Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Sections of this article are from the book, Kuwait’s Age of Sail: Pearl Divers, Sea Captains, & Shipbuilders Past & Present by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud. Claudia has enjoyed working in Kuwait as an author, freelance photojournalist, and cultural consultant since 1979. Follow her on @claudia_alrashoud

A traditional wooden ship under construction in Kuwait’s Doha village shipyards in 1990.

No one knows when the first wooden ships left the shores of Kuwait and sailed down the Arabian Gulf and across the Indian Ocean to India and Africa. The origins of the dhow are clouded in ancient history. Some claim that the Arabian sailing ships are direct descendants of Phoenician vessels. One of the first early texts in which they were mentioned is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the first century by the Greek, Hippalus. Even at that time, the dhows followed a long-established pattern of trade.

Among all the different types of great sailing ships in the world, the dhow holds the longest continuous tradition of commercial seafaring. For hundreds of years before the tall-masted clipper ships plied the Atlantic, Arabian shipwrights and mariners practiced their professions. And after the world-renowned clipper ships were gone, and most of the world’s commercial sailing fleets has been converted to engine power, the dhows continued their seasonal voyages, up until the end of the 1950’s, still powered only by the wind.

Kuwait’s last master shipbuilder, Haji Ali Abdullah Abdul Rasool, (left) photographed in his shipyard in 1990, with Husain Marafie. (Both photographs are from Kuwait’s Age of Sail Pearl Divers, Sea Captains, & Shipbuilders Past & Present by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud)

When I first arrived in Kuwait in 1979, the ancient seafaring traditions were still in evidence. In 1960 the shipbuilders had been moved from their original shipyards along the seafront in town to a desolate stretch of beach in Doha Village on the northern shores of Kuwait Bay. Inside the rows of shipyards there, each one enclosed by a surrounding mud wall, one had the impression of entering a world where time had stood still, where the old Kuwait continued to exist.

Piles of rough timber covered the ground: teakwood for the hull and deck, fen asel for the masts, fen Ibrahim for the spars, and the twisted boughs of ironwood for the ribs. The latter were cut from special branches in the jungles of India. The master shipbuilder would order a load of this unusual wood and with a keen eye, carefully select the most suitably shaped pieces and place them along the keel to form the ribs.

Other paraphernalia of the trade littered the yards: rusty capstans, great iron spikes of various lengths, pliers, chisel, plane, adz, and saw. Hanging heavy in the air was the smell of shark oil as the hulls of wooden boats were given a protective coating. The boats were sheltered from the sun in the age-old way, with a makeshift roof of palm-frond matting that softly filtered the light.

Seated on a long wooden bench under this canopy, I found Haji Ali Abdullah Abdul Rasool. Kuwait’s last master shipbuilder, he came from a long line of skilled men who constructed the graceful sailing ships that were once the fastest trading vessels in the world. In the pre-oil era, Kuwait’s impressive fleet of wooden sailing ships travelled to India and Africa trading dates for timber, rice, tea, spices and other merchandise and establishing a tradition of intricate and wide-ranging commerce. In those days nearly every local family had a stake in the trade either as shipbuilders, sailors, captains or merchants. With a keen sense for finance the innovative Kuwaitis built up cosmopolitan business empires long before anyone dreamed of the wealth to be made from the precious commodity stored below the ground.

Deep in thought, Haji Ali’s gaze rested on the half-finished fishing boat in front of him. With the knowledge accumulated during a lifetime of shipbuilding he surveyed the piles of rough timber and calculated the amount of material and man-days needed to complete the job.

Whereas in the old days there would have been a wide variety of different vessels under construction, then only the “launch” was still being built. A modified version of the sambuk, with diesel engines and galvanized rails and fittings, it is still commonly used as a fishing boat or pleasure craft and for short-distance trade to Iran and other ports in the Gulf.

The sound of men hammering and sawing rang out in the early morning stillness as the work day began, but the workmen were no longer Kuwaiti shipwrights who had learned the art of shipbuilding traditionally passed from father to son. These men came from the Malabar Coast of India, where traditional wooden ships have been built for centuries but where the trade is now in sharp decline.

When Haji Ali was questioned about whether he felt sorry that his sons hadn’t learned his profession, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “They’re employed by the government, they have found comfortable work.”

When asked whether he still used the traditional tools or whether power tools had taken their place, he smiled, dug into the deep pockets of his dishdasha and brought out an assortment of simple objects: a piece of chalk and length of string, a fork-shaped stick, and a small brass triangle with a weighted string. “These are my tools,” he said with quiet pride. They were the same tools that had served Kuwait’s master shipbuilders well for centuries.

Haji Ali demonstrated how the piece of chalk and length of string are used to draw a line along a plank of wood. He asked a workman to hold one end of the string and he rubbed it over the surface of the chalk. He then stretched the string, and holding it taught he gave it a flick, leaving a perfectly straight line drawn on the plank that made it ready for sawing.

Haji Ali’s fork-shaped stick is called a divider, or galam, and was used when planking a ship to measure the contour to which a plank should be cut so that it would fit neatly on top of the plank already fastened to the ribs. The weight at the end of the string is called a plumbob, or zubild, and was used whenever it was necessary to set up something vertical, such as ribs in reference to the keel, or when a vertical reference was required. Very simply, the weight was suspended at the end of the line, and the line hung perfectly vertical. Hindaza was the name given to the brass triangle, a type of protractor, with a plumbob. It was used to set up the slope for the stem and the stern by measuring angles with respect to the vertical.

Another ancient tool of interest was the bow-drill. The cord of the bow was wrapped around the shank several times, causing the drill to rotate first in one direction and then the other, as the bow is drawn back and forth. A tool that dates back to the Bronze-Age, the bow drill was commonly offered for sale as a souvenir to those who visited the Doha Village shipyards. I have long regretted not having bought such a piece of history when it was still in use. A critical stage in the construction of a sailing ship was to lay the keel. The shipbuilder would depend solely upon his experienced eye to set the keel horizontally. All of the traditional Kuwaiti sailing ships were set up purely by eye, and were constructed without any detailed drawings.

In the old days, if someone wanted to have a ship built, he would approach the shipwright, tell him his requirements, and make a verbal agreement with him. The shipwright would then begin work on the customer’s account, buying the wood and paying the salaries of the workers. He would add up the cost of the manpower and materials and add on a percentage for his profit.

The size of the ship was measured not only in tons but by a unit called man. It refers to the large baskets of woven palm fronds used for carrying dates, that weighed between 70 to 80 kilos each. You can get a visual reference to these measurements by looking at the Mohammadi II, also known as the Boom Restaurant at Kuwait’s Radisson Blu Hotel. Commissioned in 1979 by the late Husain Marafie and constructed on India’s Malabar Coast, the Mohammadi II is 420 tons or about 5,500 man.

Haji Ali remarked that in the old days, a ship of 3,000 man would take just two months to complete with sixteen to eighteen men working on it. “In recent times the workmen take it easy, but in those days the men worked quickly because they didn’t get paid a regular salary, they were paid according to the job. At the end of a day’s work, a man would wring the water out of his dishdasha, that’s how much he would sweat from his efforts. “Those were the days,” sighed Haji Ali. “We had a hard life but we were physically fit. People were kind and tried to help each other and there was honesty, truth, and understanding between the members of the community. And at the end of the day, we slept peacefully because life was simpler, and we didn’t have so many worries.”

Haji Ali continued working in his shipyard until the last month of his life, passing away peacefully at the age of about 90 in 1995. A great man who was humble and kind, as Kuwait’s last master shipbuilder, his passing marked the end of an era. What a privilege it was to learn about the art of shipbuilding in the Doha Village shipyards from Haji Ali Abdullah Abdul Rasool.