Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

There is an unmistakable air of mystery surrounding the crumbling ruins of an abandoned fishing and pearling village that lie around 20 kilometres from Ras Al Khaimah’s city centre. For almost half a century, emptied of its inhabitants and their belongings, this 16th century village with its houses and mosques built in coral stone and sand, had remained a silent testimonial of an era when pearling was the prime source of prosperity.

Standing on what was once a tidal island, this coastal town was at the mouth of a strategic location that attracted wealth, foreign powers and immigrants from across the region.

A neighbourhood community of around 280 houses, Al Jazirah Al Hamra, which literally translates from Arabic to mean “red island”, has remained a mute witness to the march of progress that accompanied the discovery of oil in the 1960s. As towns and cities around it grew and prospered, with business establishments, hotels and shopping malls springing up in quick succession, the abandoned town continued to remain untouched, retaining its old-world charm.

In the years that followed, just as its labyrinthine alleyways and large houses with visible signs of affluence conjured up images of a thriving life of the past, so too did the myth and mystery shrouding this little village grow as stories of djinns and ghosts now began to be whispered, heightening the eeriness that permeated the walls of its quaint houses.

Very soon, the desolate ruins that stood in a land marked by tribal conflicts, scorching summers, strong winds and heavy sandstorms, earned itself the unsavoury sobriquet of a ‘ghost town’ and a ‘haunted’ neighbourhood. The rich and fascinating history of the community that once flourished here soon faded into oblivion as it was with a deep sense of dread and fear that curious visitors trod cautiously among the piles of stones in the day time, consciously opting to stay clear of it at night.

The town is now transforming itself into a vibrant space for people to rediscover the cultural heritage of Ras Al Khaimah Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Al Jazirah Al Hamra would perhaps have vanished from sight and memory with the passage of time had it not been for the timely intervention of three governmental organisations in the UAE that sought to preserve this cultural relic through rehabilitation and restoration efforts. Thanks to a joint project undertaken by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Infrastructure Development Abu Dhabi, and the Department of Antiquities and Museums, Government of Ras Al Khaimah, this historic site has just completed the first phase of its restoration process in January this year.

Breaking free from the shackles of the jinx of ancient spirits, this one-of-a-kind coastal village and the last authentic traditional town still standing in the UAE, is now transforming itself into a vibrant space for people to rediscover the cultural heritage of Ras Al Khaimah.

In its new avatar, the majestic beauty of the traditional architecture of Al Jazirah Al Hamra and the grandeur that it evokes has lent itself as a scenic backdrop for the ongoing 7th edition of the annual Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival (RAKFAF), an open-air art exhibition that champions local artistic talent and promotes a diversity of artistic expression covering a range of genres.

‘The colourful contemporary art contrasts well with the recently restored historic village to embody this year’s theme of Old Meets New,’ says Caitrin Mullan, community engagement & outreach director at the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, the organiser of the event. ‘The historic pearling village has a special place in the hearts of the people of Ras Al Khaimah as it is steeped in culture and history. By making it the venue of the RAK Fine Arts Festival, visitors can now soak in both its architectural splendour and layers of history while also exploring large-scale contemporary photo works from local and international artists.’

The arts festival features works by various artists from diverse genres in an open-air exhibit Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Not long ago, Al Jazirah Al Hamra was a renowned pearling centre, she explains. ‘The houses here evoke the lifestyle of a not too distant past and the community was home to both wealthy pearl merchants and those engaged in maritime trade. Much like the pre-oil buildings of the era, the houses were built mainly with large pieces of corals and shells while date palm trunks lined its roofs. Architectural details show that post-1950s, many of the affluent renovated their homes, sometimes knocking down walls to include the conveniences of modern living such as a parking garage or attached bath facilities.’

Most of its inhabitants were from the Al Zaabi tribe but also included citizens of Arab, Iranian and African descent. It is estimated that there were more than a thousand people living here when they abandoned their homes and moved en masse to Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s. By this time, the global market for natural pearls had crashed due to Japan’s mass production of cheaper, cultured pearls. It is widely believed that the community moved to the UAE capital in search of better prospects and living conditions or perhaps it was disputes between local families that caused the sudden departure.

‘The Al Zaabi tribe, who were the last to live here, are still the owners of the abandoned buildings,’ adds Caitrin.

Even today, as it did decades ago, a traditional long dhow boat occupies pride of place at the main square, attesting to its pearling tradition. Two towers, one circular and one square, stand tall in the fort, overlooking the cluster of newly restored dwellings and the visual arts exhibition.

A pop of colour bursts from the walls as Colombian artist Leonardo Montoya’s pop-art portraits that recreates popular images with a classical approach and a contemporary twist leap out with their distinctive colour, composition and rhythm. The bold sculpted faces against a solid-coloured background is eye catching.

As towns and cities around it grew and prospered, the 'ghost town' continued to remain untouched, retaining its old-world charm Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

‘I feel that art can break cultural barriers,’ says the artist whose meeting with Aseel, a woman he met at RAKFAF last year, led to the culmination of three mega portraits now adorning the coral walls of Al Jazirah Al Hamra. ‘As a figurative mixed media artist, I portray the uniqueness of people so that my audience can relate, accept and embrace versatility. After meeting Aseel, I wanted, with a deep sense of respect and admiration, to portray not only her beauty but also the strength of her character.’

Leonardo Montoya, whose fascination for the human form developed from a very young age, says, ‘I am very impressed with the growth and development of the Festival this year. The new location is amazing as it reflects the cultural heritage of the emirate. I believe that art plays a very important role in a developing city because it helps to shape its identity. Tolerance and diversity philosophies are subjects that usually form part of my artwork, so it was very nice to find that common ground here.’

We walk through the dusty streets, taking in both the enchanting art works on display and peering into the unique architecture around us. A little yonder, amidst the ruins, is propped up a photographic image of a herd of camels crossing the sea with the waves lashing out against them. Titled ‘Hope’, the artist, Gillian Robertson who has been living in Ras Al Khaimah for the past four years says, ‘It was a day after a stormy night that I came across this scene, of camels crossing the sea with their owners. As I witnessed their struggle to lead the animals forward while navigating the crashing waves, I could see a range of emotions cross their faces, hoping that the animals will get through without any harm.’

Gillian Robertson, a resident of Ras Al Khaimah, is one of the artists whose works are displayed at the festival Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Gillian, who is currently working on a UK-UAE based inter-culturalism project, says, ‘Hope, for me, is a word that evokes expectations of positive outcomes, and this was the dominant emotion reflected in the eyes of these camel handlers.”’

‘Hope’ won the first prize in the Digital Art category at RAKFAF. ‘It is a great honour and I am humbled by the recognition,’ says the artist.

Walking along the winding pathways, Caitrin points out that this year’s event was inspired by the La Gacilly Photo Festival in France where hundreds of large format photographs are showcased for four months each year in the parks, squares and flowery streets of a picturesque town that lies in the middle of Brittany. ‘It is now the biggest outdoor photography festival in France, and we were inspired to try this format in the intriguing setting of this magnificent site here in Ras Al Khaimah.’

Accordingly, 110 artworks by more than 70 artists representing 30 nationalities are represented at this year’s RAK Fine Arts Festival. The smallest pieces are 1x1 metre and the largest require multiple panels, some reaching five and six metres in length.

Six compounds or villas have currently been restored in the first phase of redevelopment using the architectural guidelines that were apparent from the original structures. Villa 1 is dominated by a UAE theme where Polish artist Kasia Dzikowska’s portraits of the UAE’s founder Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the former Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, Shaikh Saqr Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, are installed. UAE-based Mexican artist Jose Toledo’s ‘Jalboot’ features several dhows in the bluish waters of the Arabian coast while Canadian Maya Esta chose to portray the allure of Dubai’s Old Souk with a passenger-laden abra on the Creek set against the backdrop of a cluster of wind-towered buildings.

The Al Zaabi tribe were the last to live in the community and are still the owners of the abandoned buildings, according to Caitrin Mullan Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Other highlights at the RAK Fine Arts Festival include US artist Karen Knorr’s India Song, a series of digital photographs that celebrates the rich hybridity of visual culture found in northern and southern India that is showcased in the old Al Jazirah Al Hamra fort. Against the backdrop of palace architecture, wild animals photographed on location have been inserted thereby fusing high-resolution digital with analog photography.

A series of images by American photojournalist Jeff Topping that was featured in the book People of Ras Al Khaimah, authored by Anna Zacharias and which tells the stories of many of its most remarkable residents are also a highlight at this event. ‘These images were taken during the course of long conversations, held over several days, with the people living in the emirate, embodying its transition from the 1950s to the present,’ explains Caitrin.

The festival curators have also showcased the artistic talents of several prominent and emerging artists of the UAE. Aman Al Mansoori presents an expression of beauty with her ‘Patience’s Beauty’ while Maryam Al Mutawa has brought out vividly the stereotypical Western portrayal of Middle Eastern men. To balance the rough, emotionless features as depicted by the Western artists, she has placed colourful flowers in the background hinting at the depth of beauty hiding behind the physical features of these men in three portraits.

A work by medical student Noora Al Shehhi, a self-taught abstract artist Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Final year medical student Noora Al Shehhi, a self-taught abstract artist, has used the power of digital technology to portray what she witnesses in the corridors of the hospital surgery rooms every day. Titled ‘Anticipation’, she explains that she ‘drew it last year when I took the first steps towards realising my dream of becoming a neurosurgeon — a discipline that sees an overwhelming range of emotions from sadness and shock to fear, grief, hope and anticipation.

‘When waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery, it is anticipation that you see writ large on the faces of the families waiting outside; the uncertainty of it all and the desperate hope of an optimistic outcome. I am inspired by the people I meet every day at the hospital. Their expectant glances, nervous energy, glimmer of hope, the silent prayers – all these are a constant source of inspiration.’

However, the biggest inspiration, she adds, stems from just being in the operation theatre. ‘I look at the paint brush as an extension of the surgeon’s scalpel — both need a skilled hand, deft movements and a keen eye.’

Noora, who was born and grew up in Ras Al Khaimah, says ‘it is an honour for me to have the privilege of exhibiting in my home town. This is where my artistic journey began; I drew my first pieces here starting with cartoon characters and images from my bedroom wallpapers. And to be featured alongside other national and international artistes is humbling indeed.’

The setting for this year’s RAKFAF is phenomenal, she adds. ‘The way the artworks aesthetically blend into the restored structures is mesmerising; it is surreal.’

Know before you go

The outdoor art exhibition at Al Jazirah Al Hamra Old Town runs until April 20. Timing: Sunrise to Sunset, free entry. Wear closed shoes preferably to offer protection as you wander through the site. Don’t forget your cameras — this is a great spot for Instagram-worthy images.