Opening up the Northern Emirates’s mountain wadis to a new generation

Significant government grants towards the infrastructure of the Northern Emirates has allowed urbanisation in the mountain wadi basins.
Workers building the modern housing. Delores Johnson / The National
Workers building the modern housing. Delores Johnson / The National

Significant government grants towards the infrastructure of the Northern Emirates has allowed urbanisation in the mountain wadi basins. Anna Zacharias reports from Ras Al Khaimah, where the money is creating permanent homes and greater freedom for communities in these rural areas.

Binoculars in hand, Saeed Zaid Al Qaishi scans the hills for his goats. “My goats are missing,” says the mountain elder. Walking at speed over sharp stones, the obedient goats of his herd follow him loyally as he squints at the wadi’s contours.

“I haven’t seen my goats in two or three days. They’re up, up in the mountains. I have 10 or 20 up there.” He walks off with what remains of his herd.

Farther down the wadi, the elder Rashed Saeed Al Qaishi is hunting for honey, scaling sheet mountains in mismatched flip-flops to nests that hang from cliffs.

Bees’ nests are owned by the man who finds them, who must be of the tribe that owns the land. “I have many honey spots,” says Rashed. “Many, many, many. Seven or eight. So many. I go cruising around the mountains to them.” He traverses ridges with no protection against the harsh summer sun or angry bees except a thick cane. “I do not fear,” he says.

The Al Qaishi elders were born in the mountains, but live in urban coastal towns on the northern Ras Al Khaimah coast, in Al Rams town and Dhaya village. Their generation never stopped coming to the mountains and, these days, they are in good company. Road building and urbanisation have opened the wadis to the young generation and created a new architectural style of thick-walled, multi-storey winter houses made of mountain stone. Saeed’s family was among the first to rebuild on ancestral land in the new style.

Construction in the mountains has boomed since majlis-style public meetings where Abu Dhabi leaders met with thousands at the homes of community leaders in February 2011. The Northern Emirates tour of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was quickly followed by federal and municipal investment in water, electricity, road and housing projects.

At the same time, the 36-kilometre Jebel Jais Road opened in 2013, after eight years of construction. People have rebuilt in wadi valleys beside the road where construction supplies and generators can now easily reach old ancestral land. Even in areas without new roads, construction has increased thanks to stronger financial support for Emirati housing.

When the government initially planned the Jebel Jais Road, not everyone was pleased. Old homes and farms were at risk and the public works department had to negotiate with tribes before work could begin. Tribes had reason for concern. There are hundreds of settlements dating from the 13th century onwards scattered across the Ru’us Al Jibal mountains.

Now complete, the road is referred to by elders as “Saud’s Road” for Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah. Al Qaishi elders say that it encourages the young people to return to the land where their families worked for centuries.

“It’s like a second chance for them,” says Ahmed Al Hammadi, the director of the Ras Al Khaimah Department of Public Works. “Most of these people, their memories are there. They have been raised there, but they don’t have easy access because they are living now in the town or a different emirate, for so many reasons. But once they think that they want to go back to their old house or old memory or old places, it becomes an easy thing for them.

“Demands change. Years ago, nobody wanted a street next to his house, but now it’s part of life.”

Distinct from the whimsical designs of government-sponsored suburban housing, new mountain architecture took on a localised style all its own.

Hewn from local stone, design is loosely inspired by Yemeni architecture: arched windows, multi-storey homes of high, thick stone walls and personal property marked by imposing gates.

Saeed’s stone mansions began as a small building project five years ago with stone quarried on the family property. They stand beside original stone dwellings of his childhood, about 1.5 metres tall.

Such buildings are a maturation of the ezba, or hobby farm. They begin with the construction of a concrete one-room majlis on family property, rebuilt and expanded into fortresslike buildings with structures added for sleeping quarters and private women’s sections with interiors rich in colour.

Symbols of heritage and federalism decorate mountain homes: antique clay pots salvaged from family homes are displayed in majlises, royal portraits hang on interior and exterior walls, coffee pots are cemented onto entrance gates.

They are built by low-wage farmers and masons who stay on the property year-round. Men like Dawalat Khan, a Pakistani mason, chip at boulders piece by piece with basic tools, crafting them into thick blocks up to one metre in length. Khan is currently building five stone mansions around Wadi Al Baih.

“One majlis takes me two months. I do everything. I built it up from the ground to the ceiling,” says Khan, who has done this work for six years. “People were poor before, right? Now they have money.”

To this day, people maintain a clear oral history and consciousness of this longevity and continuity of the family who lived here in centuries past.

Mountain communities have stayed resolutely rooted, but land scarcity has pushed people to relocate en masse to the new suburb of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed City, where government plots are in ample supply. About 5,000 plots were prepared by the Public Works Department in 2013. Another 10,000 are planned for the end of 2014.

Wadis made accessible by new roads provide an alternative to moving 60 kilometres away. “You feel relief when you see the mountains,” says Halawa Saeed, 25, an English teacher who lives in the Wadi Al Baih hamlet of Mukhelfa six months a year. “When we go to the city, we hear the noise and we say: ‘Alhamdulillah, we live in the mountains’.”

“This place is now for young men,” says her mother. “Before it was for the elderly.”

In the pre-oil economy, families migrated between the high mountains and coastal or farming developments at sea level. Since the country’s formation in 1971, residents like Saeed’s family opted for air-conditioned city homes in summer and mountain homes in the winter. Her grandmother, believed to be in her 90s, stays in her mountain home full-time with her aunt, who is believed to be about 100 years old.

In English, people frequently refer to Ras Al Khaimah’s three geographies of sea, desert and mountain. In Arabic, people talk of the emirate’s three people: the bahari seafarer, the desert bedu and the jebali mountain man. No man wore a single cap and there was overlap between each through social interactions and seasonal migrations, but land was always central to identity.

It’s not just location that matters, but what is done there.

On weekends, the mountains are filled with activity. On Fridays, drumming and war cries reverberate off wadi walls and swords slice the air at outdoor mountain weddings. This year’s rain not only saw a bloom of wildflowers but a return to wa’ab, small farming plots where Emirati and Pakistani farmers grow wheat in wet years. Wheat was harvested in early April. Honey season has begun.

Those who moved to coastal towns or cities kept an ezba hobby farm where they return on weekends, at evenings and early mornings. These part-time winter homes are not unlike the North American idea of a lake cabin.

Many live in the mountains to honour their family history, yet mountain life is entirely different to what it was.

“If you have a road, you can drive to work in the city,” says Andrew LaBonte, a graduate student of geography at Newcastle University who worked as an outdoor adventure trainer in the Ras Al Khaimah mountains for five years. “There’s no way of maintaining the same way of life and identity your grandfather had; that’s impossible, but maybe by still living up there, you feel that you’re more closely connected to his identity than if you lived in the city, even if that connection is mostly symbolic.”

While renewed residential construction is found across mountain communities, not everyone has welcomed road construction. Residents of Wadi Qada’a were offered the opportunity to pave a road into their wadi. Elders were opposed, wanting to keep their wadi comparatively remote.

The final six kilometres of the Jebel Jais Road will not be paved until a decision is made about what will be built at the top of the road, the country’s highest point that borders its 1,935-metre summit in Oman.

Farther south in Ras Al Khaimah, work on the planned 21.5-kilometre Jebel Janas motorway has stopped entirely and it’s now being used exclusively as an access road, says Al Hammadi.

Wadi landowners were initially reluctant to open to development and didn’t want tourists in their area. Now, more often than not, they’re proud to show off their land and welcome respectful visitors.

Industrialisation, by contrast, is a more contentious issue. Air quality remains a continuing problem, as quarry production increases to meet growing construction demand. Residents have grudgingly come to accept the quarries, but say that existing legislation is inadequately enforced.

In homes and community majlises, elders and young people voice concerns about the environmental effect of development and industrialisation. Concerns range from flooding risks to the health of bees. To help address this, a nature reserve in the Dhaya area was announced by the RAK Government in 2008, but little development has been seen. The Ras Al Khaimah municipality and Environmental Development and Protection Agency could not be reached for comment on its progress.

Come what may, the jebali insist this is where they belong.

“We are the same as fish,” says Khaled Mohammed, 37, one of the men to rebuild on ancestral land in Wadi Shaha. “Fish belong in the sea and if they’re out of the sea, they’ll die.”

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM


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