Preserving a UAE village ‘frozen in time’

Untouched for decades, the unique landscape of Jazirat al-Hamra needs to be protected.

Ali Ahmed and his friends play dominoes at a cafe in the new Jazirat al-Hamra [Zoi Constantine/Al Jazeera]
Ali Ahmed and his friends play dominoes at a cafe in the new Jazirat al-Hamra [Zoi Constantine/Al Jazeera]

Jazirat al-Hamra, United Arab Emirates The midday sun beats down on dilapidated rooftops, as a gust of wind whistles through the otherwise silent alleyways of this town in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah.

The souq has not seen a proper day’s trade in decades. The walls of some of the homes have long since crumbled away, leaving exposed rooms where families once lived. There is no adhan to call the faithful to the mosques at dhuhr prayer time.

This is the village of Jazirat al-Hamra, a once bustling coastal town, just 20 km to the south of Ras al-Khaimah city.

More than four decades have passed since many of the hundreds of families who lived in the old town moved out. What is unique about the village is that Jazirat al-Hamra has remained almost untouched, unlike many Emirati settlements that were abandoned in the second half of the 20th century. It is a small pocket of Gulf cultural heritage that many believe needs to be protected.

The town has in effect been “frozen in time”, said Christian Velde, resident archaeologist at Ras al-Khaimah’s department of antiquities and museums.

“It really is unique. We don’t have any other place like it in the UAE or even in the lower Gulf region, where an entire village is untouched by developments,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is an interesting reflection of how all of these towns, and now cities, in the UAE and beyond, once looked.”

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For decades, Jazirat al-Hamra – which means the red island – was a thriving maritime, pearl diving and trading hub. But between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, the couple of thousand people who lived there packed up and left.

There is some debate as to exactly why the villagers abandoned the town. Some say they were enticed by better economic opportunities in the capital, Abu Dhabi, following the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

There are several mosques dotted throughout the old town of Jazirat al-Hamra [Zoi Constantine/Al Jazeera] 

Others point to the fact that the dwellings were too old and people across the country were being moved by the government into more modern homes with better infrastructure. Yet others cite a dispute between members of the al-Zaab tribe, one of the largest groups in the area, and the rulers in Ras al-Khaimah at the time.

“There was some problem with the rulers, some misunderstanding, a political problem with the tribe,” said Dr Hamad Bin Seray, a professor of history at UAE University. “It was during the end of the 1960s, but now nobody remembers.”

Many residents of the village, including a large number from the al-Zaab tribe, were relocated to Abu Dhabi. Others resettled in or have since returned to live in newer homes in the greater Jazirat al-Hamra area and other nearby towns. No one lives in the homes in the old town that are still owned by the original inhabitants.

Goran Johansen, a Norwegian architect who has studied the area, said the village remains an important example of the pre-oil-era architecture of the Gulf.

“There are so many layers of history in the area and in the built environment, stories that are a part of [Ras al-Khaimah] and UAE’s development from bedouins to urban citizens,” he told Al Jazeera. “A loss of this important history will leave a huge gap in the local and national history books.”

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For years after the families left, the more than 200 housing complexes and structures built from coral stone and beach rock lay in ruins, as the rest of Ras al-Khaimah developed beyond the borders of old Jazirat al-Hamra. Rubbish piled up in the streets, structures crumbled and buildings were vandalised.

Then in 2011, Hamad Esmaeel, a 38-year-old IT worker, and several of his friends decided to do something to protect the village of their childhood. Enlisting the help of members of their community, they began cleaning up the area. More and more former residents joined the effort, which eventually drew the attention of the rulers of Ras al-Khaimah. Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi and other members of the ruling family even attended an event where thousands celebrated efforts to restore the town.

“I was born there. I started playing and walking and running in those streets,” Esmaeel told Al Jazeera. “I still feel like the old village is my home. I take my children there and we feel like it’s a simple and relaxed place. You don’t hear cars or see pollution. Glory to God, it takes you to another world.”

The contrast between the almost decaying structures of Jazirat al-Hamra and the urban development along other parts of Ras al-Khaimah’s coastline is stark. Not far along the highway is a shopping mall with cinemas and a Starbucks.

Towering in the distance is the immense, ornate Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and just up the main road you can see the fake snow-tipped peaks of the Ice Land themed waterpark.

If you come at night you hear strange noises. If you're scared you hear more and more.

- Khaled Abdullah, resident

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But not everyone has forgotten about the village tucked away behind the new settlements. Over the years, Jazirat al-Hamra has attracted attention for more than just its historical significance. Many believe it is haunted, with the curious drawn by tales of Jinn, or spirits from another world. Several films set in old Jazirat al-Hamra, including Djinn (2013), have only added to the air of mystery.

On the outskirts of the village, Khaled Abdullah loaded armfuls of shrubs he had dug up from around derelict buildings into his jeep to take to feed his camels. His family used to live in Jazirat al-Hamra, but he believes they left because of the Jinn.

“If you come at night you hear strange noises. If you’re scared you hear more and more,” the 25-year-old said. “If you’re not scared, then it’s not so bad.”

Many former residents, however, are quick to dismiss the village’s reputation as a ghost town. Sitting with a group of friends on blue plastic chairs outside a cafeteria in the new part of town, watching the ritual afternoon game of dominoes, Ali Ahmed, 52, shakes his head.

“There is no Jinn,” the government worker, who was born in old Jazirat Al Hamra, said sternly. “All our families lived there, so no, it is not correct.”

Esmaeel also wants to quash stories that the town he has worked to restore is haunted. The father-of-three believes the focus should be not on the supernatural, but on the future of the old village. Ultimately, residents say they want to see the town preserved and protected.

Ras al-Khaimah authorities want the same outcome, with the possibility of turning the area into an open-air museum. The local government has already granted the village protected status, meaning the old town cannot be redeveloped or destroyed. Specific plans to restore the town are believed to be under review.
“We want to see the village like it was. No modern things, but the same designs and materials used,” Esmaeel said. “This is a very special place. We don’t want to lose our history.”
Source : Al Jazeera

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