Seafaring and the sea have for centuries shaped Oman. Our author visited the last dhow shipyard, the port of Sur, and some spectacular fjord landscapes in the country’s north
Two masts, an elongated prow, and an intricately engraved railing that sweeps upward. How old may it be, this ship, stand so majestically in the grounds of the dhow museum in Sur? Two hundred? Three hundred years old? Way off the mark! The Fatah al-Khair (Victory of Good), as the elegant cargo dhow is named, only went into service in 1952.
Into the 1990s, it continued to carry its freight of dates, incense and dried fish to Iran and India, Somalia and Zanzibar, returning from there laden with spices, rice and teak – exactly as Omani dhows had been doing for centuries. With the aid of dhows, Arabian seafarers built up a trading empire that extended across the entire Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean right up to the 19th century. That glorious past still lives on today, if only in scattered niches.
The dhows are built without a construction diagram, and entirely from the knowledge in one person’s head
One such niche is the port of Sur, for a long time the center of the dhow-building industry on the Arabian Peninsula. Today, as ever, the lighthouse that stands out against the slender minarets of the white city symbolizes the significance of shipping. What’s more, a couple of hundred meters along from the Maritime Museum, dhows are still being built at the shipyard of Ali Al-Araimi – and still in the time-honored way, entirely from teak, acacia and cedar wood and without reference to a single construction diagram.
“There are no plans, no construction instructions,” explains Al-Araimi, the shipyard owner’s son. “My father has every single step of the building process in his head. And from there, everything has to make its way into my head,” says the 30-year-old, raising both hands to his forehead. On the outside, Al-Araimi seems pretty laid back: He’s wearing flip-flops, sunglasses, a T-shirt, and the typical black wrap-over wazaar – casual Omani style. But as he uttered the sentence about the two heads, he appeared momentarily overwhelmed, as though he had suddenly become fully aware of the responsibility that comes with being the only person privy to centuries–old knowledge: His father is gradually retiring from the day-to-day business, and the Al-Araimi shipyard is the only one of its kind left in Oman.
Soon regaining his cool, the junior shipyard boss takes us to the courtyard where a large, gleaming, red-brown teak hull appears to be growing from a wooden structure. In the shadow it casts, two shipwrights are crouching over an all but forgotten boatbuilding technique – caulking. With caulking mallet and irons, they hammer the oil-soaked strips of cotton into the gaps between the planks.
The dhow should be ready in one to two months’ time. Then it will be laid on its side and hauled across the beach on a bed of palm fronds and into the water. It is being built for a wealthy Qatari, who plans to spend his free days sailing in the Persian Gulf. Many businesspeople and high-ranking politicians place orders with Al-Araimi. They are the kind of people who can still afford to pay for traditional craftsmanship
Working dhows, in other words fishing boats and freighters, generally come from abroad and are made of glass fiber, rather than wood, although outwardly they follow the same, tried and tested, centuries-old design. Even the color has remained the same – from a distance, the brown material resembles wood. There are dozens of these dhows bobbing in the late-afternoon sun in Sur harbor, which consists of little more than a handful of concrete quays and a functional market hall. These dhows transport rice, oil and sugar from transshipment ports in the Emirates to destinations as far away as Yemen, a four- to five-day journey that takes them through the Strait of Hormuz and along the Omani coastline. Sometimes they even sail as far as Somalia, says one sailor, who introduces himself as Anwar. There are regular incidents with pirates along that route, he tells us. “They take the cargo and let the crew and ship go again after a couple of days.” The way Anwar describes it, piracy sounds little more than a tedious evil that is tolerated provided the pirates don’t overstep the mark – in other words, don’t demand ransom money.
The pirates belong to the inventory of dhow shipping, just like the carpets stiff with saltwater on deck, where the helmsman has stood barefoot, a wooden tiller in his hand, for centuries. The only major difference: Where the mast once stood, there is now a tall funnel, and instead of sails, diesel engines propel the ships forward. Technical innovations are blended as unobtrusively as possible into the traditional dhow design – progress clothed in the mantle of the past.
The future of Oman’s shipping industry lies not in trade, however, but in tourism. This is most apparent in Musandam, the country’s remotest region. Musandam is an exclave situated 700 kilometers northwest of Sur, a peninsula protruding into the Strait of Hormuz, that narrow passage connecting the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf. Musandam is an archaic world of scree, rock and fjords, or khors, that slash deep into the landscape. The fishing villages in this barren, rugged region are more dependent on waterways than those in other parts the country – for getting the kids to school, for transporting shopping – for pretty much everything, in fact. And like few others in his country, Abdul Fatta Al-Shehhi has capitalized on the dhow tradition. Born into a simple fishing family, today he runs tours of the wild canyon world of Musandam for guests from around the world.
The cliffs of Musandam are a sublime, archaic sight
Dressed in a lily-white dishdasha, the traditional robe worn by Arabian men, and with a turban-like muzzar on his head, Abdul Fattah Al-Shehhi sits at the tiller of a small, blue wooden dhow that’s chugging along beneath the peninsula’s steep cliffs. With his glittering eyes, the striking gap in his teeth and the way he throws himself bodily into his job at the tiller, the 43-year-old looks rather like a large child. But when he tells you his story, his gestures become measured and dignified.
The first tourists came in the mid-1990s, says Al-Shehhi. An imaginative colleague took a couple of day trippers out with him in his dhow. “I thought: How could I make a better job of that?” Then he gave his dhow a fresh coat of paint, lined it with cushions, hauled a fridge and a crate of flippers and snorkels on board – and his tourist dhow was ready for action. He now uses it to glide deep into Khor Sham, Musandam’s largest fjord.
Rising up to 900 meters into the sky, the cliffs here glow every shade from reddish-orange to ocher. They make a sublime, oddly monotonous sight. Our eyes take in the layers of rock and scree slopes, the folds in the earth’s crust and the bizarre rock formations – and still, for all their fascination, there’s nothing to hold our gaze, which slips away to a stretch of country entirely without vegetation.
He now owns six ships, Al-Shehhi tells us. His business, Musandam Sea Adventures, has 35 employees, two of whom are German and work as guides for his largest market. Al-Shehhi shows us his latest treasure the following morning. The gleaming white Rubba, a quirky cross between a motor yacht and a traditional dhow. Glass-fiber design meets handcrafted teak; a dashing hull, unmistakable dhow elements. Here, too, a landscape of carpets and cushions on the foredeck invites passengers to indulge in some stylish lounging, while luxurious cabins make multiday tours an option.
The captain welcomes me aboard with a broad smile. I hardly recognize him: Instead of his dishdasha, he’s wearing shorts and a polo shirt; instead of a turban, he has donned a baseball cap. And instead of jamming his ample bodyweight comfortably against the tiller, he earnestly murmurs instructions into a walkie-talkie. With the gravity of a seasoned maritime patriarch, Al-Shehhi directs the yacht through the labyrinth of fjords, visibly enjoying his role.
Only a few hours later, we reach one of the most isolated spots in Oman, the small town of Kumzar, squeezed onto a narrow seam between the sand and the cliffs. Among linguists, the town is famous for its unique language, Kumzari, which is a mix of Farsi and Arabic with borrowings from Portuguese and English and these days only spoken by very few people. Al-Shehhi understands a little – his father’s second wife is from Kumzar.
The sky drenched with stars, the water glittering with plankton
As we come in to land, we see some fishermen rinsing large chunks of tuna in salt water. Squatted down behind them on the pebble beach, their womenfolk are curing the fish with salt and spices. They are wearing the traditional, shimmering golden burka masks that cover nose and mouth – another sight that puts me in mind of centuries past. “Not much has changed here,” says Al-Shehhi, pointing to a roofed-over promontory high above the harbor. “The fish lookout still sits up there and sounds the alarm when a shoal of sardines comes into the bay.” A tiny dhow with decorative carvings is tied up at the quay, its nets laid ready for action. Behind the tool shed, I spot the fruits of the last fishing trip: thousands of tiny fish drying in the sunshine.
In the early evening, we drop anchor in the next fjord and Al-Shehhi invites me to disembark again. We climb aboard a dinghy and chug into a side branch, where Al-Shehhi plans to catch a barracuda for our dinner. But it’s getting late, the light is beginning to fade. “Barracudas swim lower down in the water when it’s dark,” explains Al-Shehhi. He lets the bait and sinker down further and further as the mountains gradually merge into the darkness and the stars come out. Aside from the gentle slapping of the waves beneath the boat, the stillness is complete. When I look up, the sky is drenched with stars, and I can make out the Milky Way. And then, all at once, something glitters from below, as well. As Al-Shehhi gently guides the boat through the water, the marine plankton lights up. My thoughts of past and present stand still. This moment is beyond them both.