Memories of '71: UAE’s mountain men tell of life before running water

Water cisterns once sustained life in the Hajjar Mountains – but then came change

In the days of the new UAE, unification meant different things to different people. Some arrived in the years before 1971 to lend their expertise. Others came in search of a better life. And for some, the union meant something as simple yet vital as electricity.

In the first of a three-part series to celebrate the UAE's 49th National Day, we speak to two men of the Ras Al Khaimah mountains. 

For Ali Al Dhuhoori, the union meant running water.

Mr Al Dhuhoori spent the first half of his life digging. It was his job to build the deep cisterns that sustained life on the plateaus of the Hajjar Mountains.

He began aged 15, in the early 1940s. Another 40 years would pass before he lived in a house with running water. That, and electricity, were perhaps the greatest changes brought by the modern state following the formation of the UAE on December 2, 1971.

Now 94, Mr Al Dhuhoori still goes to the base of the Ras Al Khaimah mountains most afternoons to sit with his friend Saeed Al Dhuhoori and chat about life before unification for Saeed's 53,000 Instagram followers.

“I was strong,” Mr Al Dhuhoori said.

“Nobody worked like Ali did,” Saeed, 54, said. “Later, he’d carry bags of cement on his back from the town to the mountains. Nine hours, walking, up, up, up the mountain with that weight on his shoulder.”

“Nine hours,” nodded Mr Al Dhuhoori.

He lifted four finjan coffee cups from a bowl on the table and placed them in a square on a table alongside his dagger, describing how he lined cisterns with waterproof mortar and dug pits up to eight metres long, four metres wide and six metres deep.

He estimates he built and restored up to 60 cisterns on the farms that dot the Ruus Al Jibbal. Rain-filled cisterns supported humans and their livestock over winter and allowed the cultivation of wheat on terraces carved from limestone plateaus and cliffs. Crops survived from rainfall alone.

The work required intimate knowledge of the land and the seasons.

Mr Al Dhuhoori usually worked alone, spending up to three months on a single reservoir.

On Friday, his day of rest, he would trek for nine hours from his village to the coastal town of Shaam for Friday prayers. On the return journey, he slept at a house halfway up the mountain and reached his village the following morning.

When the rainy season ended, the cisterns emptied and it was time for the annual migration for the date harvest.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 23 NOVEMBER 2020. 
A photo of a young Saeed Al-Dhahouri.

In the valley of the village of Shaam, Saeed Al-Dhahouri is keen to educate the rising generation about UAE’s heritage; and for that he has set up Muhammad Bin Rashid Heritage Village in Wadi Shaam.

The village includes many old traditional UAE tools that the people of the mountain used in the past, and showcases customs, traditions and practices inherited from older generations.

Al-Dhahouri has devoted his efforts to transforming his farm into a heritage village since 1995.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: ANNA ZACHARIAS
Section: NA NATIONAL DAY

Saeed remembers making the journey on a camel’s back as a child. It was a full day down the mountains to Al Rams, with subsequent nights spent in Khatt, Adhen, Bithna, Asima and Farfar before his family arrived at their date orchards on Fujairah’s coast.

“We had camels but they were only to carry our goods, the elderly and the children,” Saeed said.

He was born in 1966, two generations after Mr Al Dhuhoori. His was the last generation born at home, without hospital care, and the first to attend modern schools.

By the time Saeed was of school age, his family had moved to the base of the mountains. Every morning, he walked with his brothers and cousins down the wadi to the village of Al Jir where they and other local children piled into a Land Rover and bumped down the coast to a school in Shaam with foreign teachers, blackboards and textbooks.

Saeed's father left Ras Al Khaimah as a young man to work as a labourer in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. When Saeed came of age, there were better opportunities. He got a government job in his teens.

In retirement, he built the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Heritage Village against the side of a mountain, at the end of a wadi road that winds through sprawling Emirati neighbourhoods built by government grants and military salaries. Large signposts beside the track declare the support of local tribes for federal rulers or honour martyred soldiers from nearby villages.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 23 NOVEMBER 2020. 
In the valley of the village of Shaam, Saeed Al-Dhahouri is keen to educate the rising generation about UAE’s heritage; and for that he has set up Muhammad Bin Rashid Heritage Village in Wadi Shaam.

The village includes many old traditional UAE tools that the people of the mountain used in the past, and showcases customs, traditions and practices inherited from older generations.

Al-Dhahouri has devoted his efforts to transforming his farm into a heritage village since 1995.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: ANNA ZACHARIAS
Section: NA NATIONAL DAY

They pass afternoons in the garden under a sidr tree, filming videos about subjects like the best types of goats or rifles. It is a tribute to what has changed and what was.

Ras Al Khaimah joined the union in 1972 and six became seven. It took years before the unification greatly altered their lives. Mr Al Dhuhoori did not move to modern housing until 1980.

“From about 1973, the country united the people of the tribes and brought people services,” Saeed said. “People came to know about unification and its advantages. It brought people together and we wanted for nothing," he said.

“People were lifted up, thanks to God and we rested” said Mr Al Dhuhoori.

But, after moment’s reflection, he added: “The mountains were better, of course.”

“Better, yes, better,” nodded Saeed. “But then there were services, there was electricity, there was water and praise be to God, we lived with grace.”

“But no wells,” said Mr Al Dhuhoori.

“No, no wells,” said Saeed.

“Before there were wells,” said Mr Al Dhuhoori.

As sunset begins, Saeed guided the elder in prayer, raising his voice above the twilight birdsong. Mr Al Dhuhoori can no longer kneel easily so they sat side by side, bending their heads in prayer, reciting verses unchanged for centuries.

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Sheikh Zayed and the story of a nation

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