Our guide to the living ghost town Jazirat Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah
Next week, the abandoned pearling village of Jazirat Al Hamra will come back to life.
The coastal settlement in Ras Al Khaimah is the region’s best example of a pre-oil village, displaying three distinct types of early- and mid-20th century Gulf architecture. It has remained almost unchanged since inhabitants left in 1968.
Once a year, former residents return to honour the past by hosting an open party. The annual reunion parties started in 2012 and have grown year by year.
This time, palm-frond arish houses are being reconstructed to fill the market, lights have been strung from buildings and 1,000 flagpoles have been raised. Local companies and former residents have donated time, money and manpower.
Preparations take place at home, too. People like Obaid Rashid, a baker’s son, are stocking their cupboards and preparing family recipes for the party. Women are getting out their gold.
“It will be a party like they had in the old days,” says Mohammed Rashed Al Zaabi, 37, one of the organisers. “We want to make everything as it was before. We’re expecting about 1,500 people.”
This year’s reunion will tie in with National Day celebrations, which typically last a full week in the Northern Emirates. Communities agree to celebrate on different days so that events do not overlap, but organisers hope the village is remembered year round.
It’s often on the quietest days that its past is most easily imagined. A walk through its dusty streets is a glimpse of the Gulf before oil was discovered. Pearl divers, the famed and the destitute, once lived in its homes. Indian Ocean sea captains traded and bartered in its markets. Women strode through its twisting alleyways, carrying water, wood and news.
After its abandonment in 1968, the village stood almost untouched for decades. Other old Gulf towns grew up with their cities and were renewed, rebuilt and replaced. Al Hamra was overlooked and unchanged.
Little by little, old homes were converted into crowded living spaces for labourers or have simply crumbled with the passage of time. Others were radically changed for movie sets or defaced by vandals and treasure hunters.
Al Hamra is no longer an island. Land has been filled in on all sides and it now sits near an industrial zone between a port, a water park, a gated community and a golf course.
During festivals, visitors may be lucky enough to hear first-hand tales of village life. Most days, however, the village stands empty and information on its history is scarce. The haunting architecture of the village has made it popular with Gulf filmmakers and it has served as the backdrop for love stories, hip-hop videos and for documentary filmmakers in search of the supernatural beings djinn. English-speaking audiences were introduced to the village last year with the feature-length movie Djinn, directed by Poltergeist’s Tobe Hooper and produced by Image Nation, part of Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National.
Despite its derelict appearance, the families of Al Hamra still own their properties and are keen to protect and preserve the village. A question mark hangs over the fate of the village and the best way to protect it. The National has documented the debate by artists, scholars, governments and families on Al Hamra’s development. Now, we will guide you through the village with the memories of those who once lived there.
Our interactive map takes you on a walk through the market and into the past: watch a video of a pearler remembering dives to the sea floor, listen to a fisherman’s shanties or peek inside the town’s grocery courtyard house.
In addition to interviews with the elders, our tour draws on the 2010 proposal for the village by Zayed University students. The research was led by Dr Ronald Hawker, a former associate professor of art and design at Zayed University who is now associate chair for the School of Critical and Creative Studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design.
Not long ago, Jazirat Al Hamra was a renowned pearling centre. Men travelled from surrounding communities to join its pearling fleets before the industry collapsed after the Japanese started to mass-produce cultured pearl almost a century ago.
Jazirat Al Hamra, the red island, was named for the sand it was built on. Most inhabitants were from the Zaabi tribe, but not exclusively. As elsewhere in the Gulf, many prominent citizens were of Arab, Iranian, African and Baluchi descent.
Tight-knit communities, built around neighbourhoods known as fareej, meant that people were like kin, whether or not they were blood relatives. Al Hamra is structured around four such fareej: Garbhi, Miyan, Shimali and Sharqi.
Its strategic location towards the entrance of the Gulf made it a coastal town of great importance. As it attracted wealth, it also attracted foreign powers.
It’s said that the Zaab defended the coast from the Portuguese and, later, the British. They fought side by side with the Qawasim tribe, whose family still rule Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah to this day. The Zaab were known for strong assaults on British ships and suffered the consequences in 1809 and 1819 when the British attacked the Ras Al Khaimah coast, destroying dozens of ships and boats and crippling the economy.
But the village was rebuilt. By 1831, the British recorded a population of 4,100, with 20 pearling ships, 22 fishing ships and 12 bateel-trading ships.
At the turn of the 20th century, the British official John Gordon Lorimer recorded a population of about 500 households in his 1908 Gazetteer of the region. Almost all belonged to the Zaab, who at that time had a pearling fleet of about 25 ships. Another 150 Zaab families lived in Khor Kalba on the Indian Ocean.
Life was not only the sea. The people of Al Hamra were hadhr – coastal Bedouin. When men journeyed to the pearling beds in the southern Gulf during the summer, women led families inland to date gardens in Khatt at the Jiri Plain. It was a journey of more than 20 kilometres, as the crow flies.
When pearling collapsed, Al Hamra was supported by the Ruler’s brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salim Al Qasimi, who invested in boatbuilding and agriculture tools for men and women.
Outside events changed Al Hamra a second time when wealth from the Gulf’s oil revenue began to trickle in after the 1950s. Men left for years at a time as migrant workers in Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
They returned with savings to marry and to start businesses once again. By 1968, the Zaab of Ras Al Khaimah numbered about 2,455.
At this time, people left to settle in Abu Dhabi, on the Batinah Coast in Oman and in other parts of Ras Al Khaimah.
They continue to return. On weekends, it’s not unusual to see young people from Abu Dhabi driving through the village to revisit their old family homes. On weekdays, the village is regularly visited by families who live in new Ras Al Khaimah neighbourhoods. They come to remember the past and keep an eye on the village. “My ancestors are from here, and when I come here, I just relax,” says Rashed.
We’ve interviewed five former residents, from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah. Our guides are: Hamad Ismail, who lived here as a young child and was one of four people to revive interest in the village restoration; Sultan Mohammed Ibrahim Al Ramses Al Zaabi, a fisherman who lives in Abu Dhabi; Obaid Saeed Wasri Al Zaabi, a former pearl diver; Ahmed Youssuf Al Zaabi, a former pearl diver and farmer who lives in Ras Al Khaimah; and Sultan Mohammed Rashed Al Zaabi, who was born around 1934 and lives in Ras Al Khaimah.
Now, we invite you to explore the village through their stories.
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