Saturday, January 12, 2013

Looking for the Last: Arabian Peninsula and the Shasha

Temporary river oasiswith date palms living in the rocks, Harar Mountains
Desert. The Arabian Penninsula is full of it. It is about the last place you would expect me to be, looking for traditional canoe type craft. Yet, contrary to most conceptions, the desert is full of life. What rain it does recieve sprouts an unmatched resourcefulness and will to survive from its plants, animals and people. No plant signifies this more than the date palm, the hardy fruit bearing tree that has been the sustenance of the oasis searching peoples for thousands of years.

So I traveled east from Dubai to the Emirate of Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman. Here, between the elegant and challenging Harar Mountains and the vast ocean, is a fertile, yet still desert, lowland strip which sustains much of the regions agricultural production. This spreadout oasis is where the Arabian canoe called the Shasha (or Shoosh for plural) can be found.

Shasha on a gulf beach  
There was so little information, published or online, about this boat that it was extremely difficult to know whether it survived. I had read an article by Geoff Pound and heard that a man name Suleiman was keeping the tradition alive in Fujairah (the last person in the United Arab Emirates) to sell as cultural artifacts. 

Suleiman explaining the building process
Indeed, the last of the Emirate Shasha builders, Suleiman was quite the knowledgable and kind man. With his son, also knowledgeable in the craft, Abdulaiman's help in translation from Arabic he was able to tell me about the process and give me a few lessons.

Suleiman adds a palm leaf to the coconut rope to make it easier to insert while Abuleiman begins weaving
The process begins with selecting the right branches or fronts from the palm tree and then soaking them until they are soft. Then the fronts are woven together to make a basket between 3 and 6 meters in length. This weaving process uses a tool called the Shekinah to weave through rope (or Kumbar) made from coconut fibre (very similar to Zanzibari fibre).

Shekinah, tools for spreading the palm to insert rope
 Once this outer shell basket is made, sticks are inserted as ribs and a few thwarts are made from palm wood. An evenly sized cuts of palmwood are stood vertically throughout the inside the boat (this process has been replaced by styrofoam) and then covered with another layer of palm fibre on top to finish the boat. Afterwards it is ready to be rowed out for fishing or pearling!

Shasha building workshop
Perhaps no place on earth has changed more in the last twenty years then the Arab Penninsula, particularly the UAE where entire cities like Dubai have seemed to appear overnight, somewhat like Aladdin's palace in the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. It is to no surprise that traditions such as this are barely surviving. Yet could Suleiman really be the only person in the gulf who was still building these boats? Could the species, so to speak, be this close to exstinction? I rented a car and began traveling south along the Oman coast armed with with nothing but a bag of dates and these questions.

Dubai at Jumeirah Lake Towers, is that a canoe outline I see in the distance between tower and water


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