Photo courtesy of Caroline Hennig

Perspective of Abu Dhabi from prospective student

Photo courtesy of Caroline Hennig Ever since my sister, Clare, flew the long miles from where we live in Costa Rica to attend what would prove to be a ...

Apr 27, 2013

Photo courtesy of Caroline Hennig
Ever since my sister, Clare, flew the long miles from where we live in Costa Rica to attend what would prove to be a successful candidate weekend at NYUAD, Abu Dhabi has been a subject of intense curiosity, excitement and interest within my family. When the news reached us of her acceptance — news that arrived on a prayer and the hard work of someone determined to seize a golden opportunity to study at a prestigious university — a relationship was sealed with a part of the world that was for us, as with many Westerners, as shrouded in mystery as it was gilded with fascination. With Clare’s acceptance into NYUAD, we found this small but powerful country suddenly taking a prominent and central place in our lives.
With my mother pining after a firstborn now suddenly flown from the nest and my own burgeoning interest in the Arab world, my father made a suggestion that we both positively jumped at: to visit Abu Dhabi and unravel some of the mystery of all things Arabian for ourselves, firsthand.
We landed in Abu Dhabi at 7:30 p.m., full of anticipation and excitement. We missed the Arabian sunset to illuminate our curious aerial peeks from the cabin window of the plane. Instead, Abu Dhabi greeted our arrival cloaked tantalizingly in darkness.
Within only moments of shuffling off the plane and into the airport, I could see that my time in Abu Dhabi was not only going to be a feast for the senses but also an extraordinary experience of contrasts; suddenly, ladies in abayas, sheilas and niqabs were milling about everywhere, very much the norm rather than the exception, whilst I, in my jeans and uncovered face and hair, was now the anomaly. And though we made our way towards immigration herded within a comfortable contingent of similarly garbed tourists, the significant number of abaya-clad Emirati women returning home was the first evidence of change that made the shift in my perception immediate. I became more than aware that those long in-flight hours had not only covered an extraordinary distance but had also completely traversed one culture for another.
Immigration, not usually worthy of mention at any airport, was the start of many firsts for us; as British citizens, we were privileged to have visas issued on the spot, but there is always that moment of doubt, at least for my mother, where one worries that something will not be in order.
This time, however, my mother wasn’t fretting over the formalities of passports or immigration officialdom, but instead whether her trousers were appropriate for our newfound environs. She was also having a small, quiet moment of panic as she tried to decide where to direct her gaze. When it came our turn to present our passports, it had become apparent that all the immigration officials were men. My mother feared direct eye contact may be construed as brazen while avoiding eye contact might come across as shifty. These are just the sort of anxieties that can lead to what feels like a cultural minefield where one finds oneself so out of one’s milieu. But with good manners and courtesy, combined with a genuine desire to adhere to the local customs and rules, these are anxieties that can be easily put to rest.
Thus, with his kindly but professional demeanor, the immigration officer quickly showed that my mother’s fears were completely unfounded. With a loud bang, our passports were given the stamp of approval, handed back and we passed officially through and into Abu Dhabi, causing neither offense nor suspicion.
We gleaned very little of Abu Dhabi on the 30-minute trip from the airport to the hotel that evening. When we woke up the next day and pulled back the curtains to survey our surroundings, we were absolutely staggered by the sight: there before us, seemingly conjured out of thin air, or perhaps more appropriately out of the dry dust of the desert, stood a panorama of skyscrapers rising out of a seemingly never-ending metropolis. Though interspersed with delightfully askew, Mecca-facing mosques as well as other less dramatic constructions of various types and sizes, these high rises dominated the view and, more significantly, set a tone of modernity. But it wasn’t until we were driving out and about in the city that I realized just the scope for creativity, playfulness and even audacity that the architects of these extraordinary buildings had been allowed. It wasn’t just the material they were built from or even the myriad shapes they came in, shapes that often seem to defy reality itself, but the fact that every building regardless of its straight and simple lines was invariably offset with some sort of statement of detail that lifted it out from being just a regular, rectangular mass. In fact, what both my mother and I remarked upon was that there was something intrinsic in the design and construction of the buildings that decidedly reflected and echoed the Arabic script; with their clear, clean and flowing lines, punctuated here and there with a flourish, each was a testimony to simplicity, functionality and purpose, but all with an understated elegance throughout. What makes it so exquisite is the inherent elegance and simplicity of this aesthetic, and I found myself looking enthusiastically for this trait in all that I saw thereon.
My search was well rewarded; perhaps nothing demonstrates this aesthetic more in an everyday sort of manner than the national dress. Our first encounter with it was at the airport, but we now had a better opportunity to study it a little more closely; “How,” my mother kept asking me, looking dismayingly at her rather rumpled, cotton dress, “Do the men keep their kandouras so crisp and white, so positively pristine?” And it was true; we never did see a kandoura that sported so much as a wrinkle, never mind a stain. Ladies, too, cut an elegant figure as they went about their daily business in black abayas, a much more forgiving color than the blinding white of the kandoura and something of a relief, I’m sure, for those who were mothers with small, sticky-fingered children. But there is so much more to the national dress than its mere elegance; it has an almost mysterious timelessness to it, and I first noticed this when I saw a picture of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan dressed in the full traditional Arab garb of kandoura, ghutra and ogal. Though Sheikh Zayed was born in 1918 and died nearly 10 years ago, this photograph, and in every picture in which I subsequently saw him, showed Sheikh Zayed looking very much like a man of today. It made me wonder if the lack of obvious fashion trends in clothing didn’t contribute to a form of continuity in society; It’s as if by keeping a tradition in the national dress, one’s forbearers were rendered less remote, which in turn reinforces tradition as the clothing gives a tangible link, and a show of solidarity, between the generations. Seeing Sheikh Zayed photographed in traditional Arabic dress also had me recognize something else: that when a national dress, in all its simplicity and elegance, is embraced by tradition and then endorsed by a king, it has a way of ennobling a country’s people when they too are wearing it.
I think, as a girl, I can speak with some authority on what women experience in Abu Dhabi and those experiences were probably the biggest revelation of all that Abu Dhabi gave me. In a word, I witnessed only the utmost respect towards women and from this respect flowed an extraordinary chivalry. To being with, and I mention this because words are powerful, but women were always referred to as ladies or, when addressed personally, madam. From the respect given to women stemmed small but helpful benefits that my mother and I not only appreciated but profited from as well, The first and foremost benefit was the expeditiousness of the ladie’s only line; the many times we guiltily jumped queue in front of scores of patiently waiting menfolk to buy a ticket, catch a taxi or sort out some banking, all on account of being female, was time-saving to say the least. And the discovery of an entire beach dedicated to women, though men were allowed in when part of a family, proved an absolute haven for the afternoon we spent there sunning ourselves.
This division of the sexes out in the public arena did come with its moments of light comedy; one such moment was when the three of us, Clare included, took the train from the bus station to Dubai Mall. We piled into the ladie’s only compartment, stuffed already with various and sundry females. When it stopped at the station for the Mall 15 minutes later, it was completely emptied in a rush of feminine enthusiasm whilst the compartment for men remained full and unimpressed by the beckoning shops. But by far, the greatest service for women was the safety of Abu Dhabi’s city streets; I have never felt as safe walking about in the evening after sunset as I did in Abu Dhabi, and if one wants to talk about women and freedom, then that, in my mind, is what true freedom for a lady really is.
When at last we finally flew out from Abu Dhabi, I knew I had seen a country of confidence and vision, a country that is peopled by citizens who are not just comfortable but enviably adept in the modern world. I learnt firsthand that one could not possibly visit Abu Dhabi without being acutely aware of the sheer creative impulse that clearly drives so much of its success. But above all, I was left admiring a country that has managed to embrace the modern world without letting go of the values bequeathed by its religion and traditions; it could be argued that this accomplishment might just be Abu Dhabi’s most remarkable feat of ingenuity.
Catherine Hennig is contributing writer. Email her at
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