RAS AL KHAIMAH // Popular Cafe, the oldest shisha cafe in Ras al Khaimah, is a creek-side creation of palm that has passed from father to son. On one side, the cafe overlooks Old RAK, its vegetable and pigeon markets, the spit of land where dhows were once built, and the street where retired sea captains still spend their mornings by the fishmarket. Across the creek the Julfar Towers loom, 45 floors of shiny turquoise glass that mirrors the sea's sparkle.
In the afternoon, the minarets from the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, RAK's tallest man-made landmark before the Julfar Towers rose, are still visible. The call to prayer carries from mosques across the creek. Popular Cafe has stood at the centre of the creek's transformation since 1973, when it was founded by Ali Ahmed al Ghais. Born in the late 1920s, Mr al Ghais was a fisherman and a mason in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, before returning to RAK in the 1950s to try his luck as a cafe owner. The success of his first three cafes reached the ears of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed, the Ruler of RAK, who commissioned him to open a traditional cafe on the banks of the creek. Mr al Ghais worked there for two years on a government salary, and then was given the business to run for himself.
Popular was as much a social centre as a cafe, with a kitchen that served Emirati fare and a collection of maritime memorabilia on display for visiting schoolchildren. When Mr al Ghais died three years ago at the age of about 79, his son, Adel, took over the family business. Instead of following the style of other cafes and investing in PlayStations, he honoured his father by expanding the cafe and renovating it in a traditional style inspired by the palm houses from which Ras al Khaimah takes its name.
A photo of the elder Mr al Ghais hangs in the waterfront majlis, the fingers of his left hand wrapped around the neck of a clay shisha pipe, a boat in the background. Even when he worked on land, Mr al Ghais remained connected to the sea, just as his customers and their sons remain connected to his cafe. "The people who have a loyalty to this place did not leave when their fathers passed away," says Ahmed al Ghais, 44, the eldest of Ali's six children. "It's important for our family to keep the traditional look. It's more than smoking, more than eating."
On summer afternoons, the cafe seems empty. Mahmoud Kobir, dressed in the burgundy shirt of cafe workers, sweeps up the swollen dates that have fallen on to warm tiles, and waits for the evening customers. The cafe, like its patrons, is quiet and dignified in its maturity. It's a place to enjoy a coffee, to relax until your deepest concentration is centred on your next backgammon move. At Popular, the hours don't stop as much as they melt.
At 5.15, Ahmed Ali, 48, from Yemen, and Abu Saleh, 50, arrive. The two policemen have come here for more than 20 years for their daily saloom shisha and dominos. From here, they have watched RAK grow. A few tables away, Mohammed Yousef, 60, sips on a clay shisha known as gadu, a daily ritual for 30 years. Like the cafe's founder, he began his life at sea, as a fisherman and later on a ship in Kuwait.
"This was the first, first, first cafe in RAK. In Kuwait there was no shisha," said Mr Yousef. "Just cigarettes. For us this is a good place. Forty years ago we were only sitting at home. "Ali al Ghais, I remember him well. A real man. He used to dive, he had a tough life. In the old days, we used to travel away, away to the sea. He was one of the guys who was a fisherman and later on when he got the money from oil he opened his cafe."
When his four friends arrive, they unfurl a pink carpet on the table and pull out a notebook that has kept their scores for six months. They have enough books to fill a library. "Khalas, our minds are programmed," said Abu al Hammadi, 42. "When we come from our house our cars know to go directly to here." The call from the mosque next door carries across the water and clears the cafe. The sky turns from purple to a dark blue. Coals glow orange.
Young men sit in a majlis decorated with Barcelona football paraphernalia, donated by regulars who made the trip to the Spanish stadium. "I've been coming to this cafe since I was two," said Mana al Mansouri, 36. "I think I was born here. It's an amazing place. I like to see the sea. Most everybody likes the sea." @Email:email@example.com