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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

A hidden piece of the Emirates

Part of the Istabsir series: A hidden piece of the Emirates

Nahwa // The enclave of Nahwa sits like a dot of the UAE inside another enclave, Madha, a collection of small villages that fly the Omani flag and are administered by the Sultanate.

No formal border crossing exists between the territories. A humble, green sign welcomes visitors to the Waliyat of Madha and stores advertise Sale of Food Stuff, a sure sign that you have left the UAE and crossed into Oman.

Residents know the borders by the beep of their mobile phones as SMS messages from Etisalat welcome them into the UAE and wish them safe travels in Oman. These jigsaw boundaries date to about 1900, when the British toured the Northern Emirates to map its borders.

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The tribe of Nahwa told the British they accepted the authority of the Qawasim, the sea-faring tribe based in Sharjah that controlled most of the east coast. The tribe living in Madha, however, said their loyalty rested with the Sultan of Muscat.

"Madha was famous for sweet water," said Ali Mohammed, 35, an engineer from Madha. "So people said if we belong to Sharqiyin [tribe], they will take this water. If we belong to Al Qawasim they will take this water. If we belong to Oman they will not come here."

Khor Fakkan and Nahwa, both dominated by the Naqbiyin tribe, remained loyal to Sharjah after Fujairah declared its independence.

The Nahwa enclave consists of three towns - Old Nahwa, abandoned 11 years ago for New Nahwa, and Shees, a village famed for its pools. In New Nahwa there is a school for grades one to three, a clinic and a gym with a pool for the inhabitants of its 40 or so houses.

Even with these modern amenities, community life continues to revolve around the majlis of Nahwa's emir, Khalfan Abdullah, a man in his 70s with a strong handshake and a head full of history. Every Friday, the men of the village meet at the majlis, an opulent room of gold, pink and burgundy.

"Because Nahwa is a centre between Oman and Sharjah, people in Nahwah are special," says the emir's son, Saeed Khalfan, a policeman in Khor Fakkan. "The old mutawwa sits here," says the emir. "It was a centre in the mountains. Good farms were in Nahwa, good water was in Nahwa."

The serenity of Nahwa's mountains and pools was an inspiration to the religious men who lived here. It is said that the beauty of Nahwa was reflected in their calligraphy and their prose. "When men from Nahwa went overseas for work, they carried letters of reference written by Nahwa's mutawwa," says Mr Abdullah. "So beautiful were these letters that the town became famous for its writing."

Mr Khalfan's father has guided Nahwa as emir for three decades. Before that, his grandfather ruled for over 70 years. Even then, the area was loyal to Sharjah. "Before it was tribes, not emirates. Before I was born, this was Sharjah," he says. His father and the ruler of Madha started to negotiate firm borders between Madha and Nahwa about 40 years ago.

There was always the occasional dispute over who controlled which mountain and the rights to its honey and sidr wood. But residents are not overly concerned with borders.

"I don't think about it too much," says Mr Khalfan. "In the week, I go to play football in Oman. The families are connected, only the mobiles are different."