Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

Mosques of the UAE: the workers' place of worship with an uncertain future

Worshippers gather for what may be the mosque's final Ramadan due to the town's development

The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National
The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National

The demure, unassuming Saad bin Ubadah Mosque has stood in Umm Al Quwain’s old town for around half a century.

The small but unyielding structure dates from a time when mosques were perhaps more modest in size but larger in number.

This Ramadan, more than 100 worshippers, the majority of them migrants, will gather in its hall and courtyard each evening at sunset for Maghrib prayers and iftar.

Yet this may be the mosque’s final holy month. The surrounding neighbourhood is currently being demolished, with hundreds of villas levelled last year in preparation for a new development.

Worshipers gather to pray at the Saad bin Ubadah Mosque. Antonie Robertson / The National
Worshipers gather to pray at the Saad bin Ubadah Mosque. Antonie Robertson / The National

“After two or three months all the shops will be gone,” said Gurbaksh Singh, a pipe fitter and locksmith whose shop is beside the Saad bin Ubadah Mosque.

“Everything is being made new. That’s not great news because the people here are poor.”

Built between the sea and a swathe of mangrove forest, the history of Umm Al Quwain's old town stretches back for centuries.

The mosque is named after Sa’ad ibn Ubadah ibn Dulaym, an early convert to Islam who was said to be a keen archer and swimmer.

Today, its worshippers are low-income migrants who share surrounding courtyard villas built in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Ramadan, they are remembered by the Emiratis who lived here decades ago. Former residents pay for local restaurants to deliver food to the souq’s mosques at iftar.

“The locals give and the workers eat,” said the mosque’s imam, Shamsuddin Alawi. “It’s always biryani and Laban Up, because we’re in the Emirates after all.”

Imam Alawi has served for 30 years in the Emirates, and three of those at the Saad mosque.

The Keralite imam provides counsel in Urdu, Malayalam and flawless Arabic to those who often find themselves away from their family for years at a time.

“The worker is a candle that burns to bring his family light, and in the process melts away,” said Imam Alawi.

Worshippers not only find comfort in the mosque, but also in the informal community surrounding the souq.

Here they can raise chickens and goats, meet friends at barbershops or cafes and enjoy games of carom, a popular South Asia board game.

This is preferred to the more isolated downtown tower blocks or labour camps outside the town, despite the better amenities offered by newer accommodation.

Villas around the Saad bin Ubadah mosque may be derelict, but they are perhaps the most affordable in the country. One-storey courtyard villas rent for Dh1,000 to Dh2,000 a month.

Most Emirati families moved away from the old town surrounding the mosque long ago, preferring more modern, inland developments.

Large, majestic mosques have risen in Umm Al Quwain’s desert suburbs off the E311 motorway, leaving the more humble origins of the Saad mosque seemingly far behind.

Some worshippers remain, however. The Charshambi family came from Dubai 40 years ago because of the cheaper housing and now rent four houses in the neighbourhood.

The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National
The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National

For Zahra Charshambi, a grandmother in her 80s, the mere thought of moving is distressing.

“My mother is crying every day,” said her daughter Amna Charshambi, 36, a Comoros passport holder.

“My father died here. My grandmother died here. Ramadan will end and we’ll all have to go.”

In the meantime, meals of rice and lamb and deserts of jelly and custard will be passed between the four family homes.

“Nobody likes to go to the new homes,” said their relative Jassem Mohammed, 20. He pointed out the home of an Emirati neighbour. “They have new houses in other places but they chose to stay here.”

Ms Charshambi agreed. “Old places are good. But after Eid…”

Residents speculate over the area’s future. Some believe that existing homes will be bulldozed to make way for high-end residences and hotels and there are even rumours that an Indian billionaire is set to transform the neighbourhood’s dusty lanes into a luxury tourist resort.

The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National
The Saad bin Ubadah Mosque in the old souk area of Umm Al Quwain. Antonie Robertson / The National

Meanwhile, previously lush garden canopies have turned brown as residents have moved out.

Whether or not the Saad bin Ubadah mosque will be preserved is uncertain. The cement mosque is a product of its age and lacks any obvious architectural splendour.

Nearby, the land has been flattened. Only a handful of mosques remain standing.

Updated: May 7, 2019 08:21 AM

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