Tradition plays its trump card

In Old Ras al Khaimah, men who moved away long ago still gather every morning to play cards and reminisce about a harsher time, when lives revolved around the sea.

Men playing tarneeb in Ras al Khaimah in 2009. Jeff Topping / The National
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Every morning, Ali al Suwaidi meets three of his closest friends to play tarneeb, a centuries-old card game similar to whist. They sit on orange wooden benches, under a sidr tree that Ali, who is in his 60s, planted 16 years ago, and look out across the clear turquoise waters of the old corniche at Ras al Khaimah.
On these benches, as they slap their cards on to the red plastic tablecloth, Ali and his friends exchange jokes, gesticulations and occasional protestations of indignation with their card partners and share gossip and the bright yellow noodles their wives have cooked for them.
At any one time there are half a dozen men around the table, watching the four who are playing. Friends and neighbours come and go, but the game does not stop until one team has 150 points - a climax that, on average, takes two to three hours to reach.
For many of these men, the daily ritual of the tarneeb table also represents a return to their old neighbourhood. Known to expatriates as Old RAK and to Emiratis as Sidroh, for the sidr trees that grow here, it is part of the original town of Ras al Khaimah, from which the emirate takes its name.
Bordered by RAK Creek on one side and the Gulf on the other, this narrow strip of land was once a central residential and market area for Emiratis.
Vestiges of this past remain: the 19th-century Al Qawasim Fort, now the RAK Museum, stands next to a striking new police station.
The foundations of a stone mosque are believed to date from the 15th century and a market area once renowned throughout the region still opens for early-morning shoppers in search of a tea kettle, prayer mat or old furniture, although there are fewer patrons since Carrefour opened a supermarket across the creek a few years ago.
The card-players, who range in age from 30 to 80 years old, all remember growing up here. Many had been neighbours. But they have all moved away - to bigger houses in newer neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, it is to Sidroh they return each morning, to drink Arabic coffee in lime-green teacups decorated with red polka dots.
Without exception, they praise the development of the UAE. They talk about the privilege of education, the advantages of roads, cars and pensions. Yet their return to this neighbourhood is both geographic and temporal; it is not just an act of connection to where they grew up, but a poignant return to powerful memories of how life once was.
"Now it's better, now it's easy," says Ali, as tiny flags bearing the portrait of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, flutter in the sidr tree over his head. "Thanks to God, I have a car, I eat, everything's good. We have doctors, big houses, engineers, airplanes."
It was not always this way. Ali remembers when his family had to travel back and forth from their coastal winter house in Sidroh, where his father worked long days as a fisherman, to their summer home at the palm gardens in Qusaidat, closer to the Hajar mountains. They lived in khaimah, houses made of palm fronds, and relied on donkeys and camels for transport and trade.
Ali's family was part of the community of the small town of Old Ras al Khaimah, in fact a relatively new version of Julfar, a medieval city believed to have been located a few kilometres up the coast, protected by the mountains and a sandbar that formed a natural creek.
From the 13th to 16th centuries, Julfar was a celebrated centre for pearl-trading throughout the Gulf.
From its harbour, dhows sailed to India and Africa, laden with wood, food, pearls, spices and perfumes.
Its precise whereabouts remain unknown - archaeologists have found no conclusive evidence of its location - but according to the official history of the UAE, published on the UAE Interact website, "by the second half of the 18th century ... the centre of activity had shifted to the site of modern Ras al Khaimah city".

The Qawasim, who dominated the waters between Sharjah, Iran and Musandam from the mid-18th century, established their capital in Ras al Khaimah when they rose to power, creating a centre for trade and a life for families that revolved around the sea and the summer migrations to the interior palm orchards that Ali remembers. As the capital of the Qawasim empire, Ras al Khaimah became a celebrated and feared naval power. It was not until 1819, when the British attacked the town for the second time in a decade, that the Qawasim moved their capital to Sharjah, leaving Ras al Khaimah to decline in importance.
The creek, however, continued to be an important artery to the outside world for the families who stayed behind. Pearlers, fishermen and traders supported the neighbourhood, and Ali's father belonged to the last generation of families dependent on the sea for their livelihood. "My father was a fisherman and sometimes he caught falcons," he says. "By the RAK Hotel there's a hill. My father would go on this hill and catch the birds and sell them to the sheikh."
Mohammed Naeemi, a man in his 70s who has sat quietly watching the card game, recalls: "Our life was from home to the sea. I used to go fishing with six men. We rowed the boat out daily. We left at four in the early morning and came back around 12. We only had Fridays off."
At a time when opportunities in RAK were scarce - the pearling industry had collapsed in the 1930s - many men would travel around the Gulf for months at a time to support their families. Kuwait and Bahrain were centres of commerce. "In Bahrain they were also living on the sea," says Mohammed, clicking his yellow prayer beads, his soft maroon lips chewing on a frozen shishi date. "Fishing and pearl diving. Bahrain life was better than life here in the 1960s."
Ali's generation was the first to be offered formal education and government employment, allowing them to move away from a life on the water and long months spent far from home. "My father went to Kuwait from 1964 until 1970," says Aaref Rashed, a former Sidroh resident who is now a pilot in the national air force.
"That period was very poor here in this country. He went for work because here in Ras al Khaimah there was no work. He worked in the port.
"That's why when my father did hard work he insisted we studied. And we know the life was tough and that's why we concentrated on studying."
For Aaref, the mornings spent here, playing cards, are a reminder of his family legacy. Their history, he says, is here, buried in the sand like the roots of Ali's sidr tree. At these corniche gatherings with his elders and former neighbours, he remembers the difficult life of his forebears and his father's sacrifices.