Majid Obaid al Falasi gazes out over the water in the curve of the Dubai Creek. The muddy ground at his feet is covered with sawdust. All around him are the felled trees and freshly cut planks that are the raw materials of his boatbuilding business. "It is in me," he says, gesturing at the water and the half-dozen dhows at various stages of completion. "I was born in such a family who is related to the sea." His grandfather and great-grandfather were "just fishermen, pearl divers and captains. And my father; he is the boat builder who started this factory."
"This factory" is Obaid Juma Bin Suloom Est, tucked away at the end of a hidden dirt road near the Business Bay Crossing and one of the last boatyards in the Emirates to keep alive the traditional craft of dhow-building. At the end of the road, almost obscured behind a palm tree, an old white sign and a metal model boat are the only clues to the yard's presence. Were it not for the sight of the blue-tinted InterContinental Hotel shining in the sun on the far side of the creek, walking through the rusty gate, long since stuck half open, would be to step back in time.
The art of building boats exclusively with wood, which has such a long history in the UAE, is in danger of dying out. For centuries dhows have been the trading lifeline that has linked countries around the Gulf to east Africa and what is now called India and Pakistan, carrying cargoes of dates, fish and mangrove timber. Until the 1960s, sails were more common than engines. "The dhow has always been very important to the UAE," says Dr Fatma al Sayegh, a professor of UAE and Gulf history at UAE University in Al Ain. "It is part of out history, our legacy as a country ... not only as a means of transportation but also as a symbol. The dhow stands for a means of living, for economy and for our connection to the sea."
Craftsmen work on a dhow that will carry cargo through the Gulf and beyond. Photographs by Lizette van Hecke / The National
Once, she says, the boatbuilding industry employed large numbers of people, but few who possess the necessary skills remain. "They have passed away, left the trade or have children who are no longer interested." Today, the dhow is also symbolic of what the nation is in danger of losing: "Many of our values as a people are disappearing," Dr Sayegh says. "Not only the material values, such as the wooden dhows and the craft of building them, also other values are dying out because of modernisation. People try to adapt everything to what is modern, new and faster."
The old skills are succumbing to the demands of economics and the lure of modern materials. The descendants of the traditional dhows, driven by engines instead of sails but with their heritage still evident in the shape of their hulls, continue to ply the trade routes. Today, however, most boatyards in the country work with plastic, aluminium and glass fibre. "The fishermen like the fibre because of the maintenance," says Mr al Falasi. Unlike wooden boats, those made from glass fibre do not have to be dry-docked every three months to maintain their seaworthiness. "Plus, it is cheaper. These days all costs are going up, so nobody can afford to have a wooden dhow, except [as a] luxury."
And luxury motor boats and sailing yachts are what Mr al Falasi builds these days to keep the family business afloat. "Other manufacturers, who make boats with fibre, are also my friends," he says, and they encourage him to move with the times. "But I'm totally against it. My yard is and always will be completely fibre-free." There's even a small copper-plated sign screwed next to the entrance of the wooden office to emphasise the point: "If God had meant us to build fibreglass boats," it reads, "He would have grown fibreglass trees."
Here on the banks of the creek can be found only the old techniques and traditional tools, applied to the fashioning of vessels from hardwoods including Indian teak and Pakistani tali wood. "It is the best way," Mr al Falasi says. "This way is passed on from generation to generation. When I was young I was playing on top of the wood. And I want nothing else. Just like my father." His father, Obaid al Falasi, who is now 73 years old, lived in the Al Ras area at the entrance to Dubai Creek when he was a boy. When he was 10, his parents took him out of school and he was apprenticed to a local dhow builder.
"My father was too naughty in school and was fighting, fighting too much," Mr al Falasi says, smiling. "He liked to fight and was too strong." Academia's loss was boatbuilding's gain. Obaid learnt the skills of boatbuilding gradually and, after a range of seafaring jobs, about 50 years ago - more than a decade before the foundation of the UAE - he launched his business. "Imagine, at 25 he was building some of the biggest dhows in the region," Mr al Falasi says. "Even India and Pakistan could not compete with the size and the quality."
It was, he says, his father's experience of the ocean that gave him his edge. "Because he went to the sea, he knows what the sea is - when it is rough and how the boat should be strong. So he knew and added a lot of strength to this type of wooden boat. It is craftsmanship born from the heart." According to research by Dionisius Agius, a history professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, the boards used to form the hulls of the dhows were originally "stitched" together with fibres, cords or thongs. Today, one concession to modernity in the yard is that they use nails instead, but the frames are still fitted in the original "Arabian way".
Using fresh wood, the men make and assemble the planks first and then shape the ribs inside them; because the planks then dry and shrink, that ensures a tight fit. "Normally it is [the] other way around," says Abdul Rachmad, the yard's 45-year-old Pakistani foreman, "but [we] think this better. Our way will take three to four months to make and needs to fit perfectly." Making boats this way is not a speedy process. It takes 25 men two years to build a 15-metre cargo ship. Driven by a 1,000-horsepower diesel engine. "These cargo ships will carry food or fish," Mr Rachmad says. He points to a pile of planks: "Not only petrol, this country, you know."
Astonishingly, despite the complex profile of their hulls, these boats are built without technical drawings and rely on the skill of the builder and his ability to direct and supervise a workforce armed with traditional tools for shaping the wood, such as the adze. "We are still using the old technique, because there are a lot of things [for which] we cannot use machineries, especially for the alignment and all those things," Mr al Falasi says.
The company employs about 60 people, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who live in houses across the road from where the boats are built. At any one time as many as nine boats are under way. The men start work at 8am and continue until the light begins to fade. "This is very hard work," says Mr Rachmad, who has been with the company for more than 15 years. Mr al Falasi, who studied business administration in the US before returning to join his father in 1995, is saddened that no Emiratis seem to be interested in learning his trade "It is of course hard work, for locals. But at least to have some experience about this type of business and carry the heritage."
He hopes that his own son, Obaid Majid Obaid, named after his grandfather, will one day carry on the family tradition; for now, however, he is only a year old and cannot even play on the wood. Mr al Falasi has had to adapt. "To keep the business running after fishermen turned to fibre we had to bring in new ideas," he says. "Making your own cargo dhows is not enough." So five years ago, he turned the skills of his yard to the lucrative business of building luxury yachts for wealthy customers.
"We design if the people want, we give them our ideas," he says. "But they can also bring their own design and we manufacture it according to them." At first, his father was against the plan. "He was against even me trying it, to show him. So I made it in a different way. I did it on my own and created a yacht on another shipyard. I brought a friend of mine in, gave him the money and made an agreement with him."
He smiles. It worked: "I didn't lie to my father, I tricked him. It was in the benefit of the business. I had to do something like this for the people to see, a show model. It was a good move. Immediately after it was finished and the people saw it, we managed to get into business." These days, a cargo dhow costs about Dh6 million to Dh7 million, but a yacht can cost up to twice as much. Two years ago, a French entrepreneur who wanted an "old style" wooden sailing boat found his way to the yard through word of mouth. "It's because there is no more dhow- building in Europe," Mr al Falasi says. "It saves my business. They have also placed another order."
But the business gives him as much pleasure as profit. He says he is proud to be keeping alive part of the country's cultural heritage. Sitting nearby, his father nods his head vigorously and says something his son does not catch. He walks over to the old man and they whisper together for a while. "He loves this," Mr al Falasi says. "Imagine, at this age he comes here every day. Even if he cannot walk, even on Friday when nobody is working, but he makes sure he's here at least for an hour."
These days his father no longer works in the yard, although "if there's any problem we just go back to him", but "he used to be involved a hundred per cent; he used to do it with his hands, he used to cut all the trees by himself." His father, he says, "has always been busy with his work, so he is not that aware of what is happening in Dubai. From here he goes to home and from home to here and he doesn't read the news.
"But the changes of course are having a big impact on him. He loves the olden days and he will cry and say it used to be much better." His consolation, as he sits and contentedly watches the familiar activity all around him, is knowing that his son - and, perhaps, his grandson after him - is making sure that the art of dhow-building is not a forgotten cultural backwater, but a thriving tradition that has found a way to adapt and survive on the banks of the 21st century Dubai Creek.