The Fishermen


HEBAH: Are you recording?

NOON: I am recording now, yes.

HEBAH: Our story comes to us today from a new producer with us, Noon Salih. Who, by the way, we were classmates in middle school. And a couple months ago, Noon came to us with this idea. 

NOON: So, I’m still fairly new to the city, to Abu Dhabi. 

HEBAH: Noon recently moved from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi. 

NOON: So I live right across the Corniche - which is this long stretch of beach that lines the city and every once in a while I see from my window, these beautiful big boats - or dhows - sailing by and some carry tourists, some are empty. It’s such a beautiful sight watching them float along the banks of this very new, modern city. They almost look like they belong in another time. So I thought to myself  - I was like, well, what is their story?

HEBAH: Which, as you all can guess, is the kind of question we love at Kerning Cultures. So naturally we got excited and asked Noon to look into it. 

NOON: And so I do a little bit of digging, and found that they’re much more than these historic vessels - that at the harbor where they are docked, there’s a whole community of men who for the past two, three, four decades,  have lived and worked on these dhows with very little interaction with the city around them. Sailors from Gujarat, in India. 

HEBAH: Gujarat, by the way, is one of India’s biggest coastal states. It’s in Western India. And while most Gujaraitis are vegetarian, they have one of India’s highest producing fishing industries in all of India.

NOON: It was like a whole subculture existed of fishermen who ate, slept, prayed, worked together for years and years. So I went out to the docks, I tried to speak to some of these guys, but I quickly found out that I would need a translator - someone that spoke Gujarati. So I took to Facebook women’s groups, asked around, and met this lovely translator, Vipruta, or Vips. And she met one of the sailors during this Hindu religious gathering, and that was Ramchandra.

Vips and I met Ramchandra at the docks. He’s a smiling quiet man, short stature, dark bronze complexion, he’s impeccably dressed, white dress shirt and beige slacks. So he leads us up onto the boats, and to get to the boats it’s about the 4th boat down, and to the right. You have to physically jump across each boat, and you gotta watch out for the gaps between each boat, and you’re doing this as the boats all bop up and down to the motions of the waves. And you also want to keep your head ducked because those clothes lines are unforgiving and it’s like one of those video games, you know, where you try to avoid all the incoming flying objects. So it was a very interesting walk up to his boat, but we arrived.

HEBAH: And these guys, this group of men responsible for bringing us the fish we eat in Abu Dhabi, they live this life we don’t know too much about as consumers. But then, Noon found out, the story goes deeper than that.  

NOON: I think it was at the moment when we sat across Ramchandra, I found out that later that month, the government was coming down with a rule, that would essentially change the way that they fish. And everything that these guys had known for the past two, three, four decades, these men’s livelihoods, the industry itself - it was all coming to an end.

HEBAH: Today, a story that intersects tradition, livelihood, fish, and community. We’re documenting a world with you that will soon be erased. I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures, stories from the Middle East and the spaces in between.


NOON: So we got to the boat, sat down, started talking to Ramchandra, the boat’s captain.

VIPRUTA: He was 20 years old when he came here.  

NOON: This is Vipruta. She told me that Ramchandra is the oldest of six siblings.

VIPRUTA: He was the oldest, and he had one sister and six  brothers. He started working with his father when he completed his 10th grade.

NOON: He started working as a fisherman in the 10th grade and years later travelled to Abu Dhabi with his uncle.


VIPRUTA: They came here so that they can support their father because they didn't have enough money so they prefer the eldest brother will start coming into this fishing activity so that their younger siblings can go for the studies.

NOON: Ramchandra said he grew up poor, and for young men in his village in Gujarat, the Gulf was a way out of that. All of the men we spoke to were from the same province in India called Gujarat, and it’s a place a lot of young men come from to the UAE because it faces the mouth of the Gulf across the Arabian sea. Because of how far away it is and how expensive it is, they don’t get to go home very often, maybe about once a year or so. And they’re living and working in the UAE away from their families, so when they speak of home - of Gujarat - their responses are wistful, almost romantic.

VIPRUTA: He is saying that once he enters his village, it is like - he feels like totally - it's a heaven for him because it's very clean, fresh air and that smell of the first rain, so it is like very good. It’s like – everyone's doors are open, so you know who is where, there. And everyone knows each other. So all they are like a huge family. So they enjoy very much there. So it's a very good life over there.


NOON: In the 1950s in the UAE, fishing was a critical part of the economy. And Abu Dhabi in particular made up 70% of the fishing for the entire UAE. But then, when oil was discovered in the 60s, the economy shifted. 

So, I wanted to see how these guys fish so Ramchandra offers to take us on a short boat ride around the marina and show us how it’s done.

VIPRUTA: Better we get hold to something because it will start moving.

NOON: Okay, here we go.

So the men split their time between being out at sea, or working on the boat while docked. They spend maybe 15, 20 days of the month docked, and the rest actively fishing out at sea. The men show me around the dhow. 

We then go down a steep stairwell of about 6 or 7 steps into a very hot and humid lower deck. The engine occupies most of the small space.


VIPRUTA: They stop the engine while they sleep. 


NOON: Okay good!

On the days they’re docked, they wake up with the sun. 

VIPRUTA: So they start their day from morning, five o'clock. By 05:30 they start their prayers from this holy book of ours, it's called Bhagavad Gita.  


NOON: Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu sacred text written in Sanskrit. It means “song of the spirit”

VIPRUTA: So they will recite two to three chapters from that book and then again ... in the boat also they will do some prayers … then they will start with some net making and all the small, small work related to boats. 

NOON: These guys fish traditionally, using something called a gargoor which is a metal net. 

And I see now he just put some bread in the net, what’s that about?

VIPRUTA: Put some food for the fish.

NOON: Imagine kind of, a fish cage made of wires, and they use it by throwing it into the sea and it’s a very effective way to target a large proportion of fish. They’re not super large, they’re about half a meter high, half a meter wide, and they trap fish, so fish aren’t able once they come in, they aren’t able to go out. And what the captains do is they attach a piece of bread, food, to catch the fish, essentially. 


VIPRUTA: Okay now he is throwing this net in the sea, when they are in the sea, they keep it in the sea for 15 to 20 days.


NOON: He's steering the ship with his feet. 

VIPRUTA: Yeah because he is doing something with his hands.

NOON: Each boat has this elevated portion towards the back of the boat where a cloth like material serves as kind of a shade overhead. So throughout all the boats you’ll see fishermen gather, sit underneath this shade, cross legged, playing cards, napping, chatting, it’s quite obviously the coolest spot under the scoring Abu Dhabi sun.

Traditionally, these boats were used by early Emiratis for pearl diving and for trading. At that time obviously there was no cars, no busses, you could only get around by sea. It’s impressive when you look at the boat, and the way that they’re built, they are built with no technical drawings, they rely solely on the ship builder, which was and still is a prized skill among old Emiratis. They look like something which has survived decades of time, a boat which could have easily been used in the early 1900s for example, but then they’re dotted with little corners of technology, like the GPS, safely tucked away behind a small wooden door.


VIPRUTA: This shows that if there are more stones or more sand area is there, so based on that, they can know where the fish will be. So location on the fish can be tracked through this. 

NOON: So, they go out to sea, they use the GPS technology to help identify the best place, the best location, fish wise, to throw their nets. That same GPS can then help them retrace their steps, so to speak, to find their nets later on, so they throw their nets in and then come back in 15 days or so to collect their catch.

VIPRUTA: 125 nets, each boat.

NOON: Each boat has around 125 nets, and that was a regulation by the environmental agency in order to restrict overfishing. And they’re catching fish like hamour –

RAMCHANDRA: Hamour, sari, sapi –

NOON: Sari, sapi and crab, usually around 500 to 600 kilograms of fish per boat. Which then they can sell for, at a good auction, around 10,000 dirhams.

VIPRUTA: It depends upon the auction rate, so if there is a good rate, then they may get around 9,000 to 10,000, but it can be around 6,000 to 7,000 as well. It all totally depends on the auction.

NOON: but can be as low as 6 to 7000 dirhams as well. So a maximum of about 2,700 USD gross income.


VIPRUTA: So if they have earned 10,000 dirhams per boat then the same day, they will be deducting the cost, maintenance cost.

NOON: Various running costs like diesel, paying the local sponsors, and that’ll leave them with a profit of around 4000, to split between 6-7 people, the crew members.

VIPRUTA: And then it will be like 4,000 left, then they will distribute among these two captains and then they will distribute among the other people, like say there are three to four people, so they'll be getting, say, 500 per person.

NOON: $142 US dollars. For Ramchandra and his colleagues, it’s enough to make a living here in the UAE and still send a chunk back home to Gujarat every month. And, working conditions here are better than for fishermen back home, they said.

VIPRUTA: There in India the water is very deep. Here, it is not that deep. And there they don't have this metal nets.

NOON: He’s talking about the gargoor, which is really good at catching fish. And it’s because it’s so effective, that it’s caused overfishing in the UAE. Abandoned gargoors also pose a huge threat to marine life - think of lost metal cages trapping fish under the sea, something known as “ghost fishing”. The gargoors also have been responsible for trapping endangered species, bc, of course, they don’t discriminate what they catch.  

So, the UAE has been trying to address the issue of overfishing for years, enacting a series of laws, including placing restrictions on the use of the garoor. To give you an example of just how serious this problem is, earlier this year, the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, found that more than 85% of the local favorite - hamour - has been essentially wiped out and could result in the species’ complete extinction in the Arabian Gulf. 

In the same month I met Ramchandra and his crew, while I was sitting atop their boat - the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment issued a resolution banning the use of the gargoor cages.

So what I had seen is that they were only using gargoors to fish, so if they didn’t have a gargoor, they didn’t really have any other method of fishing. It’s really all that they knew how to use.

VIPRUTA: That’s it. This is the last day for your fishing and everything will be closed. Nothing else, why is the reason, when they can start, nothing they have been informed. But they have been hearing from other people that it is maybe because of the harm it is doing to the environment and sea world. It's all in the hands of God, so God must have made some other plans for them.

NOON: So, I wanna ask this from Ramchandra because he’s been here for 30 years I think, so after being here for 30 years this has become home to him, it’s 30 years of seeing how Abu Dhabi has changed, seeing all the things, does he feel like he’s going to miss it? Is there any sadness associated with this leave?

VIPRUTA: They also feel Abu Dhabi is their home country only because they got that warmth and support, friends everything from Abu Dhabi. So this is also like their second home, so they will definitely being here. Because they have started their business and all, they have started their business and all, they have good friends, they are like their family. So they will definitely miss this.


NOON: Before I left the fishermen, they wanted to show me one more thing. 

We're now going across to another one of the boats.

VIPRUTA: They're celebrating Lord Ram's birthday, R-A-M, Ram's birthday, it's called Ram Nomi.


NOON: So these men are all sitting on the ground, cross legged, some have guitars, drums, tambourines, one stands at the mic leading the prayer songs. Some have their eyes closed, others are staring at me and my audio recording equipment intently. And there’s a rhythmic beat to it all - the drumming, the praise, the clapping, and the boats moving up and down to the waves, so beautiful.


VIPRUTA: Because the moon waxes and wanes, right? So on the ninth day when the moon is in this - that day we celebrate this. It's called Ram Nomi.


NOON: A spring Hindu festival that celebrates the birthday of a god called Lord Rama by engaging in a celebratory praise of his virtues.


VIPRUTA: They offer fruits, flowers, and they decorate it with fresh flowers and they a lamp with ghee and they sing this type of bhajan and kirtans for Lord Ram.

NOON: Effective May 1st 2019, the Gujarati fishermen packed up their few belongings accumulated over the last few decades - photos, clothes - and with their dhows still anchored at the Mina Sea Port in Abu Dhabi - made their final trip back home to Gujarat. What happens next to Ramchandra and his crew is uncertain. They give me vague answers - maybe they’ll start fishing again in India, maybe they’ll start a small business back home. But they always come back to this similar response - this was God’s will, and we’ll be alright.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Noon Salih, with editorial support from Alex Atack, Dana Ballout, and myself, Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat. Bella Ibrahim is our marketing manager. Fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. 

Special thanks to Vipruta Vagadiya, Ramchundra Tendel and his crew, and Fatma Al Sayegh. Also big thank you to our new Patrons supporting us on Patreon: Farah, Hala, Sara, Lyth, Sage, Albert, and Mohamed. You are making the production of these stories possible. Thank you. 

Next time on Kerning Cultures, we have a story about a Uyghur linguist in Istanbul trying to preserve his language, when much of his culture is being destroyed by the Chinese state.

That’s in two weeks. Thanks for listening, until next time.


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