Getting to know a city is like getting to know somebody. It involves a similar dose of excitement, a comparable degree of openness, and a dash of mystery that make you wary at first. Then as you engage in the relationship, you get fascinated, disappointed, amused and saddened. It’s all of these emotions that besiege you and change you over time. These past couple of weeks, I have had a chance to feel Abu Dhabi in a way I hadn’t before.
1:00 PM. It’s Rush hour. I am not sure I know the reason. Whether it has to do with people who are heading home for their siesta at around lunch time or with children who are coming back from school, it’s when you could wait up to an hour in the scorching sun before you finally get in a cab.
The city—hot and humid, lively and imposing, neat and fresh—offers an impressing view of Arabia. Here, domes and minarets of traditional mosques rest in the shade of modern skyscrapers. There, recently -built boulevards ornamented with aligned palm trees are keeping up with gigantic roundabouts where hundreds of cars speed constantly. Not too far on the sidewalks, circles of construction workers are eating their lunch while calls for prayer reverberate loudly from everywhere. It’s a bizarre blend of wealth and poverty, arrogance and deference.
The people—a pot-pourri of nationalities and personalities: Filipinos, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri-Lankans, Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Emiratis. As the Arab men, dressed with their ‘kanduras’ walk around like the lords of the new era, the women, buried in their ‘abayas’ hold their Versace handbags in defiance. But under this interesting modern-day Babel lie a kaleidoscope of parallel lives that rub shoulders with one another with no chance of intersecting, a melting pot of hearts, souls and stories that can make or break your day in a second.
I was in a cab with my baby. The driver, in the rearview mirror, kept on starring at us. As he maneuvered his way to the jammed streets, he asked: “baby boy?”
“Yes”, I responded in a whisper.
“Thank you. Do you have kids?” As soon as I asked the question, I wish I could take it back. It’s a question that I vowed not to ask anyone.
“Yes, a boy”. He paused briefly. “A small baby, 5 months.”
Before I could respond, he pulled a picture out of nowhere and handed it to me. Before my eyes was a perfectly beautiful baby boy, bundled in a green overall. I opened my mouth to congratulate him, but he did not let me finish.
“My wife is dead”
I told him that I was sorry and asked about the cause of her death. He said quietly: “I am from Pakistan; I’ve been here 2 months”. I did not understand whether it was a change of topic or an explanation, but I said in more cheerful voice.
“See, you got a new president in Pakistan”
He answered “yes , very bad people”. As he insisted “very very bad people”, his eyes, void and yellow, projected a subtle gloom upon his smile. It took me fifteen minutes to get to where I needed to go, but my enthusiasm was gone.