From a small enclosure of bungalows in Al Jafiliyah, Satwa’s oldest district, comes the piercing sound of a buzzsaw. Heralded only by a dimming electric light, which illuminates an oud floating in a canoe, the Public Arts and Rowing Centre has become something of a focal point for two very different sides of traditional Emirati life. On one side, this is a venue for local weddings, a small unassuming cluster of majlis buildings, and also the centre for any locals keen to learn the ‘yola’, a traditional Emirati dance using sticks. But right now the club’s traditional rowing team are making the final tests on their fleet of boats, which will get their maiden voyage on the Abu Dhabi Corniche in this week’s National Day celebrations.
‘We row for 6km every evening,’ says Khaled, the captain of one of the boats competing in this year’s event, who sports a formidable beard and an exuberant grin as he talks. ‘In the mornings we have duties. A lot of the men in my boat, including the coach, are in the police. So we have to balance our hobby with our jobs.’
The rowing team’s compound has a very casual atmosphere. Canvas tents cover a quadrangle of benches where a group of aging Emiratis, most of them Satwa-born, sip black tea. Khaled is from Sharjah, but explains that the teams competing in the annual National Day event are made up of locals from across the emirates. ‘There are four teams competing, with 17 boats in each. That’s 68 boats altogether racing along the corniche’s small body of water. There used to be huge boats which had 180 people in them. Now all those big boats are finished because they’re too expensive to make. So they reduced the number of men per boat to 70, and now it’s just 16.’
Khaled gestures towards a silent sun-worn Emirati in a red and white headscarf and tortoiseshell glasses opposite us. ‘This man, Said Khamis, was a captain on one of those 180-man boats and was the first man to set up this race.’ We offer a salaam, but Said doesn’t notice. ‘He’s a bit deaf,’ Khaled whispers and shouts over to Said, who raises a hand and smiles. ‘These 180-man boats were used to transport cargo from ships offshore back to Dubai,’ Khaled explains. ‘Said used to work on these. It was at a time when Dubai had no major ports, so the bigger boats couldn’t get in.
They’d use the rowing boats for taking cargo back and for pearl diving as well.’ Around the time of the union of the UAE, Said approached the government to organise a rowing race – perhaps, as the tide of development approached that would soon sweep across the country, to preserve some semblance of the older, tougher way of life. ‘Said told Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed [Al Maktoum, the late UAE vice-president and prime minister and Ruler of Dubai] that he wanted to set up a race for the workers. So a racing boat was designed. It was shown to the government and they gave it the okay.’ Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE), himself was present at the race. ‘He said he wanted this race in Abu Dhabi, and that was just around the time of the union [of the emirates] – 1973, 1974.’
Khaled leads us over hills of sawdust and curls of Burmese teak to a workshop at the back of the club. Two sailing dhows, designed for 22ft sails, are overturned in the sand and sawdust. He points to two huge traditional rowing boats on blocks of wood. They’re glistening with a fresh coat of varnish. Khaled hands us an oar to test the weight. ‘We wanted these to be made of carbon fibre, but the organisers won’t allow it,’ he says, taking back the hefty chunk of smoothened wood. ‘They make sure we keep this competition traditional. These boats are built as they would have been when they were used for cargo and pearling.’ ‘We have a boat name, which means “army”,’ he continues. He slaps a wooden block positioned at the back of the boat. ‘I sit up here, and I look out for people who are being lazy.’ We ask if Khaled thinks his boat can win. ‘My boat came in second last year. But there was just two or three centimetres between us and the nose of the leader’s boat. We are thinking, inshallah, we’ll win this year.’
The traditional rowing race takes place from the breakwater on Abu Dhabi Corniche (the last point of the corniche, two traffic signals before Emirates Palace) on Dec 2 at 4pm.