Khor Kalba, a village rebuilt from sands of time

Khor Kalba village, once home to a tribe of seamen and their families, is being brought back from history in a project under the patronage of the Ruler of Sharjah, and under the watchful, loving eyes of the village elder.

While some houses still have much work to be done, others, such as the one shown at centre, are being given their finishing touches. Pawan Singh / The National
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Cross-legged in the middle of what was once his courtyard, Rashid bin Mohammed Al Zaabi gazes out over a magnificent view of the Gulf of Oman.

"Isn't my old home special?" he asks.

The untutored eye might see a barren square of sand and heap of rocks stacked in a dome, all shimmering in the baking, 40°C heat.

But for Mr Al Zaabi this is a place of memories, where some of his 26 children would play on a swing amid greenery and the family's pet raven would give him a greeting caw each morning.

Now others will soon be able to recreate those times, lost 35 years ago when the Sharjah Government offered dozens of families from Khor Kalba village new homes.

A rescue mission, mounted by the directorate of heritage at Sharjah's department of culture and information, is restoring the village to something like its old self.

When it began five months ago the homes were little more than forgotten ruins, buried under layers of sand and rubbish, while the wells from which the village women once fetched water had long since run dry.

Now Mr Al Zaabi comes home every day, to help the 120-strong team of restorers and archaeologists whose aim is to restore the village to its former glory, under the patronage of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, who rules this exclave on the east coast of the UAE.

Once the home of the Al Zaab tribe, who still live by the Khor, or creek, of Kalba, the village lies near a protected mangrove forest thought to be one of the oldest in the region.

"We not only have the best fish, you should see the birds living near us in that mangrove heaven," says Mr Al Zaabi proudly.

The village elder is a source of oral history, and likes to take his place alongside the workers uncovering the old homes, ensuring nothing important is accidentally discarded.

"The sand is important, for the story of this village is in its sand," he says, picking up a handful from his courtyard and letting the softer, smaller grains slip through.

Left behind in his hands are broken pieces of white and pink seashells and a single piece of pottery.

"The seashells tell the story of the men of the Khor Kalba village, who were seamen and fishermen," he says. "I was one of them, and we remained connected to the sea through its sand.

"The pottery tells the story of the women of this village, who ran our homes and made sure there was always fresh drinking water for when we came back home."

As for his old home, the back and front walls still stand, almost in perfect condition. But the other walls have collapsed, scattering the coral and stones, and the mix of mud and mortar that once held them together across the floor of his old living room.

"It looks like some ghul [demon] had stepped over my house and forgot to step again, and left these two walls standing," Mr Al Zaabi says.

He estimates his age at between 80 and 90 years, "but you know, age is not a number defined by your birthday, but by how you live. And I am man of the sea, and the sea is ageless."

When it was a family home, the 29 metre by 25 metre house had just two rooms, a main sitting and sleeping room and a room in which the women washed and stored things. The men would wash in the sea.

Later, an extension was added for the eldest son after he married.

The inside walls of the rooms have long fallen in, with just the foundations visible.

Mr Zaabi says he cannot remember how old the house is but knows that his grandfather, at least, lived here.

"We are from Khor Kalba, not Kalba," he says of the neighbourhood, which is separated by a road from the rest of Kalba. "We are proud of our origin."

The restoration of Khor Kalba is part of a bigger plan to revive the historic villages and sites of the eastern coast. It was inspired by a rare collection of maps owned by Dr Sheikh Sultan, drawn up by the Portuguese when they expanded their empire in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century and built forts along the south-eastern coast of Arabia.

One such map showed Khor Kalba.

"Beautifully drawn in colour and great details, down to the palm trees, it captured what the village looked like almost 400 years ago," says Abdulaziz Al Musallam, Sharjah's director of heritage and cultural affairs and one of the main supervisors of the project.

"We could see that the houses were not just white and brown; some were pinkish in colour and had triangular shaped roofs made of palm fronds, known as a 'kareen' type of home or hut."

Mr Al Musallam, from Sharjah, has Dibba roots on his mother's side. He recalls visiting a kareen house in Dibba as a child about 40 years ago.

"I don't recall feeling hot in the house. It had good circulation and draft system," he says.

Each hut would have a small rectangular draft window at the back of the house, sometimes decorated with floral or astrological designs such as a star and moon.

One particularly fascinating find on the map was "Christian crosses" marked on seven structures. "It could only mean that there were at least seven mosques, as the Portuguese would mark a place of worship with a cross," Mr Al Musallam says.

New mosques have been built over the older houses of worship. The one next to Mr Al Zaabi's home has a conical top to the minaret, and has been repainted recently in light pink and white colours. There are plans to turn it into school for memorising the Quran.

Locals disliked the Portuguese, not least for their habit of punishing rule breakers by cutting off their noses and ears.

"They were hated, but thankfully they kept good detailed maps," Mr Al Musallam observes.

The map and oral testimonies show that the village once covered 11,300 square metres, with about 150 homes and five or six boats for the entire tribe to use. There are also three cemeteries. But the biggest mystery is the fort in the middle.

"No one remembers who lived there," says Mr Al Musallam. "The tribe would have its own chief or sheikh, who would be their leader."

A single watchtower amid a pile of debris is all that remains of the 1,800-square-metre structure.

One story about the area has been challenged by research into the village's history. It was believed that the name came from the shape of the land, which resembles the Arabic letter for b - Kal (like) Ba (b).

Mr Al Musallam now believes it was named after a form of carnivorous plant, similar to a Venus Flytrap, that once grew locally. The plant's snapping movement resembled the jaws of a dog, or "kalb" in Arabic.

Dr Sheikh Sultan officially inaugurated the project last weekend, marking the completion of the first phase. It is estimated that at least Dh10 million has been spent so far.

"I don't like to put a time frame on when it will be completed but we are moving at a good pace," says Hounayda Al Khaldi, the chief architect and engineer of the project, from Tunisia.

An export in restoring old villages in her home country, Ms Al Khaldi admits Khor Kalba is a challenge.

"I never go anywhere without this," she says, holding a 50-millilitre aerosol container of Avène Thermal Spring Water.

Much of her work is focused on the narrow alleyways or "sikak" that are a distinctive feature of Khor Kalba.

"It tells you that this village was made up of one big family that probably didn't like strangers living among them," Ms Khaldi says.

There was no souq but two houses appear to be "doukans", or small grocery shops.

Surveys have indicated several layers of underground structures and Ms Al Khaldi feels there is still much to be found. Researchers hope to uncover the secret of the mortar used on buildings.

"We just know it is a very hard matter, stronger than any modern-day cement," she says.

None of this means much to Mr Al Zaabi, who surrendered the rights to his house for Dh250,000 compensation some years ago. Now, he says, "I would rather have my home back".

The lack of roof and most of the walls is no deterrent.

"I just bring a blanket and sleep near the sea. I then dream of the old days, and of the old village and its many great memories."