x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Returning to a former home

A warm welcome back to Abu Dhabi

Before making my journey to Abu Dhabi from Australia this month, I was subjected to all recommendations about what to see, eat, buy, smell and avoid.

"Remember Emirates Palace," one friend said.

"You gotta check out the flagpole, it's huge," another chimed in.

"Don't get lost in the malls," said another.

"Make sure you try all the different food."

"Boy, make sure you don't become fatter or I will come there myself and bring you back."

Well, you get the idea.

I nodded politely to each well-wisher and took mum's warning seriously.

But as soon as the plane took off for that long 15-hour one-way journey there was only one place I wanted to visit. It is not in any guidebooks and away from all the usual landmarks.

Instead, it is tucked away quietly on the corner of Mohamed bin Khalifa St and Old Airport Rd. I was surprised to find the apartment building I lived in 20 years ago still standing. All the neighbouring flats were demolished to make way for new upscale residential buildings and, in one case, a new business hotel.

I walked the 200 metres from my office, my eyes never leaving the cream-coloured obelisk.

With the exception of the Islamic bank and office furniture store below - in my days it was a little supermarket - the building hadn't changed since our family packed up our bags in 1990 for a different future in Australia.

But more than the building itself, there was one person I wanted to visit.

I met Younis, the building's Egyptian janitor, as he walked out from the metal side entrance containing his living quarters.

For the past 26 years Younis was the building's first and only janitor. To the building's residents he is Mr Fix-It and the go-to guy. Because of the wide range of services he provides, you can find him awake at all hours of the day.

At dawn you can find him in the car park cleaning the sand off windshields, during the day he visits apartments to carry out a range of small repairs. At dusk he is sitting in his chair greeting residents as they return from work and carrying their excess shopping.

To us youngsters he was a gentle giant, always ready with a sympathetic ear and a sugary drink.

In 1989, he became a hero when he bravely leapt from the building's second-floor balcony to the one adjacent in order to get into the kitchen of a flat to turn off a burning stove.

And after all this time, it took only one prompt and he immediately recognised me and offered a big hug. We remarked on how much we had changed. I was balding, I had a beard and have developed a karshaa (Arabic for potbelly). He was frailer, his thick black moustache was beginning to grey and he has been eating a few shwarmas himself.

Despite the building's deteriorating condition, I am glad it didn't succumb to the wrecking ball.

It remains my only link to a past not swept up by Abu Dhabi's urban renewal.

Whenever I peer at it on the way to and from work, I somehow feel it is telling me that everything is going to be all right.

Yes, it is good to be back.