Photo by Joaquin Kunkel
In the middle of the fall 2016 semester, I found just what I was looking for. The nameless edifice behind the Nehal Hotel had everything: boarded-up windows and no washing hanging from the balconies. Above the disused ground floor of now shuttered shops are 11 stories of what look to be an uninhabited heritage item. With cooling units riveted to the outside of each room, the building has to be one of the older ones on its block, built before ducted air-conditioning kept an entire tower at a stable temperature. Luckily, it is not yet surrounded by the orange hoardings that signal imminent demolition.
Two buildings over, the demolition process had already been completed. There were yellow construction vehicles getting to work on the foundation, ripping up concrete and rebar to make way for a newer, taller and more modern development.
I walked around the squat concrete building a couple of times that morning. Sheets of paper were taped to the old shop windows.
“We have moved,” most read. Alongside these posters were those of people looking for flatmates. “Bachelor Apartment, Khalidyah 3000 dirhams/month.” These advertisements continued around the base of the building, in English as well as Malayalam and Devanagari. While rents elsewhere in the city are dropping, demand remains high for apartments in the center of the city, with the annual rent for a one-bedroom apartment between 50,000 and 100,000 AED. This is roughly the same as the annual salary for a registered nurse. Having a flat-mate makes a lot of sense.
I’ve long been fascinated by the older empty buildings that pierce the fabric of ever-modernizing cities. Abu Dhabi’s constant building boom means that structures are constantly being built, emptied, torn down and rebuilt, leading to many empty shells in the middle of downtown, waiting to be repurposed. Here, behind the Nehal Hotel, I thought I might’ve found a perfect example.
Mustering the courage to step inside, I pushed the door to the residential entrance, expecting it to be locked. It swung open, letting me enter the lobby. Initially it seemed empty, and I thought my guess had paid off. However, from an open door above and to the left of the entrance a man emerged, blue collared shirt untucked from his business pants. Clearly I wasn’t there to visit anyone, but neither was I a clipboard-holding municipal official. For a moment we sized each other up, testing one another’s resolve.
After a moment or two I looked up at him and asked, “Can I come in?”
The doorman explained to me that there were still a handful of families living there, but that they were in the process of being moved out to make way for the imminent demolition. The marble interior suggested a past opulence, but the thin layer of dust countered any notion of continuing luxury. With the doorman by my side, I went up the stairs to the first landing. Here the lifts stood disused, their journeys halted for the final time. Around the corner, the stairs continued, up into the midday gloom. A few appliances left at the bottom of the stairwell suggested that the story of this building was not quite over yet. A fridge stood idle, with a couple of water cooler tanks and a ladder left beside it.
Although I was inside and out of the direct sunlight, it felt as if decades of heat and moisture had been trapped in, with no ventilation to clear the air. Despite being still partially inhabited, the building already seemed out of time, something that would soon exist only in the memories of the city’s inhabitants.
Up the first flight of stairs we went, bypassing the mezzanine level which the doorman inhabited. The building still seemed structurally sound. The floor retained a concrete stability and all angles remained at 90 degrees. The fittings and furniture were just as rigid as when they were first purchased. Heavy wooden doors, without embellishment, indicated a style that focused on function, rather than the otherwise ubiquitous need in Abu Dhabi to express uniqueness. These first floor apartments had the same layer of dust as the lobby, suggesting that if anyone still remained, they likely inhabited the upper floors, clinging to their perceived aloofness.
I began to wonder whether the doorman would extend his largesse to me beyond just a tour of the internal stairwell. How far could I continue before I began to intrude? Sliding my fingers along the dust covered entrance I could feel little resistance beyond the weight of the door. Turning to my guide I raised my eyebrows. With a shrug of the shoulders and a flick of his wrist, it was clear that he’d offer little resistance as well.
The door opened with minimal effort and I stepped over the threshold into a home that was no longer. The emptiness almost felt welcoming, but this was not a museum piece or a set, designed for visitors who have no intention of staying. Going from the entranceway into the first room there were hints here and there of habitation, from the coat rack with the single wire hanger to the brightly painted second bedroom. But beyond these there was little in the way of human presence. No trash, no footprints and no life. Here the building waited.
Immediately after any new building is constructed in Abu Dhabi there is a waiting period, during which the place remains empty. The air-conditioning has to bring the inside temperature down from the sweltering heat outside, creating a clear separation through temperature. But here behind the Nehal Hotel we had come full circle; the place was to remain waiting for weeks, or maybe even months, fully open to the world, letting the outside back in.
I continued to walk through the apartment, noting the traces of life drawing me further and further away from the entrance. Finally, I came to what must have been the lounge or dining room. There was a large window at the corner of the room to provide sunlight and a much needed breeze, especially in the summer months. But with the shutters down now, most of the light and air came through the open door that led out onto a balcony. Drawn toward this, I stepped out back into the sounds of the city. It was a relief to be away from the dusty and still air of the interior. Looking out and down the street there was life teeming past, without giving this place a second thought.
Turning back into the apartment I noticed the doorman looking as though he wanted to go. I let him lead me back down the stairs, with no hint that anything was out of the ordinary. Thanking the doorman for his generosity, we shook hands and I stepped back out onto the street. Life continued. It had only just stopped at the door.
Later that semester, on a cool December evening, I took a walk through Abu Dhabi with Deepak Unnikrishnan. I asked him where the action takes place. “It’s usually between the buildings,” he said.
We had just come out of Sangeetha vegetarian restaurant, a joint that serves South Indian food directly across the road from where Unnikrishnan had grown up. His childhood home was no longer there, and in its place was the grey concrete of a half-built lift shaft, surrounded by scaffolding. The restaurant, however, remained.
Reminiscing about his boyhood in Abu Dhabi, Unnikrishnan told me about how he would play cricket in the parking lot of the Abu Dhabi Municipality. Returning there now, 20 years later, the cricket pitch was gone, with shades covering the parking lot, limiting anyone from sweeping a drive past mid-off. We arrived just after nine, when the play would have switched from the school kids who had just stayed out past their curfew to the older men who would play past midnight, the coolest time of the day. There were still a few men sitting on benches at the edge of the parking lot, and people walking from their work to home, ready to begin the evening’s activities. Rounding the corner of the municipality building and walking back onto the street, Unnikrishnan asked me to direct him back to where I had previously lived two years ago, in the middle of the city. With Abu Dhabi’s street grid in my mind, this wouldn’t be difficult — two superblocks to the west and one to the north.
Along the way, Unnikrishnan and I reflected on our different experiences of the city. After spending his childhood in Abu Dhabi, Unnikrishnan left to study in the United States. Obtaining his green card allowed him the privilege to move between the two places, but after his mother fell ill and he couldn’t return he decided to move back to be closer to his family.
“We’re always on the verge of leaving, but the city has been pulling us back,” he shared.
Unnikrishnan told me that every time he returns the city changes in some way. Each convenience store, for example, used to have its own name, with the variation giving an individuality to the numerous corner shops. Now, after a government initiative, every one had the same branding, and all are named Baqala. There are suggestions that in the near future, the stores will become 7/11s, a process that’s already underway in Dubai.
We arrived at Sama Tower, stopping along the way for masala chai. The little shops that sold this drink and a few snacks only had space for a handful of diners, and most people spill out onto the street to continue their conversations, over Styrofoam cups filled with hot tea. Unlike the markets that are being replaced by malls, and apartment blocks replaced by towers, there didn’t seem to be anything that was immediately about to replace the tea shops, but maybe it is only a matter of time until they are turned into Starbucks or Pret a Mangers. Walking back along Hamdan Street, in the direction of the restaurant where we first started, the street was filled with people, mostly South Asians and Filipinos. Above us, international hotels and apartment blocks soared into the sky.
“Every community has a different story in this city — the Brits, the Americans, the South Asians,” Unnikrishnan reflected. “They just don’t know each other’s stories.”
Connor Pearce is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]