x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Brothers from the islands of bliss

About 1,500km south of the UAE lies the isolated, four-island archipelago of Socotra, a lost paradise in the Indian Ocean.

The Ditwa lagoon and beach near the port of Qalensiy on Yemen's Socotra faces the challenge of how to converse its national treasures while opening up to tourism.
The Ditwa lagoon and beach near the port of Qalensiy on Yemen's Socotra faces the challenge of how to converse its national treasures while opening up to tourism.

About 1,500km south of the UAE lies the isolated, four-island archipelago of Socotra, a lost paradise in the Indian Ocean.

Socotra is also the name of the largest island, believed to be derived from the Sanskrit dvipa sukhadhara, "island of bliss". It is hard to imagine a place more unlike the UAE, and yet its ties with the Emirates are ancient and still very much alive. The islands are famed for their diversity of plant species, about a third of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The natural resources and strategic location of the Socotra, 80km east of Somalia and 380km south of Yemen, led the archipelago to play a major role in the ambitions of empire builders from as long ago as Alexander the Great.

But some of the deepest roots, which survive to this day, were put down by the sailors who for centuries travelled from the Arabian Gulf to the islands on the trade winds of the Indian monsoon. While other peoples have come and gone, the bonds forged between Arab merchants and the locals were so strong that Socotris and Emiratis call each other brother to this day. Born in a cave in Socotra, Abdullah Suleyman al Mehri never dreamt that he would one day raise his eight children in the wealth of the UAE. He worked as a goatherd until 1955 when, at the age of 15, he came to the Gulf as a trader, also working as a builder in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

In 1967 the British withdrew from Aden, having ruled it since 1834, giving way to the socialist republic of South Yemen. Like many others, Mr Suleyman was forced to give his land to the government. "The government was bad," he says. "There was communist rule. I did not like it. I left." In 1969, Mr Suleyman turned his back on Socotra for good. Friends persuaded him to try his luck as a trader in Dubai, but once he was there he found he longed for the landscapes of his homeland.

"Anyone who leaves his country, who goes to another country, he is thinking too much," he says. It was only when he visited Ras al Khaimah for the first time, he says, that he felt he had found his second home. "I am coming from the mountains, I am Bedu. Then I saw RAK was the same." The island's lichen-covered mountains rise 1,550 metres over limestone plateaus, fertile palm groves and white sand beaches strewn with colossal conch shells. Orange boulders and bulbous desert rose trees lead to dark caverns and lush wadis.

Its oceanic climate has created a spectacular biodiversity; there are seven varieties of frankincense trees and more than 300 endemic plants, including the cucumber tree, the elephantine Socotra fig and the dragon's blood tree. It was the abundance of the aromatic resin frankincense, a lucrative commodity in the ancient world, that drew tribes from southern Arabia in the first century BC. Today, the islands support a population of approximately 50,000, who survive mainly on fishing, goat herding and agriculture. However, there is little evidence of the original inhabitants; those who helped cultivate Arabia's early wealth were themselves poor and left little behind.

The ninth-century Arabian historian Al Mas'udi recorded that in 330BC Alexander the Great occupied the island to exploit the aloe that grew there, exporting it to Greece, Syria and Egypt, on the advice of his tutor Aristotle. According to tradition, the descendants of Socotra's first settlers were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle, who visited the island on his way to India. When the Portuguese arrived in 1507 they found Christians still living there.

Although the closest mainland is the Horn of Africa, today Socotra belongs to Yemen, an association that dates to 1886, when the island, which had been occupied by the British East India Company in 1834, became part of the Aden protectorate. It was used as a supply depot by British ships well into the 20th century. Proof of the lasting ties with today's Emirates, however, can be found across the island. For instance, the coastal architecture of Socotra has more in common with the UAE than with the mud high-rises on the coast of mainland Yemen. Houses built from coral stone in the capital of Hadibu are identical to those found in Jazirat al Hamra, the abandoned pre-oil village in RAK.

On the south coast of Socotra, palm-frond areesh houses built on the white sand are duplicates of the traditional coastal summer houses of the UAE. The obvious cultural connections are not limited to architecture. Men in Socotra will greet each other by touching noses, a custom common to the UAE but unpractised on mainland Yemen. In a wadi near Homhil, a protected area on Socotra, women wear dresses adorned with tali, the traditional threading of the UAE. "It's from my nephew," says a woman in her fifties, smiling. "He lives in Ajman."

Such links are not unusual; most families in Socotra have relatives in RAK or Ajman. "Before 50 years the merchants from the Emirates came and married the women from Socotra and they would make a big family here in Socotra," says Adnan Binakeel, a 21-year-old tour guide from the coastal town of Qalansia. "They made big families here and some of them go to the Emirates. They still come here and bring cars and food."

In Ajman and RAK, he says, "there are many Socotri and in RAK most of them are from Qalansia. Qalansia, before, was a sea port, famous for the foreign people who would come here." Mubarak Sa'ad al Mehri, 69, came to RAK from Qalansia in the 1950s. "I was afraid," he admits. "I came on a big wooden ship. All of us came by ship. Inside ships, we carried rice, food stuff. Anyone who came for business went to the Gulf two times a year."

Even in the relative poverty before oil, the UAE was considered rich compared with the distant archipelago and Mr Sa'ad left his childhood work in the palm gardens for a new life. "I had faith in God," he says. A man would take this risk, "to help his family, to help himself. He came for a better life." Mr Binakeel says women from Qalansia also relocate to RAK to marry relatives and friends who have settled in the UAE.

Among them is Mr Binakeel's sister Ibtesam, who moved to RAK three years ago to marry. Mr Binakeel's aunt also lives there. She is, he says, happy but finds RAK "very, very different" from her island home. Apart from the occasional eco-tourist's visit, Socotra remains fairly isolated. For a quarter of the year, the island is so battered by gales that few ships can reach its harbours and travel to the island is still virtually impossible from June to October. A modest airport opened in 1999 but in the summer even air travel can be perilous.

On an island where some people speak only Socotri, an unwritten South Arabian language that predates Islam, where many still live without electricity and some do not even know religions other than Islam exist, the knowledge of UAE customs and geography is remarkable. In fact, many Socotris not only know the different Emirates but can even name individual neighbourhoods and mosques. Mr Suleyman's eight children were all born in the UAE, where they had the opportunity to attend university and raise families of their own. His two sons visited the island for the first time last year and, upon seeing the harsh realities of life in Socotra, were grateful for the chance their father and mother took 40 years ago.

On the trip last January, Mr Suleyman showed his sons the cave where he and his wife celebrated their wedding night. "They said, 'Somebody slept here?' I said, 'Yes, I slept here.'" His daughter Fatema, 35, adds: "My father came [to RAK] and he saw this wide empty area and he called his friends to settle here." Mr Suleyman built an areesh house in an area that came to be known as Mamourah and that, to this day, is famed for its Socotri founders.

When RAK joined the year-old UAE in 1972, Mr Suleyman took a job as a bus driver for the Ministry of Education, where he worked for six years until his retirement. He was offered citizenship of the new country in 1974. "Because all the UAE people and Socotri people, they are brothers," he says. "UAE and Socotra, they are the same family." Following their marriage, he and his wife arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a 20-day sea voyage.

"You know, ladies in the past, they followed their husbands wherever they'd go," says Fatema. Her mother insists she was not afraid to start a new life in the UAE: "I felt peace since I was with my husband." She has returned to Socotra only once but her face lights up when she recalls the mountains where she grew up. "It was a nice life. I was a spoilt girl," she says. Nice, but not easy. "Socotra is a very difficult island," says Mr Suleyman. "The life there is very difficult."

God, says Fatema, "inspired them to adapt". After every trip to the island, Mr Suleyman returns with treasures from home; thick silver bangles and heavy earrings, bejewelled coffee pots and glass-bead bracelets, old coins, brown and grey goat-hair carpets, twigs used for reddening the gums and, of course, the island's famous exports of frankincense and flakes of dragon's blood, the resin of the tree used as a traditional cure for menstrual pain and eye and skin care.

Mr Suleyman shows off the items, evidently proud of his homeland's artistry, but it is only in the past two years that he has begun to speak Socotri with his children. "We understand this language but we can't speak it," says Fatema. "We didn't know he knew this language until we grew up." She and her seven brothers and sisters are, however, familiar with Socotri folk tales. "Some are stories about princes and djinns. In my father's place there was a woman genie. If a stranger came, the woman would scream all night until he told her it was a guest."

And in Socotri tradition, guests are always made to feel like family. Mr Suleyman's nephew, Abdulla Saeed, 37, is visiting from the island. He continues the trade of his forefathers and twice a year brings rice, sugar, tea and oil from the Emirates to Socotra, and returns bearing pure honey, blankets and small plastic vials of dragon's blood resin. The importance of family is not just emotional. He prefers trade with the UAE to Yemen, Oman or India because his uncle can give him a three-year business sponsorship.

Fatema has never been to the island herself but insists it plays a key role in her life. "We are proud. If someone asks us where are you from originally, we will say Socotra. But honestly, we love the UAE more. We were born here but if they ask our origins we don't deny it." For those on the island, the UAE still represents opportunity, trade and family. At night the men gather as they have for hundreds of years, falsetto voices singing timeless songs of loss and longing.

Only the details change, the sentiments remain the same: they sing now not about the ship, but the aircraft that carry their kin to faraway lands where they will make their fortunes and find a new home. azacharias@thenational.ae