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Last shipbuilders of Muharraq

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Dhow building in Bahrain
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  • Bahrain

    Ship Builders Of Muharraq

    The Last

    by John R Ridley

    Two magnificent ships, a Sambuk and a Jebut, stand on the waterfront of Muharraq; traditionally used for pearling, the ships have been built to commemorate the proud maritime history of The Kingdom of Bahrain.

    lose by, Mohammad and Rashid are restoring an old hulk to its former glory, another hundred years of sailing the Arabian Gulf lie ahead for this majestic Bahraini Banoosh - the most common of the Arabian dhows, used in fishing and coastal trading. Alongside, Ibrahim has just begun building

    another 20 metre Banoosh, teams of craftsmen are busy fashioning the keel; soon a new ship will emerge from the shores of Muharraq.

    Whilst the Gulfs cities are among the most modern in the world, the wooden Arabian dhow, evoking images of pearl divers, fishermen and legendary Arab seafaring merchants, continues to play an important part in the economies of the region.

    We can only build one boat of this size each year, as the wood is increasingly difcult to source.

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    34 | Bahrain Confidential | July 2012

  • 35July 2012 | Bahrain Confidential |

    Bahrain

    Around the Gulf, on sheltered creeks or bays, a few craftsmen continue the art of dhow building; an art passed from generation to generation. In Bahrain only Ibrahim Amu Mohammad, Mohammad Ali Ismail (Ibrahims uncle) and Wahid Rashi Al Dosari continue this work. Mohammad, now an elderly gentleman, has been building dhows since the age of twelve. His experience, craftsmanship and remarkable eye for detail are apparent in the beautiful ships he has built.

    The three men do this work out of love of their countrys heritage; Mohammad and Wahid work full time on the ships, Ibrahim who normally works in a local hotel, dedicates his free time to his passion of boat building. The work, he tells me, is hard, but it is enjoyable; every day is different and rewarding.

    Mohammad is passionate that others should learn these traditional skills, There were 15 people building each of the ships; our hope always is that other Bahrainis will come and join us, but sadly most are not interested in this kind of work; we have to train workers from India and Bangladesh.

    The industry began to decline as fibre glass became the building material of choice and people entered the oil industry. Whilst Mohammad recognises the difficulties of recruiting Bahraini staff, he is not deterred, The skills have all but died out in Bahrain, yet they could be transferable to other industries.

    Whilst fibre glass dhows are still used commercially in Bahrain for fishing, Qatar is now driving a return to wood, using Bahraini built dhows; business though is hard as the wood becomes increasingly difficult to find.

    Searching the woodpiles in the boat yard, Ibrahim explained how the dhow builders of the Gulf are noted for their ability to work entirely without plans, judging everything by eye and experience. We know the design we want to make, then we look for the piece of wood that will fit the need - each piece is chosen individually.

    Whereas European tradition has been to make a framework and then add the hull planking, the Arab dhow builder starts with the stem and stern posts, followed by the

    Evolution and heritage have always been complementary; we take as much pride in our progress as we do in our inheritance.

    Old Hulk An old Bahraini Banoosh under restoration

    The deck of the Sambuk under construction

  • 36 | Bahrain Confidential | July 2012

    Bahrain

    rough unfinished hull planks - held in place by temporary supporting ribs or templates on the outside. As the hull nears completion the internal reinforcing framework is added. Below the water line a paste of boiling animal fat mixed with sand will stop the growth of barnacles.

    Mohammads work is restricted by the availability of suitable wood, we can only build one boat of this size each year, as the wood is increasingly difficult to source. His remaining teak woodpile, some of which has been in Bahrain for thirty years, is just enough to build a single ten to fifteen-metre boat.

    The teak trees are purchased ready-cut, held together by the last few inches of the trunk, each tree has the name of the person who prepared it carved into the wood.

    Demand for Indian teak, the wood of preference, is intense. The forests are preserved by the Indian Government and so supply is severely restricted. We have to search for the wood, it may come from Africa or Malaysia, but is not as durable as the Indian and will not last as long; the wood is softer and the colour is different. To demonstrate his point, Ibrahim polished small pieces of Indian and African teak with fish oil, the Indian wood is much darker and has a far more vibrant spectrum of colours showing through.

    Not only is the teak for the hull and decking in increasingly short supply, urban development has also made the locally sourced Bahraini wood, used for the ribs, difficult to find.

    First impressions of the new Sambuk are of the sheer size of the vessel; the deck area is some 200 square metres. Below deck, the ribs of the ship, nailed to the six-inch thick teak hull, are exposed and the remarkable construction becomes clear, as does the skill of the craftsmen who have brought this majestic ship to life.

    The new Sambuk and Jelbut, having two masts, follow traditional designs used for pearling. Unlike the pearling vessels of old,

    John Ridley is a journalist who has lived in the Middle East for more than thirty years; he can be contacted at [email protected]

    Patrick Ridley is a young photographer, examples of his work can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pattysquirrel

    diesel engines have also been fitted.Ibrahim is proud of the nations pearling

    history, Each ship, with a crew of 50 to 60 people would stay at sea for 40 days, searching the oyster beds which are 30 to 40 miles off shore. There is no pearl diving in Bahrain now, the oil industry offered a less arduous life and a regular income.

    With his characteristic optimism, Ibrahim adds, the oyster beds off the coast of Bahrain are healthy and there are plans to resurrect the pearl fishing business.

    Mohammad is certain of a long term future of dhow building in Bahrain. The demand for wooden dhows is very gradually returning as fishermen realise that glass fibre dhows are not as durable as the wooden ships. He pauses, Evolution and heritage have always been complementary; we take as much pride in our progress as we do in our inheritance.

    Magnificent Ships - a Sambuk and a Jebut built to commemorate the proud maritime history of The Kingdom of Bahrain

    Teak trees with carved names

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    Craftsmen Ibrahim and Mohammad

    Below deck of the Sambuk under construction

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