Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Passing Of The Thorban Pottery

The oil fired kiln at Thorban

There used to be just the one road out to the East Coast of the UAE, a lasso-shaped affair that snaked up into the Hajjar Mountains from Dhaid and bifurcated at Masafi to snake around to Dibba and down the coast past Tayyiba and Khor Fakkan to the sleepy and delightful Emirate of Fujairah. The road back from Fujairah to Masafi takes you alongside a deep wadi, in fact a 3,000 year-old route to the interior from the East Coast, with megalithic grave sites to prove it.

Just after you pass the Manama turnoff from the Dhaid-Masafi road is the village of Thorban, long home to the mildly famous Thorban pottery. You understand we're not talking Clarice Cliff here, the Indian potters who made the cluster of ramshackle cinder-block godowns just off the main road their home produced rough terracotta pots using time-honoured techniques. The kiln they built was wood-fired, each new batch of still-damp pots placed in the kiln and then covered with soil to let the charcoal do its work.

The Thorban pottery became a must-visit destination for any group of visitors we took around the Emirates and was always busy, potters working away on their wheels or mixing new batches of clay, a couple of chaps in lungis front of house to ask for ridiculous prices from the feckless tourists, signalling the start of the long process of bargaining that would end up at half the price and still leave you wondering how much further a skilled negotiator would have got. Latterly, we arrived there to find stacks of cardboard boxes and asked where they were headed. 'Liberty in New York' was the answer!

It was around this time the oil fired kiln appeared. Thorban was thriving and appeared to have found itself a ready export market, as well as popularity with any batch of curious holiday-makers headed East to Masafi's Friday Market and beyond.

We went East for a wander at the weekend, spurred on by the discovery of the huge changes we'd seen in our recent wander around Umm Al Qawain. And yes, the East has changed in almost exactly the same way. Piles of rocks line the Dhaid road, occasional lorries with broken backs buried in the roadside sand dunes tell of the constant flow of heavy trucks down from the mountains. Ras Al Khaimah, Fujeirah and Hatta have become centres of quarrying, mountains slowly being broken down to feed Dubai's voracious appetite for rock, gravel, aggregate and cement and the road down from Masafi is still, downturn notwithstanding, dotted with a procession of groaning lorries capped with green tarpaulins.

Mirroring the story told in Umm Al Qawain, you can see signs of feast and famine: the downturn that halted Dubai's meteoric construction boom almost overnight had its consequent effect in the mountains. Shuttered shops and abandoned date plantations catch the traveller's eye on the road across the wadi plan from Dhaid. Communities that had expanded have contracted again. What used to be the police check point for 'illegals' trying to enter the Emirates from the East Coast is now an office for the Mining Affairs Department. There seems to be another rock crusher every few hundred metres.

When we got to Thorban, what used to be the pottery is no more. Something grey and dusty remains from a spill of liquid, coating the track on the approach to the tin-roofed buildings. There are laths scattered all over the place. And the pottery stands, abandoned, rather in the fashion of the Marie Celeste - there are still pots lying around, moulds on tables and the clay-mixing machine still stands by the door into the main workshop. It's as if they left overnight, taking nothing with them. We wandered around the place for a while, peering into the kilns and, for some reason, whispering.

It was somehow tremendously sad. What had been a thriving little enterprise was gone. The source of all those pots, terracotta camels, foot-scrubbers, mubkhars and candle-holders was no more. And there was no clue as to why it, seemingly so suddenly, came to an end. There's a mobile number on the sign that still stands by the main road, but it doesn't answer.

If anyone knows, I'd be fascinated to find out. 

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