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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Abu Dhabi: A city of cultural contrasts

March 10, 2014
Writer_Karen Aileen d’Arcangelo During a recent trip to Abu Dhabi Karen d’Arcangelo discovers the beauty of Abu Dhabi. The most common responses to the fact that my family and I were visiting my dad in Abu Dhabi were: ‘oh that’s cool, you’ll be shopping all day!’, ‘will you have to wear a burqa then?’ and…

Writer_Karen Aileen d’Arcangelo

During a recent trip to Abu Dhabi Karen d’Arcangelo discovers the beauty of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

The most common responses to the fact that my family and I were visiting my dad in Abu Dhabi were: ‘oh that’s cool, you’ll be shopping all day!’, ‘will you have to wear a burqa then?’ and ‘awesome have fun in Dubai!’ To which I responded; ‘yes but its not all about shopping. No the UAE is an extremely tolerant country that respects non-Muslims, and thanks, but it’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai.’  There are many preconceptions, prejudices and confusion associated with countries in the Middle East and I won’t lie, I used to have them too.

The United Arab Emirates is a small but economically powerful gem, rising between the most war-torn Middle East countries at the moment. The 7 states which form the UAE, gained their independence in 1972, with Abu Dhabi being the capital, and since then it has become one of the most prolific, quickly developing countries in the world. The UAE is often not fully understood in westerners’ minds, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to live the local ‘everyday life’ – not just the holiday dream.

Etihad Towers

Etihad Towers

I arrived in Abu Dhabi at 5 o’clock in the morning, when the sun was still an enormous pink ball freshly rising. The mirrored skyscrapers reflected the sun’s colours in the distance, as they stood imperiously hiding the city’s secrets. Whilst driving on the highway I could not help but notice the contrast between the oversized white Toyota SUVs and the crammed rotten vans carrying dozens of Indian workers. It was easy to sense that discrimination and class division were a dominant presence.

Unusual sounds and strong odours kept catching my attention. The sweet, powerful scent of incense permeated the American-style malls, the garlic and curry spices rose from inner allies, and the unmistakable smoky perfume of shisha was a welcoming feature of most restaurants. There was continuous background noise, a fusion between the city’s traffic and the sea’s waves; Abu Dhabi rises out of the sea and is formed by many islands. The only sound that would prevail was the Imams’ call to prayer. I was once on the very top of a building, overlooking the futuristic skyline dotted with white mosques, listening to the echo of these many voices singing with a very distinctive Arabic rhythm. It was a mystic moment where I witnessed many cultures blurring before me.

Contrasts are an inimitable characteristic of Abu Dhabi. High fashion streets are parallel to rotten alleys where local children recall ‘Kite Runner’ images. On one island stands Ferrari World, the world’s biggest covered theme park, whilst on another, a branch of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums are being built. State of the art towers confine the desert, still inhabited by local camel farmers. Sheiks take ‘selfies’ and Westerners smoke shisha. Europeans wearing skirts and shorts share the roads with women with only their eyes on show. One of the world’s biggest, most magnificent Mosques stands not too far from the Christian and Jewish churches of multi-religious communities. Abu Dhabi is not a city of old traditions, but one in constant, surprising progress.

All pictures by Karen A. d’Arcangelo

Abu Dhabi desert

Abu Dhabi desert