Published: January 12th 2010November 2nd 2009
Descending towards Abu Dhabi
The first view I had while descending towards Abu Dhabi.
Reaching the tropic of Cancer
Until then, the farther East I had been was the Asian side of Istanbul and the farther South Marrakech, Morocco. Now that I was landing in the United Arab Emirates, I knew I'd have to reconsider my list of the 'most extreme regions I traveled to'. Because yes, for the first time of my life, I was reaching the tropic of Cancer.
As the aircraft was slightly landing, I glanced through the window. My first visions of the United Arab Emirates were pretty close to the clichéd articles I had been used to reading in travel magazines: oil farms, skyscrapers and sand ... a lot of sand actually. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and my first view of the area was nearly perfect. I could easily spot all the city's main landmarks: the marina, the Shaikh Zayed Mosque, the financial center and the malls: all the things I planned on visiting during my 12-hour stay.
I had only been to one Arab country before, Morocco, but there it felt really different and the cultural shock was quite stronger. The first situation that struck me was the passport control. It was
Standing in the courtyard
The huge courtyard of the mosque. The floor is made of marble
the first time in my life that a I had to deal with an immigration officer wearing the country's traditional attire. The man in front of me had everything: a long stainless white djellaba, a red and white kaffiyeh on top of the his head and a black hairband, allegedly made of camel skin. I handed him my passport while saying 'salam 3alikum', thus trying to put into practice my (limited) skills in Arabic. The officer replied in a perfect English, making me implicitly understand that it was not worth bothering speaking Arabic. While strolling in the streets I would soon realize that most of the inhabitants are actually expatriates, and that a large majority of them do not speak a word of Arabic. The real lingua franca of the country is English, which suited me pretty well...
The immigration formalities were now completed and I had to find a way to get rid of my heavy backpack. I decided not to put anything in the airplane's hold so as to have all my stuffs to hand but I must confess that it was pretty cumbersome. I thought there should be some lockers in the terminal that would have
I particularly like the silhouette of the mosque as well as the contrast between white marble and blue sky.
enabled me to leave my packs while discovering the city. But it seems like it is not a habit along the Persian Gulf: the man at the information counter told me that there weren't any which meant I was to spend all the day carrying about my stuffs. I then asked for the average price of a taxi ride to the Shaikh Zayed Mosque, the first monument I planned on visiting. The man stared at me for a while with a huge smile and finally said: I don't know... Second cultural shock... There is no fixed price here, you just bargain and try not to be tricked by the driver. Fortunately a cab company has counters in its vehicles and even though it was said to be more expensive, I opted for this alternative and hopped in the car. The ride between the aiport and the mosque lasted about 30 mn, which enabled me to figure out what Abu Dhabi was really like. The highway is extremely broad and must have at least ten lanes. Most of the buildings seem to be new and the incoherence of the architecture surprises me. Everyone seems to build everything as they wish ... Ten-story houses lie near villas, concrete mosques are built between malls and sidewalks seems to be more decorative than useful...
I finally arrived at the mosque. The cab dropped me off on a huge and empty parking lot. I was around 8.40 am and the area was deserted. It is supposed to be the biggest mosque of the Emirates and I was expecting a crowd as big as the prestige of the building. But no, just me and a few guards that gazed at me as if I were a stranger (which I kind of was by the way). It was pretty early in the morning but the temperature was already reaching 30°C and the only shade was provided my the thin palm trees that edged the main access way. I had to wait for the opening of the mosque (at 9.00 am) so I just sat on a law wall and relaxed. I could hear the voice of the singer that guarded the tomb of the Shaikh Zayed. He was singing Muslim prayers and his soft voice made them sound like lullabies.
The mosque finally opened and I walked toward the entrance. I couldn't help picturing every corner of the awe-inspiring building. I particularly liked the contrast between the green bushes, the deep blue sky and the marble minarets. The mosque looks pretty old but its construction only ended in 2007! It was erected for the Shaikh Zayed, the former emir of Abu Dhabi, who is considered as the father of the modern United Arab Emirates. He first proposed to unite all the emirates in the region so as constitute a country that could have some influence at an international stage. Its tomb is right in front of the mosque, it is strictly forbidden to picture it be it from the parking lot, from the nearby highway or even (theoretically) from a plane.
The inside of the mosque can be split into two parts: first a huge open-air courtyard surrounded by arcades and secondly the covered area were worshipers gather for prayer. The mosque houses the world's biggest Persian carpet as well as the world's biggest chandelier. Compared to other mosques in the world (Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, etc.), the inside is not exceptional. The decorations are pretty modest (let's remind here that Islam forbids all representation of human and animal characters). To be continued