Shasha heritage in sturdy hands

With the help of a Fujairah builder's passion, the traditional palm and wood fishing vessel has found a fresh current of popularity.

FUJAIRAH // At age 15, Abdullah Mohammed would wake before sunrise and venture to sea with one of his brothers, paddling for hours into the open water in a delicate craft made of palm fronds.

The boy knew he had nothing to fear. Though the vessel was just two metres long, it could hold him, his brother and the day's catch of fish and carry them more than 10 kilometres out to sea and home again safely. He was sure the craft was sound because he had built it himself. His family was known for decades for their craftsmanship of the shasha, the traditional fishing boat used in the UAE and on Oman's Batinah coast.

He carried on the tradition. At a time when wood was a scarce and costly commodity imported from the subcontinent, the shasha was a cunning use of local resources. Built entirely of palm and wood from the wadis, it proved a resilient and agile vessel on the big swells of the Indian Ocean. When his father died in the 1950s, Mr Mohammed inherited the mantle of shasha maker. He is now one of the two remaining builders in Fujairah, and the family history of craftsmanship is being passed on to his sons and other Emirati young people through his work with the Fujairah International Marine Club.

His offspring began working with him as soon as they were able, just as he helped his own father in the al Ghorfa area of Fujairah six decades before. "I learnt everything from my father when I was seven," says Mr Mohammed, who says he is now into his sixties. "It comes by generation to generation and as you know there was no school to teach us. It took me six months to learn from my father. "He used to sit next to me. After my father passed away I did everything myself."

His family usually traded labour or fish for palm material from Bithnah, about 20km inland, where the local palm trees were stronger than those on the coast because there was less humidity. "They used to bring them on donkeys because there was no other transport," Mr Mohammed says. "Everyone helped each other so we'd get it for free." Every part of the palm is used for the shasha, and to this day the process remains virtually unchanged, though the materials have been modernised.

First, about 150 date fronds are stripped of their leaves and soaked in the ocean for a week to make them pliable. They are then dried overnight and bound by strong rope once made with 30 to 40 large pieces of fibre from the date palm. Nylon rope is used today, though it is considered less durable in sun and salt water. After the base is complete, Mr Mohammed builds a frame of strong wood, usually acacia or the sidr wood from the mountains, which is also used to make the oars. The poles are attached to this frame, forming a base that was once filled with as many as 700 pieces of karb, the stalk from the palm trunk which give the shasha its buoyancy.

In the past, the karb stalks were chopped from the top of the tree in alternating areas so that no permanent damage was done and the resource remained sustainable. Again, more modern materials have worked their way into the process and polystyrene has been substituted for the karb. A mat of palm fronds is then laid over the polystyrene and the shasha is ready to hit the water. While gathering the materials can take up to three days and curing the date fronds even longer, the construction of the craft takes only a few hours.

"It is built in one day, from the morning to the evening it could be ready because five men would work together," says Mr Mohammed. "The idea is that there is one builder and he had four or five helpers." A traditional shasha is between two metres and 2.5 metres long and weighs between 150 kilogrammes and 200kg. The weight of a three-metre racing shasha is about 250kg. Once finished, the shasha is virtually unsinkable, though it can become waterlogged and must be dried between voyages. Wear and tear from the sun and salt water mean that fishermen have to replace their vessels every few months.

Although only a handful of families owned a shasha - Mr Mohammed estimates that there were about 10 in Fujairah - his business was kept busy with repairs and new orders. "If someone had a shasha it would break after three or four months maximum," he says. "At five months you have to get a new one because of the heat and the water and the salt." The price he charged varied by buyer and may have included some bartered goods, he says.

Mr Mohammed does not have a workshop, he boasts, because it is such simple work that there was no need. "In front of the sea, in front of the house, at the farm, you need just a little shade, even a tree, and you can build it." The formation of the UAE in 1971 gave people enough wealth to purchase motorised boats and fibreglass that transformed the fishing industry. Some shashas were fitted with outboard motors, which successfully handled the added weight and speed, writes Frances LaBonte in The Arabian Date Palm. But, unable to compete with fibreglass fishing boats, the shasha quickly became obsolete. Mr Mohammed took a government job as a driver for the Ministry of Health but continued his craft when he could.

"I stopped building except for some museums and home decorations," he says. Though no longer profitable, it was a passion he simply could not abandon. "I grew up with this job and this is my career," he says. "I've worked different places, I've farmed, I've worked in ministries, but this job has been with me since I was seven years old. It's in my blood and I cannot leave it." Luckily, Mr Mohammed found new interest in the shasha at the Fujairah International Marine Club, where he has a display at the club's heritage souq.

"We thought, 'why not keep this shasha as a memory for the people?'" said Major Ahmed Ibrahim, the club's managing director. And so the shasha races were born. The club hosted the first shasha regatta in 2003 to rejuvenate interest in Fujairah's boat. It quickly became a favourite on the community calendar. More than a dozen teams registered this year for a set of four races that began in November. Each event has prize money of Dh7,000 (US$1,910) and all entrants are given Dh500 for their participation.

In each race, a team of four rowers and a coxswain compete in a 2,000-metre race in a three-metre shasha, usually finishing in about 10 minutes. The second event of the season starts at the Fujairah waterfront at 4pm on January 29. "People will still keep the shasha as part of their life," says Major Ibrahim. "It gives a chance for the youth to have some exercise, it is good for the community and the main thing is to show the new generation what their parents and grandparents were doing. We keep the culture alive through this."

The shasha races are also affordable. A racing shasha costs between Dh3,000 and Dh6,000, a fraction of wooden or fibreglass race boats. The tradition of the shasha is also displayed in all its glory every December 2, when Mr Mohammed's largest version, roughly 12 metres long and two metres wide, floats past the Fujairah Corniche on National Day. Mr Mohammed built the giant shasha with two workers and two sons who continue his work. His 13 children take a keen interest in the trade and his eldest son has worked with him for more than 20 years. Although his career is in the army, his heart is with the family business.

"What it means to our father, it means to us," says Mr Mohammed's seventh son, Abdulrahman, 28. No matter how many family members are helping him, their father still enjoys his craft. "I love this work," says Mr Mohammed. "I can't live without it. I feel strong, I feel active. I must do it. "We have a very good culture and it should be supported by the Government and the people. In the marine club it's been kept going. Let it be continued or after a few years it will be lost forever."

azacharias@thenational.ae