An aqua painted dhow loaded for Iran.
This morning–Friday, the 12th–I got up with a mind to find the labor camps. Someone had told me that Friday mornings are the best times to drive anywhere. The Emiratis and their construction workers take the day off. Stores and malls are open, staffed almost entirely by Filipinos and Nepalis, but nearly empty till the afternoon. Last week I drove to the Corniche and the Marina Mall. I ended up at the old fort and Muslim Theater at the end of the marina’s jetties. Filipino groups lay about under the trees, picnicking and sleeping. There’s a beach there, facing the downtown skyscrapers across a wide channel, a free beach–but an uncrowded one. I swam briefly and then launched out into the channel, circumnavigating past the Emirates’s Palace and then the Corniche itself with its wide stretches of almost empty beach.
Yesterday I had driven industriously to the north, past the intimidations of Dubai to the smaller emirate of Sharjah, where a Chinese student had told me “they have excellent museums…” The commuting traffic was fast and furious most of the way, and intensely, frighteningly so, for the miles and miles of Dubai’s lavish skyline.
Goats being trucked on the highway near Sharjah.
But it thinned out as I neared Sharjah, a city with a smaller, less extravagant skyline, and, as it turned out, lots of back streets that resembled Old Delhi or perhaps Pakistan: car shops, bike shops, taxi and bus depots, little South Asian bodegas. (I learned this because–as ever here–I got completely lost trying to find the museum district.)
A back street in Sharjah near the taxi depot.
At the taxi depot someone finally knew about the museums and sent me to the waterfront. I landed first at a scruffy beach near scruffy highrise hotels: I could tell at a glance that the clientele was Russian–bikinis on men and women, short haircuts, posing for photos, utterly heedless of the local sensibilities. A nice young woman there was certain there were no museums at all. I had parked next to an old adobe tower, itself under a huge electric tower. And, as it turned out (and I learned an hour later), the Aquarium and Maritime Museum were a few hundred yards away, hidden behind some sort of archeological effort.
I visited the Islamic Museum first, installed on the Corniche in an old Souk, a long low ochre building with painted decoration. Inside it was a typically shiny, glassed in and marble-floored set of galleries. The exhibits were lovely, filled mostly with pride and praise for Islam’s growth (‘fastest growing religion in the world’ whose expansion from the death of Mohammed is ‘unrivalled in the history of the world’). But many or most of the objects, religious and scientific, were reproductions. Timelines told, again, of Islam’s achievements. And upstairs the galleries held some beautiful–and genuine–old weapons and plates and vases, often from Iran or Turkey.
When I found the Maritime Museum it was similar: lovely explanations and videos on fishing, trading and pearl-diving in the Gulf and beyond, with reconstructed boats of all sizes and explanations of the varieties of dhow and the invention and spread of the lateen sail, with its two booms and low mast. I was the only visitor there, while the Islamic museum had a group of Chinese and another of Mexicans milling about.
But the best of Sharjah for me was the channel off the Corniche. In contrast to Abu Dhabi, where the Corniche fronts on wide, well watched beaches with grand hotels and skyscrapers, the Sharjah Corniche fronts–at least downtown–on a channel filled with fat, high, dhows–huge ones, mastless and sailless, piled high with goods, especially boxes of appliances, en route to Iran, perhaps 50 miles across the Straits of Hormuz. People say there is a busy trade in contraband of various kinds, mostly in the smaller, speedier boats. What I saw was the lumbering sort of ship visibly carrying mounds of consumer goods. Each of the ships was brightly painted and somewhat beaten up but nonetheless jaunty, with a hint of piracy and adventure. The crews looked to me exclusively Indian or Pakistani: dark men darkened further by the bright sun, their foreheads shiny with sweat.
A sailor on one of the speedier Sharjah craft.
Across the Sharjah channel to a fat wooden dhow loaded high.
Baniyas shops at the main crossroads.
I went for a swim with the Russians and then drove home, resisting the call of Dubai by lashing myself to the wheel with a grim sense that if I turned off into the maelstrom of skyscrapers and construction I’d never find my way out.
I looked on Google last night and this morning to see if I could find any mention of the locales where the workers live. A balanced piece in the New Yorker suggested that most of the Saadiyat workers live here on this island–which stunned and still stuns me, since I have driven and paddled and even swum on most of it. (And the rest, aside from the mangroves and the desert behind them, consists of gravelly construction sites that I can see pretty well from my tenth floor guest apartment!) Rather than poke around Saadiyat further I decided to go to whatever towns were mentioned in the Times, the Guardian and The National–the decent English newspaper here. I set off knowing that this could prove a hard day of driving, since nothing around here is easy to reach–by any method.
The names that came up more than once were Baniyas and Al Mafraq. Studying the map I noticed a ‘wetlands reserve’ near these two inland outposts at the back of city itself. It took a long time to find them. Baniyas, like many places here, sits on two sides of a big highway, back a ways from both. When I first got to Baniyas East, I knew I had landed in a strange place: There were no malls, just run down shops and one or two women with distinctly non-Muslim clothes and strides. There were men from South Asia, but not many. Lots of run-down little houses from decades ago held their own against the occasional mini-mansion. There was a car pound and a couple of walled off factories. I kept driving around but found no concentration of ‘worker accommodations’. I crossed the highway and found Baniyas West a little more prosperous and dense, but, again, with no great concentration of worker housing.
I saw a sign, though, for Mafraq North and Mafraq South. I followed those leads for a while with similar results: run down suburbs with their roads laid out, half paved, and with mostly tired old housing but still with the occasional attempt–often interrupted or abandoned–at luxury. There were more factories and warehouses. After perhaps 45 minutes of this I was ready to give up. The wetland was called Al Wathba and I saw a sign for a town with that name–again, divided by the highway. I decided that I could at least see the wetland. (It turned out to be the driest wetland I had ever seen–a little mud and lots of dead trees, but it may be the winter will bring moisture and birds.)
The Arabco dorm.
Men shopping at Mafraq.
One of the tidiest dorms at Wafraq.
Following the signs to Al Wathba, though, I came across a road heavily trafficked with workers’ buses, all of them creamy Tata buses from India. Their drivers were in a hurry and seemed to know what they were doing. Soon there signs for Mafraq Workers Accommodations 1 and 2. The land here rolled a bit, still desert with scrub (and now no buildings), but on an incline inland. Between two highways, then, in an otherwise empty landscape, I came to the two–well, I’m not sure what to call them. They looked like tidy but very, very modest college dorms: three floors high, clothing hanging from the stairwells, fenced and gated in, with men moving about outside with parcels and in all manner of Muslim dress and beards. But these dorms went on and on for a long way to become something like towns: all male, surrounded by hundreds of parked buses and taxis, with one ‘HyperMarché’ serving them all. They had nice names, names of flowers, on them. Each bore a sign of a company. And the best of them, the tidiest, were the Arabco ones, a company controlled by the Emiratis. I noticed air conditioners in the windows. Security guards and gates made me turn away without even trying to go in.
Were I to live in one of these ‘accommodations’, I felt, I too would work long days and long weeks. Bused back and forth to these settlements, there seemed to be nothing at all to do besides go to work. I saw no games being played or picnics on the sparse grass–but then it is the day of worship and the tone was distinctly Muslim. Next time, perhaps asking one of the Nepali or Filipino guards, I can go visit someone I know–and perhaps at a workers village with more cultures and religions in evidence.
For now, I said to myself, I have at least made a start. On the way home, around noon, I launched my kayak into the Eastern Mangroves–but it was hot and bright and exhausting in the middle of the day and I gave up after an hour. The Filipino guides were there sleeping in the shade of the mangroves while they waited for a late afternoon expedition. I mentioned that I should bring my class. Ramel–whose name I heard as Roman or Ramon last time–said that some NYU professor had brought a class already. I listened to Judge Masipa read the Pistorius verdicts on BBC on the car radio as I pumped up my little kayak. When I told Ramel that Pistorius had been convicted ‘of a kind of murder’ he and his colleagues had no idea about ‘the bladerunner’ or the killing of Reeva Steinkamp.
I turned off on the way back to Saadiyat to Al Rehm Island, where a colleague had told me I’d find the best grocery store in Abu Dhabi, a Waitrose’s from England. This half-developed island, nearer to downtown than Saadiyat, looks like a bit of Dubai: huge high rise glass towers with mall called ‘The Boutik’. Empty lots and empty but perfect streets surround the new buildings; still it’s hard to find the way to the parking lots under the buildings and no one–almost literally no one–is in evidence on the sidewalks. The Waitrose grocery store was spectacular, with no fig newtons or tofu dogs but lots and lots of other stuff, including good produce from South Africa and the U.S.
Finding the Boutik Mall and the Waitrose I came across the Sorbonne outpost: smaller than NYU’s campus but lovely, circular, with gardens and buildings in a dark, almost brown adobe-like cement. It has a big, broad Cupola building at its center, an echo of the one that sits on the Place de la Sorbonne off the Boul Mich. I can’t quite conjure up who would want to be educated in French these days in the Emirates–but then that’s getting to be true even in Paris itself. This may not be a British or American empire we live in here but it is certainly an English language empire! I wanted to go in but no one was in evidence except the guard–from the same security company we use–who required a pass.
(It’s odd, come to think of it, that these campuses have this guarded, fortress-like quality; they should learn from the malls.)
Jeffery from the Philippines, a guard at the gym… He and his family know the little island of Lamud, where Pierce and Derma have a house.
My apartment is on the top floor of the far building, to the left, at the crease, more or less facing the camera; the gravelly construction site in the foreground goes on and on till it meets the water.
Joel from Cameroon, in an NYU attendant uniform.
The NYU Saadiyat Campus seen from near the Sorbonne on Al Reem, across the estuary (and the visible desert stretch) to the north.
Which takes flight as I approach…
The white heron…