x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Al Bateen: quiet for centuries, busy for decades

Community Roots: Al Bateen is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Abu Dhabi island and was probably settled sometime after 1760. For generations it was a spot for fishing or building a dhow, but since about 1980 its sky has been speckled with construction cranes.

Store signs and street lights illuminate the night in Al Bateen. Mr Abdulrahman remembers when the nights were black. “It seems a natural thing that happens,” he says of the area’s growth.
Store signs and street lights illuminate the night in Al Bateen. Mr Abdulrahman remembers when the nights were black. “It seems a natural thing that happens,” he says of the area’s growth.

ABU DHABI // From the coast of Al Bateen, the fishermen Ahmad Musaid Al Murar and Saeed Abdullah Al Muhairi have watched their village turn into a city.

Once there was sun and sea, says Mr Al Muhairi, 50. Then roads, street lights, villas and towers sprouted from the sand. Now their harbour is a maze of construction, part of a development that will feature a luxury hotel.

Each day, the fishermen gather to talk in an air-conditioned majlis nearby, overlooking a sliver of turquoise water.

"No change here," says Mr Al Murar, 58, who has lived in Al Bateen his whole life.

Like much of the emirate, the landscape of Al Bateen transformed completely during the past 50 years.

It was once a fishing village, separated from the main area of Abu Dhabi by a large sand dune.

"If you wanted to get to Al Bateen you had to cross it," says Saleh Farah Abdulrahman, 82, who built one of the first modern homes in the area. "I never tried to go then, because of this huge heap of sand."

Some residents lived in barastis - traditional palm frond homes - while others lived in coral stone houses, according to the historian Frauke Heard-Bey.

Al Bateen is sometimes referred to as the oldest inhabited area of the island. But Dr Heard-Bey says it was probably settled after the central village - by Qasr Al Hosn - sometime after 1760.

Mr Abdulrahman used to live in the central village, close to the Corniche. He knew Al Bateen as an area inhabited by the Suwdan tribe, or Al Suwaidis.

Many residents fished for a living.

"What work would you do?" says Mr Abdulrahman. "You were either an earthman or a fisherman."

In the seaside majlis by the Emirates Heritage Club, Mr Al Muhairi displays the callouses on his hands from years of hauling nets.

The fisherman likens the island to a body, calling Al Bateen "the stomach". An Arabic word for stomach, al batn, is similar. The waters on the other side of the island were choppy, but Al Bateen's bay was calm, making it a good place to fish, according to Mr Al Muhairi.

"For quite a few years it was possible to go there and just buy the fish off of the fishermen," says Dr Heard-Bey.

David Spearing, who moved to Abu Dhabi from the United Kingdom in 1968, remembers visiting Al Bateen's old dhow yard, where men crafted wooden boats by hand.

"It was a fabulous site there, with all these dhows being built in the old ways of construction," says Mr Spearing. "I remember the sort of magnificent tools they had for doing it."

The dhow yard closed a few years ago, making way for the marina development.

Al Bateen began to change rapidly after 1980, about the same time that the InterContinental hotel was built, says Mr Al Murar, the other fisherman. It is now a seamless part of the city.

When Mr Abdulrahman built his home on the border of Al Bateen and Al Manhal in 1978, the surrounding land was still desert.

"Barren. Sandy. No neighbours," he says. It took 14 months to complete his villa, eventually extended to accommodate his growing family.

"As you can see now, we have roads, we have houses, we have street lights," says Mr Abdulrahman, who was a legal adviser to Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE. "It all started after 1978."

By the time Dr Heard-Bey moved to Al Bateen in 1980, workers were building 32nd Street.

Mr Spearing watched the neighbourhood grow during visits to the majlis of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak.

"I remember sitting in the circle, and the views were quite tremendous until really recently," says Mr Spearing. "When I say tremendous, there were seemingly no buildings, except for the InterCon."

Soon towers began to rise.

"All those have gone up seemingly so quickly," says Mr Spearing.

Meanwhile, Al Bateen spread. Dr Heard-Bey says that over the years she has noticed more and more parts of Abu Dhabi being called Al Bateen "simply because it's fashionable".

As property owners redeveloped their villas, the neighbourhood's gardens grew smaller.

The windows of Mr Abdulrahman's majlis still overlook a garden. At night, it is brightly lit by a streetlamp. Sometimes the light annoys him. He remembers when the nights were black.

"It seems a natural thing that happens," he says of the area's growth around him.

Today, the noise of construction clangs up and down Baynunah Street. But on the back roads - where clusters of palm trees shade the villas - the noise fades. In the heat of midday, it is quiet enough to hear the sound of a dried leaf, whispering across the asphalt.

vnereim@thenational.ae


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