Abu Dhabi as seen through automotive glass, darkly.
Some people adorn their car's rear window with signs that say "Baby on board". Others prefer something a little more vivid - like, say, an image of a fierce grey wolf, its sharp fangs bared, staring out from between two wind-swept trees as thunderclouds darken the horizon. That, anyway, is what one customer requested recently from a local shop that specialises in making customised car stickers for the rear glass of Abu Dhabi's vehicles.
"When he saw the face of the wolf he just loved it so much," says Norman, an employee at the shop, "even though saliva was dripping off its fangs." On a busy street in the centre of Abu Dhabi, set among car outlets that sell accessories like faux-fur car seats and patent leather steering-wheel covers, there are several shops like the one where Norman works. Here, for a couple of hundred dirhams, your car can be transformed from a standard, mundane vehicle into a mobile totem of your inner animal, favourite sport or love of country.
Along the strip of shops, the national colours are everywhere, in forms ranging from simple flags to images of people dressed in red, white and green. "The most popular image is of Sheikh Zayed, because he was so good and very kind and people love him so much," Norman says. Also among the most frequently requested images are ones of the national football team and of local clubs such as Al Wahda and Al Jazira, although some sports fans do look further afield.
"Some people like Manchester United and Thierry Henry and David..." Norman pauses, searching for the name. "Beckham?" I venture. He nods. Abdullah, the young Emirati owner of the shop, who has an image of Sheikh Zayed on his Land Cruiser, says business is going well one year after opening. "I love Sheikh Zayed because he made everything possible for me," he says. "I have his photo across my entire back window."
Inside the small shop is a computer where customers can choose which image they want. Ahmed, from Abu Dhabi emirate, sits at the terminal with a designer, searching for the perfect font for his family name, which he wants emblazoned across the back of his car. He is already the proud owner of a massive jeep with a picture of a "half-black, half-white" pit-bull on the back window. The shop's walls are also adorned with designs, each with a corresponding number. They include a profile of Audrey Hepburn, a cartoon of an Emirati boy alongside Handala (Naji al Ali's iconic cartoon of a Palestinian refugee child), the grim reaper and a female silhouette inside a circle with a big red line through it.
"What's that about?" I ask. "Maybe it means the person is taken," says Abdullah. "Or maybe he doesn't like ladies." Che Guevara is another popular image, but one that Norman warns his customers against. "I explain to them why I don't like him," he says. "I tell them that his face represents Communism and that is not good... I know because I lived in Cuba." "Whereabouts?" "Guantanamo Bay", he says. "I worked there for six years as one of the maintenance staff, but not for the US army," he assures me.
Completely obscuring your back window with an image can put you on the wrong side of the law, says Norman, so people tend to opt for a quarter- or half-window design. Most customers are male sports or car fanatics in their early twenties, but men are not the only fans of this car-art. Some women also come into the shop armed with pictures of their children, Norman says, showing me an example of two toddlers on a pink background that was a recent request. Cartoons like the Pink Panther are also common.
One of the shop's most expensive requests was to fix a black film on an entire car for Dh10,000. But most everyday jobs cost around Dh300, depending on the size of the sticker, which takes around 45 minutes to print on the machines pushed against the back of the shop. Norman also has a custom-made sticker on his own, albeit more modest mode of transportation. "I feel free here and, unlike my country, I don't feel any danger," he says. "So, because I love it here, I put a UAE flag on my bike."