The last of the Emirati dallah artisans

The traditional Arab coffee pot is one of the symbols of the UAE, but there is only one Emirati who still makes them by hand – and he is getting old. Now 74, he remembers when his craft was the centrepiece in every home and hospitality was the epitome of virtue.

Ismail Ali Al Hassan, 74, delicately hammers patterns on one of his dallahs. The third-generation dallah craftsman is the last man in the UAE to make the traditional coffee pots by hand. Razan Alzayani / The National
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Ismail Ali Al Hassan hated the dallah.

He spent his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s learning to make the long-spouted coffee pot, and it was hard work. But over the years it became his obsession. Even so, Mr Ali understands why he is the last Emirati dallah maker.

“It’s the devil’s work, this” says Mr Ali. “Pearling is the same. It’s very, very tiring work. It’s really, really tough working over a fire. If it was relaxing work you’d see a lot of people doing it.”

Now 74, Mr Ali has traded his Deira souq shop for a small shed behind his house, where he works under shinning posters of the sheikhs, his tools and sheet metal piled beside him.

Instead of hammering out brass dallahs for pearlers and sea captains, he crafts coffee pots from sheets of 24K gold for Arabian Gulf royalty.

The dallah is a symbol of identity and Gulf hospitality, displayed with pride at homes and pictured on the one-dirham coin.

“Everyone had a dallah,” says Mr Ali. “Even if it was the cheapest of the cheap to the most expensive it didn’t matter. If you had guests you had to serve them.”

Mr Ali is a third generation dallah maker, but he is certain the Emirati craftsmanship will die with him. Pakistani and Moroccan imports are competitively priced. The trade that supported Mr Ali’s family for over a century is no longer profitable for an Emirati.

Mr Ali takes days to craft each pot, which is made with three sheets of metal: one for the body, one for the top of the body and spout and one for the lid. He has a dozen hammers and mallets of various sizes. To engrave a pattern he balances the dallah on a forked piece of wood and steadies the pot with his toes.

Apart from an electric drill, most of his tools are those he used in the 1940s in his father’s workshop.

“My teacher told my father, ‘your son isn’t learning. His heart isn’t in books and academics. You should take him out of school and teach him a practical job so he can learn in that way’.”

While Mr Ali’s friends played outside, he laboured over hot coals.

“I didn’t like it. My father would always have a stick next to me. If I did anything wrong he would hit me. My father loved me, but he would not show his love. It was always kept in his heart.”

Mr Ali did not love the art until a day his father fell sick. With his father at home, Mr Ali, then 22, decided to try engraving for the first time.

Hours later, his father woke and walked past the shop. Attracted by the sound of hammering, he found his son decorating the coffee pots. He was so shocked he dropped the fish and meat he was carrying.

Today, Mr Ali works in a six-square metre room with two holes cut in the blue carpet for a slender anvil and a small square anvil, sunk into the dirt.

There are four shinning silver and gold dallahs displayed on a narrow table, all intricately decorated in the modern style. One has the slogan for the proposed Dubai Expo 2020.

“There’s a big difference. Before, there was not this,” he points to the dangling diamond-shaped adornments on the spout. “This was not here. There was none of this kind of things.”

In contrast to these ornamental dallahs, traditional pots were made for durability. Pots were named for their size. The wealthiest sheikhs and merchants would use three, brewing coffee in a five-gallon dallah called a khumra, transferring it to a mid-sized lugma and then serving it in a 12-inch muzala. The sediment from the spices would remain in the larger pots and only smooth coffee was served.

His father’s shop in Al Arsa souq was surrounded by Omani food traders who sold dry lemons, mangoes and coals.

The shop was always crowded with sheikhs, imams, pearlers, sea captains and anxious grooms wanting a dallah for their new home.

“It is tradition that when you are married you are always going to receive guests, and you should always have coffee ready and you should always have something to pour it in,” says Mr Ali.

“Before there had to be a dallah at the house. You couldn’t go into a new home that you’d just been married into and not have a dallah there prepared,” says Mr Ali. “If there was no coffee for guests it was shameful.”

“Nowadays it’s not like that, there’s just any old regular mugs at home and coffee cups and that just doesn’t matter.”

There were only two designs – the simple chabsa and the more elaborate gurayshia. There were four motifs – a swirl, a diamond, a flower inside a square, and a design based on the cardamon pod. A brass gurayshia sold for 25 rupees, the same cost as 30kg of rice. An ordinary dallah sold for five or seven rupees.

In his search for more profitable work in the 1960s, Mr Ali turned to trade and gold smuggling on the Indian Ocean trade routes. This was a common profession.

Mr Ali’s years moulding metal honed his creativity.

“I had all these ideas,” says Mr Ali. “This job was more rewarding and easier than the dallah.”

He nailed 100 grams of gold into the thick rubber soles of his sandles and smuggled 100 grams in the handle of his frying pan.

He melted gold into thin sheets and place it between the cardboard of cigarette cartons, smuggling 15 or 20 at a time. He would also replace the thin iron rods in metal trunks with gold. Even date stones could be swapped with one or two nuggets of metal.

“I wouldn’t do it in all of them because the inspector might open it and try it and swallow my gold,” he says.

Mr Ali’s reputation as a master smuggler preceeded him.

“Someone, through some rumour, heard I was working in gold. But they couldn’t prove it because every time they opened my things they wouldn’t find anything.

“I found out that there was a decree that said I was banned from India for three years. I went by boat and they just sent me back. I tried to fly to Bombay they also sent me back right away.

“They said, ‘Mr Ismail Ali Hassan will not travel’.”

And so, he changed his name. By dropping his surname he adopted an alias so common that he went undetected.

He flew to Delhi through Kuwait.

The customs agent asked why he had come to Delhi. “All the Arabs fly through Bombay,” said the agent.

“Taj,” answered Mr Ali. “You know the Taj? I want to see Taj Mahal. Have you heard of it?”

After this exchange he was allowed in.

“From then on, I traveled that way through Delhi and that was fine,” said Mr Ali.

“I was trading from India to Basra, and I missed a lot of the births of my children and the passing of many family members. And then I lost a lot of money.”

After almost two decades of smuggling, Mr Ali finally returned to the dallah trade when prices for hand-made pots had risen.

He owned a shop in the Deira gold souq for eight years, by which time everyone knew his name. As soon as one order was finished, a new order had been made and there was nothing left to display.

He has a photo collection of dallahs made for royals across the Gulf, and his orders now come by word of mouth. “They know me from before, from my father.”

Mr Ali, one of two brothers and six sisters, believes he is the last Emirati dallah maker. His older brother dropped out of the trade 25 years ago.

“There’s no market for it any more that makes its worth all the effort,” says Adel, his nephew. “A lot of people ask me why I haven’t learned, but there’s no incentive.

“It’s not promoted and it’s not encouraged. I can learn, but I also need a monthly salary and what if I don’t sell? I need a place to do this, equipment needs to be paid for and if he’s going to teach them he also needs a salary. If an order comes in, will he teach or make the order?”

Mr Ali is now working on the world’s largest dallah.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as it turns out well. The quality is what matters.”