Abu DhabiWords Kevin Gould
Photography Jonathon Gregson
Forty years ago, this was a sleepy fishing village on the Arabian Gulf. Today Abu Dhabi – capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – is the Manhattan of the Middle East, a desert metropolis planted with steel and glass skyscrapers. We scratched the shiny surface of Dubai’s more serious older brother and found something delicious: a place rooted in the ancient rhythms and hospitality of the oasis, the desert and the seafaring dhow.
The 90-minute drive out of Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, near the border with Oman, sees plenty of sand but also many trees, planted along the highway in groves of palms and olives. Signs point to farms where the desert is being slowly, painstakingly greened.But these farms are nothing compared to the golf course lushness of Al Ain - literally, ‘The Spring’ – a city fed by natural springs that flow from the rocky heights above. At its heart is an enormous oasis of working family farms. The UAE produces almost 100 varieties of dates so the close-planted palms come as no surprise. What we hadn’t expected was the fertile profusion of mangoes, figs, jujubes, papayas and bananas that make Al Ain feel like the Garden of Eden. In this shaded patchwork of peace, the warm desert air is embroidered with whispering zephyrs, the silver sounds of birdsong and a distant call to prayer.
We meet Mohamed Azim in his dusty, sand-coloured salwar with a scimitar stuck in the waistband. He shows us how he shins up tree trunks with the help of a hobool, made from plaited palm fronds. Today, Mohamed is fertilising his harem of female palms by inserting seeds from male trees into their crowns. The dates ripen in August as temperatures hit 50C.
Our guide, Nabeel Faris, has an Emirati dad and a Scottish mum. He shows us the underground falaj irrigation system, unchanged for hundreds of years. “You don’t need falaj in Falkirk,” he muses.
Like almost every other Emirati male, Nabeel is dressed in the only practical clothes for this climate: an ankle-length dishdasha gown in cool, pale cotton, and white skull cap on which sits his ghutra headdress, secured with a black, coiled iqal. A ghutra can be white, coloured – or chequered, if you’re feeling racy. Women wear abayas – gossamer-thin black wraps under which we sometimes glimpse a Louboutin shoe or an LV logo.
We pause to admire the golden, walls of Al Jahili Fort, built of mud in the 1890s and garrisoned often by British troops, before skirting
a huge mall to find ourselves atthe UAE’s last surviving camel market. There are thousands of beasts here. An entry-level camel will set you back around £800, while a family-sized one for milking and mating costs up to £3,000. Many upmarket models wear chastity belts to deter frisky bull camels. There’s a televised Miss Camel beauty contest each December and winners can change hands for as much as a million quid. Most Thursdays and Fridays there are camel races in Abu Dhabi where camels have robot jockeys strapped to their humps.
Qasr Al Difaya means ‘hospitality palace’, and herewe lunch splendidly at this local eatery. “Emirati food is quite hard to find,” explains Nabeel. “We are the smallest minority here; only 13%.” The relentless drive towards modernity means that the UAE relies heavily on the skills of workers from abroad. “So,” he says, “we operate a culture of mutual respect.” In our many conversations with Keralans, Filipinas and expat Brits, wefound only praise for the careful, enlightened ways in which this tolerance is expressed.
After enough mezze to feed an army the main courses are marched in. Steaming, snowy mountains of rice are studded with cashew nuts. Camel tannour is off the menu, so we make do with fried sea bream, cinnamon chicken, and yielding knuckles of lamb, all spiked with simple, bright, filfil salsa. We are so full, we don’t stay for what the menu calls ‘deserts’.
Back in Abu Dhabi we head for Al Mina fish market, which is huge and smells of the tide, not of fish. Like everywhere we visit, it is spotlessly clean. Spangled emperor fish, thornycheek grouper, catfish and parrotfish – all spanking fresh – share the slab with banana-sized shrimp, barracuda, threadfin bream and black mullet. Good-natured men in blue boiler suits sell you fish that for a small fee are scaled and gutted by blokes in red overalls. You then visit one of the kitchens surrounding the market where they cook your fish as you wish. We also loved the Keralan workers’ cafés where spice-fried pomfret and rice is served with beakers of condensed milk chai.
A cab ride through a thicket of downtown skyscrapers deposits us at Lebanese Flower, an Abu Dhabi institution, where a few dirhams buy you a feast of mezze and meshwi grills, sand-flecky flatbreads and that wonderful Emirati pleasure, freshly squeezed lemon and mint juice. You sit here surrounded by nuclear clouds of sheesha smoke, served by heavily jowled, magnificently rude men with oil-slick hair who look like the Lebanese Sopranos.
Another sunny day in Abu Dhabi central finds us in Tourist Club Area where there are no tourists – they’ve migrated to the swanky modern hotels and resorts. Instead we find cracking Filipino canteens, Goan curry houses and the Sweet Palace Egyptian bakery where the oily pastry for fateer is hand-spun so thin you could read a newspaper through it.
We eat ourselves silly at the date market, sampling the many varieties on display. Our favourite is the butterscotch-like sukkari. In Abu Dhabi, whenever you’re served a thimble of bitter, cardamom-scented coffee there’s always a toffee-chewy date served with it.
The Emirates Palace Hotel cost close to £2 billion to build. Thefine white sand for its beach was imported from Algeria. “It’s not as if we lack sand…” smiles Nabeel. Inside it’s Versailles-meets-Vegas, and at the Gold To Go ATM a sad bloke has his card declined. We pause for a camel burger (tasty, gamey) and a camelcino (a velvety coffee with camel’s milk) served with camel-shaped chocolates filled with camel-milk fondant.
Thus fortified, we process across the white marble expanse of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, surely the most lavish place of worship in this universe. The world’s largest hand-knotted carpet lies under columns studded with rare stones and mother of pearl from all over the world. Several huge chandeliers twinkle with millions of Swarovski crystals. Up to 40,000 worshippers can pray here, yet a beautiful serenity pervades the place.
Nabeel invites us to spend an evening in the desert. His mates Badr, Suhail, Abdallah and Ahmed have customised the 4WDs in which we roar east out of town. At Al Khatim they deflate their tyres to 15psi, turn knobs to stiffen the suspension and set the GPS. We strap ourselves in and hit the great sand sea. These guys are expert dune bashers and we scream up and surf down them at crazy angles – it’s like being in a powerboat during a hurricane. Suhail turns Beyoncé up on the stereo; we concentrate on keeping down our camel burgers.
In the pink satin light of dusk we stop. Carpets are spread, a pit is dug, a fire built and cups of hot thyme tea distributed. As the blood orange sun dips, our boys respectfully, rhythmically recite their prayers. Abu Dhabi has 6-star glitz, Gold To Go and a wealth of natural resources, but out here
in the star-spangled desert, we glimpse its ancient, timeless soul.