Exploring Abu Dhabi
Christina writes and edits Travelling Companion. Her writing covers expeditions, food, and culture for the blog.
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Exploring Abu Dhabi
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Exploring Abu Dhabi Overview
We were only in Abu Dhabi for a day and a half, but in that short time the city made a lasting impression. This was our first experience inside a middle eastern country, which was an especially unique experience since we were there during Ramadan. Our adventure in the city showed Abu Dhabi as a city with intricate architecture, new infrastructure, strict conservative culture, and a mixed welcome from the locals.
Qasr Al Hosn
It was late when we arrived in Abu Dhabi, so we only were able to visit one place before heading to bed. Qasr Al Hosn is an old fort inside the heart of city that is now used as a museum. We arrived at night and saw the building was lit up beautifully. When we pulled up from our Uber, we were a bit taken aback as there were military people with automatic riffles surrounding the whole campus. When they saw we were concerned, the guards gave us a friendly gesture signaling that it was okay for us to continue inside.
Once inside, we were greeted by a few Emirati women, dress in their traditional clothes. At that time, we thought they were probably dressed this way for their job, but as we continued to venture through the city, we realized Emiratis dressed in their traditional garb as their daily wear. This made it very clear which people were immigrants or visitors, versus which people were Emirati.
The Emirati women first spoke to me in Arabic. After learning that my Arabic vocabulary is limited to about ten words, the women switched to flawless English and said they couldn’t believe I wasn’t Emirati, or at least Arabic. When they found out I was of Mexican decent, the women kept questioning if I was at least part Arabic. This was an experience that continued during the entire trip in the UAE.
As we continued through the museum, we learned a bit about the history of the UAE, the culture, and so on. While the museum was light on content, the architecture was stunning.
Tickets included a second museum close by, House of Artisans, where they had a showing of the traditional making of coffee (which was quite delicious), and how traditional Emartis used to basket weave when they were nomads. Compared to other museums we have visited around the world these museums did not have a lot of content. I also noticed throughout the museum, there was a noticeable dearth of information regarding the contributions women made to UAE history.
Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque
We only had one full day in Abu Dhabi and Sheik Zayed Gran Mosque was our first stop. The mosque was another beautiful piece of architecture, but there wasn’t a tour guide or a pamphlet to understand what we were viewing.
When we entered the building, there was several rounds of security check points including guards with semi-automatic weapons, then a person checking the clothes that we were wearing to see if the guests were dressed appropriately. I thought I did a good job finding loose conservative clothing but my top which had ¾ sleeves were called out as inappropriate. So, I was pulled from the line, sent to a dressing room where ladies provided me a robe to wear during our visit.
After we saw the mosque, we were starving. There was a small café at the entrance of the mosque, that was covered head to floor in heavy black drapes blocking the general public from viewing inside. This was common practice in food areas during Ramadan. This allowed tourists to eat between sunrise and sunset, without insulting Emirates practices during the religious month. Inside the cafeteria was basic food and basic décor. The quick stop did its job to fuel us up as we kept going for the day.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
The second stop of the day was the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I was very intrigued to see what this Louvre part 2 was all about. I spent a summer in Paris during my junior year of college studying art history, and was able to navigate the halls of the Louvre without a map by the end of my time in Paris. When I found out there was another Louvre, I did a bit of digging to figure how this came to be.
Since UAE is a newer country, and relatively new with wealth, the country is using global brands (like the Louvre and the Guggenheim) and paying the rights to the well-established names to create recognition and legitimacy in arts, science, and philanthropy.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful piece of architecture, filled with light, bright, and open space. The majority of the art inside the museum is borrowed or bought from other museums. I was expecting the dominant form of the art to be Middle Eastern, but the collections were heavily westernized, followed by east Asian pieces, then collections from Africa. The museum reminded me of The British Museum, but with better technology and layout.
Towards the end of the visit, we were approached by a local Emirati woman telling us that we had to speak with her to give our opinions of the museum. The questionnaire did not feel optional, but rather a forced conversation, and the woman’s tone was demeaning. This was extra nerve racking since there were security guards walking around the entrance and exits of the museum carrying weapons.
Overall, the museum was a really lovely place to spend some time in, but didn’t connect with the original Louvre in any way.
Emirates Palace Hotel
The third stop of the day was the Emirates Palace Hotel for afternoon tea. The hotel’s architecture is one of grandeur, invoking thoughts of palaces and sultans. Opulence continued throughout the inside with over-the-top decor filled with gold and crystals. Everything around seemed to be dripping with wealth. Most of the hotel guests in the lobby seemed to be locals gathering together, ready to break their fast. The locals were dressed head to toe in their local garb, with added bling, like Rolex watches, designer shoes, and jewelry with diamonds and gold.
The location for afternoon tea was in a small café that had a spot which overlooked the sea. We told the waiter that we were here for high tea. They provided Ramon with a tea, and me with a latte, topped with drinkable gold leaf flakes. High tea also came with a tower of small snack sandwiches and sweet treats. We were impressed with the presentation and the amount of food that came with afternoon tea. The food and drinks were good, but not memorable. Over all, the afternoon tea experience was a good way to relax and decompress.
After we had the food, we walked around the property and saw there were small markets built inside the hotel. Some of the stores were filled with high end luxury goods, and others were marketed for tourists. While we were in the store for the tourist, the staff member watched us closely. The staff member aggressively suggested that I should buy a scarf to cover my hair, and made it clear that he thought it was not appropriate for me to be with Ramon. Shaken up, we left the store and the hotel.
Our last stop for the day was to visit a souk that was recommended to us by the hotel concierge. Souk is a marketplace in the Middle East, the location where we could buy some gifts and tokens to take home and remember our time in the UAE. When we arrived at the souk, the entrance was again guarded with men with guns.
The inside of the souk had a lot of different little kiosks where you could buy goods like rugs, gold, perfume, and food. I was a bit surprised how much of their goods were imported. It was hard to find things that were made in the UAE. We casually looked around and found a few gems that we brought home. After visiting the souk, we went back to the hotel and packed for our return trip home.
The UAE was an interesting country, and our first experience in the Middle East. The trip was especially unique as we were able to visit the UAE during Ramadan. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is a conservative city trying to balance their devotion to religion and their desire to attract tourists from around the globe. The best part of this city was the stunning architecture and sleek infrastructure. The privilege to travel and experience another culture and way of life is never lost to me. But, the majority of the experiences we had with local Emirates were filled with tension. The only warm welcome we received was from the ladies working at Qasr Al Hosn. Otherwise, we were feeling as if we were disrespectful for not having me cover my hair, or having a non-Emirate Black husband. It was never out of my mind that we were being watched and followed. I think other tourists could have a better experience if they don’t “pass” as a local. We watched other tourist move around the city without judgmental looks. It was especially nerve racking knowing we were being watched and constantly seeing guards around with guns. While we hear the city of Dubai is more liberal and welcoming, returning to the UAE is not high on our list.
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