x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Fame for Bedouin huts built before architects or plans

The palm-leaf house, the arish, has been recognised as an architectural development even though Bedouins have been making them for years.

Fatima Khamis al Fendi al Mazrouei and her daugher, Manal Rashid al Mazrouei, stand outside their family Arish house on their campsite. Delores Johnson / The National
Fatima Khamis al Fendi al Mazrouei and her daugher, Manal Rashid al Mazrouei, stand outside their family Arish house on their campsite. Delores Johnson / The National

It's been 20 minutes or so since we left the road and quite how Fatima Khamis Al Fendi Al Mazrouei is navigating is a mystery. The landscape is in a state of perpetual change from the sand, carried by wind that has blown all day. The sand gutters from the crest of dunes; all around, it lifts and fills the air. If there were any discernible landmarks in this portion of Rub al Khali they are lost in the haze. Yet Ms Al Mazrouei drives on. A left turn here, a right turn there, she follows a route invisible to her passengers' desert-befuddled eyes until, suddenly, we have arrived at her farm.

Dozens of goats stand in pens, a few cows laze in their desert byre and some among the herd of camel scattered across the dunes turn their heads, displaying a passing interest in Ms Al Mazrouei's arrival.

She gestures past it all to a strange little tuft of a building beyond. "Arish," she says proudly. "My arish. Only small but I build."

Ms Al Mazrouei has lived on the edge of one of the largest deserts in the world all her life, a few kilometres beyond Liwa. Her formal education was minimal. She married at 15, though she's vague about how old she is now, has 11 children and, six months ago, became a grandmother for the first time to baby Fatima, named in her honour.

She is warm, welcoming and Bedouin to her core. If anybody had suggested to her a year ago that she would hold a key role in an internationally recognised architectural project, with her handiwork exhibited in the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, she would have roared with laughter. But then, last February, she met the Polish-born architect Sandra Piesik and found, in the process, an unlikely champion of a tradition on the cusp of being lost.

For Ms Al Mazrouei, her arish, the local term for a house built from palm leaves, is about something far more profound than arts and craft. It's a matter of identity. She has told her children she wants a stamp of an arish on her passport to mark her Emirati nationality.

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An arish is a group of four or five separate huts or rooms in which the Bedouin once settled the desert. In some areas, they erected them seasonally as they migrated between oasis and coast; in others more permanently. They can stand for 20 years.

For Ms Piesik, the arish is an unlikely cause that began as an academic exercise born out of personal disenchantment.

The women met at the Liwa date festival last year and the combined force of their sheer enthusiasm and knowledge - Ms Al Mazrouei's learnt over a lifetime, Ms Piesik's after a year of research - galvanised the Liwa municipality and many from the local community.

The result was the Liwa Arish House Project. Part cultural, part architectural, it is a history project of sorts. One complete arish house has been built in Mougab, where a village of such houses stood as recently as the early 1980s. Back then, in Liwa, about 5,000 people lived in about 800 arishes.

In some ways, it seems a contradiction that a historical project should have found itself "highly commended" in the Emerging Architecture Awards of The Architectural Review, but history continues to teach.

Today photographs of the arish are displayed in the awards' London exhibition next to developments such as an upscale kitchen from Japan, a pop-up restaurant in East London, a Chinese school and a public swimming pool in Andalucia, Spain. Yet, when the exhibition ends next month, the project's progress and the journey that preceded it - all carefully chronicled by Ms Piesik - will be gratefully received into the archives of Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum.

It is Ms Piesik's hope that the Bedouin knowledge that went into the construction of arishes for thousands of years can now be incorporated or adapted into new, emerging architectural projects.

The fact that the project can inform both worlds was, according to the panel of judges who scrutinised 300 projects from 48 countries, key in their decision to include it in their list of winners. For them, it demonstrated "connectedness to a place, appropriate use of materials and technology, environmental and social responsibility and some sense of architectural authenticity (as opposed to novelty) which is perhaps increasingly difficult to define in these cut-and-paste times".

Ms Piesik estimates that "maybe 80 per cent of people in the UAE lived in these palm-leaf houses until the '70s. The last ones were here until the '80s when the roads were built across the deserts and the final houses torn down.

"But the transition between that former way of life and the life we see today happened so quickly that there was not much opportunity to validate or really study the architecture styles of the old culture. There are very few sources of information."

Ms Piesik sought out that information herself. Armed with copies of photographs of the Liwa oasis taken by British oil companies that conducted surveys in the area and those of Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer who photographed the Empty Quarter in 1948, Ms Piesik travelled in search of the past.

She says: "I drove every single road asking people as I went, 'Have you seen this house?'"

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Ms Piesik admits she must have cut an eccentric figure. But, after years spent working for vast international firms, she was convinced that contemporary architecture in the UAE ought to connect with the land and its heritage rather than simply build over it. And if it were to stand a chance of doing so that heritage had to be chronicled before it was lost forever.

She says: "I came to Dubai in 2005. In three years I worked on 33 projects amounting to 40 billion dirhams.

"I don't think we'll see anything like that again. I'm grateful for the experience, but more and more I thought there must be a way to connect with this place. How did people survive in this climate before? We were using lots of glass - that heats up, it gets covered in sand. So you get air conditioning, you pump water to clean it … this is not sustainable. I felt there must be a space for a more thoughtful way of building for both climate and people."

Then the financial crash came and that "changed everything". Many friends lost jobs and though Ms Piesik didn't she decided it was time to review her approach to life and work.

She set up her own architectural practice, 3ideas.ltd, and set about researching the traditions of building in the UAE.

As she drove thousands of kilometres across the country she discovered that the palm-leaf houses differed across the region. For example, in Liwa, the Bedouin left the tops of the palm leaves long and brush-like for their arishes. Elsewhere, these tops were trimmed. In areas more prone to sand storms, palm-leaf matting was woven in double layers, a dense mesh called hassir, which stretched up the full height of the walls, holding back much of the sand while allowing air to circulate inside.

Every arish room was built with a front and back door. A practical measure for shutting out the desert whichever way the wind blew and also one that allowed a separate exit so no woman had improper contact with a man.

As Ms Piesik travelled, children and grandchildren translated for the elders who recalled life in these arish villages. Women, she was told, were the ones who built the structures. They soaked the palm leaves to soften them, sometimes digging deep into the sand to reach moisture and burying them there. They stripped fibres from palm trunks to make rope, wove the leaves into a mat and linked them together, prefabricating sections of wall that could be rolled up and transported as needed.

The largest room was the majlis, a space for the men to meet and talk. Next to that were rooms for women and children, plus a kitchen. Some had a small room for washing. The daan mat, as the palm matting was known locally in Liwa, was also used as a carpet.

The more Ms Piesik learnt, the more she longed to actually build a complete arish. As an experiment she was fascinated to see how the materials behaved in the climate. And, by the end of her year's odyssey, she had, she admits, rather fallen in love with the region and the romance of the arish.

"It was like a Sherlock Holmes detective story. The deeper you get into it, the more you find out. I spoke to the director of the municipality at Liwa and said, 'Why don't we rebuild a house?' He said OK. He gave a piece of land and introduced me to some people.

"Meeting Fatima was a real turning point. I was so excited to learn that this wasn't just something I wanted to do."

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More than a dozen people worked on the house with Ms Al Mazrouei, among them older Bedouin women who oversaw their efforts. They followed a sketch made by Ms Al Mazrouei of her childhood home. The build took four weeks.

"It was a lovely social time," Ms Piesik says. "That's how it used to be, Ms Al Mazrouei said, because the women and children would sit and weave and sing and talk and tell stories."

It is clear Ms Al Mazrouei would go back to living in an arish tomorrow. Building the community one has inspired her to start her own. But her children live in a world of mobile telephones, social networking, air conditioning and television.

On the day of our visit, the young men in the municipal majlis spoke proudly of the arish heritage, acknowledging that their parents and grandparents recalled life in the arish as "more healthy". When asked if they would ever live in an arish, however, the response was a unanimous: "Only if it had Wi-Fi."

Ms Piesik smiles. Her enthusiasm is undiminished. The point of the Liwa Arish House Project was never to preserve the skill in aspic, but to keep it alive.

For that to happen, it has to evolve.

Ms Al Mazrouei is lobbying for arish-building to enter the education curriculum. She already travels to schools to teach it. Ms Piesik advocates incorporating the understanding of the climate into modern architecture.

She says: "These were buildings constructed without architects or drawings and they show a profound understanding of the climate that we must learn from. For example, the way they were grouped provided a thermal mass and shading. We measured the temperature of the sand outside the house in July and it was 77 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Inside, it was 54 degrees. That is very effective cooling. There are no windows, but it is light. There's a lot we can learn from this.

"But we have to do it while the memories and the skills are there to be passed on."

lcollins@thenational.ae