Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Sometimes, the ‘real’ Abu Dhabi is a little tricky to find

Visitors afforded me the chance to consider what I think is the real heart of my city, writes Deborah Williams

When people ask me for advice about visiting New York, I offer mostly misanthropic suggestions because I dislike crowds, hate queues, and generally avoid most tourist sites. My recommendations are for old libraries, quiet parks, offbeat museums. You won’t be surprised, then, that when my mother and stepfather were here this month we didn’t go to the Burj Khalifa or anywhere else in Dubai. No galleries, no creek, no trip to the Palm Jumeirah, that frondy testimonial to humanity’s desire to bend nature to its will.

We didn’t totally ignore the miracles that can be wrought by irrigation, however: my stepfather loves golf and got in three rounds at different courses during his stay. And we happily played tourist at the Qasr Al Hosn festival, which proves that I love my family more than I dislike crowds.

Even Mick Jagger played tourist while he was here: at the Stones show last month he told the audience that he’d visited the falcon hospital earlier that day. I laughed out loud at the thought of Jumpin’ Jack Flash watching a falcon get anaesthetized prior to receiving the falcon-equivalent of a pedicure.

If you’ve not been to the falcon hospital, you should follow Mick’s example and spend an afternoon there. No crowds, no queues and unlike the Big Bus Tours and malls, falcon hospitals don’t exist in every other city: it belongs here.

Regardless of where you live, though, when guests come to town, you want to show them “your” city, however you find it. But sometimes in Abu Dhabi, finding that personal geography within the city’s larger map can be difficult. It’s too easy to reduce the city to a landscape of shiny glass towers surrounded by bumper-to-bumper white Land Cruisers, all wavering in the sun’s heat. In search of something beyond malls and high-rises, I took my mum on a boat through the mangroves, and out into the desert; we went to Madinat Zayed to bargain for fabric and sparkly dresses for my nieces; we poked around behind the superblocks for the honey stores, the bakeries and butcheries, the shops stocked with drawer upon drawer of differently spiced warm nuts.

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes that “each city takes its form from the desert it opposes”, which perhaps explains why Abu Dhabi reaches in box-like shapes for the sky, rectangular rebukes to the twinned undulations of water and sand. Calvino’s phrase seems also to describe one of the dangers of expat life: defining yourself against the culture of the place where you live, insisting that it’s not “home”, even as you work to make things seem “homey”.

For the brief period of my mother’s visit, my two homes – Stateside and Abu Dhabi-side – merged. And while it was wonderful to have her here, that temporary merging also made me wistful. Like many of us so-called global citizens, my internal geography contains a walled-off space where I keep my “old life” and the vague sadness that comes with being far away from the people who hold my history in their heads, the people who have been with me through horrible haircuts and devastating break-ups; not just family but the long-term knew-you-when friends; the people who knew my children as babies and were patient with my professional frustrations, stupid boyfriends, and bouts of existential malaise. Having my mother here opened that space and reminded me that while my new life contains meaningful work and wonderful new friends, it is a life without much history; we aren’t quite rootless but we’re not yet fully rooted, either. I suppose in that regard, we are similar to Abu Dhabi itself, a very new city in a very old part of the world.

Would it be better not to have visitors so that I never have to open those closed-off rooms? Of course not. In an ideal world, I would like to somehow airlift my old life out here to my new life, so that we could enjoy one another’s company without the pain of winter in New York. Given that impossibility, however, I am going to have to content myself with the electronic intimacy afforded by Skype and WeChat, apps that I’m sure were invented by adult children who missed their mothers.

Mum and I salved the pain of saying goodbye by planning her visit for next year. I think we’ll go back and see the falcons and who knows, maybe we’ll even brave the crowds at Atlantis.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi