x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Last pearl of history in danger

Jazirat al Hamra, the only preserved village from the era predating oil, is threatened by encroaching development.

The ruins of a house in Jazirat al Hamra, where historically many buildings were built from sand, shells and stones.
The ruins of a house in Jazirat al Hamra, where historically many buildings were built from sand, shells and stones.

Ras al Aisha al Shareef heads for the shore to show her daughters the beach where she played as a little girl. But when she turns the corner, she discovers the beach is no longer there. Instead, she finds a wire fence and a pile of boulders. The shoreline has been filled for Dana Island, one of Ras al Khaimah's big new projects. Aisha is one of the people who grew up in the village of Jazirat al Hamra, a once thriving pearling centre abandoned after unification.

Today, the village is once again at the centre of development in Ras al Khaimah. Flanked by RAK's largest luxury projects, including the Al Hamra Hotel and Village, a Dh800 million water park, Dana Island and Mina al Arab, the historic village includes some of Ras al Khaimah's desired waterfront property. As the only preserved village in the UAE and possibly the entire Gulf, from the time before oil was discovered, it is an archaeological jewel, a sandcastle village, its houses built of coral stone and bricks made of sand and seashells. The emirate's archaeologists believe the site has been inhabited since at least the 16th century.

Yet to the families who lived there, elbowed out by progress, Jazirat al Hamra is not just a symbol of the Emirates' past or future, it is their home and identity. Although they live in more modern housing nearby, most families still own the houses they abandoned 40 years ago and are reluctant to sell them to developers. "This is a place of old memories," says Aamna bint Qadeeb al Zaabi, Aisha's daughter. "No matter how much money they offer, it cannot be bought. This is our history."

Pausing to watch the sun sparkle on the sea, Aisha sets off with her son and three daughters to visit the house where she was born. Behind the tinted glass of her son's black 4x4, she points excitedly to different buildings along the way, narrating a tour of the village. "That's the jail, where we kept people who stole camels and goats. Then the first car came in 1957 or 1958. It was a Chevrolet that an Englishman drove. Then Land Rovers came and soon there were a lot of them.

"Here is the old souk. That big house over there, with the wind towers, is Abdulla Kareem al Ahmad's house. He sold us rice and coffee and spices. He had so many brothers and wives and children. Look at all the wind towers he has." At a wall of crumbling coral, "this is where my grandmother used to live". The tour continues, bumping down dusty alleys, past overgrown courtyards and graffiti-scrawled walls. She finds the street where she played with her friends, the old school she attended and the mosque where her family prayed.

Finally we arrive at Aisha's old house. She jumps nimbly out of the vehicle, lifting her abaya to step over fallen bricks, and enters the courtyard of her childhood home. The courtyard is overrun with thorn bushes and goat bones litter the dusty floor of the old kitchen. Undaunted, Aisha marches over the bones, enters the room in which she was born and lifts her veil, her face radiant with delight. She reaches for a rope that hangs from the ceiling: "This rope held the cradle where my brother and I slept as babies. When I grew older, I slept with my family here on blankets on the floor. We kept our radio and bukhoor on these shelves and our clothing stored in wooden trunks."

Her father worked making sand bricks. "Then he worked on ships in Iran and Somalia. He traded dates for coffee and rice. Men went to sea and fished. Women worked in the house and did embroidery." Outside, Aisha's next stop is her husband's house. "I lived here for four years, after I got married in the year of unification. My two eldest sons were born here." Her husband's family, she says, moved to Ras al Khaimah city in 1950 to work for two years and leased the house to a student. When they returned, he had painted poetry all over the walls in beautiful Arabic script. Today, only a fragment remains: "I never called you..."

Her husband began working as a farmer on date farms in Khatt at the age of 15. Historically families in Jazirat al Hamra owned date farms in Khatt and would migrate seasonally between the coast and the mountains, usually spending the summer in Khatt and winter at the coast. As the sun sets, it is time to return home, before the rumoured djinn of the village make an appearance. On the drive back, Aisha looks out of the window at the coral and sand brick buildings. "Life is easier now but it was more relaxed before," says Aisha, taking a last look at the coral and sand-brick buildings. "There was a connection with nature. My ancestors came, thousands of years ago, from Yemen. They travelled through Saudi and, finally, 400 years ago, we settled here. We learnt about Islam and we made this our home."