I’ve just returned from Abu Dhabi, where we held a two-day conference to solidify a fledgling research and teaching initiative amongst scholars of Islamic Spain at the Madrid, New York, and Abu Dhabi campuses of NYU. I think it was a productive meeting in terms of getting all of us into a room and at least circling the same page; it was also my first visit to NYU’s Abu Dhabi portal campus.
This trip was such a whirlwind, and with such little possibility for sleep that it feels like a dream — down the sensation that if I don’t write it down I will forget it all. I was in the Persian Gulf for such a short time that I didn’t even have to book the cat sitter. 60 hours on the ground with almost as many in transit back and forth, and I think I slept for about 5 of them.
I was really worried about the flight. If you fly direct from New York you go up over the pole and the flight path just traverses a tiny bit of eastern Iraq. With a stopover in Paris, as I had, the flight path goes over northern Syria and diagonally down the length of Iraq. The plane flies high for as long as possible and it’s a quick descent after coming straight down the Gulf. Anxiety aside, I did enjoy seeing the Zagros mountains, though.
I arrived on campus around 10 and was shown to my guest suite by Sandeep, a hospitality contractor; most of the site staff there are contractors rather than employees of the university and most are south Asian. What surprised me most was how little Arabic is heard on campus (and around Abu Dhabi at large) and, by comparison, how much of the various languages of India and Pakistan. There seem to be a whole host of language politics issues at play at every level of society. I asked Sandeep how he liked it there and said that he preferred the UK, where he had studied for his hospitality degree, because there is more freedom. He was so upfront about it, and so on the nose that I wondered if he wasn’t just saying what he expected an American visitor to want to hear. Service industry ethos, perhaps?
I caught myself admiring the stone floors in the guest suite where I was staying (which is as large as my apartment in New York) and stopped myself with the thought “…stone floors that were probably installed by slaves.” I don’t want to betray conversations that I had on the ground so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it was interesting and helpful to get a more local perspective on some of the labor issues, how they came about, and how they’re trying to be resolved.
After the first day of the conference concluded and after the Maghrib prayer was over, we visited the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The exterior is a mash-up of marshmallows, Disneyland, and Qairowan.
The interior is something else.
We also visited the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, which is what happens when all the medievalists gang up on the one modernist at the conference while planning the conference excursion.
I got to hold one of the falcons, and it’s like having a very lightweight gyroscope on your wrist — you feel the animal constantly making tiny adjustments in her balance. (I’ll update with a picture when the colleague who got the picture of me with the falcon sends it to me.) We watched the veterinarians anesthetize a falcon in order to trim its nails: “It reduces the stress on the birds and on us,” he explained. We also got to watch feeding time; the falcons are fed defrosted, cleaned quails while they are in the hospital and make a great, audible go of crunching on the bones.
The downtown didn’t quite work for me. It’s not dusty, but the quality of the light makes it look so. All the same, it’s very sterile: A glass financial district on some massive scale that doesn’t really admit human existence. It’s sort of a post-apocalyptic rebuild of Los Angeles still in progress. It also struck me that many of the public spaces seemed to look like a parody rather than a showcase of design and ideas current in the Arab world.
This public art, with the coffee pot sculpture positively dwarfing the minaret of the mosque across the street just struck me as an Orientalist fantasia. I laughed to myself when I imagined archaeologists 500 years from now wondering to themselves what kind of circumstances allowed coffee-worshipers to build their shrine taller than that of their Muslim neighbors.
The art historians in our group were insistent that we visit the World Trade Center, a building designed by Foster + Partners that is supposed to replicate a traditional souk. I don’t have anything more intelligent to say than that it just didn’t do it for me. It was kind of tacky and kitschy, full of mass produced stuff you could get anywhere. And as far as perfect metaphors go, the green wall on the outside of the building is populated by plastic plants. (And yes, it’s a desert, but those of us from dry climates have some basic appreciation of xenoscaping.) I did get to see raw gum Arabic in one of the spice stores.
So, that was my very brief introduction to Abu Dhabi.