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Warriors of the Mountains: The Shihuh Tribe

Mountains have always been of compelling interest to mankind and have continued to be so. Mountains form barriers between countries and control the passes through them. You can discover new places and new landscapes if you find a way around the mountains. The mighty mountains are also extremely difficult places to traverse through and there is the constant risk of landslides and avalanches. People climb mountains and also risk losing their lives just to reach the summit. But for some people mountains are a part of their dynasty and more than a subject of curiosity. One such group of people is the Shihuh Tribe living in Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost emirate of the United Arab Emirates.

The people living here in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah are walking encyclopedias on everything related to mountains in the UAE as well as across the world. But what is distinct is their language and how they communicate. Their language consists of people screaming and yelling like in a battle cry. The main chanter holds a small axe on a long handle called a ‘jerz’. This small axe is used as a weapon or a tool to cut vegetation with or can also be used as climbing gear. 

The people together with the main chanter also dance along with the tune of the traditional drums made with goat leather and their movements tell a story of strength in living in a hostile environment. The tradition of the screaming chants has been passed down through generations. What was then used as a means for unity and gathering the tribes during times of war, has now become a sign of identity.

The Shihuh speak a unique blend of Arabic and Farsi which both Arabs and Iranians cannot understand. Sadly, though, this unique dialect might soon vanish as younger generations favor Arabic over the language of their ancestors. The chants and yells are spoken by the Shihuh people have become subjects of chuckles and insults but what many don’t know is the rich history of the tribe – one with a unique set of customs and rituals.

There are numerous mountain tribes living in Ras Al Khaimah other than Shihuh, some of the largest tribes are Habous, Al Hufayti, and Al Dhuhoori. No matter how many tribes, most of the members no longer live in the mountain villages. They leave their village and move down to the valley and nearby towns for better opportunities and lifestyle. In the early 1980s, families living in the Emirates were also given modern homes by the government, this also encouraged the mountain tribes to leave behind their old way of life. 

The Shihuh Tribe (or Shuhu), also known as the ‘warriors of the mountains’ are experts in mountainous terrains and know exactly the texture, height, size of every mountain they have been to in and around their area. “It is in our blood. We always come back to the mountains” said Saleh Al Shehhi, one of the members of the largest tribes in the mountains. Better known by his online avatar name of “Motasaleq al Jebal” which translates to a mountain climber, Saleh adds that he understands the mountains and can also sense a change in seasons and weather. 

For some Shihuh people, their whole life revolves around mountains and they even claim to feel much alive after climbing one. The ancestors of the Shihuh people are believed to have come to these mountains from Yemen and their traditions honor a proud history of independence and war. 

In the past, the families of these mountain tribes used to live inside their carved out homes within the exterior of the mountains. For some families, they had to endure and climb through dangerous terrains in order to reach their homes. They used to herd livestock and relied on donkeys for transportation of goods like dates, fruits, tobacco, and citrus from the mountainous region. 

In present times, many mountain villages are abandoned and some have been turned into farms and storage places. For some families, these villages have been perfect for a weekend getaway where they spend time exploring their ancestral villages. The tribes also hold traditional weddings up in the mountains and invite all the old tribes and their families. At every traditional wedding, the Shihuh language, a dialect of Arabs, is spoken which can be rather unusual for outsiders but is equally captivating at the same time. This mountain tribe has kept the original elements of the language while other tribes have traveled and acquired various dialects. Whatever the case, the Shihuh tribe speaks another personal language that is the language of the mountains.

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