On the coast of Ras al Khaimah, former fishermen who went to sea in the days when all the work was done by hand, still chant the songs they learnt as boys to lighten their load.
As a boy, Saeed Laha used to rush down to the shore to hear the songs of the fishermen. In the seaside village of Galileh, cradled between the Hajjar Mountains and the turquoise waters of the Gulf, the men would push their six-metre boats out each morning, chanting songs to give them strength and blessings for their arduous work on the waters of the peninsula.
Mr Laha closes his eyes and recalls their song:
Yella, yella, yella
Al muti Allah
"They sang, ‘God give us power to push our boat to the sea, nobody can give us anything except God’," he says. "We would hear them a lot because we lived here on the beach. I would hear them at sea when I went fishing."
Ten years ago, he says, they stopped.
"The old people can’t fish any more and the young people want to go to the office. This is what’s happening now in the UAE."
The songs, however, have not completely disappeared.
After sunset in the dark streets of Ras al Khaimah’s old coastal neighbourhoods, the melodies of the shanties still drift through the thick sea air, remembered and sung by retired fishermen. The fast beats bring quick smiles to the faces of these old men, who recall both the freedoms and burdens of life at sea.
At a majlis in al Rams, another fishing village near the Musandam border, Saleh Hanbalouh, 56, and Ali Suwairi, 59, chant songs back and forth. Imitating the call and answer of the boat’s captain and his crew, they sing with the force of a crew of 20.
Bacher bil khair
Yak al khair
Bachar bil khair.
The song continues:
Say to other fishermen
There is a bounty here
If you have too many fish
Send them to another fisherman
Hamdulillah, God grant me this.
Mr Hanbalouh – small, quick, and strong – has the spark of a young man. Mr Suwairi sits relaxed, saving his movements for deep laughter and jokes. Like his father, he was a sea captain, which gave him the privilege of leading the crew in song.
Before the advent of motorboats in the 1970s and the modern equipment used on today’s vessels, all labour was done by hand. Mr Hanbalouh and his father sailed with a crew of 10 to 20 fishermen on wooden shahoofs, boats about six metres long and two wide. The work was difficult and the hours were long. Songs kept morale high and the crews united during tiring days and dangerous journeys.
Mr Hanbalouh learnt the songs as a boy on his father’s boat. "I went to sea at seven years old to learn and help with small things like making rope," he says.
"When I was 12, my dad made me captain. He would watch me and any small mistake I made he hit me with a rope. At first, I was terrified. But after three years, I was perfect. When I was 15 I said to my father, ‘I want a separate boat’."
As Mr Hanbalouh recalls his early days at sea, he finds a thin piece of rope wrapped around a nearby clay pot. He unwinds it from the pot and loops it around his big toe. He sits on the floor of the majlis and deftly ties series of knots while he continues talking.
"First, we would go out in the morning, setting our nets for three or four hours. After sunset we would go again and cast our nets wherever there was movement.
"We would come back from the sea and go to the farm by donkey to trade the fish for dates, rice, vegetables. I couldn’t come back home without fish because then my family would not eat."
Mr Hanbalouh and his crew slept little more than four hours at a time, often working through the night and into the heat of the day.
"When the sun came down on my head, I felt nothing. It was not difficult physically, but thinking of my home was like a weight."
To keep their spirits up, the fishermen sang and each activity had a different chant to accompany it. There was a song for pushing the boat out, a song to bring the boat in, another for rowing and others for different types of fish and nets.
"We had many, many songs for sardines," Mr Hanbalouh says. "For this small fish we needed 12 men on the boat. We could have three tonnes of sardines, 12 hours of work.
"We had 10 types of sardines and different uses for each: one to feed the animals, one to fertilise the garden, one to oil the boat, one to eat, one to pickle."
They also sang about the sharp nets that cut their hands:
The knife is cutting my hand
I am afraid that everyone will know
Sardines have come
and they told me the palm will grow.
If sailors were lazy, Mr Hanbalouh and his crew would sing to them:
Whoever is with me
They help me
Is it better to stand
then to see me like this?
Sit and watch me.
Mr Hanbalouh would catch many of the same fish that are popular today, including rabbitfish, emperor, trevally and kawakawa tuna. Fish were more plentiful, he says, and fishermen limited their catch.
"We had no refrigeration so we only caught what we could use. If there was too much fish for one boat, we would call other fishermen to help us and share the catch. Sometimes we had so much that we threw extra fish overboard."
Mr Hanbalouh pulls the rope he has been knotting off his foot. He spreads it like a web, revealing a perfect net for sardines.
"My father was a pearl diver," Mr Suwairi says. "He was the best in Ras al Khaimah, Dubai, Qatar. He could dive 12 metres deep."
The pearling industry collapsed 20 years before Mr Suwairi was born and he never heard the songs of the pearling ships. However, a mariner’s blood was in his veins and he inherited his father’s love for the Gulf.
"My dad took me to sea with him when I was seven years old and I have never stopped going," he says. "I worked at sea for 42 years as a fisherman. All my life is the sea. Even when I sleep, I dream of the sea."
When he was still a boy, Mr Suwairi began work as a fisherman, catching fish with the huge dome-shaped gargour nets that are still used by Gulf fishermen. Rowing out to sea and hauling in the heavy ropes and giant nets required enormous strength and discipline.
"Some days we would go to sea and put the gargour in water 80 metres deep," he says. "These nets were enormous, maybe six metres high and three metres wide. It would weigh 500 kilograms when it was full. We would sing to give ourselves power."
It would take 10 fishermen 10 minutes to pull up such a catch, he says. Energised by his memories, Mr Suwairi leaps up and mimes pulling a rope with his invisible crew. He sings:
I make this gargour
From metal and I close the doors
and it has small windows
I close its big window
Let God please give me a big catch.
Most of the songs, says Mr Hanbalouh, "are at least 200 years old. My father’s grandfather taught him and he taught me. I don’t know how many songs I know because every time I fished with a new person, I would learn his songs and he would learn mine.
"We sing the same songs all the way down the coast, from Khor Khwair to Jazirat al Hamra. Sometimes the words are a little different but the popular songs are the same."