x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

My UAE: Abdulla Saeed Al Sherhan’s old-time travels

A profile of Abdulla Saeed Al Sherhan, who is one of the last of a generation of seafarers who plied the Indian Ocean on old sail ships.

Abdulla Saeed Al Sherhan first sailed to Kuwait when he was 10 years old. Sarah Dea / The National
Abdulla Saeed Al Sherhan first sailed to Kuwait when he was 10 years old. Sarah Dea / The National

Since its formation in 1971, the UAE has attracted migrants from across the region and around the world. Only a few decades earlier the men of the Gulf coasts were migrants themselves, poor labourers, pearl divers and traders in richer Gulf ports, in the warm waters of the Gulf and across the Indian Ocean.

Before oil, wealth came from the sea. Abdulla Saeed Al Sherhan, 71, is from the last generation of the seafarers who plied the Indian Ocean on old sail ships. When he sailed to Kuwait for the first time in 1952 he was 10 years old. In a few years, large sailing vessels like the boom would disappear completely.

For the sea captain’s son, the sea was his school and other sailors were his teachers. He never learnt to read or write but is still fluent in the trade route languages: Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Swahili and Arabic. “Jambo,” he laughs. “Everywhere I go, I like to speak the language.”

His overwhelming memory of the sea is hunger. There was little food, cramped sleeping conditions on deck and he was months away from home. “Sometimes there was no food and we would not eat for three or four days,” he recalls. Sailors entertained themselves through story-telling and song. To this day Al Sherhan is a keen dancer.

The formation of the UAE brought forth a wealthy and growing economy. After the country’s union, the father of seven left the sea to work as an entrepreneur, trading in any business he could. “I started to work in business, here and here and there and there, real estate and everything. I made my own work.”

On National Day, Al Sherhan expects to keep to his usual routine of morning tea at the Sahel Coffee House on the Old Ras Al Khaimah creek, a popular meeting place for retired sailors and fishermen who remember what life was like when they were poor migrants.

Favourite place in the UAE?

All the emirates but [Sahel Coffee House] is my favourite place. I’m an old man. I’m looking for my rest now and I feel very relaxed with my old friends.

Favourite animal in the UAE?

The goat but I can eat it. It’s the best animal and my favourite meat.

Favourite singer?

They are not alive now.

Favourite book?

I have no books. I cannot read and write. I was 10 months at the sea every year and a month and a half I was home and I had no work. I relaxed.

Favourite dance?

Al Ayala. This is from father to father, it is from before. There are so many, so many dances like ayala and leiwah and hahala. Even the twist. We danced on the ship and here for weddings. A long time ago we would be on the ship for a long time and somebody would bring some musicians and their friends together because we liked to relax and forget our troubles.

Favourite Emirati dish?

I don’t have a favourite. I love them all but if I had to choose one then it would be fish machboos.

Favourite port-of-call in the 1950s?

Wallah, what can I say? I went to Iraq, Basra and Baghdad in 1952. Then I went to Hadramaut, Mukallah, Hami, Shehr, Aden, and don’t forget Kismayo. The best was Aden. There were many Britons there. There was safety in Aden in this time [1950s] and I felt very good when I walked there.

What was your favourite part of the journey?

When I am with my friends, I’m enjoying it. Sometimes when there is no rain, no wetness, it’s the best for sailing. Also when we are cooking and telling stories.

Favourite decade of your life?

Now is the best time in my life. I’m comfortable and prosperous. I can earn money easily.


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