Una Chaudhuri was explaining how she believed a combined liberal arts college and research university such as NYU should go about producing fully rounded students when the fire alarm went off. "I believe that the arts are a vital, vital part of your growth as a citizen of the world," said the professor of English and drama, affiliated, rather surprisingly, to the environmental studies department. "When you've been at the same institution for a long time and you know where all the bodies are buried, you sense a lag between what you feel can happen and what is being allowed to." In Abu Dhabi, by contrast, the arts would be at the centre of everything. "The main thing is the collaboration between disciplines," she said. "One of the reasons I was attracted to this project was the opportunity to be able to do this really groundbreaking, from-the-ground-up curriculum development."
Before she could elaborate a siren filled the university's downtown campus and a fuzzy taped message came stuttering over Chaudhuri's office intercom. Neither of us could make out a word of it. After some deliberation the people working in the next room decided that this was the sort of alarm one listened to and we took our cue to follow them out into the midday heat. "Are you going to write about this?" Professor Chaudhuri asked me as we made our way through a well-behaved undergraduate scrum towards the pavilion that had been set up for Marhaba Week, NYU Abu Dhabi's version of a freshman orientation programme. I told her I wasn't sure. "You must!" she beamed, pointing out the polite and cheerful way in which the new students gathered at the entrance of the tent. Philip Kennedy, faculty director of the NYUAD Institute, hurried past saying something to the effect that it wasn't a real fire. "Somebody spilt some chemicals", he muttered.
Did this, I wondered, as the students milled about and chatted in the sun, seem like a normal way to start the term or a very abnormal one? Remarkable, perhaps, for appearing so humdrum: the inevitable slip-up on the first day back at school, fixable with a mop. But, of course, no one was coming back to the Abu Dhabi campus; it had sprung up overnight, fully formed, like a magic castle. Hundreds of people flowed in from the four corners of the earth, negotiating visa problems and lost luggage and the thousand administrative obstacles to travel - all on trust, by the way, because the students weren't required to pay any sort of deposit to guarantee their places. Yet they came, they got down to work, and it was as if they had always been there. Some had been reading the One Thousand and One Nights before they arrived. How else to prepare for life as part of this strange apparition?
NYU Abu Dhabi, after all, is one of the first concrete manifestations of the emirate's cultural ambitions. In a few years the university will take up permanent residence on Saadiyat island, joining other deluxe-brand outlets such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre on what sounds like a sort of high street of the mind. In the meantime it is putting down roots in old Abu Dhabi, operating out of a grape-coloured low-rise building on the site of the old Khalidiya fish-market, a short walk from the Corniche. As an enterprise it was conceived to intensely idealistic specifications: a global university, attracting the best students and faculty to the crossroads of the world, in the process setting new regional standards for academic freedom, research and tuition, and ethical employment. Now it's here, large as life and in the heart of the city. The experiment has begun.
The night before I met Chaudhuri, I attended a marhaba iftar in the same pavilion. There, after various speeches, the students were asked to introduce themselves, say where they came from and describe NYU Abu Dhabi in one word. Each one stood and took the microphone to address the room in ringingly confident tones: Americans and Russians; Chinese and South Asians and eastern Europeans; a smattering of Middle Easterners, a few Africans, a small Latin American contingent. So many home countries, yet they all spoke the same language of unreserved enthusiasm. It was unique, they said, a dream, brilliant, an honour. It was a reality, an adventure. It was the future.
A few of them (the vocabulary of enthusiasm is quickly exhausted) also noted that it was enriching. This was perfectly true, at least in the sense that a penny saved is a penny earned. NYU charges around $60,000 (Dh222,000) a year in fees but this intake is heavily subsidised, subject to means testing. One student, posting on the NYU blog NYULocal, gloated that "many of us are here for free", by contrast with students at the New York campus. That may explain a certain unwillingness to rock the boat on the first few nights of term. Even so, the lack of any hint of scepticism in their descriptions of the university was striking. One freshman pointed out, in mock surprise, that NYU Abu Dhabi was purple. There was a ripple of amusement at this, but few of his peers chose to make a non-cheerleading observation of their own.
Perhaps it's cynical to expect cynicism as a default setting. As one girl said, NYU Abu Dhabi "is us", and this particular student body is one that seems to inspire giddy optimism. The 149 undergraduates were whittled down from 9,048 applicants, from some of the best schools on the planet. They're intimidating. Just when one has got to grips with the fact that they all seem to be A-students and valedictorians and editors of their old school newspaper, a diffident 18-year-old girl will start explaining how she recently finished writing her second novel, or a fresh-faced young writing student will reveal that he also runs a PR consultancy specialising in social media.
"Compared to the freshmen at Harvard, they're of equal calibre, as far as I can tell," the astronomy professor Joseph Gelfand told me. John Burt, an ecologist who is teaching a series of courses in the foundations of science, said he didn't expect to encounter such able students ever again. "You know, we were brought here to change the world, right? To shake it, at least," said Oleg Shenderyuk, a gangling 17-year-old Russian whom I found playing very intense Ping-Pong in the campus recreation room one evening. "We are very passionate about what we are doing," he said, over the distant strains of Guitar Hero. The next day he bounded up to me outside the campus cafe to tell me that he had got two hours sleep the night before and was now planning to start an advanced mathematics club.
Besides, if the students seemed slightly starry-eyed during the introductory portion of that iftar welcome banquet, they got the chance to demonstrate their analytical grit later in the evening. Before their arrival they were asked to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, an essay on the complexities of life between cultures. The book recommends a conversational attitude of openness to persuasion, a recognition of one's own fallibility, and a willingness to keep improving one's ideas about the world. This all makes sense as a regulatory ideal for a university which takes students from all over the globe and asks them to live together in a single building. It's perhaps more surprising that practically the first thing NYU Abu Dhabi should have done with its new arrivals was ask them to take that ideal to pieces. Yet as the dinner wore on and jetlag took its toll, Cyrus Patel, a star literature professor from NYU New York, did just that, gliding between the tables armed with microphone and steely, talk-show affability.