RAS AL KHAIMAH // Fertility rates are declining at a drastic rate. Emiratis have never had so few children - 2.3 per family at the last count.
Two men, however, are doing their best to reverse the trend. And while father-of-52 Salem Juma'a, in his late 70s, will probably stop there, 60-year-old Daad Abdulrahman has 86 and says he is aiming for 100. "It's from God," says Mr Juma'a. "God gave me this. I can't object to God's gift. God gave me because I deserved it. If I did not deserve, God would not give." In the family sitting room, Mr Juma'a is surrounded by a small part of his family: two wives, two daughters, five sons and a grandchild. Over the next two hours, dozens of his children enter the room, kiss him on the head and then greet their mothers.
Mr Juma'a leans forward. He speaks quickly, in a raspy voice. "I have 42 kids alive," he says. "10 are dead." When Mr Juma'a is asked his age, a lively discussion follows. He begins counting on his fingers. "No, no, no," says his wife Fatima, patiently. "You're 75." Fatima pulls out his passport. The date of birth is 1930. "They're estimates, he doesn't know exactly," says Fatima. Nor does Mr Juma'a know how old he was when he married. He measures time by the number of children he had.
"When I was around 30, I had six children," he said. "Before unification I lived for 20 years in Dibba. I was born in Dibba and married in Dibba. I had six children in Dibba." The first 40 years of Mr Juma'a's life were difficult. He was trained by his father as a pearl diver, and although he married young, none of his children at the time survived, and for 20 years he was abroad more than he was home, working on ships servicing the date trade, and as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia.
But his life was defined by family, not profession. He laughs when asked how many wives he has had. "More than 10." And then he has to think for a minute. He begins counting on his fingers again. The question sparks another debate within his family, this time about how many wives were from India. Two of them are present as authorities in Mr Juma'a's matrimonial history. After much debate, a consensus is reached. Mr Juma'a has had 12 wives: three from Egypt, six from India and three from the UAE. Two from the UAE died and one was divorced.
"You had five from India," protests his son Omar. "No, six," says Mr Juma'a. "I divorced three." And it is settled. Mr Juma'a did not divorce his wives to have more children but because, he admits, he was strong-willed in his younger days. "If the wife does not hear my words I will seek another obedient wife," he says. "She was not respecting me, maybe she is defaming me through a long tongue. Some wives shouted at me and told me to shut up."
But his wives today are loving and affectionate towards the family patriarch. All three of his current wives are from India. Two live in RAK and one in Dibba. Mr Juma'a's last marriage was 17 years ago, to Fatima Mahabud Malib, a woman about 50 years his junior. She sits beside him today, attentive and caring. "In Islam, you should never have more than four wives," says Mr Juma'a. But how did he have energy even for three wives?
"I know," he says, his lips curling into a grin. "I can't do it now, I'm sick," he says, grabbing his lower stomach. Before, however, he was sure to spend one night with each: "Each one, one night here, one night there." He also makes it clear that he does not believe in romantic love. "I married them just because I wanted to," he says. "It is a shame to love a woman. If I see a woman, I look down. If I want to marry, I will get married."
Can he name his sons? "No," he says immediately, "I don't know!" But his sons begin to list their brothers and what they think are their ages - although this, like many topics in the household, is open to interpretation and debate. When they finish the list, there is a sense of triumph. But there are only 20. One of the brothers has been forgotten. "You have Nabil?" "And Ahmed?" The forgotten brother is remembered and the sense of accomplishment restored.
Jumal, 35; Juma'a; Badr, 33; Nabil, 30; Ali, 26; Ahmed, 24; Mubarak, 24; Marwan, 23; Khalifa, 23; Sultan, 22; Abdulla, 22; Bilal, 21; Mohammed, 21; Fahd, 21; Omar, 20; Yousef, 19; Omran, 18; Ebrahim, 18; Hasan, 17; Ismail, 16, and Saeed, 14. Then the sisters begin their list. Again, one is forgotten and the list stops at 20. After some embarrassed chatter, the list is complete and the 42 children, are named and accounted for.
Fatima, 32 or 38; Amina, 32; Nawaf, 31; Noora, 30 or 28; Maryam, 28; Mouza, 25 or 27; Rania, 25 or 29; Khawala; Huda, 26, 27 or 30; Hanan, 25; Nabila, 25; Asma, 25; Amal, 25; Hessa, 23; Aisha, 23; Ibtisam, 20; Hind, 20; Alya, 16; Khadija, 16; Zainab, 15 and Salama, 13, the baby of the family. Mr Juma'a's family have five houses in RAK, two in Dibba Fujairah and two in Ajman. There are five who live in this house but tonight, with so many siblings and so much laughter, it feels as though there must be more than 100.
As strange as their circumstances may have been in the beginning, the family have been together for nearly 20 years and the brothers, sisters and mothers show genuine love and enjoyment in each other's company. This was not always the case. When they first married, things were not easy for the wives. For the new brides from India, it could be terrifying. "Before they didn't know," says his son Fahd. "When they came here, it was a surprise. They were sad. But all my mums, they are like sisters. They always see each other, always sitting together."
Khowthar, 40, from Hyderabad, was 16 or 17 when she married Mr Juma'a. She gave birth to four sons. "I didn't know how to speak Arabic before I came here," she says. "Of course, we were very embarrassed and very shy. It was a new life and a new world." But she says all of the wives stopped missing home when they began a new family here. "When they had a baby, they were very happy." For the Juma'a family, it is a happiness that cannot be counted.
Not so for Daad Mohammed Murad Abdulrahman, the one-legged man in Manama who has had 16 wives and 86 children. For him, it is the number that matters. He wants 100. At 60 Mr Abdulrahman is nearly 20 years younger than Mr Juma'a, but he still struggles to name his wives and does not even attempt to name his 55 sons and 31 daughters. "What, all of them?" he asks, incredulous. Born to a Balochi family near Muscat, he grew up with 27 brothers and sisters. He came to the UAE as a soldier for the British in the 1960s and worked in Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Ain and Dubai.
Since his retirement in 1999, he has supported his enormous family with his military pension and donations worth hundreds of thousands of dirhams from sheikhs who want him to make his century. In essence, Mr Abdulrahman is a professional stud. His first marriage was a simple affair. At around 16 he married a girl of 14 from the same family. The family celebrated with English music and balochi dancing.
He now has three wives, Maryam, 45, Anifa, 22, and Majida, 19. He married Majida four years ago in Pakistan. He has divorced seven wives, three have died, and three "escaped". "And they are not returning back," he says. He has married women from Oman, India, Bangladesh, Morocco and the UAE, usually presenting them with dowries of between 10,000 and 15,000 rupees and a single piece of gold jewellery.
He will marry again after Ramadan, to a woman from Sudan 40 years his junior, and hopes for a further four children a year until he reaches his goal of 100. His youngest child is just 10 months old and two babies are due next month. The secret to virility is healthy food, says Mr Abdulrahman. "I have 40 sheep and goats. Every week I slaughter one. I always eat at home." But will he stop when he reaches 100? "If I have 100 rupees and I walk in the street and I find one rupee, I will take it in spite of being rich."