Friday, August 2, 2013

Abu Dhabi in Another Age

Today Abu Dhabi is famous for the Shaikh Zayed Mosque, Emirates Palace Hotel, Ferrari World, Yas Leisure Drive, Sadiyat Cultural District, etc. Life was a lot different in the 70s and 80s when I grew up here. The most prominent thing I remember are tire tracks on the sand. There was so much sand all around. Today you have to pay the beach ticket to see sand. There is no other sand on Abu Dhabi island! We used to play in sand, ride our bicycles in sand, etc. The greatest fear back then were wild dogs that chased after children and unsuspecting men.

Modern buildings started to sprout up in two major areas. Residential villas started to appear in Khalidiyya area and commercial building were built in Hamdan & Khalifa street area. The latter used to be Abu Dhabi's downtown. The most prominent landmark there was the twin souqs (the old and new) which were pretty much identical and used to straddle Khalifa Street. A foot bridge across the street used to connect them.

The shops were arranged in a grid pattern. It was open to the elements, consisting of only one floor. Different communities used to own different type of shops in the souq area. There were Irani shops selling household goods, branded clothes, sporting goods, etc. There were Indian shops selling toys, perfume, audio cassettes, electronics and unbranded clothes. There were Pakistani shops selling shoes, religious books and for electronics repairs. There were many "cool bars" or cafeteria run by Malabaris selling fresh fruit juices and soft drinks. There were places in the souq where packets of "naswar" were piled up. Anyone who wanted one could drop a few coins beside them and pick up a packet. There was no one to keep an eye.

When a car used to approach commercial areas like the souq, several men used to run after it with buckets and rags to clean the car while its occupants were busy shopping. For a few coins you could get your car hand washed while you shopped. There were other men providing similar services. At the traffic signals, newspaper sellers used to sell newspapers and magazines while people stopped on red lights. At the souq, there used to be a roasted peanut vendor who used to roast peanuts in salt in a tin can in front of you and sell it to you for AED 1 in a newspaper cone. In the 70s, a man used to come to houses with household goods in a carton on his head selling from house to house. He used to be called a "neelam wala" and was almost always a Pathan. At the recreation places like the corniche and parks, the photo man used to take your instant Polaroid picture with your family. Cell phone cameras has eliminated his once thriving business. An ice-cream man used to cycle his Igloo cart around.

In a pre-internet era, recreation was limited to travelling, visiting friends, going to the cinema or parks and beaches if weather permitted. The oldest cinemas I remember are the Eldorado and Al Mariah. TV used to consist of a handful of channels, most of which used to broadcast a Hindi movie on the weekend. In the 80s, Sharjah TV used to offer Urdu TV dramas in Friday afternoons. Abu Dhabi radio used to have a popular Urdu service.

Nearly all taxi drivers were Pathan. They used to charge AED 2 at flagfall and within AED 5 you could pretty much visit any place within the city. At maghrib (sunset) time it was very difficult to find a taxi as almost all of them used to stop for prayers in the masajid. The masajid at that time were few and had limited capacity. Throughout the 70s and 80s I remember sitting in the sun outside the masjid for Friday prayers since space was so scarce.

The main city landmarks at that time other than the two Souqs were the Hilton Hotel, the InterContinental Hotel, Sheraton Hotel, Le Meridian Hotel, Hamdan Center, Zayed the 2nd Masjid, Al Hosn Fort, Maqta Bridge, Bateen Airport, Khalidiya Garden, Capital Garden, etc. There were no street lights on the Abu Dhabi- Dubai highway till the early 90s. You had to take a water cooler with you as well as light snacks as there were few good places to stop on the way. On both sides of the highway was open desert and accidents involving camels were common.

There were no malls in Abu Dhabi till 2000. The only thing close to it was Hamdan Center and Hamad Center which were shopping centers on Hamdan Streeet and Electra Streets respectively. They used to be the coolest places in the city to hang out.

For a glimpse of the Abu Dhabi from that era, see the following video:!/groups/NostalgicAbuDhabi/permalink/10153028611805037/

To see present landmarks of Abu Dhabi see

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