The next time you fly over Dubai check the scrolling in-flight map. Perched at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, beyond the desert and the markers pointing out Abu Dhabi and Muscat, and jutting right out into the strait of Hormuz, is an inappropriately large red dot labelled Kumzar.
‘It’s the most densely populated place in the world,’ says Abdel Kader, a teacher, housing co-ordinator and self-professed linguist who abounds with enthusiasm for his isolated, ancestral home. ‘Or at least I think so. Look, it’s a small crowded village. There are 3,000 people living there at any one time and it’s not even a kilometre wide.’
Kumzar is a small village, inaccessible by land, strung out at the end of the complex network of fjords that lattice the mountainous Musandam exclave of Oman. It’s 45 minutes by speedboat from the town of Khasab. By helicopter, which arrives once a week with supplies, it’s about 15 minutes. From the mouth of the village’s soft cove you can sometimes glimpse, across immaculate cloudless waters, the coastline of Iran.
The inherent isolation of Kumzar, coupled with its key strategic position in the Strait of Hormuz, has imbued the city with a certain unique heritage. Kader speaks rapidly, in fluent, raspy English: ‘Kumzar is a compound of two Arabic words: kam, as in “how much” and zar, “visitors.” For as long as it has existed, the village has received the world.’ Modern Kumzari, the local language, is a mixture of Persian, English and Portuguese with smatterings of Hindi and Old Arabic thrown in. It’s a true hybrid of dialects, which reflect the long-gone colonial visitors whose only other remains in this part of the Middle East are a handful of sandy forts.
The Kumzari accent gently rises and shuffles in a way quite different from Arabic. There’s none of Arabic’s guttural tones, and any vague similarities to the Farsi accent erode and disappear the more you hear of the language. Kader describes himself as a linguist, and tells us he hopes to eventually prepare a dictionary for English to Kumzari translation. ‘Take “open the door”,’ he says. ‘In Kumzari it’s “open doro”, but we also use that to mean “close the door.”’ Then he points upwards, ‘And for the stars, we call them “starg”. To be “upset” means the same in Kumzari and English.’
Modern Kumzari, the local language, is a mixture of Persian, English and Portuguese
Throughout summer, the citizens of Kumzar leave the isolated village for two months when the seas become too warm and the fish too languid to get a decent catch. Relying almost entirely on an income of fishing, most Kumzaris take summer jobs on date plantations on the mainland, work in the handful of hotels or, if possible, take it easy until Eid draws them back to the village.
‘I’m Kumzari but my family moved to Khasab when Sultan Qaboos became the Sultan of Oman,’ says Kader, as he drives us through the district of Khasab where a lot of Kumzaris migrate to in the hotter months. He gives a friendly beep of his horn to passersby. ‘I taught in Kumzar for three years, and eventually was a co-ordinator of the teaching staff.’ He now hopes he’ll be accepted for a Masters in Applied Linguistics in the UK, specialising in Kumzari and English translation. Kader has applied several times before, ‘but this year, inshallah.’
While Kader’s idea that Kumzar is the most densely populated place on the planet may be shaky, there is no arguing over the sheer volume of villagers. The streets are so tightly packed that few are much wider than shoulder-width. Until recently, the graveyard of one of the town’s mosques had become so full that marking stones spilled out into the surrounding alleyways. ‘I know a family with 40 members of the family in one house,’ says Kader, who also tells us that a recent offer to rebuild Kumzar had been refused by the inhabitants, who would rather continue in this way than have to leave Kumzar for the year-long regeneration.
We wanted to understand more about what has kept this community intact and in such an isolated place for so long.
Wafa works in the offices of Khasab Travel and Tours, a Musandam-wide tour operator that offers dolphin-seeking dhow trips and 4×4 safaris through the surrounding mountains. A 25-year old Kumzari who now lives permanently on the mainland, Wafa explains that the sheer number of people in one place is what defines the village and gives it its life. ‘Kumzaris are like one family. The houses are so close that you can hear what the people in the house next door are saying. It can be the middle of the night and someone will help you if you need it. The houses are close enough that you can just call out and your neighbour will come to you.’
But, she explains that change is coming to the village, and nowhere is it more evident than in the new designs for the houses. ‘There are so many changes in Kumzar, it’s not like when I was growing up. These new, city-style houses are being built to replace the traditional houses.’
It’s necessary to see this for ourselves. We enlist the help of Mohammed, the bright-eyed captain of a large ship that ferries water supplies from Kumzar’s new government-built desalination plant into the depths of the Musandam fjords where even more isolated settlements exist. He offers to take us to Kumzar by speedboat and, after 45 minutes of bouncing across waves in the morning heat, we arrive at its rocky beach.
Given that it’s summer and so many families have migrated to Khasab until the end of Ramadan, the town is remarkably lively. Men in small skiffs cast their nets into the still, stunningly translucent water of the cove while, in town, masses of goats stroll searchingly through the now long-dry wadi that cuts the town in two.
Mohammed leads us through narrow streets, stepping over the recently added water cables that snake through the town like black spaghetti and are bringing running water closer to homes (previously a trip to the well in the interior of the mountains was necessary).
It’s dark and cool in the labyrinth of alleyways. The voices of the few who have stayed for the summer echo around the stone mountains.
Occasionally we pass a house and can hear the chatter of voices over a television. Despite its isolation, there are few of these old houses without satellite dishes.
Mohammed takes us to one of the newer houses being constructed along the water’s edge. Its grey, concrete foundations and painted beige walls stand out against the coral coloured alleys we emerge from. It’s much bigger, more urbane looking and, set apart from the surrounding houses, stretches up two storeys. Deeper in town, Mohammed points to another home whose occupants are half way through adding another storey onto the original, traditional foundation. When we reach his own house – a small courtyard skirted by four small rooms – he signals with hand gestures that, after Ramadan, he’ll set about rebuilding the house to accommodate his growing family.
Kumzar is certainly changing. The desalination plant, manned by Indian expats, and a small police station are recent additions to the town. There’s talk of building a road deeper into the surrounding mountains, connecting the town by road and allowing new houses to be built. And, most strikingly, the villagers themselves are recognising the need to expand – whether it’ll be a matter of ingenuity, and adding to the original houses as some inhabitants have done, or bringing in city-style abodes is yet to be seen.
Back on mainland, Mohammed introduces us to his daughter Sheikha, who has just returned from studying in Ras Al Khaimah, over the UAE border. After four years training, and returning fluent in English, Sheikha starts teaching at the small school in Kumzar after Eid. She is insistent that the continuing closeness of the community is what has drawn her back.
From meeting the Kumzaris, we’re left with the intangible sense that keeps them attached to this isolated village. On the coastal road out of Khasab, we bump into Kader again, who puts it clearly for us. ‘Think of a place without pollution and disturbances,’ he says. ‘There are so many types of pollution in the world now, but get rid of all these and then imagine living in a peaceful place. Every night, when I was a teacher in the village, I’d spend two hours sleeping on the beach in Kumzar. There’d be a cool breeze, the sound of the waves, the birds. These two hours were enough for my body to rest. Then I’d walk back through the streets to my house in the night.’