x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A path to the present for UAE's remotest village

A new road will soon connect the remote and unchanged Ras al Khaimah mountain community of Defilis to the modern world.

The road under construction, seen from the crest of a ridge about 20 minutes' walk from Defilis. It will travel up Jebel al Jais, the highest peak in the UAE.
The road under construction, seen from the crest of a ridge about 20 minutes' walk from Defilis. It will travel up Jebel al Jais, the highest peak in the UAE.

Some time in the next couple of months, the 21st century will arrive at the UAE's most remote village and is likely to change it forever. Since the days when Ras al Khaimah was an independent emirate on what was then the Trucial coast, the few residents of Defilis have reached home by climbing steeply through the cliff lines of Wadi Galileh, a journey that takes about three and a half hours even for those accustomed to mountain hiking. It makes for a dramatic arrival at the tiny village. One moment the rough path is ascending a steep rubble-strewn gully; then, on cresting the ridgeline, a gently sloping mountain shelf is revealed, at the centre of which are a series of intricately terraced fields with improbably green crops.

Apart from electricity arriving at the village and clay pots being replaced by plastic and metal bins, there are precious few signs that this village has changed since 1972, when Ras al Khaimah belatedly joined the other six emirates, which had federated the previous December. All that will be different this year because of the road being built from Wadi Bih, the next valley to the south, up Jebel al Jais, the highest peak in the UAE. When the road is completed, it will resemble the one up Jebel Hafeet outside Al Ain, complete with an elaborate hotel planned for near the summit.

For Defilis, it will mean that the strenuous hike from Wadi Galileh that has effectively buffered the village from the outside world will be replaced by an easy 20-minute stroll down from a sealed road used by tourists. And its isolation, which is as rare in the UAE now as air conditioning was in 1971, will be over. Brigadier Saeed Laha, an amateur historian from Wadi Galileh, who runs one of the largest private museums in the country, explains that the modernisation that followed federation means there are now few mountain villages that are still populated in the UAE.

"Nobody lives in the mountains now because of school," he says. "Everyone left the villages in 1971 or 1972. They came down for education." People only live in Defilis in the cooler and wetter winter months, he says, tending crops to maturity, looking after their stock animals and harvesting wild honey from the surrounding mountains. Then, as the heat and dryness of summer kick in, they abandon the village for the valley floor.

"They have some land down the bottom. They are only in the [mountain villages] in winter. "It would be maybe six months, maybe four months. During January and February, they are still here. Then they come down to the bottom in March or April or May." Brig Laha shares the concerns of other elders in the valley about the process of urbanisation that is drawing the latest generation of Emiratis from RAK away from outdoor jobs and into office-bound professions.

"People who live in the countryside are very important to our society. It's not like town or the city," he said. It is common for the men of the valley to work in the military and then return. "The boys leave, from when they are 25 to 40 years old. Then they return to Wadi Galileh." Brig Laha started his museum six years ago, taking to heart Sheikh Zayed's famous aphorism that a nation that does not remember its past has no future. He has sunk more than Dh3 million into the Zayed Heritage Village, with the intention of showing what life in RAK was like before oil.

His display includes recreations of a series of traditional building styles, including a half-underground house built from rocks and sidar wood, called a gifiel. In Defilis, the real thing can be seen and is still in use. On a cool winter's morning, I drove up Wadi Bih and on to the new road until I was stopped by a guard about halfway up the side of the ridge leading towards Defilis. On the slopes above, a dozen diggers, bulldozers and tip trucks were slowly creating a scar that will become the new road as it makes a rising traverse towards the mountain shoulder behind which the village is situated.

On foot, it took about an hour and a half to hike up past the end of the road builders' efforts, then another 20 minutes along trails created by meandering goats to reach the shoulder of the mountain where I could look down on to the unexpectedly green terraced fields of Defilis, in which three men were working. They then began walking back towards two clusters of stone buildings. My approach was spotted before I'd made it halfway down and I was met by Abdullah, an Emirati with the physique of a man who clearly works in the fields. He greeted me with the universal gesture offering qahwa, or traditional Arabic coffee. Along with a Pakistani labourer who worked alongside him, we made our way down to a small collection of huts, through a goat-proof gate and across a flat mud roof to a small courtyard.

A mat was unfurled on which I was invited to sit while a battered vacuum flask was brought out containing qahwa, a bag of flat bread and a small metal container that was opened to reveal the darkest honey I had ever seen. This was wild mountain honey, Abdullah explained, from the surrounding hills, and one taste made me understand why the connoisseurs hold such honey in such high regard. I was also offered water, which was served in a metal pan even more battered than the flask. The area had been lashed by a severe storm the week before and the water, drawn from a huge plastic barrel and one of the most precious commodities in this high mountain zone, was still cloudy with sediment.

I pointed to the few material goods: the barrels and the rolls of fencing, and Abdullah gestured to show that he had carried this up here on his back. After a stilted conversation caused by my faltering Arabic, Abdullah gestured at the structure beside us towards a tiny doorway maybe 80cm high and even narrower across. With a smile, he motioned for me to go in. This was the gifiel, the oldest part of the cluster of buildings in Abdullah's part of the village.

I had to get down on my hands and knees to get through the doorway, noticing on the way that the piece of rock that formed the sill of the doorway was the same kind as the cheese-grater-sharp boulders peppering the mountainside all around but which had been worn as smooth as a river stone by the passage of generations before me. Inside, the floor level was another 80cm lower than the sill and the roof was a gently domed structure created from a series of curved boughs of wood with smaller branches serving as crossbeams. A thick layer of impermeable black plastic was a nod to modernity installed when the mud roof was last repaired.

At one end was an alcove containing a series of bulbous clay jugs of considerable antiquity, which Abdullah indicated were used to hold water. These were flanked by scraps of wood ready for a fire. At the other end was a sleeping platform with a series of much thinner but equally old clay jugs lined up alongside the wall facing the courtyard. These are used to hold the grain harvested from the fields outside, he said.

This was as far from the mirrored glass of Abu Dhabi as it was possible to imagine. I thanked him profusely and left, wandering across to his neighbour's collection of stone buildings. He too was an Emirati who clearly worked in the fields. Abdullah had declined to say his family name and his neighbour did not want to be identified but he also invited me into to his kitchen, formed from an overhanging boulder with what had been the open sides closed in by stone walls, and offered qahwa from another battered flask. The roof was pitch black from cooking fires and a single bed frame was in one corner.

His family was down in Wadi Galileh because of school, he explained. What did he think of the road that was coming towards Defilis? He shrugged then imitated the noise of the road-building machinery: "Boom boom boom." After leaving the village, I made my way up to the top of the hiking route by which they accessed this place from the valley. There was barely a track, more of a rough route through the boulders and gravel where an improbable series of power lines linked this with the valley below.

There was "mafi carab", he explained. No electricity. My route back towards the road builders took me past a new terrace that Abdullah and his labourer were tilling. It was my turn to gesture, towards where the road was bringing the modern age on a collision course with this museum piece of Emirati lifestyle. "Maalum (I know)," Abdullah replied.