x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Dhow builder continues his trade

As the sole remaining dhow builder in RAK, Mohammed Bu Haji is the vessel of an ancient tradition.

"It's a little small," Mohammed Bu Haji says of the 500-tonne boat his work crew is building in the dhow yard at Ras al Khaimah. Jaime Puebla / The National
"It's a little small," Mohammed Bu Haji says of the 500-tonne boat his work crew is building in the dhow yard at Ras al Khaimah. Jaime Puebla / The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // A year has passed since Mohammed Bu Haji, the last of the Ras al Khaimah dhow builders, launched what he said would be his final creation.

The 800-tonne capacity vessel was to be the closing chapter in the story of a tradition in the emirate that dates back almost 2,000 years.

Mr Bu Haji, a RAK resident in his late 70s who is in poor health, supervised each minute of the eight-day launch from a plastic chair, but was visibly exhausted by the effort.

Despite his pledge to call it quits, one year on, he can still be seen driving into the dhow yard at 5pm each day to supervise yet another building project.

His newest creation is 20 metres long, six metres tall and nine metres across. It is carved from the wood of 24 logs, each about 10 metres long and more than a foot in diameter.

"It's a little small," says Mr Bu Haji of his new 500-tonne capacity dhow.

The boat has given him new vigour. He has traded his Nissan Cedric for a Toyota Corolla and bought a new kaffiyeh. Though he has a few more white hairs in his eyebrows, he speaks with energy and enthusiasm about his new project.

"A lot of people came and asked me not to stop," said Mr Bu Haji. "People from my profession, from Dubai, from Kuwait. If I can make one more, then it will be even more of a blessing. Inshallah, if I have the energy to make more, I will. That's my work."

The last dhow built by Mr Bu Haji and his crew went to Iran to be stained and is used for trade in the Gulf.

"From Dubai to Iran, they load everything and anything, like a grocery," he said.

Mr Bu Haji has built dhows in RAK for more than half a century and once commanded a crew of 70.

Before building the boats he was a captain on 300-tonne dhows that made eight-month voyages to Iraq, Pakistan, India and Africa. The crew would pass the time building model boats, a skill he learnt from an Iranian sailor. To this day, Mr Bu Haji and his crew build giant dhows with traditional tools and without blueprints, although on a larger scale.

Life was not all work. When he was a captain Mr Bu Haji spent his summers swimming, smoking shisha and attending weddings.

Mr Bu Haji is the end of a legacy of ship building in RAK.

Great ships identical to those crafted by Mr Bu Haji brought Ras al Khaimah and its predecessor, medieval Julfar, enormous wealth through pearling, fishing and trade that stretched from Basra to Zanzibar and carried goods from China to Europe.

Only two of Mr Bu Haji's dozens of grandchildren take an interest in his craft: Amr, who is in his early teens, and Abdulla Mohammed, who continues to visit the dhow yard each Saturday when he returns from university in Abu Dhabi.

RAK's dhow trade will continue as long as Mr Bu Haji does.

"It's my own work, it's my creation," he said. "Each and every thing I have in my mind. I feel so proud that it's my own creation."