark sidr wood from the mountains. The hilts of the knives are often embellished with tiny carved circles and dots or inlaid with small jewels. They typically take three or four hours to make; canes, half an hour. The knives are known as simply sakeen, or "knife", by the Shehhi tribe and "baishak" by the Habus.
Mr Abdulla does not keep regular hours; he works when there is demand. "Just like a taxi," he says. "It depends on the day how much I work. Some days more, some days less."
He is the master of a dying art. As far as he knows, there are hardly any people left doing this work; one in Dibba, and another in Ras al Khaimah. "I’m the only one who works this among my brothers."
The family sell the gerz at weddings and festivals and at herbal medicine stores in Ras al Khaimah is old town. Often, Mr Abdulla’s father-in-law can be seen strolling around downtown, outside the city’s polished banks and shopping malls, with a bundle of swords and axes tucked under his arm. "Whoever wants to buy, will stop and buy," says Mr Abdulla.
"It’s not just an accessory, their great-grandfathers used that. Bedouins now say you’ve got to have a gerz. They didn’t forget their ancestor."
The gerz is used by the mountain tribes like the Shehhi and the Habus, who, scholars believe, migrated from Yemen in the second century AD. Through centuries of war and isolation in the Hajjar mountains, they developed their own culture that was so distinct from other tribes that many believed they were not of Arab origin.
The gerz is no longer needed for survival and, although it continues to symbolise the strength of the mountains and its people, the popularity of the axe is waning. Once, says Mr Abdulla, he used to sell six or seven of them a month; for the past two years, it is "much less".
"The youth these days are not really interested," he says." Out of every 100 young men, maybe only one will buy. But the old men will continue to buy."
Despite this, at tribal weddings nearly every man carries a handmade gerz, many of which will have been made by Mr Abdulla. The gerz features in dances such as the yolla and the razif, in which young men balance the axes on their shoulders and swing them through the air. At such events, the elderly cling to it as they cling to tradition.
Although he lacks a passport, Mr Abdulla is proud that his family helps to keep alive this part of Emirati heritage. His first language, however, is Balochi and he and his family hold on to Baloch customs. The women wear embroidered Baloch dresses and women and men smoke strong tobacco with large clay shisha pipes.
The Balochi have lived in the UAE for centuries and were known to own land and keep date gardens on the east coast. According to Dr Frauke Heard-Bey, author of From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates, marriage to Arab tribal women was not permitted, but the different tribes inevitably had an influence on one another. The Bani Hadiyah section of the Shehhi, for example, speak a language very similar to the Balochis.
Mr Abdulla has never set foot outside the UAE and his loyalties, he says, are to the country. He speaks a local dialect of Arabic and many Emirati customs have been an integral part of his family’s identity for generations.
"My father and my grandfather, that’s why I started this," he says. His Balochi ancestry is not at odds with UAE heritage, he insists, but an example of the international trade and relationships that made the UAE what it is today.
Ironically, if Mr Abdulla had won citizenship, he might not have continued with the work: "My father and my father’s cousins used to work in Shimal. My father’s cousins got passports and all of them started work with the police. My father kept working at it until he died."
As it is, his sole income comes from the gerz. His children attend government schools and he pays Dh100 a year for health care. As bidoon, his children will not have their post-secondary tuition provided.
"We are bidoon but we are considered to be born here," he says. "Humdullilah, we own the house, we own the land. My parents got married here. They were here before the union. Me and all of my brothers were born here."
Last September the Ministry of Interior ran a two-month campaign to invite the estimated 100,000 stateless people living in the country to register as citizens. Mr Abdulla says he applied for citizenship in Abu Dhabi in 2004 but never heard anything further about his application. Many of his neighbours are in the same position: "I don’t know anyone who’s got it. Only one person who lives beside us got a passport."
He does not know if his sons will continue his craft. "I can’t really say right now; all they are doing is studying," he says. "I hope they get passports and respectable jobs."
Surrounded by family, Mr Abdulla counts his blessings: "I’m quite satisfied with my job. I love this job because it comes from my grandfather."