Elusive and formidable, mountains have forever intrigued man; people find themselves climbing mountains, often at the risk of losing their lives, just because they are simply “there.” But for some, mountains are more than just a challenge or curiosity. Mountains are in their blood, and the blood of their ancestors.
Saleh Al Shehhi is a walking, talking encyclopedia on anything and everything related to mountains both here in the UAE and across the world. Better known under the online avatar name of “Motasaleq al Jebal” (mountain climber), it is quite obvious what this 39-year-old Emirati lives for.
“My whole life is mountains. I love them and feel so alive each time I climb one.”
A member of one of UAE’s largest mountainous tribe of Al Shehhuh, known once as the “warriors of the mountains,” Saleh knows the sizes, the height, the color, the texture, and even the smell and touch of every mountain he has visited or is planning to visit. A fall from one such exploration expedition on one of the sharper edges of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains when he was 15—leaving him with three damaged vertebra in his spine and a life long handicap—hasn’t slowed him down at all.
“I can’t stay away from a mountain for longer than a few hours,” he says. “I need to drive and then walk along a mountainous terrain like I need to eat and drink.”
Like most members of the mountain tribes in the UAE, he no longer lives in a mountain village. The mountainous tribes such as Shehhuh, Habous, Al Hufayti and Al Dhuhoori have left their mountain villages, where often a small village is made up of 30 to 40 families and homes, and moved down into the valley or nearest towns. Starting in the 1980s, Emirati families were each given modern homes by the Government, leaving behind their old way of life.
Many of the mountain villages have been abandoned, but some of them have been turned into farms and storage places. Sometimes, the elders of the families like to visit their ancestral villages, and spend their weekends up there. For the young, some still like to hold traditional weddings up in the mountains and invite all the old tribes and their families.
The families used to herd goats, and sometimes even sheep, up in their villages. They relied on donkeys to transport their goods. One of the traditional items a mountain tribesman would always be seen carrying about, was “a jerz” - a small axe-head on a long handle, that he used to cut vegetation with or balance himself with as he climbed here and there. Exports from the mountainous region in the UAE in the past included items like dates, citrus, fruits (mangos and guava), tobacco, honey, and yegat (dry buttermilk).
It isn’t just the mountain tribes that left their ancestral homes; other tribes, whether they be from the desert or from the oasis, also moved to cities and embraced new ways. But they never forgot where they came from, with family trees cherished, preserved and passed along the generations.
“It is in our blood. We always come back to the mountains,” says Saleh.
With his warm smile and sparkling eyes, Saleh leaves quite an impression wherever he goes. Random people previously met along the mountains remember him, and if it happens to be their first meeting, he is immediately invited over to their homes.
Saleh also has a unique way of gesturing while talking, where he forms the shape of the mountains using his fingers and hands. “The tip is here, and the we drive along this path.” He draws an imaginary map with his fingers.
Saleh used to cut out any images and pictures of mountains from magazines like National Geographic, all throughout his youth. “I was very upset to find out someone had thrown away my collection. They didn’t understand what it was and what the clippings meant to me.”
He is never without his camera, always seen taking photos as well as spotting unique rocks and vegetation which he later reads up on.
Up to the last decade or so, you could still find a few mountain tribes living inside their carved out homes within the mountains’ exterior. They used to climb for hours along dangerous unmarked paths in order to reach their dwellings. But roads have since been paved, and Ras Al Khaimah’s livelihood comes from the mountains, by breaking them down and using whatever natural sources they may harbor via quarries.
Homes in mountainous villages are today occupied by workers, tribes of goats and other livestock. Some of the farms have started to grow wheat, in the hopes of one day selling it in the local market.
The other distinct characteristic that Saleh and his ancestors hold dear is their dialect. “Yes, we have a very special way of speaking. It is unique to our tribe,” he said.
Historians have traced the dialect to the pre-Islamic semitic language from southern Arabia and ancient Yemen. For instance, they would replace the letter ain with the hamza, or A, so instead of aasal (honey) they would said Asal. It is believed that the mountain tribes, in their isolation, have kept more elements of the original language, while other tribes have mixed and traveled and adopted different dialects. Some researchers believe the mountain dwellers like Shehhuh is based on the language of the Himyarite dynasty, an agrarian kingdom established in the south-west of Yemen in the second century BC, which built its wealth on the trade in frankincense and myrrh. Whatever the case, Saleh speaks another more personal language.
“I can understand the mountains. I know its moods, and I can even sense change in seasons and weather. Nature communicates to you; you just have to know how to listen.”
Text — Rym Tina Ghazal
Photographs — Reem Falaknaz