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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Nostalgia makes us long for the past even as we enjoy the present

Even as we marvel at Abu Dhabi's progress, we mourn the quiet, more sedate city we once knew

The tenant says his neighbours pay up to Dh15,000 less for the same apartment. Delores Johnson / The National
The tenant says his neighbours pay up to Dh15,000 less for the same apartment. Delores Johnson / The National

My mother tells me that she often sees me with a kind of double vision: she sees me now and also as the child I was a (very) long time ago. I wince sometimes, knowing that she’s seeing the version of me with a shag haircut and flared trousers but this past week, I saw some ghosts of my own and realised this double vision might be impossible to avoid.

During the school spring holidays, we had some visitors from New York: boys who have been friends with my son since they were about five and playing in a weekend soccer league. Those were the days when all the kids would run for the ball and argue about who got to kick it first (frequently in the wrong direction), or duck for cover if the ball ever came towards them in goal. I spent hours on the sidelines watching those little boys race around, their jerseys flapping around their knees, their enthusiasm far greater than their skill.

While they were here, they played football (as we’ve learned to call it) with some students from New York University Abu Dhabi and I once again stood on the sidelines watching. Their enthusiasm for football hasn’t dampened and their skills are prodigious; the joy with which they moved left me breathless. And yet, even as they hurled their 17-year old bodies across the pitch, I could see the ghosts of their bobble-headed five-year-old selves trailing behind them.

As part of their visit, we hit some of the major tourist attractions and as we drove around, I started to see Abu Dhabi with the same double vision with which I saw the boys. When I saw the city through their eyes, I saw the city as it is: gleaming, growing, pulsing with development – and, at the same time, I saw the city I first got to know when I moved here seven years ago.

The first time I went to the Falcon Hospital, for example, we were in a group of perhaps 10 other people. This time, there were almost 70 of us squeezed into the room where the falcons, tidy in their hoods, waited on their stands. The unhooded birds perched on the gauntlets of the hospital staff gazed at us with unblinking disdain while I tried to avoid the sharp elbows of the people standing on either side of me. From the Falcon Hospital we went to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where we fell into line with hundreds of other tourists snapping photos from the vantage point of the roped-off walkways. I remember standing in the centre of the courtyard the first time I came to the mosque, the marble cool under my feet as I looked up at the gleam of the domes against the blue sky.

We ended our trip with lunch at Louvre Abu Dhabi, which was barely a pit in the ground when we first moved here. The boys spent hours roaming the galleries and were amazed at the way the dome appeared to float, untethered, over it all. Anyone who saw these teenagers in the museum would have seen only a gaggle of young men; they wouldn’t have seen the childhood ghosts, just as most of them probably didn’t know about the museum’s years of construction or the semi-permanent installation of cranes that marked the slow rise of the magical dome.

As my children move towards adulthood at a rate both glacial and supersonic, I look at them and wonder where their round cheeks and dimpled fists have gone. I miss having them curl up in my lap or cuddle at night with a story, the solidity of their little bodies wrapped in a towel after their bath.

In the same way, even as I felt a jolt of local pride when our visitors admired the city and marvelled myself at how quickly things have changed, I miss the smaller, slower, more intimate city that I knew seven years ago.

Is it human nature, do you suppose, that makes us nostalgic for the past even as we appreciate the present?