x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A simple prayer: the UAE's porta-mosques

While the UAE boasts some of the grandest mosques in the world, many worshippers frequent simpler constructions. Anna Zacharias meets the men who build and pray at prefab mosques.

Anil Kumar, a carpenter, works on an Extra Co prefab mosque. Antonie Robertson / The National
Anil Kumar, a carpenter, works on an Extra Co prefab mosque. Antonie Robertson / The National

Benoy Thomas has never set foot inside a mosque he has not built.

The Christian from Kerala has designed hundreds of mosques that are found from Fujairah's wadis to the oilfields of Abu Dhabi. His mosques have heard the prayers of thousands of men, from dozens of countries.

But Thomas is not an Islamic architect. He is a specialist in prefabricated housing design. It is his job to convert labour camp caravans into mosques.

"If you see a permanent mosque, it's totally different than a prefab mosque," says Thomas, who works for Extra Co, a company that specialises in prefabricated units in Sharjah. "You cannot adopt all the features. The main thing is that this should be spacious for them, it should not be congested. A mosque should have a feel that this is not a normal house. Normally, it will have, you can say, an atmosphere, where family is in your mind. This I always keep in mind when making a design."

The mosques are built to be simple, portable and disposable. Hundreds are built by Muslim, Hindu and Christian carpenters each year for the country's shifting labour camps. Others are placed in cities for cultural events, for transient labour and as substitutes until permanent mosques can be built.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of men across the country pray in porta-mosques like those built by Thomas. The workshop is at the edge of the Sharjah desert, down a gravel-and-sand track off the 611 bypass; the company was one of the first to build porta-mosques.

The humble porta-mosque is a long-standing fixture of Islamic architecture in the UAE. Porta-mosques have been in demand since the country was born and the construction of the nation began. Where there were people, there were prayers.

Most are 30-man caravans destined for labour camps that cost anywhere from Dh45,000 to Dh55,000. For special events, clients can request mosques that cost up to Dh1,000 per square metre and hold 800 worshippers.

Thomas has dozens of prototypes to meet client and imam approval, but each mosque is made to order. Everything depends on how much a client is willing to invest in a building that will be used for two or three years before its worshippers have moved on to their next work site or repatriated.

Minarets, large decorative doors, a mihrab prayer niche and carpeting that points worshippers to Mecca are considered essential.

Construction takes about three days. Placement, under the supervision of an imam to ensure the mosque faces Mecca, usually takes 30 minutes.

Thomas takes his inspiration from the white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. "I have not been there but I have seen many photos people took," says Thomas. "I think it's the finest in the world."

Emirati mosque styles have changed with national development, from simple coral stone structures to splendours like the 39,375-square-metre Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Mega-mosques that hold tens of thousands of worshippers are under construction across the country. They are influenced by monuments such as Istanbul's medieval Ottoman Suleymaniye Mosque or Lahore's 17th century Mughal Badshahi Mosque.

But the country's daily prayers are usually said at smaller mosques. Hundreds of thousands of the country's working men pray in porta-mosques.

Porta-mosque design incorporates architectural elements from these megastructures that originally served functional purposes. Migrant workers often embellish porta-mosques in the styles of their home countries. This inspires and dictates future porta-mosques design.

In traditional mosques, minarets allow the muezzin's prayer call to rise above the city, while domed ceilings give more space in the prayer hall. In porta-mosques, these features are adopted as ornaments.

Decorative minarets, often no larger than the loudspeakers attached to them, are considered an essential piece of porta-mosques, even though they are foreign to traditional UAE mosques. Worshippers build permanent minarets to showcase their mosque.

"A mosque is any area that we define a mosque should be," says Dr Ahmed Mokhtar, an associate professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah. "However, the reason people tend to have at least a minaret is just to be able to identify that this is a mosque. It's kind of a symbol ... It tells you this is a mosque there."

Although design is ostentatiously influenced by the migrant workers who use and build them, porta-mosques share similarities with the country's pre-oil economy mosques in function. They are usually small, intimate spaces that dictate the day's schedule.

"I see the porta-mosques as very much in line with the traditional Emirati mosques that were scattered through conventional work areas, like the date farms of the alluvial plains in Ras Al Khaimah. The restored Qassimi mosque at Falayya is a good example," says Dr Ronald Hawker in an email. He's an associate chair for the School of Critical and Creative Studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design and a former associate professor of art and design at Zayed University. "Small, but pervasive, the rhythms of work were set by the rhythms of the day's prayer and therefore the sun's location and not by the nine-to-five clock of Europe."

Once they are built, worshippers take ownership.

Moosa Muhyideen is the mutawa at the country's smallest Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It bears little resemblance to the great marble mosque that shares its name.

The smaller, older Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque is a grey and weather-beaten caravan, worn by the sand and the sea breeze of what was once the Al Bateen jetty. Its minaret is a metal pole strung with a cluster of four megaphones that calls the faithful to prayer over traffic. It is named for the country's founding president, who owned the ships that once surrounded this mosque.

"It's a big name," says Muhyideen. "But this is a small mosque."

In Abu Dhabi, mosques like this became part of the cityscape.

After the mosque arrived in two pieces in 1995, the boat builders made it their own. They decorated the inside with green and gold carpeting and curtains, built a decorative minaret from fibreglass, added a shaded veranda and Muhyideen planted a flourishing garden in the backyard. He called it "The Kerala Model".

Muhyideen and his mosque were never meant to be permanent fixtures of Abu Dhabi. When the mutawa arrived from Kerala in 1995 to lead prayers at this shipyard mosque, he did not plan to stay for long.

The mosque was built for a short life and a transient population. People assumed that it would be gone a few years later and its worshippers with it.

Dozens of porta-mosques were once found across the city. Mosques like this one and its sister mosque at the Mina fish market have survived for almost two decades and now appear to be permanent structures.

In the short memory of a young, migrant city, few residents can remember how old these mosques are. To many worshippers, these buildings are some of the last unchanged pieces of the city.

Unfortunately for them, they are also a disappearing relic. The Urban Planning Council announced last week that all new mosques must have "Emirati vernacular design to celebrate Emirati culture and design".

Design frameworks are based on a study of 10 traditional mosques.

"Many of the old caravans were put in place as a temporary measure to respond to growing demands," said Ali Al Zahid, a senior associate planner at the UPC, in an email. "Hence, the new regulations will give planners the right tools to perform an accurate demand [and] supply assessment to find out what the real gaps are in the emirate. Once that is established, a programme to replace the caravans with permanent structures will take place gradually over time."

It is a continuation of a process that the committee began in 2008. The transition from caravan to permanent mosques is managed by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments.

Muhyideen looks forward to the day his mosque will become a permanent concrete structure. It is function that matters, not form.

"Concrete is better," he says. "Rats, cats, everything is here."

At this, the mutawa whistles and a cat with five kittens runs to him. They are his closest friends.

The boatyard, and his garden, have slowly been redeveloped into shinning office towers. The mosque has outlasted the shipbuilders it was designed to serve and is one of the few things that remains to show they were ever here.

"Nobody lives here," says Muhyideen. "A lot of the people who came here were of the sea. Now there's all English people around in these offices. They don't pray."

"Now I stay in my room," he says. "I'm always sitting. The people of the past don't come now. Everything changes. In 20 years, it is only me here. I, alone. But it's not bad."

He looks forward to the coming weeks of Ramadan, when the 125-person mosque will overflow with worshippers. "The people come from offices, from the sea, from everywhere," says Muhyideen. "They even come from an island where there is no mosque."

For others, the solitude of this forgotten mosque brings comfort year-round.

Mohammed Hanitta, a boat mechanic from Sri Lanka, 34, recently arrived in Abu Dhabi to look for work. During his visit, he has prayed at this mosque five times a day, for 45 days.

"Everybody has a problem at some time," said Hanitta. "At that time, you go to the mosque and you sit. All problems disappear."

To worshippers like Hanitta, this mosque is as grand as any other.

azacharias@thenational.ae

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