Abdul Rahman Qayed’s hands are smooth for a man who works in the construction trade.
The reason, he says, is simple. For much of the past 28 years they’ve been covered in clay.
Along with the date palm, coral stone, gypsum and straw, clay is one of the key materials with which Abdul Rahman, 52, and his 58-year-old brother, Mohammed Saleh, ply their trade.
“We use the traditional materials that were used in the past, when everything was made locally,” Abdul Rahman says.
The brothers are master craftsmen, guardians of the centuries-old building techniques, knowledge and skills that produced such historic monuments as Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn.
Talented as they are, it isn’t the Qayeds’ skills or knowledge that make them exceptional. What distinguishes the family is the story of its long-standing relationship with the historic buildings of Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Liwa.
Nobody can be sure exactly when the family business began, but the Qayeds have been building fortresses, palaces, majlises and mosques for some of Abu Dhabi’s most powerful families for more than 80 years.
It is a story that is particularly cherished by Fawzeya Qayed, Abdul Rahman’s wife.
Abdul Rahman and Mohammed were apprenticed to her father in the 1970s and 1980s, and her grandfather was one of the craftsmen who worked on rebuilding Qasr Al Hosn 50 years before that.
“When I see Qasr Al Hosn now and know that my grandfather helped build part of it, I am so proud that it makes my heart soar,” Fawzeya says.
An English-language teacher at Hessa bint Mohammad School for girls in Al Ain, she maintains what amounts to the family archive – a collection of anecdotes, memories and old photographs that also shed invaluable light on the architectural history of the emirate.
Fawzeya is not sure when her grandfather moved from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi, but she does know that he was one of several craftsmen commissioned by Sheikh Shakhbut, then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, to rebuild Qasr Al Hosn, and that he worked under the name of Mohammed Al Bastaki.
Fuelled by new revenue from the signing of Abu Dhabi’s first oil concessions, the redevelopment of Qasr Al Hosn turned what had been a dynastic seat and a place of refuge into a palace and something closer to a family home.
One of the more remarkable survivals of this domestication can be found in a series of painted plaster panels featuring floral designs, peacocks and even a gazelle.
In a room that was used by Sheikh Shakhbut’s mother, Sheikha Salama bint Butti, a floral panel carries the blessing “masha’Allah” and the date of its completion, 1359 Hijri.
Historian Reem El Muttiwalli’s detailed study of the palace attributes these panels to one Mohammed Al Bastaki.
On his return from Abu Dhabi he began to work on projects that included the restoration of forts in Liwa and at Rumeilah and Al Muwaijib in Al Ain.
He was involved in building a palace for Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan in the heart of the Mutaredh Oasis and, in 1948, in the construction of a new fort commissioned by Sheikh Zayed, who was then the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.
Al Muraba’a was a new, rectangular, three-storey fort that eventually became a police station.
Unfortunately, the rectangular tower, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “square”, was to be one of Mohammed Qayed’s final projects.
“It was soon after my grandfather finished at Al Muraba’a that he fell down and was injured,” Fawzeya explains. “He lived for a short time afterwards, perhaps a few weeks, but then he passed away.”
With a family to support, his wife went to live with relatives in Bahrain but after a few years her son, Abdullah, Fawzeya’s father, returned to Al Ain and re-established the family business.
Projects such as the maintenance of the Eastern or Sultan Fort followed, and by the mid-1970s Abdullah had been joined by his nephews Yussuf and Mohammed, and a decade later, by his son-in-law, Abdul Rahman.
“My first job was at Al Jahili in 1986,” Abdul Rahman remembers, “and in those days we all worked together, with my father as well as my brothers.”
It was during these works that the eldest brother, Yussuf, worked on the construction of Al Jahili’s new main gate while Abdul Rahman learnt about sarooj, a fired mixture of clay, straw, dung and fresh water that was used to waterproof roofs and as a liner for falaj, cisterns and water spouts.
What Mohammed and Abdul Rahman could not have realised was that it would be on the same spot, almost exactly 20 years later, that they would meet a man who would develop an archaeological interest in their work.
Peter Sheehan is the historic buildings manager for the Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi (TCA), which is responsible for the management and interpretation of more than 140 different sites.
“I first met the guys on the Jahili restoration in preparation for the permanent [Wilfred] Thesiger exhibition,” Mr Sheehan says.
“Mohammed Saleh knows all the techniques and he also supervised and trained many of the craftsmen we’ve taken on since I’ve been here.
“Abdul Rahman does a lot of the supervision and the coordination of materials between different sites.”
From their yard and workshops in Al Qattara, the Qayeds now work as part of a team of almost 80 craftsmen, whose skills and expertise are drawn from across the region.
“Vernacular architecture responds to what’s available in terms of materials and what the conditions are like,” Mr Sheehan explains.
“That’s why we have two different vernaculars in the UAE – Al Ain’s belongs to the interior and Oman and uses mud brick, whereas Abu Dhabi’s is more coastal and produces features like barjeel [wind towers] and badgir [internal ventilation shafts].”
One of Mr Sheehan’s main jobs is to make Abu Dhabi’s built heritage understood and accessible to the public. More than just a matter of providing physical access to buildings, it involves producing written and visual material to contextualise these buildings and bring their histories to life.
“One of the things we’ve been trying to do for the buildings here is to provide a story. We have a group of buildings about which there is very little written or documentary evidence,” the archaeologist explains.
“There is a certain amount of oral history, but getting hold of it is a bit of an issue because a lot of it is generic, whereas we are looking for specifics.”
Talking to members of the Qayed family is a case in point. They are a family, not historians, and even though they continue to be
intimately connected with Abu Dhabi’s material culture, their engagement with it and with the deeds of their ancestors is personal and anecdotal.
“We don’t know about things that happened 70 or 80 years ago,” Fawzeya’s elder brother, Ahmed, explains. “Her father used to tell me about things, but we don’t know which date or which year exactly.”
Fawzeya says: “We didn’t usually sit with my father to talk about these things in detail. Our information is different.”
There are other ways in which the Qayed family is unique, and where they can provide historians with some of the detailed information they need.
Thanks to the UAE’s harsh climate, the materials used in traditional buildings have a relatively short lifespan and extensive maintenance is required every 20 years.
“From an archaeological point of view, we are always trying to identify different phases in a building and to interpret changes in its fabric,” says Mr Sheehan.
“We now have from the mid-1970s, the 1990s and again at the end of the 1990s, where we can actually talk to the guys who were involved.”
When the Qayed brothers return to sites such as the fort at Al Jahili, they aren’t just helping to recover the emirate’s past, they are revisiting their own.
Although they would deny it, this makes the Qayeds something of a living national treasure.
Unfortunately, that relationship with the nation’s heritage looks like it may finally be coming to an end. As Abdul Rahman explains, the younger generations of Qayeds now turn elsewhere to look for opportunities.
“Some people look at the job, but the kids go to college to study business and finance. They do not go to study things that they will do with their hands.”