x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Why progress need not erase our fondest memories

Why progress need not erase our fondest memories of the capital.

I have a friend who has declared that she will never marry a man who doesn't know his way from al Sela to el Seeh Shuaib - in other words, the whole of Abu Dhabi, from the borders of Saudia Arabia to Dubai, and "knows his way around the islands, too". She said: "To me, it's important that we have shared roots, a shared sense of belonging to this land." Another friend announced that her first girl would be named Dhabya, the female version of Dhabi, a deer. According to legend, a man from the Bani Yas tribe caught a deer, where the animal fell, he found water. He took his discovery proudly back to his people.

"Bu Dhabi", as we pronounce it locally, has witnessed tremendous change over the past 40 years. Even 15 years ago, when I was a girl, there were far fewer cars and everything seemed a lot quieter. The cultural foundation was the only place to go to watch plays or movies, to hear lectures and attend workshops. There were no malls, just two souks - souk al Jadeed and the souk el Kadim - between Hamdan and Khalifa Streets. It wasn't until later that we had Zayed Shopping Centre and Hamid Centre.

Been el Jesreen, where the Shangri-La hotel now stands, seemed a long way away, because everybody lived on the island itself. Now, there are many hotels, but the first one I remember visiting was the InterContinental. My father used to take us to its Fish Market restaurant. The fish were all laid out for us to choose what we wanted to eat, it was almost as if they had been displayed especially for us. That was a great experience for a child. Also, from the Inter, we used to take a boat around the islands. Now the area looks different due to all the construction.

There was a beach near the site that has become the Emirates Palace hotel, which we called el Ras al Akhdar but has now been closed for construction. Bahr el hareem, a female-only beach, has long since closed, too. And al Mushrif park - also all-women - is now being rebuilt as a "people's park" and will be open to everyone. These were female-only locations and as young girls, our families were happy to let us visit them.

Older citizens have a completely different version of the story. They witnessed the days of Abu Dhabi when the roads had not yet been paved. This generation now prefers to live in the less crowded areas - in Khalifa City, or the Mohammed bin Zayed area, or towards Al Gharbia. A dear friend and I went to Manarat al Saadiyat, the exhibition of what has been planned for Saadiyat Island. I knew she had accompanied her parents on many trips around Abu Dhabi in the early days and wondered what she thought of seeing most of the places she remembered being carved up for new developments. She was amazed and quiet as she examined the plans for the houses, hotels, golf courses, museums and the huge marina with room for hundreds of yachts.

I told her about Abu Dhabi's economic vision 2030. She asked: "How old do you think I will be?" I smiled, not really knowing. Then I asked her how she felt about how the city we know is changing, and whether she minds that the places which hold so many memories for us no longer look the same. She paused and then said: "Our memories are what we use to dig our roots deep into this land. With change, new memories will be established."

Fatima al Shamsi is away