x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

In UAQ Old Town, past and present collide

As part of our series on the nation's oldest neighbourhoods, Rym Ghazal profiles Al Madeena Al Qadeema in Umm Al Quwain.

Fishing boats moored at the harbour overlooking the Old Town area of Umm Al Quwain.
Fishing boats moored at the harbour overlooking the Old Town area of Umm Al Quwain.
UMM AL QUWAIN // It is not hard to find the oldest neighbourhood in Umm Al Quwain - its name gives it away. Al Madeena Al Qadeema - the Old Town - stands at the very edge of this northern emirate in an area shaped like a teardrop, surrounded by sea and creek.
Overlooking an old harbour that features a dhow-building yard and fishing boats surrounded by piles of nets, the Old Town is a collection of small, coral-stone houses that have, for the most part, been turned into shops.
Showcasing traditional architecture such as barajeel (wind towers) and intricately designed draft windows in the shapes of stars and moons, most of the buildings have benefited from at least minor renovations. And yet, some of the wind towers have begun to crumble, giving in to the merciless onslaught of time.
"This area is better known as Al Souq or market village, as it is all shops and services and not residential anymore," says Abdul Jaber, from India. He opened a khatat, or printing business, called New City about six years ago in one of the old houses.
The area features several such companies. The Arabic word khatat traditionally means to write calligraphy, but in today's world such businesses tend to provide printing services and signage for roads, police stations and private homes.
"Emiratis have long moved out of here - late 1970s and 1980s - into newer villas in other areas, and we moved in and are running different businesses that they and expat residents need," says Mr Jaber, adding that most Old Town residents now come from India, Pakistan and other parts of South Asia.
Some of the buildings in the area are thought to be more than 150 years old, with the best maintained structure that of the Umm Al Quwain Museum.
Standing at the entrance of the old town, the museum is housed inside a fort built in 1768 that once provided a home for the emirate's ruling family. A watchtower that stood guard over the town remains to this day, overlooking the sea on one side and the creek on the other.
The fort was used as a police station for a time before it opened as a museum in 2000. A wall that once surrounded the Old Town and includes a handful of watch- towers has also been renovated and opened as part of a public park in 2006.
Originally, the people of Umm Al Quwain lived on Al Sinniyah Island - a 10-minute boat trip away - before moving to the mainland more than 200 years ago when the island's drinking water ran out. First they built the fort and then the Old Town.
The museum houses a collection of weapons used throughout the emirate's history, as well as artefacts found at archaeological sites on nearby islands such as Ed-Dur.
The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has submitted the Ed-Dur site for inclusion on Unesco's world heritage list. According the submission, Ed-Dur is the only known site between Qatar and the Strait of Hormuz with a first-century temple dedicated to the worship of a "sun god".
Elsewhere in the Old Town, in the midst of chaotic and somewhat uncreative signs on old buildings in dire need of painting and renovation, stands a spotlessly white modern building that was once a home but now houses Al Souq Emirates Post.
Unlike many post offices, the popularity of which has waned in the modern age, this one still receives plenty of visitors - though many come simply to chat.
"People come here to pay bills and buy phone cards more than to send letters or buy stamps," says Abdullah Attar, who was a mailman in India before moving to Umm Al Quwain in 1998 and taking a job at the post office.
"There is one Indian man who lives in the Old Town who is a dedicated letter writer and sends a letter back home almost each month."
With modern utilities, clean floors and newly painted walls, the post office stands out in the Old Town.
"A post office must maintain its image and its dignity, regardless of where it is located," says Mr Attar.
Other buildings, particularly the rundown and abandoned ones, receive far fewer visitors, at least of the human kind.
"They are haunted by jinn, so we don't go near them," says Ahmed, an Emirati in his 20s shopping at a grocery store, as he looks towards one such house.
The store owner nods his head in agreement. "Old towns always have one or two haunted houses," he says. "It is part of their charm."
rghazal@thenational.ae
 
For more in this series, click here.