ABU DHABI // To the casual observer it looks like little more than a patch of sand. In the heart of a residential district just across the road from Zayed University, the land is surrounded for most of the day by parked cars and rubbish bins. For a group of residents, though, this square of uneven ground is a place for devotion. A mosque used to stand there, until it was demolished last year. The worshippers, men who live and work in the neighbourhood, agreed it was too important to abandon the site.
As much as this is a prayer space, it is equally a community. Each evening the first to arrive removes the carpets from their storage box and unrolls them in a line before prayers. The last to leave puts them away again. Mustafa Khalil, 42, explains the system. "All the people here help in some way," he said. "They took away the mosque, but we're still here. This is our space." By any other measure, this is left over space. Ugly and used mostly at weekends by children to play games, it has no benches, tables and not a single tree to provide shade.
The barrenness of this area does not bother any of the men, perhaps 40 in total, some of whom bring their young sons to pray here. Beauty is not what this is about; the space holds great significance to these men. And the way they use it works independently of the city's plans. "I would go to the mosque that used to be here," said 22-year-old Soliman Omar. "Sure, I'm angry that it's gone now, but what can I do?"
The construction permit director at the Municipality, Khalfan Sultan al Nuaimi, says the old mosque was a temporary structure; another mosque in the neighbourhood was under construction, so until it was completed, the temporary building was erected to serve the community. "The idea of the temporary mosque is finished, most of them have been taken down," he said, adding that mosques should be "nice buildings".
The men who use this sand box disagree. The decision to stay was not made out of desperation; there is no shortage of mosques within a five-minute walking distance of this empty square. Protesting against the demolition of their mosque was not an option. So the men decided to keep the area as their own, despite its new minimalist aesthetic. The idea to stay was deliberate. And for now, it is one of the city's few open air prayer spaces.
"Sometimes I do go to other mosques, but this open air space is better for us because we love this space here," said Omar Ahmed, 35, who lives in the neighbourhood. Cities all over the world have examples of this type of spontaneous use of unplanned public space. Where municipalities have overlooked, ignored or simply forgotten small parts of the city, people find some way of using it without the help of planners and architects.
For Yasmeen al Rashedi, planner at the Urban Planning Council, this can be a beautiful thing. "Often it's the accidents, the spaces between the cracks that make for really good places for people to gather," she said. Just past 7.30 on Friday night, prayer is in session. The men have formed two perfect lines on the sandy carpets. Beside them, a variety of sandals and flip-flops have been kicked off.
Some men arrive late, running lightly across the sandy patch to join, removing their shoes and taking a place in the line. Three children have already reached the limit of their attention spans. Sitting along one edge of the carpets, they fidget, laugh with each other and ultimately get up and leave the line. After finishing his prayers, Mr Khalid gets up from the carpet and walks towards home. Before the rest of the men in line are completely out of sight, he turns back and looks over to them. No, it is not much to look at, he admits. But that is not the point.
"It's not about the building, it's about the act of praying," he says earnestly. "If you think my prayer would mean more if I drove for an hour to Sheikh Zayed mosque, you would be wrong." firstname.lastname@example.org