Fascination Beats Trepidation: Vignettes from the United Arab Emirates

Now, after, I miss hearing the call to prayer from the mosques.

If I’m being honest, I never expected to travel to the Middle East. I was twelve when the towers were hit, and I spent the next ten years trying to understand why. Towards the end of college, I let go of my lingering rage, but the region remained an ominous blur in my mind.

There are places women just don’t go, whether it’s a dangerous country or a dark parking lot where you can’t tell if someone’s under your car. How could I go to any country in the Middle East alone? But curiosity was growing in the vacuum left by diminishing fear. Then, fate, or luck: family friends from England were temporarily living in Abu Dhabi, and I took my chance to visit a corner of the world I’d long considered forbidden.

The Gulf deserts are flat and unending, or so it seemed from my flight as it landed in the richest emirate. In the airport parking lot, abandoned cars gather dust, remnants of lost fortunes. Palm trees line the roads and all of Abu Dhabi is as green as an oasis, an easy feat when you have enough money to afford to desalinate Gulf water and irrigate for aesthetics.

From afar, the Sheikh Zayed mosque could be a mirage. Its moon-bright bulbs float above the sand, sprung from a myth, but mere decades old. Who knows how much it cost to build? How much it costs to wash the exteriors often enough to remove the grit of the desert?

To enter the mosque, I wear an abaya, the unofficial official uniform of the Emirati woman. Like many places of worship, modesty is a requirement. My blonde hair is covered and my feet are bare on the cool white marble floors. I feel impossibly chic in my pink cat eye sunglasses, a tourist from the golden age of the jet set.

Stone-inlaid flowers and vines climb every white column in the courtyard and the galleries. The chandeliers are Swarovski; the hand-knotted carpet is one woven entity, the largest of its kind in the world. To walk in the cooling shade of the domes is to feel as if you have discovered the garden of Paradise, the same garden all religions that teach the Old Testament regret losing.

The calls to prayer reverberate from the mosque minarets in timeless beats; it could be today, or it could be five hundred years ago. The sound fills me, and after a day the spiritual plea becomes familiar, as indelible as the near-constant smell of oud that permeates the indoor air. No matter if I’m in the narrow spice markets or in the downtown traffic, the prayer will follow, coming to me like a reminder: give thanks for what you have.

It is rare to see the locals out and about. It’s too hot, and there are too few of them, and they are too rich to have to worry about errands. I see the largest concentration of Emirati families at the mall, after dark. Women and men are covered head to toe, but under their traditional wear, they’re in clothing that would make a Vogue editor applaud. I see more red Louboutin soles in one evening than I ever have in Manhattan and London combined.

In the evenings, buses of Bangladeshi men roll by in the streets, en route from work to camp. Most of the migrant workers here are from the Indian subcontinent. They’re here for the jobs, and they’re lucky if they get to go home to their wives and children once a year. At the local fish market, my friend and I eat our lunch elbow to elbow with a room full of them, and I hope we’re not intruding. I copy their etiquette and eat my fresh grilled fish with my right hand.

We go out to dinner at the new steakhouse in the new Four Seasons. The decor is masculine, all leather and dark wood and clubby artifacts. I’m snobbishly, quietly satisfied when the wait staff knows to take my plate by my utensil placement instead of asking, and for a moment I let myself pretend this is an average Saturday night for me. We move outside for dessert: Cabernet Sauvignon and talk of the American government.

On the local BBC and Al Jazeera stations, clips from the United States are played with regularity. It’s just after the election. They show an angry ruling man waving his arms, and there are protesters in the streets. I realize our coverage of the Middle East is just as reductive, and I wonder if we’re all becoming more or less informed.

Dubai is built for tourists. Inside the world’s largest mall, in the shadow of the world’s tallest building, Westerners mill around in crowds. I’m mildly scandalized to see some women wearing tank tops and holding hands with their boyfriends; I’ve only been here a few days and already I’m used to the sometimes-enforced “decency” laws. A section of the mall that looks like a souped-up Aladdin set piece houses a dinosaur skeleton. Around the corner, an aquarium you can walk through holds fish larger than me.

At the calligraphy museum in Sharjah, a famous Iranian calligrapher draws our names for us. He jokes with me about how I’m pronouncing mine. I’m caught up in the graceful curves of the different Arabic writing styles, how the words form their own images, how so few people have seen this work.

They’re building a Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and a Guggenheim. Once complete, these buildings will be architectural icons. In the meantime, we go to an art show full of masterpieces from top tier galleries the world over. I realize I’ll never see these works again; they’ll be bought up within days and hidden away by their new owners. Each painting takes on the immediacy of a sunset about to be swallowed by the horizon. I commit the colors to memory.

A group of Emirati girls is at the show, more than I see at any other place. They’re here for a school trip, for art class. Seated on the floor in their abayas, they sketch their favorite pieces and grab their iPhones out of Chanel bags to take goofy selfies with their friends. I can’t stop staring because it’s so normal. Did I leave New York?

The Louvre, in progress.

The United Arab Emirates is celebrating their 45th anniversary as a country. Neon signs are tied to the street lamps and flags hang from every walled mansion. Fifty years ago, barely any of these buildings existed. Before the oil, there was only the sand and the water and the pearl divers in their boats sailing across the Gulf to Iran.

They’re building housing and parks and sites for upcoming events. They’re building islands shaped like palm trees and hotels that need new stars to describe their opulence. They have golf courses in the desert. They have palaces that make Versailles look like the Catacombs. Who will live in these new places once the events leave town? Who is moving to the Gulf?

Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world.

If the oil ever dries up, I think the Emirates would be reclaimed by the sand. For now, they have the money to create wonders most of us would be unable to dream of, and the will to forge their identities and destinies. I think some of me has stayed behind; I yearn to go back. I realize I have so much yet to learn.