By Indira Maini
We arrived in the UAE with some apprehension about our relocation from the U.S., and everything seemed strange since we landed in Abu Dhabi during Ramadan. Many businesses are closed for a portion of the day, and a lot of people are away on vacation. Not great timing.
The place was empty with only an occasional man walking around. During Ramadan the Islamic people fast from sunrise to sunset and spend the time in self-reflection for a month. However, at sundown the place would be transformed and humming with activity as swarms of people appeared as if by magic!
The first morning I woke up with the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer, a beautiful haunting sound that is broadcast via speakers from all the mosques. The mosques are located on almost all city blocks to make it easy for the men to get there in time for mandatory prayer five times a day.
Among many beautiful mosques, the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi is breathtaking. Its white marble structure is absolutely extraordinary, and it is a “must see” for visitors. There are daily tours lasting an hour most days, except on Friday or ‘Juma,’ when only Muslims are allowed.
Islam is so intimately interwoven in the lives of the people, and it dictates almost all activities. It took a while for me to get used to the sight of the women covered in black robes, or ‘abayas,’ worn over their clothes so that no part of their body is visible. They cover their heads with a scarf, or ‘shela,’ to hide their hair. The men float around in white robes, or ‘dish dasha,’ with their heads covered by white scarfs called ‘gotras.’ They look very handsome and fresh with perfume wafting as they pass by.
As an expatriate, it seemed impossible to mingle with the local Emiratis, as there seemed to be no forum to meet them except at work. I found that to be a big experiential void, as it would have enriched our understanding of their culture. Instead, we learned vicariously through books and newspaper articles. The National daily newspaper used to have a weekly article by an Emirati titled “Ask Ali,” which was interesting and allowed us a peek into the local culture and language.
Abu Dhabi comes to life from September through April, with a host of cultural activities. I enjoyed the film festival, which featured a mix of movies from the popular local production industry and entries from around the world – some of which had not been released for the public. During the festival we attended lectures by directors and saw some actors who came for the screenings, which was terrific.
We attended many performances by world-renowned symphony orchestras and famous conductors, who would address the audience after the performances. These events were held at the Emirates Palace Hotel in a grand auditorium and, during intermission, there was champagne and food. A truly luxurious and elegant venue!
The malls are beautiful with lovely cafés. I miss the cafés, as it was wonderful to meet friends and enjoy some delicious coffee served in china, versus the paper cups we are used to in the United States. The café experience was best in the Emirates Palace Hotel. The Emirates Cappuccino was sprinkled with gold dust and was absolutely heavenly. I felt I glowed all over after drinking it!
Stay tuned for more.
Indira and Tej Maini, our consulting group’s founder and president, lived in Abu Dhabi from 2008 to 2011, during his tenure as CEO of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.