ABU DHABI // It was founded in the early 1980s on a scrap of land on Muroor Road donated by Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE. It replaced the temporary hall that had, until then, served as the focus for a nascent community.
The building was the capital's Pakistani Cultural Centre, where expatriates gathered for more than a decade to hold religious events, sporting activities, markets and parties. Such occasions sometimes attracted as many as 25,000 people. As a child, Farhan Ali, now a 26-year-old health and safety adviser, found the centre a place of fun and friendship. "It was," he said, "the best hangout spot for all Pakistanis. Everyone used to interact with each other."
Then, in 1996, the fun stopped. Community elders had become embroiled in a series of power struggles and unauthorised elections that forced the authorities to shut the centre down, along with two others in Dubai and Al Ain. And for almost 13 years it lay empty. In that time, the number of Pakistanis in the UAE doubled to more than 850,000; a vast community with nowhere to meet. But, for two weeks next month, Pakistanis will once again be able to enjoy their huge community centre. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has allowed the Pakistani Embassy in Abu Dhabi to reopen the centre for a 12-day UAE Friendship Festival.
And many Pakistanis hope the event, due to begin on December 1 under the patronage of the Red Crescent, will be the first of many. The festival will raise money for the Red Crescent, and some of the proceeds will go to Abu Dhabi's three Pakistani community schools, which are in dire need of funds for repairs and extensions. Funds are lacking because the schools charge extremely low fees. The 1,800-pupil Sheikh Khalifa Pakistani School, for example, charges just Dh300 ($80) a month for a child to attend the junior school, and Dh500 per child at the senior school. In Musaffah, the Pakistani Community Welfare School's fees are just Dh150 a month.
"This could be the start of having other functions in the centre, we assume," said Izhar Haider, a community member who has been appointed as the chief co-ordinator for the December event. Mr Haider, a civil engineer, arrived in the UAE in 1971. A former head of his university student union, he regularly took part in activities at the centre. "For this programme, we have been given special permission," he said. "We see the festival as a way of thanking the UAE Government, and the Red Crescent for their work in Pakistan."
The reopening is being welcomed by expatriates, many of whom have found it difficult to meet their fellow countrymen since the centre was shut down. "This will be a good place for the international community to see who we are," said Mr Ali. "At the moment they think we are a country that is not far from terrorism. "It will also mean we can be kept up to date about UAE Pakistanis, the situation with those in other Gulf states and people who are in our home country. It's very important and I will definitely attend the function."
Before then, the centre will be repainted, and the broken air conditioning in two of the halls fixed. With the patching up done, and the centre's doors open once again, around 120 stalls will sell traditional Pakistani products, including textiles and food. Entertainment will include musical performances and there will be a playground for children. Organisers are hoping around 35,000 people will attend what will be only the second event held at the centre since 1996, and by far the biggest. The first one, in June, was a one-day bazaar held by a group of Pakistani women to raise money for the Swat refugee crisis.
Next month's event is likely to be sponsored by Pakistani businessmen. "This will be a great opportunity for Pakistanis to network," said Faisal Niaz Tirmizi, a counsellor at the Pakistani Embassy. "And it's a good way of promoting our culture." Mobisher Rabbani, the Pakistani political scientist and humanitarian campaigner, said there had been talk of reopening the centre for some time. "Previous ambassadors have tried," he said.
However, he said the present incumbent, Khurshid Ahmed Junejo, who took up the post in September 2008, was having more success. "This ambassador is trying his best to get it open. "This event is going to help us socialise more, interact and promote our culture and create awareness," Mr Rabbani said, adding that he hoped the centre would open again for future fundraising functions and cultural gatherings to welcome other nationalities.
"This event is wonderful and everyone in the community is looking forward to it," said Mr Haider. "All eyes are on the centre now." email@example.com