x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Technology brings life back to RAK's isolated mountain villages

Families are returning to their ancestral homes for the weekend, as helicopters cut journeys that once took a day's donkey ride to no time at all.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // It is a feast fit for a king: silver platters piled high with watermelon, pistachio sweets in golden wrappers, organic honey, steaming flatbread and biryani served on saffron rice.

The setting is not a sheikh's palace or an opulent majlis. It is a simple stone room in a small home in the lonely mountain village of Al Janas. Such a feast would have been unimaginable not long ago when it took a day's donkey ride to reach the village. But today, it takes 20 minutes by helicopter, enabling families who left the villages years ago to make regular trips to their ancesteral homes. Thanks to airborne deliveries of supplies by the Armed Forces, the villages are also now enjoying more 21st century comforts.

When RAK joined the UAE in 1972, many families left their mountain villages for air-conditioned towns and cities. While many men have never stopped making regular trips to their ancestral homes, the number of families visiting has increased in recent years. "Since five or six years ago, they came," said Rashid Ahmed al Musharab, 55. "People came after the helicopters because there are luxuries now."

Sheikh Talib bin Saqr, the head of RAK Police, ordered the first helicopter delivery in 1999. Initially they brought construction supplies to make mountain homes more comfortable. Today, helicopters make monthly trips and carry medical supplies, generators and groceries, allowing families to feast in a land of little. They airlift people out of the area during flooding, fly people to the mosque on Fridays and carry the elderly or infirm when they cannot make the journey themselves.

Pilots visit more than 25 villages, including Al Janas, Sleih, Tafeef, Saleet al Baqal, Arahat, al Bakan, Sheri, Ma'ra, Slagda and Hebs. Al Janas is a collection of 30 stone houses, yellow-terraced fields, stone storage houses for grain and deep cisterns filled with rainwater that brings life to a village between sloping mountain tops, about 600 metres above sea level. Mr al Musharab said Al Janas had about 1,000 winter residents in the 1960s and is at least 500 years old. Today, 200 to 250 people visit each year. Summer is helicopter season. In winter, visitors normally carry their own supplies.

"Now nobody lives here, but we come here to spend time," he said. "We go every weekend and when we have holidays. We have another place that is a three-hour walk where we go every two weeks." Rashid Saeed, 38, divides his time between the mountain and the city. "In the winter this area is very, very green," he said. "All the kids come to my house when the winter comes." Sheikh Talib's helicopter deliveries are a continuation of his father's support for mountain tribes.

"Sheikh Saqr, he used to come to the village all the time," said Mr Saeed. "The tribe used to come together in a majlis, tell him their problems and he'd solve them." Men return for honey collection in summer and wheat harvest in spring. "I try not to breathe on the bees," Mr Saeed said. "I breathe in the other direction." For entertainment, Mr al Musharab watches Al Jazeera television in a house made of cement that was delivered by helicopter and built by Pakistani farmers who stay year-round. Adjacent to the new building is a clay and stone house with sidr branches and twigs for a roof. "This is my father's house," said Mr Saeed with pride. "My father slept here 40 years before."

The house beside it, an open pile of stones, has petroglyphs that show a horse and rider motif. The graveyard takes centre stage in the village, a reminder of the past and why people return. Mr al Musharab's family is buried here. "We are connected because our family was born here," said Mr al Musharab. "If I don't come for one month I feel like something is missing inside me." Rashid Abdulla, in his 70s, who still walks around the mountains barefoot, comes to Al Janas as often as his family will allow. He refuses to go by helicopter, but has renovated his mountain home. "All my grandfathers slept in this room," he said, of a half-underground stone dwelling. The room is where he keeps his wheat, rock salt, a dirty sack filled with family heirlooms, and his prized possession: a traditional hoe. He values it for its use, not its age.

"If I go anywhere I must come back to this area," he said. "I like this place more than the city. Look, look at my wheat. I did this myself. The young are still working like their fathers." @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae