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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Abu Dhabi’s diaspora sprinkles its magic

Swapping memories and tales of the city with a fellow ex-resident in Copenhagen

Eldorado cinema on Electra street closed last year. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Eldorado cinema on Electra street closed last year. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

My Abu Dhabi journey began in the 1980s, when my Iraqi father and Scottish mother were set up on a blind date. Over the next 33 years I would call no other place home aside from Glasgow – that is, until I moved to Copenhagen in September.

Waving goodbye to the desert, I thought I had closed a chapter in my life. But Abu Dhabi has a way of creeping up on you. No sooner had I moved to the Danish capital than I discovered that my local fruit and vegetable shop owner, Mohammed, had also once called Abu Dhabi home.

Born in the capital in 1967 to Lebanese parents and the second-youngest of 10 siblings, Mohammed was 17 when he left his adopted home for the Danish capital. But time has not reduced his love for the place in which he spent his formative years.

Growing up in Abu Dhabi before the formation of the UAE was a “golden time” says Mohammed, whose family moved between Khalidiya and Al Bateen; a time when neighbours did not live in high-rise apartments and animals appeared on your doorstep as if they were pets.

“We lived with camels close to the door. Goats lived close to you, they were your neighbours,” says Mohammed, laughing, amid a steady flow of customers. “It was a good life, an easy life, a nice life.”

Having travelled back and forth to the UAE’s capital over the years, so many times that he “can’t count”, Mohammed says that although the changes to his former home have been good, he prefers the old days. “Sheikh Zayed’s time, you can’t get it today. Today, it is something else.” But the UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, will always be home to him.

“I grew up in Bateen and I grew up in Khalidiya. It’s my country. I was born there, I started from there, my heart is there,” he says. Although little remains from when he was a child and a teenager, Mohammed fondly recalls the small park behind Abela Supermarket in Khalidiya, which remains a staple of the neighbourhood.

I was just a few weeks old when I arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1984, less than a year before Mohammed’s time there ended. And although the features I remember differ to his memories, there is magic in moving to a strange place and then finding elements of your former beloved hometown or city.

Zaineb Al Hassani and her mother enjoying a picnic with the family in Abu Dhabi back in the 1980s. Courtesy Zaineb Al Hassani
Zaineb Al Hassani and her mother enjoying a picnic with the family in Abu Dhabi back in the 1980s. Courtesy Zaineb Al Hassani

As Mohammed serves customers, switching between Danish and Arabic (about a fifth of his clients also come from the Middle East), we talk about our shared history.

I recall running up and down the Corniche’s majestic Volcano Fountain, which was torn down in 2004; of spending hours in Khalidiyah Ladies’ Park, the shabby amusement park which has since been renovated into Mother of the Nation Park.

Then there were the hours my friends and I spent reading Archie comics in Abela Supermarket, or the nights my family camped on Al Futaisi island when it was nothing but sand and the odd plant.

And, of course, who could forget Cafe Ole, the haunt of every schoolkid who went to the International School of Choueifat in the ’90s and which served the best greasy fries in town – but whose owners meant to call it Cafe Au Lait, something which took me too many years to work out.

“Everything is new,” commiserates Mohammed. “Zero” remains. “Only this garden I told you about, but otherwise, everything has changed”.

Mohammed’s everything and my everything have moments of collision, as we mourn the recent closure of Eldorado Cinema, whose shabby screening rooms were a staple for many an Abu Dhabi child of the ’80s and ’90s. “Really?,” he says upon learning of its demise. “It was my favourite cinema. I was always there,” he laments.

And when we were not at the cinema, or bowling or playing billiards, nature was always there to offer entertainment. “When we were kids in Abu Dhabi we would drive to the desert, me and my friends, and we would go hunt rabbits, ride on motorbikes. We also used to go fishing, using our hands or a net.”

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One friend, Mohammed recalls, would dive under the waves to catch fish, usually hammour. “He would go down and he would not come up with an empty hand,” he says.

Mohammed moved to Copenhagen to join his brothers. Five years later, the family bought the fruit and veg shop, the inside of which has since been covered in framings of Arabic calligraphy and Quranic text; a Hand of Fatima dangling above the storage room at the back. I wave goodbye as the shop fills. “I’ll be back next week,” I say, stepping out into the cold.

“I have hundreds of stories,” Mohammed says. “Life in Abu Dhabi... was something else.”