My children play football almost every day at Zayed Sports City. We are there so frequently, in fact, that when we started thinking about moving house last spring, I contemplated renting in one of the buildings overlooking the soccer pitches – and if any of those apartments had been big enough, I might be writing this column from an eyrie above the athletic fields.
We live on Saadiyat Island, which is about as far from Zayed Sports City as a person can be and still be in Abu Dhabi. It’s wickedly inconvenient for childhood sports but next year, when the New York University campus opens, I will (I hope) be able to ride my bike to work.
I could dazzle you at this point with my intimate knowledge of Sheikh Zayed Road, which I traverse three, four, sometimes six times a day, but I’ll spare you the bumper-to-bumper details and share with you my unexpected source of driverly consolation: the Grand Mosque. I never get tired of its grandeur and invariably, when I peel off at the exit near the Park Rotana, I smile as the mosque floats into view. In the evenings, the mosque seems like something from a dream; its vast whiteness seems barely tethered to the earth.
The mosque’s beauty reminds me that I am here, in Abu Dhabi, and not anywhere else in the world. After all, the sidelines of a child’s football practice look pretty much the same the world over – a combination of over-involved parents yelling “eyes on the ball!” in whatever language their child will understand, harried mothers attempting to placate bored younger siblings and other players assessing the competition. If it weren’t for the mosque gleaming in the distance, I could be at a match in Arizona, Nevada or Texas.
Does that mean that the Grand Mosque defines Abu Dhabi? Well no, of course not, no more than the Empire State Building defines Manhattan. But in both instances these structures are more than just tourist magnets: they are specific to their cities; they illustrate a particular moment, a particular idea. And, at least in the case of the mosque, the building also testifies to the legacy of a great leader.
Sometimes, as I gaze around at Abu Dhabi’s headlong upwards expansion of gleaming glass buildings and at the cranes sprouting up all along the Corniche like metallic date palms, the particularity summoned by the mosque vanishes. I could be in any city, driving past any construction site: I suppose noise and dust are universal in that regard. For the moment, though, out on Saadiyat, it is still possible to see vestiges of old Abu Dhabi – undulating empty desert stretching to the ocean, a landscape that reminds us of our smallness in the eyes of the universe. What will happen, I wonder, when Saadiyat’s empty spaces get filled in with malls and hotels and housing developments? Where will the old Abu Dhabi go?
Before we moved to Saadiyat, we lived on Electra Street near Qasr Al Hosn and my day was marked by the calls to prayer and the smell of fresh bread from the bakeries tucked in and around the super-blocks. Now I live in what I think of as the beautiful Saadiyat “suburbs” – row after row of houses with tiled rooftops and arched windows, the pavements edged with frangipani and bougainvillaea. The hubbub of the city doesn’t penetrate my new neighbourhood; I hear the call to prayer only when the wind carries the sound from the city, or from the tiny mosque near the entrance to the highway. My children, who have spent the entirety of their lives in high-rise apartments, sometimes miss the fresh-baked bread we got near Madinat Zayed, but they love the freedom of being able to run outside and play with the other children in the neighbourhood. As they race their scooters along the pavements, they could be in any suburban enclave – or at least any suburb where people speak with different accents.
Tucked into my jasmine-scented neighbourhood, where the desert has been beaten back by stone and cement, I’ve wondered if a bigger mosque will be built out here. I am sure there will be prayer rooms in all the various malls and shopping arcades that are under development, but I’m hoping that a mosque will be built on Saadiyat that invokes the long lines of sand and ocean particular to this landscape. The silence in my neighbourhood is nice, I guess, but I miss the adhan.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and blogs at mannahattamamma.com