x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The urban recyclers making a living from abandoned buildings

The prospective demolition of an apartment block can start an almost artistic recycling effort, Nick Leech reports.

A Hussain, left, a customer looks through discarded household goods while Naiem, right, watches from buildings earmarked for demolition July 1, 2013. Sammy Dallal / The National
A Hussain, left, a customer looks through discarded household goods while Naiem, right, watches from buildings earmarked for demolition July 1, 2013. Sammy Dallal / The National

To the untrained eye, there may be little to recommend abandoned buildings, but to the second-hand dealers of Abu Dhabi, their contents are their livelihood. The prospective demolition of an apartment block can start an almost artistic recycling effort, Nick Leech reports

With his dyed black hair, "gold" watch and dusty blue shalwar kameez, Farid looks a most unlikely magician, but over the last eight years, the smiling Waziristani trader has mastered a skill that has eluded princes, kings and scholars down the centuries. With his broad smile and warm hospitality, Farid not only has the easy charisma of a born salesman, he is also blessed with the ability to turn the base metal of our unwanted household detritus into the alchemical gold of hard cash.

Farid creates value by recycling architectural salvage such as sinks, doors, windows and air-conditioning units - the latter for Dh375 a piece to scrap metal merchants from Sharjah and Mussafah - as well as domestic objects abandoned by the former tenants of buildings that are now earmarked for demolition.

Luckily, for Farid and the other traders engaged in his particular brand of urban recycling, there is no shortage of source material. While most of Abu Dhabi's large-scale construction projects may be taking place off-island, the relentless forces of redevelopment continue to make themselves felt in downtown areas such as Khalidiyah, Al Markaziyah and Tourist Club in a more piecemeal fashion, building by building, plot by plot.

At the last count, 78 abandoned buildings have been demolished this year as part of an ongoing Abu Dhabi Municipality campaign to rid the capital of unseemly, unsightly and unsanitary premises.

To the untutored eye, there may not be much to recommend 20-year-old commercial buildings, dilapidated villas and crumbling cabins, but to the second-hand dealers like Farid their contents represent a vital livelihood.

Qiyam has lived in Abu Dhabi for 20 years. For most of those he was a driver, but he now ekes out a living trading second-hand goods with the bachelors who occupy the tenements around Liwa Street. Twin televisions take pride of place in the smashed window of his gutted shop, but only one works.

"A man has no need for this TV," Qiyam explains. "He will bring it here. Maybe Dh50 I will pay. Then maybe I will sell it for Dh100 … I will take the non-working TV to one of the big yards in Mussafah."

Farid's hoard and circumstances are positively princely by comparison. Housed in a former shoe shop, it offers a carefully stacked and sorted snapshot of the messy reality of life, the variable patterns of our consumption, our wastefulness, and of our changing relationships with the objects that surround us. Faded children's portraits, broken toys and empty wardrobes that still bear the work rotas of their former owners vie for space with ornate mirrors, dusty chandeliers, a discarded Givenchy sports jacket, and an improbable arcade of gold and black Solomonic columns.

At other times and in other contexts, Farid's profession has borne a variety of names - rag-and-bone man, junk man, rag gatherer, bone-grubber - but none of these labels adequately express quite what the genial fifty-something manages to effect, a change that extends beyond the objects he sells to the spaces he momentarily inhabits.

Rather than operating from a permanent yard or a moving vehicle, Farid and his fellow traders are engaged in a form of urban recycling. By using abandoned buildings - the source of their stock and trade - as showrooms, they breathe new life into previously disused and unproductive spaces, creating "pop-up" bazaars that are the closest the capital gets to the great European flea markets such as Geneva's Plaine de Plainpalais or Clignancourt in Paris. According to the South African writer Ted Botha, this cycle of scavenging and renewal takes place in yet another very different city, where it's been given the more glamorous status of a cultural phenomenon. New Yorkers refer to rubbish fit to be recycled as "mongo", a word originating from the 1980s that refers to "any discarded object that is retrieved".

In his book, Mongo: Adventures in Trash, Botha describes a cast of real-life characters who bear a striking similarity to Farid in that they all find value in what others have considered to be rubbish.

Some, like the fortunate book collector who discovers rare first editions in rubbish bins, or the mongo hunters who discover a valuable 18th-century tricorn hat in a Staten Island landfill, are able to profit from their endeavours but, for most, mongo is an obsession that exists alongside their daily lives. As Botha explains, "The street collector you see today could well be a bum or a lunatic, that's true enough, but just as easily a millionaire, a schoolteacher, an accountant, a doctor, a housewife."

When Farid describes his customers, it is clear that his Abu Dhabi mongo, newer, coarser and less refined though it may be, has a similarly broad appeal.

"Arab, English, Bengali, Pakistani. All people are coming," the trader explains. Many come in search of larger items such as sofas, beds, and tables that continue to be a bargain even after their new owners have paid to ship them home.

Yasser Elsheshtawy, an architectural theorist and associate professor of architecture at the UAE University in Al Ain, sees important links between practices such as Farid's, which are part of a wider, informal economy, and informal modes of urbanism such as street markets, graffiti, overt displays of ethnicity and the personalisation of semi-public spaces such as balconies.

Not only does such informal urbanism represent a form of 'circumvention' by individuals and groups largely excluded from the city's more spectacular urban and retail landscapes, he argues, but they also reveal the diversity of the city's essential character, and its overlooked "inner life".

Given that Abu Dhabi's urban recyclers lead an itinerant existence between one abandoned space and the next, it should come as no surprise that their operations are strictly temporary affairs that last only until the municipality, or the building owner, call time. "This shop has been here two months," Farid explains, "but it is up to the baladiya when it closes." Smiling, he draws his finger across his throat. "It may be one month, it may be two. No one knows."

For a man who might lose his business premises at any moment, Farid is remarkably calm, but change is an occupational hazard when you work in the transmutation business.

Nick Leech is a regular contributor to The National.