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Photo courtesy of Vamika Sinha (IG: @foodqueenhoney)

Grappling with the Demolition of Mina Zayed: Are We All Complicit?

While many of us are outraged by the prospective demolition of Mina Zayed, we must not forget that these spaces are being regenerated to be more consumable to a certain kind of people: us.

Nov 21, 2020

“Smoke break?” asked Vamika, my friend and recent NYU Abu Dhabi graduate who had been on campus for the entire summer. It was mid-September.
We decided to go to the Baqala at Mina Zayed, the one closest to campus. The Baqala that’s crammed in a line of shops that look exactly like one another. Some sell dokha, others shisha; some sell plush carpets and others sell colorful plastic slippers.
I wore my kurta and chunni as I often do when I go off campus. No one questions it in the city. It feels like I am back home again.
“Bhaiya, ek Dunhill packet.” (Brother, can I have one Dunhill packet?)
I handed Vamika a cigarette and we smoked in silence. We looked at the enormous cargo ships that stood still. South Asian men in grey, dusty kurtas fluttered around us, lazing around in shops, running around with cardboard boxes or lounging on plastic chairs. Some made prolonged eye contact; others avoided eye contact. Maybe because Vamika’s large chunky camera was dangling around her neck.
But something was different that day. At the end of the line of shops, we spotted rainbow colored confetti, a photographer and a sea of white people. I knew that sometimes white people came here to buy cheap things or take photographs.
We walked closer to find two white men inside the corner store dressed in aprons, running the business. Vamika and I looked at one another, confused. “Let’s go talk to them,” she said. We introduced ourselves, telling them we wanted to learn more about alternative spaces in the UAE. Their eyes lit up instantly.
They told us that they make authentic food from their home country, one of the few authentic spots in Abu Dhabi. For us to buy their authentic delicacies, we would have to place an order online quickly because it sells out fast. To top it all off, they are only open once a week on Thursdays, in a space where South Asian men work morning to night everyday of the week.
My face stiffened. “Why are you here?” I asked.
The white man paused for a moment. “It’s beautiful here,” he said, looking out at the water.
It is beautiful here: The rocks. The sunset. The kurtas. But I wondered if he thought of the kurtas like I did.
Photo courtesy of Vamika Sinha (IG: @foodqueenhoney)
He told us how this space is going to be completely renovated by the Abu Dhabi Department of Municipalities and Transport. Sometime soon, these crammed shops with layers of stories will transform into romantic, neatly packaged seaside cafes and restaurants. The white man had to return to his job, but directed us to some new cafes that had opened up in this space.
Vamika and I decided to pay a visit. We sipped 30 AED macchiatos while listening to Freddie Mercury. We drank 25 AED fresh juices while soaking in the fairy lights above us. We inquired about the prices of the painted canvases hung up on the walls. We talked to the owners of the cafes for hours and hours, laughing until our bellies hurt. But I also found my stomach twisting into knots. I clearly enjoyed myself in these very spaces I was so critical of.
I often find myself returning to this particular line of shops at Mina Zayed. Not to purchase cigarettes at the Baqala, but for tasteful drinks, fairy lights and old school rock. I have stopped interacting with the South Asianness of Mina Zayed like I used to; I no longer religiously wear my kurta and chunni when I go there.
And I have started bringing my friends to this line of shops too. Not for dokha or cigarettes or carpets or plastic slippers, but to buy fresh juice made by a white man and listen to soul-touching Western music under the candle lit warmth. I never intentionally brought my friends here before. Perhaps the foreignness of Mina Zayed is more palatable and consumable with these trendy cafes.
There is a reason why The Gazelle’s AD Secrets series is filled with cute cafés and quirky restaurant experiences. We gravitate towards this lifestyle for countless motives that cannot be explained by one phenomenon. From the structures of capitalism that encourage us to accumulate wealth and indulge in the established luxuries of life, to social media algorithms that influence our ideas of aesthetics and what is desirable. Whatever drives this sweet escape comes at a cost that goes beyond the monetary.
While many of us are outraged by the prospective demolition of Mina Zayed, we mustn't forget that these spaces are being regenerated to be more consumable to a certain kind of people: us. Our existence, preferences and tastes come at the cost of people’s livelihoods. We would be complicit in the demolition and reconstruction of Mina Zayed whether we have a direct hand in it or not. Some lives, often those in grey and dusty kurtas, continue to be more disposable than others.
Lubnah Ansari is a contributing writer. Email her at
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