The Arabian Peninsula has always been a harsh and turbulent place for life and the people whom have inhabitated it’s rugged desert landscape. With very few resources and little water, the tribal communities that have called this place home for millennia have always had to be creative their efforts to carve out a living. Although the nomadic lifestyle dominated most of the region in the past, present pockets of agriculture have been able to thrive spanning back many generations.
The western Hajar mountains, located in modern day Oman and the Emirates of Ras Al-Khaima and Fujairah, contain an abundance of small fertile valleys and wadis suitable for the cultivation of several crops. Families in the Hatta Valley region produced honey, grew dates, lemons, mangoes, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, garlic, and variety of cereal grains. Without a doubt though, the most important cash crop was tobacco for the production of dokha.
Before the unification of the United Arab Emirates and money from oil, dokha was as valuable as gold to the locals of this region. Entire families depended on the annual tobacco harvest to support themselves. Farmers grew as much tobacco as they were physically capable during the growing season early in the year. To get an idea of the value of dokha, one camel load could financially support one individual for an entire year.
Traders from Oman would arrive in the valley regions of the Oman/UAE border in early December with tobacco seed, fertilizer, and other staples that were sold and occasionally lent to farmers on credit until the harvest. Growing tobacco on land that recently produced wheat was only done by families with limited acreage. If they could, families would grow tobacco on rested land using bulls to pull a “hais” which was a light plow specially designed for the local rocky soil type. Plowing of the fields and the planting of the seeds was done in early January after the lights cycles would start to become significantly longer. The western farming method of planting tobacco in long rows with three feet in between was not utilized by the farmers in this region. Traditionally, and even to this day, dokha was planted in square plots, five square-meters in size called “bayadir”. Families would typically have half a dozen to several hundred bayadir on their land. The first six weeks of growing were the most critical time of the growing season. Locals described this part of the growing season like “taking care of children” due to the amount of time and effort required. The extereme heat and lack of humidity, even in this cooler time of the year, would kill young seedling if they were not tended to properly during this period. Seedlings and young plants were fertilized with a local fertilizer called “gaisha”, which was essentially a fish meal comprised small local fish similar to sardines. Tobacco plants were grown short, stout, and heavily pruned to the height of three to five feet. Each plant would ultimately contain eight to ten leaves in total. The purpose of short plants were to keep them drought resistant in the harsh desert sun. Farmer often had to supplement the gaisha fertilizer with another fertilizer locally called “jaish”. This was comprised of goat manure that was stacked in piles for several months in the fall in order to allow time for it to “cool” and break down the nutrients for absorption. Jaish was typically applied towards the end of the growing season by farmers whom could not afford gaisha fertilizer throughout the growing cycle.
The tobacco harvest season was the most important time of the year for the locals of mountainous regions of Eastern Arabia. Harvest took place in early summer before the peak of the summer heat ideal for drying, which was often done at higher elevations where there was less humidity. Every capable family member would get involved with the harvesting and processing of the tobacco crop. The tobacco was picked and hung in a drying shed or larger barn called a “ma’arisha”. These barns were often quite large and shared by several families in a community. After the tobacco was hung and dried with ample time to cool down, the leaves were stripped from the stem, ground, and blended in to several dokha blends. The entire harvesting, drying, and processing took about three months on average to complete. Afterwards, the finish product was wrapped into bundles called “jubla” and sent by camel caravan to markets in the region including Dubai in the west and Muscat and Khor Fakkan in the east.
The Madha region was most renowned for the quality of dokha tobacco it produced. This is due to the specific soil composition, climate, and elevation of these valleys. At first, Arab merchants from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would flood this region after the harvest. They would exchange dokha tobacco and medwakh pipes made of goat bone for rice, salt, spices, incense, dried fish and meats, crafts and other valuables. These merchants would transport the tobacco by boat up the Persian Gulf. It would arrive in Kuwait and Iraq and be dispersed to Iran, Turkey, and the rest of the Levant. In the later years leading up to oil, Iranian merchants would sail to the port town of Khor Fakkan in the Sultanate of Oman. The people of Madha and Al-Buraimi would load their dokha tobacco and medwakh by camel caravan and exchange it for currency, coffee, and Peshawari rice. The Iranians would buy everything and pay a hefty price for the for the dokha produced in Madha.
Dokha tobacco played a pivotal economic role for the farmers of Eastern Arabia. Even after the discovery of oil by the British and the unification of UAE, the tradition of farming tobacco and the skills and knowledge passed down by generations still prevails to this day. Different local tobacco strains, growing, and blending techniques are still closely guarded secrets. The advent of tobacco cultivation becoming illegal in the Emirates has not stopped this tradition. Many families and co-ops have moved their farms and facilities across the border to Al-Buraimi in Oman and to the north in the Fertile growing region of Shiraz in southern Iran. This high quality, additive-free dokha tobacco is continually gaining in popularity world wide as an emerging in India and the Western world.