Wharfage: Sharjah Creek
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Summary: Wharfage was a CAMP project invited by the 9th Sharjah Biennial, 2009, and was part of the programme 'Past of the Coming Days', curated by Tarek Abou el Fetouh.
It was a project on the creek in Sharjah, from where a large number of dhows leave for 'Somalia'. Somalia, a collection of semi-state entities, is therefore a kind of free trade zone. This arrow of trade, in which the ship is not an escape from but an entry into the space of conflict, is our subject.
It offers an opportunity to think about how "business" and these commodities are related to global trade and the current economic situation in the UAE. With pirates up ahead and crisis on their tails, this movement of goods and their sailors may trace old trade routes. But it also maps out something new: a contemporary landscape of new and used objects, 'break-in-bulk trade, labour, Asian and African diasporas and giant wooden ships being built in Salaya, Gujarat.
The Wharfage project consisted of two parallel pieces: Wharfage, a book containing two years of port records related to Somali trade; and Radio Meena, four evenings of radio transmissions from the port. From March 18-21, 2008, one could tune into Radio Meena on 100.3 FM between 7pm and 10pm, within a radius of about five kilometres from the port.
Wharfage was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sharjah Biennial.
This video is a documentation of the Sharjah port and the loading and unloading of the wooden boats or dhows.
There are very few places where you see cars zipping past on one side of the road and wooden boats parked on the other side along with goods meant for export. A majority of these boats are made in Salaya and Mandvi in Gujarat. The average time taken to build a boat is ten months. This period could be prolonged if there aren't enough finances. The wood comes from Malaysia and it is carpenters who build the boats.
There are other boats as well, which hail from Iran. These boats can be identified easily because they are blue in color. A large number of goods is exported to Somalia from here, including consumables such as rice, sugar, flour, dates, cooking oil, macaroni, etc., as well as electronic goods, tyres, used vehicles and refurbished furniture.
One can see cranes next to the boats and goods on the jetty. These cranes are taken on rent by the Somali traders in order to help load the heavy goods onto the boats. The tyres are a part of a large consignment which comes in on cargo ships. It is broken up into smaller consignments and then, loaded onto the boats. [Incidentally,] one of the boatmen told me that these tyres are "China ka maal", that is, the tyres are exported from China.
Sharjah Biennial 09
Sharjah Creek, Corniche St, Sharjah
A consignment of goods has just arrived. The drivers have been allotted a specific number of goods for the different boats. One truck may have enough goods to load onto three boats. The goods from the truck are unloaded at the jetty, one box at a time, and arranged systematically by daily wage labourers. These labourers hail from Pakistan and are a community by themselves, living together in dorm-like apartments. Once these goods are unloaded at the jetty, the boat crew will load them onto the boats at their convenience.
One also sees a few mini-vans and mini-trucks near the goods. These are often bought from second-hand car auctions. They are either for personal use or for private [business] enterprises in Somalia. I noticed that almost all the vehicles exported to Somalia are right-hand driven, whereas the vehicles in UAE are left-hand driven. I wasn't able to find an answer to this, though one of the men on the boats told me that the vehicles were exported from the east and now are being re-exported to Somalia.
During low tide, the boat is moved slightly further from the wharf into the sea. This is done because if the boats are very close to the wharf, they bump against the floor which risks damage to the boat. Hence the boat is moved and a sturdy wooden plank is placed between the boat and the wharf. This way, the movement of the crew and goods is not hampered.
There is a certain way in which goods are generally arranged on a boat. The eatables occupy the lower deck along with smaller consumer durables. The upper deck is divided in three 'levels': the first has barrels containing petrol, diesel, and at times, chemicals; the second has wooden planks which are systematically arranged; and the third has vehicles which are cushioned in between tyres. The boats are frequently visited by hawkers who sell shawls, shoes and even pirated dvds and cds for the crew's entertainment. The boatmen often take tea breaks between loading off consignments, and some also smoke 'bidis' (hand-made cigarettes) or chew tobacco.
As I said before, the goods have to be loaded and unloaded with cranes. The cost of renting the crane is borne by the Somali trader. Even if the boat is right by the jetty, heavy goods such as cars and wooden planks have to be lifted using cranes. When cranes are not available or in order to speed up the loading of goods, semi-automatic cranes on the boat deck are used.
Many a times, I would come across Somali traders supervising goods being loaded. Again, you could see the divide in a single frame - on one side, a queue of wooden boats with the loaded goods and on the other side, general stores, commercial spaces and residential apartments.
Although there are no specific designations when it comes to labour, the foreman supervises the arrangement of planks on the boat and keeps tabs on the number of planks being loaded. The Somali traders are most often seen in groups as they divide the work among themselves. They are most often related by blood -- distant cousins or relatives. Theirs is a close-knit community.
Something which looks like a fuel dispenser is being loaded on a boat that stands third from the wharf. This is being done with the help of a semi-automatic crane, which runs on a diesel engine. However, only manual labour can maneuver the dispenser in different directions. The whole process is being supervised by a Somali trader as well as the boat's foreman. The crew from other boats often lends a helping hand when there is insufficient labour [as is happening here?].
I often witnessed the crew and the Somali traders pulling each other's legs, that is, teasing each other. This often sounded more like a verbal cacophony because neither of them understood the native language of the other! Interestingly, one of the crew members mistook my name for that of a Pakistani fast bowler as can be heard in this clip.
Goodbye to the boat MSV Al Madina. It is packed, loaded and ready to leave.
The crew has to do a of preparation to ensure the safety of the goods on board. Before leaving Sharjah, they pack the goods in tarpaulin thrice to avoid any damage. Also, goods that can move easily are tied to something stable. If they are destroyed in transit, the damage is paid for by the captain or owner of the boat.
The crew does not buy any ration before leaving Sharjah because there is three months worth of it on the boat at any given time. Instead, crew members buy munchies and snacks like, for instance, 'chevda'. They make sure that every water tank on the boat is full so that they can carry out daily chores like washing, cleaning, cooking food, etc.
It is a tedious task to move the boat out of the wharf and into the creek from where it is taken to the Creek Customs office. As one boat leaves, another, which has arrived with exports from Somalia, occupies its place. The crew considers it âquickâ if the goods are loaded and unloaded within a period of 20-30 days. The general duration for is 15-45 days, subject to availability of goods to be exported.
The captain then spends a couple of days submitting documents at the customs office. Once the documents are in, the customs office prepares the manifests [?] which contain a complete list of the cargo, its weight and value. An invoice is made that includes the duty paid against the weight of the load, which is 2AED/ton. Also, there are no docking charges for the first three days, after which the port authority levies a 20-40AED fee per day. This is paid by the by captain/owner of the boat or the Somalian trader who loads and unloads the goods.
This clip shows MSV Faizane Chisti in the first row of boats at the wharf. It was standing in the second row next to MSV Faize Sultane Khwaja, which left to go to the customs office.
Turning the boat around takes about 15-20 minutes and is only possible with the cooperation of neighbouring boats. It is mostly done in the afternoon when most crew members are on a post-lunch break and are not loading goods. Special attention is paid to the front and back ends of the boat so that it does not bump another boat. Some crew members stand on the wharf and hold on to ropes tied to both ends. This is done to ensure that the boat is properly aligned to the wharf.
Some men working on other boats sit on their decks, chatting with each other, while others prefer to sleep. Generally, the crew works in rotational shifts of three hours. This way, everyone gets to sleep.
There is a clear demarcation of the territories occupied by the wooden boats and the cargo ships. The area near the wharf is assigned to the wooden boats whereas the other side of the creek is used by the cargo ships. This is also where the Sharjah Creek Custom Office is located. There is also an oil rig in its vicinity.