Inside the dhows of Abu Dhabi's Mina Zayed

The life of Abu Dhabi's Gujarati fishermen, through the lens of Abu Dhabi-based British photographer Sohail Karmani

A man splashes water on his face for an early morning wash at Mina Zayed Courtesy Sohail Karmani
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Before he goes to sea, Mukesh Tandel always takes the time to shave. "Can't let it get big," he says, rubbing his chin. For the next five days, he will float on a dhow in the Gulf, hauling hammour, kingfish and bream up from the depths in great domed nets, with just four or five
other crew.

Shaving before a trip is a ritual of the fishermen who live and work on the dhows at Abu Dhabi's Mina Zayed harbour. Their lives are the focus of a photo essay by photographer and New York University Abu Dhabi professor Sohail Karmani.

"Mina Zayed is of course one of the most photogenic places in Abu Dhabi," says Karmani, an applied linguist from London. "It's sort of a reminder of what Abu Dhabi was like as a coastal city, way back before in the seventies when the country was unified. In a sense, it's authentic Abu Dhabi. It's as authentic as it gets."

As reported in The National, Karmani recently featured on the European reality TV show, Master of Photography, selected from thousands of photographers to be among the 12 contestants for its second season that aired outside the UAE in March. Specialising in portraiture and travel photography, when Karmani is at home in Abu Dhabi he searches for the fragments of the city's past. As anyone who has walked the city streets knows, these are few and far between. This is a city where change is so swift that people grow nostalgic for food brands popularised in the 1980s and volcano fountains.

The dhows have remained. At any given time, more than 100 of the traditional wooden fishing vessels are moored at Mina Zayed. Knotted tightly together, they form a 300-square-metre Abu Dhabi anachronism that would not look so out of place in Dubai, Sharjah or Ajman but seems at odds with the polished capital.

The fishermen are from the Bulsar district in the Indian state of Gujarat, an area known for teak and mangoes. Tandel, like many of his peers, moved to Abu Dhabi when he grew up. He was about 15 when he joined his brother here, usually working for 18 months at a time and then returning home for five or six months. He is now about 30.

When Karmani first stepped on board the dhows, he was welcomed. "I just turned up and I got talking to these guys, who were very inviting and very happy to be photographed," he says. "I can speak Urdu and Hindi so that enabled me to get a little closer to them and to get along with them fairly quickly."

Photos like Karmani's portrait of Tandel give a glimpse view of dhow life before and after work begins: men relaxing with their feet up; watching a Bollywood movie on a smartphone; chopping fish on deck; using the reflection of seawater to shave.

"They all seem to know each other and they sleep out there and pass most of their time in Abu Dhabi on these dhows," says Karmani. "I wanted to go beyond the tourist thing and just sort of go in there and get a sense of what it feels like to be someone who lives on these dhows and what they do when they have downtime. What they do is they make do with the little they have.

"There's a lot of downtime. They do the usual things that we all do I guess. They chat, they socialise a lot among themselves, they are on their smartphones, and then they prepare for the day after."

Dhows are sturdy fishing vessels that have so far survived the transition into modernity, even as the port around them is transformed. A few steps away, the culture centre Warehouse421 hosts film screenings and exhibitions, like Manal Al Dowayan's Tree of Guardians, where golden leaves inscribed with the names of Saudi women were suspended from the ceiling in Lest We Forget, an exhibition of Emirati adornments.

Warehouse421 could serve as a catalyst for the development of Mina Zayed's cultural district. At the other side of the port is a new cruise ship terminal with a passenger hall that can accommodate 5,000 tourists. Visitors may appreciate the view of the old dhows against the backdrop of the city's shining towers as a symbol of maritime heritage, but some residents are uncomfortable with the idea of living beside too many young, foreign, working-class men.

For the most part, these fishermen live under the Abu Dhabi skyline but outside of it, separated by a strip of the sea. Most do not speak English or Arabic. On his days off, Tandel has collared shirts pressed at a launderette and goes to Marina Mall, Bateen, Abu Dhabi Mall and Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

The landscapes change with time but, as Tandel says, there is one constant: "Gujarat or Abu Dhabi, the sea is the same."