Ras al Khaimah tribe return to abandoned village

Za'ab family mark the restoration of Jazirat Al Hamra, a former pearling town they left in 1968.

A celebration by members of the Al Zaabi tribe with Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud, Crown Prince of Ras Al Khaimah in attendance held at Jazirat Al Hamra village in Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah. Jeff Topping / The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The coral stone buildings of the ghost town were draped in wedding lights and the cries of the grocer's son rang out through the souq, an echo from its past.

"Tafaddal, tafaddal, tafaddal," cried Obaid Rashid, bidding men to come forth to his father's grocery and sample his mother's salo, an Emirati jelly reserved for the greatest of occasions.

Thousands passed him on their way to the biggest celebration for the Za'ab tribe since the 1960s.

The festivities marked the restoration of Jazirat Al Hamra, a pearling town of the Za'ab family that was abandoned after the modernisation of the Emirates.

Many of the Za'ab tribe left for Abu Dhabi in 1968, only to return to RAK at weekends to visit their crumbling homes.

The village's decay accelerated in recent years after its sand brick and coral houses, some 100 years old, were rented out as labour accommodation.

That changed when four young men started to clean the village in December. The work of Hamad Ismail, Abdulla Meyahi, Mohammed Hilal and Ismail Rashed attracted the notice of the Government and the community, renewing interest in the history of this pre-oil town unique in the Gulf for its architectural preservation.

Obaid Rashid could not recall how many decades had passed since his grocery last opened. At the age of 12 he joined his father baking bread at daybreak and brewing the gelatinous, cardamom-infused helwa in the afternoons.

Friday was like the old days and men greeted him as they would an old friend.

"Ya Abu Mazen," they cried, helping themselves to his spiced coffee.

"Hands off, that's for the sheikh," he said, swatting them away from the pot of his mother's breaded treat, khabis. "That khabis is for the sheikh, for the sheikh."

He has plans to restore the grocery to its former glory and open it on weekends to sell traditional food such as chickpeas. "When people see a national selling by himself they will respect us," said Mr Rashid.

Men recited poetry before the entrance of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of RAK, his brothers Sheikh Faisal bin Saqr and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saqr and his son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud, Crown Prince of RAK.

Such royal attendance is reserved for the most elevated events and is a mark of the highest respect.

Despite moving to Abu Dhabi, these families never forgot their past. They live in the Za'ab neighbourhood named after their tribe and often return to RAK at weekends to visit their old family homes.

This week, the migration was en masse, a Ras Al Khaimah homecoming for hundreds.

Hamed Rashid, 25, saw dozens of cars from the Abu Dhabi neighbourhood as he drove to RAK on Emirates Road. "We're proud of what's happening here. There is a shop for my grandfather there, there is a mosque for my grandfather here," he said.

"You know, so many Al Za'ab are living in Abu Dhabi so we are very happy to see all the people here. We rarely see them all together."

As he spoke, the traditional ayalla dance began in the market area.

While the men danced, women discussed the idea of starting a Quran group in the old town for elderly women who could not read or write.

"We want to see it like this when we get married," said Aisha Mohammed, a girl of about 12 who lives in RAK. "We do not want to see it destroyed."

Plans for the village include signboards for each house so people can read about the families of those who lived here.

After prayers the men gathered with stern faces to sing the songs of the sea, a tribute to their mariner forefathers and the hardships they endured.

Hamed Eisa, 74, sat quietly on the edge of the party on the steps of a small concrete stall.

"This was my old shop," he said softly. "We sold ropes and dates."

He drove from Abu Dhabi at 9am for the party. It is a three-hour trip one way that he makes as often as possible, every month or two.

"Of course I am tired, I am old," said Mr Eisa. "But this is my land, so I'll be proud of it. I will return to this land until I die."