Photo courtesy of Laura Assanmal

A Tribute to the Many Hamdans I Once Knew

As I sit in New York, I can’t help but think about the composite spaces that inhabited Hamdan street; the people and shops that I once knew and which shaped who I am today.

Sep 19, 2021

Among my friends, the very mention of Hamdan Street is enough to elicit a laugh at my expense. According to them, I pontificate about Hamdan so much that it has become my only reference point: Broadway is “Theatre Hamdan”, Wall Street is “Financial Hamdan”, NYU Abu Dhabi is “University Hamdan”, you get the gist.
So as I sit in New York City, on streets with far more famous names, I can’t help but think about the road that shaped the person I am today. As any Hamdan aficionado will tell you, to think of it as a single street is misguided. It is instead an amalgamation of different spaces, serving as a temporary home to disparate groups of temporary people with their own backgrounds, dreams and anxieties.
When driving in from Saadiyat Island, the first Hamdan presented to visitors is unexceptional. One is greeted with a row of buildings that are neither intimidating nor impressive. The buildings betray an old-school architectural style, an instinct that is confirmed by their worn-down nature. But as one slowly learns, in Hamdan, the dystopian architecture is no reflection of the meaning that its buildings hold for those that inhabit it.
As the public bus stops at Hazza Bin Zayed mosque, a different Hamdan emerges. This is the Hamdan of piping hot parathas and soothing karak, a Hamdan that will transport any South Asian to some imagined notion of their supposed homeland. Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam punctuate the streets, only interrupted by the whizz of SUVs that never stop in Hamdan. A Hamdan with barbershops where every haircut comes with a free add-on of lengthy political conversation about leaders across the Subcontinent. The area around this stretch of Hamdan is dotted with small tech stores, entrepreneurs who occasionally interrupt their cricket-watching to fix any device from the oldest Nokia to the latest iPhone. Anything can be repaired and no price is immune to a little haggling.
Photo courtesy of Abhyudaya Tyagi
But it is the food that distinguishes this stretch of Hamdan. From the sit-down Paratha King to the more humble Punjab Flower to the even humbler one dirham karak cafeterias, every cuisine from Karachi to Kochi is represented.
The beef parottas are as fresh and crisp as they are on the Malabar coast, the mutton is as succulent as it is in Lahore and dishes like chocolate parathas are reflections of a cracked sense of culinary innovation that is supposedly only found in Delhi. But this is not the Malabar Coast, Lahore or Delhi. It is Hamdan, where the cultures of all those communities combine into one mystifyingly complex admixture.
Hamdan is where the owner of Punjabi Flower, a Pakistani, proudly brags that most of his clientele is Indian. It is where Malayali employees at Karachi City restaurant sheepishly admit that they prefer the thick “Pakistani parathas” of their employer to the crisper Malabari parottas of their youth. National, religious or linguistic differences and prejudices do not disappear, but the artificial constructions of borders that delineate those differences can — temporarily, like everything else in Abu Dhabi — be ignored.
If you walk down further, you enter a very different realm of Hamdan. Slowly, a sense of creeping gentrification hits with fried chicken at KFC, a burger at McDonalds, a donut from Krispy Kreme and a coffee from Starbucks. It is Abu Dhabi, but it could be London, Tokyo, Paris, Rio De Janeiro or, frankly, any major city in the world.
But if you delve a little deeper into the inner roads surrounding this stretch of Hamdan, you will discover an area of diversity which, unlike the predominantly South Asian stretch of Hamdan that preceded it, is not dominated by men. Afghan bakeries sit side by side with Chinese restaurants and the South Asian Student Biryani. This stretch is most notably dotted with Filipino bakeries, bringing dishes like pandesal bread and creme de fruta to Abu Dhabi. Al-Farah’s Lebanese fare is of a quality that anyone who tries it will find it hard to return to Abd-El-Wahab, even with their Tuesday night discount. This block of Hamdan is also home to the Al Youssef centre, one of Abu Dhabi’s largest thrift shops.
Photo courtesy of Abhyudaya Tyagi
Walk further and you enter more Hamdans. There is the Hamdan of Hamdan Shopping Center, a place that serves as a reminder that in a city supposedly so new, nostalgia still sells. Come with someone who grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1990s and the 2000s and they will regale you with stories about the old-school games they used to find inside. Then there is the Hamdan of the World Trade Center, posh on the exterior, but also interspersed with affordable NYUAD student favorites like Boti Street and Chhappan Bhog.
And there are all the other Hamdans, places that are only accessible to those who have spent decades in this city. The karak cafeteria that disappeared, the chaat restaurant that closed during the pandemic, or even the cinema that did not survive the streaming age.
To paraphrase Colson Whitehead, thousands of people walk through Hamdan every day, with each one haunting the streets of his or her own Abu Dhabi, not one of them seeing the same thing.
So as I sit in Whitehead’s New York, I can’t help but think about the Hamdans I once knew. Some of them have already started to wither — establishments that survived gentrification could not make it past the pandemic. By the time I return in February, many more will have fallen victim to the vagaries of market forces.
But even as new successors appear, the old Hamdans will live long in the memory of those who were lucky enough to inhabit them.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
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