From Saturday until Thursday, the Abu Dhabi Mall opens at 10am. But there are quiet signs of life hours earlier. From 7am onward, a host of custodians glide about buffing floors and wiping children’s handprints from escalator glass. Eager store managers tweak their window displays. Security guards roam from floor to floor doing not much at all. And all the mannequins seem somehow more unnaturally still than usual, as if they have just rushed back into frozen place after a night of mall-wide mischief.
The mall’s main doors are locked, but there is an easy way in. It starts at the service desk on the ground floor. You need only show up there during normal mall hours with a passport-sized photo and ask to join the Abu Dhabi Mall Walkers Club. 15 minutes later, you will receive, free of charge, an oversize Mall Walkers Club ID card in a plastic pouch clipped to a strap.
From 7am to 10am, from Sunday until Thursday, this card grants its carriers (few actually wear it; it’s too big, and slightly childish-looking) access to the mall through the adjoining Towers at the Trade Center.
No one at the mall remembers exactly when (or by whom) the Walkers Club was founded; it is not the kind of club that has a secretary or historian. But there is a consensus at the service desk that it was about three years ago. According to mall records, the club now has over 800 members, and anywhere between two and 100 show up each day depending on the heat.
The days are getting hotter, but it is clearly not summer yet. There is still a wonderful period of genuine cool each morning, which almost nullifies the club’s raison d’être. Why walk around a mall when you can walk along the Corniche? Indeed, at 6:30am on a recent Tuesday morning, the waterfront was dotted with walkers and runners.
“It’s not hot enough to go hiding indoors, not yet, hopefully not for a while” explained John, an Australian man – and Walkers Club member – in his forties.
“It’s so nice,” enthused Ali, a 25-year old cab driver from Pakistan (who had never heard of the Walkers Club), grinning and waving at the sea, the sky and the air around him. And he was right. But a small handful of Mall Walkers showed up that morning anyway, some out of habit, some because they live right by the mall, some (one British couple, to be exact) because they like taking a mid-walk break at Starbucks, which opens at 8am to serve mall workers and walkers.
At 7am, there were only two walkers at the mall: Awatif, from Sudan, and Mirvant, from Lebanon, both middle-aged housewives and mothers, there to walk for an hour. Awatif has been a Mall Walker for three years, Mirvant for two. Neither woman remembers how she found out about the club. Both joined to “be fit”, protect themselves against diseases like diabetes and get out of the house.
As Mirvant put it, “this hour is our only hour”.
Awatif also wanted a place to exercise sans abaya without lots of men watching. “You know men,” she said wearily. She used to repeatedly walk up and down the mall’s stairways and stopped escalators, but stopped when she felt this attracted too much attention from male mall workers.
Mirvant seemed less concerned with that sort of thing (unlike Awatif, she was not even wearing a headscarf), but happy to accommodate a friend’s preference.
In the summer, when the morning mall will teem with walkers and coffee drinkers, Mirvant and Awatif will not be there. They will either be taking care of their children at home or on vacation with their families. But they will both return in September. Awatif hopes they will be ready to walk (and maybe even partially run) the Abu Dhabi marathon with her teenaged son and daughter next year. Mirvant thinks this is a terrible idea. They have many hours left to work it out.