x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A kind of blue

Cover story John Gravois travels the length of Abu Dhabi's Corniche on a Friday afternoon and sees a colourful refraction of the universe. Photographer Peter Dench takes his camera along for the celestial trip.

John Gravois travels the length of Abu Dhabi's Corniche on a Friday afternoon and sees a colourful refraction of the universe. Photographer Peter Dench takes his camera along for the celestial trip.



Mainly there's blue - sky blue, paving stone blue, Baynunah Tower blue, labourer's jumpsuit blue. And then there's green - emerald lawn green, topiary green, date palm green. Those are the dominant hues of the Abu Dhabi Corniche, with the pigments running together like watercolours in the blue-green Arabian Gulf. Without the Corniche, what would Abu Dhabi's palette be? A few years ago, a couple of astronomers calculated the average colour of the universe. They used computer software to determine the mean shade of light pouring down from 200,000 galaxies. The answer - a pale shade of turquoise - made a thrilling kind of sense. Of course the colour of the universe is aquamarine! But then the scientists discovered an error in the software. They issued a correction. The heavens, they reported, are actually light beige. By that measure, much of Abu Dhabi looks like the heavens. But the city's Corniche looks a lot more like that first calculation of the cosmic average as we imagine it to be.

Everyone who lives in Abu Dhabi should, at least once, walk the length of the Corniche on a Friday afternoon. If walking's not your pleasure, come on a skateboard. Come in a floral-print hijab carrying a picnic lunch. Come with your wife in her abaya and the nanny and the kids trailing behind in a long diminishing train. Come with your sweetheart and lie in the shade of a tree. Come jogging in your shorts and trainers. Come on heelies with a badminton racket strapped to your back. Come with your fellow-labourers, walking four abreast. Come pushing a double pram for the twins. Or - and this is my personal preference - come with a baby strapped directly to your chest. Because if there's a badge that says "life-affirming" more clearly, I have yet to come across it. (Note: the baby in question is my daughter, and the strap is a very comfortable sling.)

Come to the Corniche on a Friday because Abu Dhabi never looks more innocent than it does then. On Fridays when the weather is good, Khalidiya Park is a fractal pattern of families, balls and kites. On the beach, pram tracks and footprints criss-cross the sand. Even the signs telling you what's prohibited suggest only the most wholesome temptations: "No barbecue. No tents. No picking flowers." As if here there were no human impulses more vexing and unruly than the urges to grill, camp and engage in floristry. (And unruly they are! I saw one man cooking kebabs directly underneath one of the signs.) But I have to say - and here things get somewhat heavy - something about the Corniche often makes me think of a time far beyond my own lifespan. Maybe it's the mosaics in the pedestrian subways, which seem designed to communicate across hundreds of years, with their simple images of falcons, gazelle and bedouin. Maybe it's the pervasive evidence of all the labour required to maintain the Corniche - the tight rows of irrigation lines in the flower beds, the fresh coats of blue paint on the lightposts - which makes it hard not to imagine what will happen when all that labour withdraws. Maybe it's the polished walkways and watercourses, which remind me of ancient gardens.

Whatever it is, the impression often strikes me. Even on a clear day along the Corniche, with kites flying and Khalidiya Park pulsing like a cartoon, there are reminders that, ultimately, the colour of the universe is the colour of dust. But I don't mind the thought; it only heightens the poignancy of the blue-green now. John Gravois is a feature writer at the National. Peter Dench is a photographer from Britain, whose colourful, quirky style has won him international photography awards. This month, he flew in from London to document life on Abu Dhabi's corniche.