Friday, May 10, 2013


Bus tours are not the normally preferred option to experience a place, but with the limited time available during the stopover, it seemed that a day tour from Dubai to Abu Dhabi might provide an opportunity to see something of the coastal fringe between these places, as well as Abu Dhabi itself. We had already been on the other trips being offered - to the Oman border and the Indian Ocean drive; and to the oasis town of Al Ain, south over the mountains, on other occasions, to see different parts of the country: context. This western tour promoted a stop at the Burj Al Arab, that icon of Dubai - the most starred hotel in the world. It was located in a part of Dubai that we never visited. Apart from its remarkable dhow sailing-boat form, the other memorable occasion associated with this place was the time Roger Federer played tennis on the cantilevered heliport as a promotional display. The event held an unforgettable exotic flavour, like eating oysters with boxing gloves while naked, (sse ). The image of the complex itself is quite extraordinary, memorable. The eye finds it difficult not to keep looking at this place such is its allure even in photographs; so it had to be seen.

The other stops noted for this trip were a mosque, a historic village and the new development on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi: oh yes, and the grand prix track too. It represented a scattering of different interests, a little like the character of the region itself. In truth, not much was found critically tempting, but the opportunity to see beyond central Dubai should not be missed - just to see more of this unique place. One had to go to the much-photographed hotel that was on the western fringe of Dubai in the developed area of Jumeirah; and Abu Dhabi needed to be visited too, if only to sense its location, place and circumstance.

When traveling through Dubai to other destinations, our preference is to spend time in the older areas of both Dubai and Shajah. The flash, super-new, idiosyncratic towers, hotels and shopping centres are all consciously avoided. They seem to show the worst of western tastes and to cater for its pretentiousness, while old Dubai still holds its delicate small surprises and has the daily rhythms punctuated with the beautiful call to prayer as one meanders along busy souks or rests in a cool courtyard with a refreshing drink of iced water mixed with fresh mint and lime.

It was an early start as we were the first to be picked up. The small bus tracked along its hotel rounds in the breaking morning light until all seats had filled. It then headed up the highway past the tallest of the tall, the astonishing Burj Khalifa, those seeking to match the height, the smart new metro rail system extending further and further out form the centre in various directions, and all the other uniquely quirky developments. Finally the bus turned into an empty dirt parking lot with a small café, like those in petrol stations, located in one corner near a clustered housing development: and there it was just beyond this deserted open space, the Burj Al Arab.

The amazement was that this symbolic place was located in such a strange location. One had only ever seen it standing alone on the edge of the water that enhanced its reading as a dhow: its allusion. Here its grand presence had a precise, hard edge to it, seen for the first time. Beyond this boundary the normal sprawling bits and pieces of desert development casually spread out into its idiosyncratic, ad hoc mix. One was not tempted to do anything but stroll around, puzzling about the place while continually looking up at the familiar image, as if to test its being there. The identity of the hotel is so strangely attractive - beguiling. Is this the dhow reference? The photographs of the interiors expressed a different content that left one feeling a little awkward - was it overdone, too extreme? - but the exterior proved to hold its own sense and presence, no matter how one looked at it. We waited and waited as we meandered around. Another small bus arrived. Apparently we had to wait for the large bus that could take everyone: it eventually arrived - half full.

Oh, a full bus! Such are the joys of this type of travel. One could have predicted that all of the usual suspects will be in this group: the loud-mouth; the know-all: these might be the same person; the winger; the chatty person: here life stories are told to everyone, to anyone; the loner; the screaming child; the over-excited tourist, keen to re-enact every cliché possible; the person just seeking companionship; and more curiosities of life. They had all arrived and were on the bus. The tour started with the chirpy introduction of the guide with the microphone, trying to entertain this sundry collection of travellers with everything but a sing-along.

The highway was edged with new planting and irrigation systems, kilometer after kilometer, to manage sand drift. The guide kept up the verbiage that paralleled our progression. The desert sands were in constant movement, threatening to engulf everything in their way. Something had to be done to prevent this. One could see the effects of this perpetual encroachment on the edge of Dubai as the plane prepared for landing. As the bus continued this journey through the sand drifts, occasionally a small set of buildings would appear as a thin strip of low blocks, shops and apartments parallel to the highway. They were all a bland sand colour with sundry signage to enhance the clutter. The guide was silent about these ‘ordinary’ places. Tourists need different things, things that startle and amuse - see  As Abu Dhabi got closer, the small developments got higher and denser. It was difficult to define our entry into Abu Dhabi, but the guide announced our arrival in what seemed to be an area just like everywhere else, apart from one disc-shaped hotel. So, this was it?

Then the mosque appeared out of what looked like nowhere, gleaming large and white in the distance with a cluster of tall, swollen domes. The cameras popped out and windows were grabbed as though this was just another of the passing vistas that had stimulated the same response previously; but the bus spiralled around this centerpiece and drove up to it, as if to offer the grandest of presentations for the photographers. One got the feeling that this was just more of the hype of the over-large that this area is known for. Then the bus entered a car park filled with more of the same: buses galore. Was this a tourist attraction? The guide announced it as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, expanding this information with the usual blurb: this mosque is located in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. It was initiated by the late President of the United Arab Emirates, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan; and the statistics were added: one of the largest mosques in the world, taking over ten years to complete at a cost of many, many millions of dirhams: see also  One wondered if it was constructed just as a boast, to show the west what the east could do with its money and commitment. Then, after this shock, it struck one: this was the mosque mentioned in the brochures promoting the trip.

The white was whiter than white in the blaze of the sun. The bus found a parking place in amongst what seemed like hundreds of other tour coaches, the passengers alighted and the mass moved towards the blinding glare of grouped domes of all sizes. It looked fake, a poor replica of the grand mosques of old, trying to be grand with size alone. As the group approached the mosque wondering what the programme might be, the information was passed along: women to the left, men to the right. The ladies had to wear the black burqa provided in order to enter the grounds; mysteriously, the men were told to wait.

On moving into the shade of the colonnade, the eye was caught by the colours on a wall - a tiled niche like one seen illustrated in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul: beautiful. The tap and basin below this panel changed the experienced awe into that of everyday mundanity as one was dragged one back into the presence of crude plumbing. Moving to one side out of the general flow of more and more visitors - where do they all come from? - the astonishing array of columns made one pause. This place was enormous. A flash of coloured light caught the eye's attention: the detail on the columns was exquisite. Cut stones formed flowers, leaves and vines that twisted over the curved faces of all the columns. The work was in your face, not rudely, just close, but still the illusion worked: stones became flowers with all of their delicacy too: weightless weight; fragile strength. It was impressive. Coloured stones, translucent, banded and pearled all managed to create a remarkable vision that reminded one of the law that no human being is to be illustrated in a mosque, just nature, in all of its amazement and wonder. Here it was.

We waited politely for our directions from the guide, but nothing happened. The women had moved on and in; the men meandered around asking each other aimlessly what was happening. To fill in time, one wandered across the heat of the white open courtyard to what looked like the formal entrance to the mosque. The bus had taken us to one side; our approach had been via the back door - well, the side door. The entry was a pretty place, shady and cool, complete with more tiled niches and a lovely decorated vault. On turning to retrace one’s steps, one could see the mosque massing in all of its grandeur - domes everywhere. Was it overdone? Then the pavement was noticed: more vines and flowers, larger: hibiscus, morning glory, lilies, and more, all spreading underfoot as giant polished stone slabs. It was amazing. The images were convincing even at this scale and in this unusual location. The detail character of each plant was there to be recognized on the ground. Looking up again, the domes seemed to become less assertive: no they were fine. First impressions faded into something more familiar and friendly. This was a remarkable place. The courtyard was expansive, impressive.

On returning to the area where the men had gathered, it was decided to move on into the mosque, as no one seemed to know whether we should continue to wait; and others were going in unhindered. To meet one’s wife in a burqa is a surprise. It highlights the beauty of the eyes. The message was that this mosque was marvellous - just amazing. So we entered.

The walls were covered in an interweaving spread of different vines all inlayed in marble, giving the space a feeling of cool wonder: such workmanship. Then the chandelier was noticed: crystal, Swarovski - a magnificent, shimmering haze of hovering blue. That is all one can say of this dazzling piece of sculptured light seen as crystal. One could see why Abu Dhabi was so proud of this place. It was more than a simple, crude tourist attraction. It touched paradise: reminded one of it.

The interiors confirmed this perception: more chandeliers, gold plated with more Sharovski crystals. If the guide had been with us he would have told us that: ‘the Mosque features seven 24-carat gold-plated chandeliers which were imported from Germany, all designed with thousands of Swarovski crystals. The largest of these chandeliers hangs from the main dome of the Mosque. It is considered to be the biggest in the world, measuring 10 metres in diameter, 15 metres in height, and almost nine tonnes in weight. That's a lot of chandelier!’ Such is the lacklustre life of statistics. More and more complex detailing decorated these large volumes that stretched up into the domes on their arched pendentives, and opened up into distant vistas through openings glazed with the same blue crystal as that used in the chandelier over the entry. Thick carpets mirrored the ceiling decoration in their weave. They felt luscious under the bare feet. This was a tactile place as well as a visual one: here emotions and feelings were mixed and complex. The mihrab was a profiled recess lined with serpentine gold mouldings, elegant, refined but powerful, a grand marker of place. The associated nearby minbar was an exquisite piece of timber carving, all marvelously florid after the themes of the entry walls: part transparent, part solid as a balustrade and a facing. The eye gazed on with complete satisfaction at this vision of care, concern and commitment that echoed everywhere one looked. Art Nouveau may have been the category for the minbar, but this was more that this: much more. It had depth beyond being just fashionably decorative in the same manner as the remainder of the work.

One just kept looking at this place more and more; it was timeless: but time was getting on. No instruction had been given to define a time to return to the harsh reality of the bus, so one timidly edged out while slowly soaking in more of this wonderful place. There was so much to look at, to acknowledge. It held the mesmerizing quality of amazement now: one could see that it was new, but it was, well, just beautiful. It was an unusual experience: rarely is the new said to be beautiful in the same way as old things are; other words are used, ones not so emotionally loaded or quaintly antique. Tradition held its power here: respect for the past and its rigours, its demands and necessities, all without any cringing or apology, or the feeling of being a replica, a poor reproduction struggling to get somewhere it will never reach or become. The mosque was true to its origins, as tradition demands. One could only respect this place. As one walked away, there were glances back to look at the domes again. Surprisingly, bringing one out of the dream of this presence, its enchantment, a military helicopter roared above across the block of sky blue framed by the white of the minarets. It was time to go.


The bus pulled out and drove to the next stop - the heritage village. Unfortunately this was a sad place full of roughly made reconstructions that looked unconvincing; but the place had two redeeming features: its small museum and its location. The museum displayed a range of original traditional items that are always engaging; the location was on the edge of the waterway that bordered the commercial centre of Abu Dhabi that stood tall and varied, round, square, twisted, elliptical, stepped, all glistening clear, clean and bright on the other side of this beautiful inlet spreading under the broad open firmament that looked the same: blue and gleaming - a marvel that kept the eye peering in disbelief. Was this an illusion - the famed Abu Dhabi?

After a break for lunch at a shopping centre that looked just like everywhere else, we were taken to the art gallery of Abu Dahbi. This visit became a surreal experience as we entered an empty set of spaces - nothing. Was this modern art at its most cynical? Were we being duped? Once it was pointed out that we had to turn right through a narrow doorway into a small shop and through into a large projection area to see a video promotion, we moved out of our surprised state into another one. This was a sales promotion for the Saadiyat Island Development. First the super-broad screen video was watched, and then the model was inspected. It highlighted the works of Gehry, Hadid, Nouvel and Foster who had all done schemes to create an international identity for this huge housing scheme. It seems that the tourists were being exposed to the temptation of purchasing one of the many luxury units in this sunny location with a subtle sales pitch: see

After an extended stay - were we early or did some show an interest in buying? - the bus moved on down the desert’s ocean edge to the grand prix track. Here, in a slick, grand prix hotel complex, cooling drinks were served as we admired the curving bitumen before the bus took off for Dubai, to retrace the events of the morning: to the car park; into the smaller buses; back via the Burj Khalifa, the tallest - the guide, if he had not been so tired, would have said: ‘Burj Khalifa (Arabic: برج خليفة‎, "Khalifa tower"), known as Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration, is a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and is the tallest man-made structure in the world, at 829.8m (2,722 ft)’; then to continue on beside the marvellous new metro rail system - why is such a transport system an impossibility for Brisbane? - and back to the hotels in the reverse sequence. We were last off.

It was dark. The tour was over. Everyone was tired, even the driver was fatigued. He told us to walk back to our hotel after dropping us nearby: close enough, he thought. The traffic was dense: apparently it would have taken over half an hour to negotiate the round trip along the narrow one-way streets and lanes that bordered our hotel, or so he said. Still, we prefer this location in Bur Dubai. We can hear the regular call to prayer, wake to it each morning, and enjoy the street life of Dubai rather than indulge in the extremities and distractions of an indulgent hyper-luxury, perhaps at the Burj Al Arab next to that dirt car park? No, the memories of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque were sufficiently satisfying to leave one content with the day's outing and with life in general.


On minbars: to know more about these objects in detail, read  Lynette Singer, The minbar of Saladin: reconstructing a jewel of Islamic art, Thames and Hudson, London, 2008. It is an inspiring story.

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