Portrait of a Nation: The bonsai tree master of Dubai

Ramy Enab's love for the ancient Japanese art blossomed during the coronavirus outbreak

Karate Kid got Ramy Enab hooked on bonsai.

It was the mid-eighties and he was just a boy, curled up on the sofa in his flat in Cairo, watching the film on home video. He sat transfixed as karate master Mr Miyagi cleared his mind by pruning a bonsai tree.

Decades passed before Mr Enab, 37, picked up the ancient art in Dubai and now he has used it to help others during the coronavirus outbreak.

During Dubai’s 24-hour stay home order in April, Mr Enab posted videos of how to grow and maintain bonsai for his neighbours in The Greens and was honoured to see questions come in.

“The art of bonsai it’s a very creative way to think about things,” he said.

It’s extremely calming. Whenever I do it, I just forget all of the pressures of the world

Ramy Enab

“To look at the tree and think about which way it’s going to go, it’s extremely calming. Whenever I do it, I just forget all of the pressures of the world.

“I’m actually honoured to see that people are interested.”

Mr Enab moved to Dubai to work as an advertising executive in 2005 after completing military service in Egypt.

He taught himself bonsai from Youtube videos and slid into the world of online bonsai forums, where discussions abound on how to cultivate the curl of a branch, select the right wire or compose the ideal soil blend.

He has 12 bonsai plants at his home, each covered in bits of black wire. His crowning achievement is a 15-year-old cascading jade.

“I used maybe five metres of wire for this one and it is going to be the one that is, hopefully, with me my entire life.”

Mr Enab averages two hours a day with his plants, pruning, wiring and repotting. “Every day I just go to the balcony and sit for a bit and say, ‘oh, this can be done, that can be done’.

“It’s really an absolute beauty that you are with a live thing that is always growing, every day evolving.”

Every day, he unfurls a green canvas belt of pliers, shears and scissors ordered from Japan, and snips a delicate jade.

Pots are ordered from Japan and China. When imports slowed due to the pandemic restrictions, he stayed in touch with potters as new holders were fired for his growing plants.

Granular soil is imported from Japan, China, the US and Germany and blended with Mr Enab’s secret ingredient to make an ideal composite for the UAE heat. He perfected it over four months under the tutelage of two bonsai masters.

Ramy Enab spends two hours a day attending his bonsai garden. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ramy Enab spends two hours a day attending his balcony bonsai garden. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“A lot of people think when they buy a bonsai, it will be with them forever but if it’s not in the right soil, it will die,” said Mr Enab.

He learnt the hard way.

The first bonsai he bought withered after a month because of poor soil.

“It almost broke my heart. This was when I decided, Ok, if I love bonsai that much I need to learn how to make it.”

Other bonsai sold in Dubai did not meet his standards.

Rami Enab travels to the desert for inspiration in shaping his bonsai trees. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The trees require just the right amount of sun and shade to thrive. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“When I tried to find a bonsai to buy, they were ridiculously expensive. I told myself, ‘no bonsai of such low quality should be that price’. So I told myself, ‘okay I’m going to make my own’. So that’s it, I made my own.”

To do this, he consulted masters in the US and Japan.

“All of us have the same mentors from Japan and all of us are branching out to do something more.”

His overseas peers go to forests for inspiration but the desert and mountains hold their own marvels.

“Everything that we do in the bonsai is natural but instead of it taking 150 years, it takes two or three months,” says Mr Enab. “Bonsai is not about twists in the tree. Bonsai is how to imitate nature and life. For example, if you go to the desert, from Dubai to Ajman or to Oman, there are a lot of trees that show how the bonsai should be shaped.

“It’s about how to imitate life.”

Now, he passes knowledge onto neighbours.

“I wouldn’t even have thought about doing a video and posting it online if it weren’t for Covid-19 but it gave me the outlet to try something new,” says Mr Enab.

“Usually I’m not very active on social media but when I saw the interest, it motivated me so much.”

“I don’t think I’m ever going to stop making bonsai. No matter where I am, what I am doing.”

Mr Enab's work is posted on his bonsai facebook page, Shohin Bonsai Dubai.

Updated: July 9, 2020 01:01 PM

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