History between the high rises, by Jeff Topping

  • Surrounded by towers of glass and steel lies a small section of the  
building that was once the Iranian Embassy. All photos by Jeff Topping
  • Making a phone call in one of the courtyards.
  • Behind the hallway doors are bed-spaces, some only big enough for one bunk bed of two single mattresses and a small dresser.
  • Left, a resident labourer, middle, a woman who shares a bed space with  
one other lady and pays Dh600 a month in rent, and right, a resident  
watches television in the hallway.
  • A labourer cooking curry chicken in one of the communal kitchens.
  • Many of the residents get together to eat.
  • This resident, who works in a supermarket and takes a graphic design course online lives with his wife in this bed space.
  • A labourer takes a bath.
  • One of several dozen construction labourers who live in the compound shaves in a communal area.
  • One of the courtyards is used for drying laundry.
  • The roof of the compound is covered with construction debris, old water tanks, television dishes and thousands of cigarette ends.
  • Life near the building, which is on the intersection of Airport Road and Hamdan  

Nestled among the mirrored and glistening high-rises of Abu Dhabi lies an old, decrepit, but far-from-forgotten building. Over time the compound has played host to the Iranian embassy, a school, and private home owners. Now it is filled with individuals - maybe hundreds of them - who rent bed space for just a few hundred dirhams a month.

Here, photographer Jeff Topping describes his day capturing a little piece of Abu Dhabi’s history.

The cinder block and sand-coloured, stuccoed exterior walls with no windows or doors block one from viewing inside the compound that was once the Iranian embassy.

Before entering the compound through the heavy metal gate I stood on the street outside of the twenty-storey Hanging Gardens Towers, wondering who lives - and has previously lived - in the pre-1960 compound.

I wondered what Abu Dhabi was like fifty years ago when this building was not surrounded by impersonal towers of steel and glass. A time when one could see the Gulf waters and wooden dhows sailing by from the compound's roof.

I wondered how it looked when the interior white walls were freshly painted, instead of discoloured by years of neglect.

Residents now living in the building, mostly hard-working and poorly paid construction labourers and retail workers, mingle in the courtyard where laundry racks stand drying clothes and a thick, old tree grows. It is probably as old as the building with as many stories to tell.

I wondered about the diplomatic activity that took place in one hallway that was probably just two or three offices at the time, but is now ten partitioned rooms with enough space for two beds.

Some residents believe the building will be demolished when the last glass tower surrounding the compound is finished, making it another piece of the city lost forever.

As I continued walking around the compound, twisting through a maze of hallways, talking with and photographing those I met, I was walking through a part of Abu Dhabi's history.

It is a small community living within those walls, separated from the noise and congestion of the city's more boisterous and active personality. A city's history is seen and felt in the buildings that are part of it. The walls of this building have a lot to talk about.

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