x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Master of a craft as old as the ark

With hands like cracked honey Mohammed Bu Haji has been building dhows in Ras al Khaimah for half a century.

Every time he starts work on a dhow, Mohamed Bu Haji says it will be his last. He has been saying that for more than 10 years and yet each evening at five o'clock he can still be seen driving his old Nissan Cedric onto the beach by the fishing lagoon where he works. He has been building ships here in Maaridh, Ras al Khaimah, for three decades and in the 20 years before that made hundreds of dhows in Old RAK. In his old age, Mr Bu Haji builds one large dhow at a time. His current vessel will carry 800 tonnes and measures an impressive 30 metres by nine metres, a mere six metres short of the reputed size of Noah's Ark. Mr Bu Haji is a man with a gentle spirit and soft, dignified movements. His hands are the same cracked honey colour as the dhows he builds.

Now in his late 70s, he suffers from severe back problems and most of the time he supervises the work from the comfort of his car, which he parks directly below the stern. Every so often, he gets out to inspect progress and offer advice. Although his body has aged, Mr Bu Haji's sharp eyes betray the strength of experience. "I started with boats since I was a young man," he says. "The Government gave my father land to build boats on. Then I started and I went to the sheikh and asked for land."

As a boy, Mr Bu Haji helped his family in the palm orchards during the summer and fished on six-metre boats in the winter. In his late teens, Mr Bu Haji joined his father on his annual eight-month voyages to Iraq, Pakistan, India and Africa. Mr Bu Haji and his crew were fluent in Arabic, Swahili and Malayalam. "I didn't want to go to the old type of schools where we used to learn the Quran," says Mr Bu Haji. "I wanted to work and I wanted to go to the sea."

It was on these voyages that he learnt how to build the great ships he sailed. "Each boat had a master boat-builder as a mechanic," he says. "If any part got broken he would fix it. "I worked with him at first and saw what he did. And then he gave me a cutter and he taught me. I had it as a hobby and I just learned right away. If anybody would tell me what to do one time I would remember it." When his father retired from the sea to build boats, Mr Bu Haji took over as captain and sailed with a crew of 14 men on a dhow that carried 300 tonnes of cargo.

"After I stopped sailing I started building the boats and there was a huge demand for fishing boats," he says. "Before the union there was all just sailing boats. "We built six or seven at once. I had 70 workers and three chefs. One would cook for Pakistanis, one would cook for Iranians and one would cook for Malabarians [from southwest India]. "I started small fishing boats and big boats as well, that could carry 200 or 300 tonnes. We used to build even for people from Dubai."

Mr Bu Haji designs his ships without plans, using only the knowledge he has accumulated over the decades and his intuition. Today, he works with a team of 17, most of whom come from the southern Indian state of Kerala. His foreman, Uni, has worked with him for three decades, since he was 25. The men use the adze, a traditional tool for carving, to shape giant planks of lumber to the skeletal frame of the dhow. Thirty-inch bolts secure the planks to the decking area and six- and 10-inch nails secure the siding.

Mr Bu Haji says, not without pride, that he was one of the first dhow builders in RAK to use wood from Africa. Nails and bolts are imported from Bombay. The process takes a year and a half. When this cargo dhow is finished in two months, it will be fitted with a 770 horsepower engine worth Dh570,000 (US$150,000). Mr Bu Haji's previous dhow, which measured 18 metres by nine metres, was launched last March. It took his team four days to roll it over logs into the sea, chanting in low, haunting melodies as they edged it towards the calm waters of the lagoon.

Mr Bu Haji estimates that his current dhow is worth Dh2 million. Because he cannot sell it - competition is fierce from Iran, where labour costs are low - Mr Bu Haji will have it sailed down the Omani coastline to the Gulf of Aden, where it will be used as a cargo ship in the waters off Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen. "Right now there is no demand at all," he says. "I build everything for myself. Once it is built, I send it to the sea and as soon as there is a profit I build another one. The value is down so it's not really profitable."

"The labour in Iran is cheap and everything is cheap there so they build cheap boats. That's why we don't have demand here. There's a big cost on me." Mr Bu Haji is hesitant about starting a new dhow when this one is complete. It is not the cost, he says, but in his old age it is difficult for him to move around the dhow yard. "Once I finish this one, I'm not quite sure," he says. "I'm too old now and I've had an operation on my back."

In the past, "I used to come really early in the morning," he says. "But now I sleep and I come around nine or 10 and I stay until noon. I go home, have food and sleep, and then I come and I stay until Maghrib prayers." He recalls wistfully the days before unification, in 1971, before engines started to appear: "Before the union there were many boats and everyone wanted to fish. About 10 years ago the fibreglass boats appeared and only one or two people will go to the sea fishing, they wouldn't need any more crew. And that ruined the business of building."

As time has passed, so the old skills have slowly been lost: "In the past there used to be really good masters. There were a lot in Ras al Khaimah. They all died now." The new generation, he says, "didn't inherit the talents of the old Ras al Khaimah". Mr Bu Haji has 12 children from three wives and, he believes, more than 50 grandchildren. Today his 18-year-old grandson, Abdullah Mohammed, has come for a visit. He is the only grandson who still comes to the dhow yard regularly.

"My best memories are here," says Abdullah. "I would always be here whenever we were launching a boat into the sea. I remember that they all sang." "It's amazing," he says, "It's a big thing. He is the only one who is doing it now. I feel really proud. It needs people to keep on doing it but it is difficult. I want to do engineering." Mr Bu Haji knows that when he stops building boats, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years will end in RAK. His children are educated and hold little interest in learning the trade.

"No one comes here apart from this grandson and I doubt that he will continue," says Mr Bu Haji. "It needs a person to like it and they don't like it because it's a tiring job. If there was profit they would be interested and in the past there was a profit from it but now, not really." The younger generation, he says, "want to sit on a chair and write papers and receive a salary. It's all they do. In the past it wasn't like that. You work with your hands and then you get money".

azacharias@thenational.ae