The square behind Alam market is deserted at 6:30 in the morning. The silence is occasionally interrupted by the chirping of birds. The only light from the restaurant disrupts the darkness, as does the slowly rising sun. Some people wander in and out of the square to purchase their breakfast, while a small group in the back sits on plastic stools. Pigeons descend on the ground searching for food crumbs. I am standing at my post, right behind Alam market, to guard my two cameras which are taking shots at 5 second intervals; their clicking sound adds a rhythm to the space signifying the slow passage of time. Slowly more people emerge and the square awakes from its slumber as it were, prepared to welcome a new day. The pigeons fly away.
An important concept in urban studies is "diurnal rhythm" which alludes to the rhythm of a space and how it changes over the course of a day. Spaces differ; they may remain empty, others are packed all the time, while some show a pattern closely related to the activities of its inhabitants. One of the objectives of a time-lapse within a given space is to detect such a rhythm. My observations above were taken during a morning session on Friday, Dec. 13, which lasted from 7am until 9am.
During such sessions interesting encounters occur that allow for a deeper understanding of the space, its dynamics and the role it plays within the lives of its inhabitants. This is usually prompted by curiosity due to the elaborate setup of the cameras. I am shooting two views, one is an aerial shot where the camera is placed on a special tripod extended 3 meters high, while the other is at street level. In addition a laptop connects wirelessly to the high camera insuring image consistency between time periods. There also is a folding chair so that I can sit during sessions that last between 2 to 3 hours. Overall a curious arrangement, which understandably prompts many people to question my presence. Conversations ensue which lead to some insightful observations such as: the space is mostly occupied by Bangladeshis, is known geographically as “behind Alam market,” a supermarket operated by a Bangladeshi national, and is the only locale in the city where they gather in such large numbers.
Such an encounter happened again on Friday morning with a resident from one of the buildings overlooking the square. This was different from previous talks since it lasted for a long time and he was quite keen on discussing the square and my study and his life in the city. An Indian from Kerala, working as a salesman in a major car dealership in Musfah (Abu Dhabi’s Industrial Zone), he has been a resident of Abu Dhabi for more than 10 years. Among his main complaints is that the square on Thursday and Friday evenings becomes difficult to navigate for his family due to the presence of many "bachelors" who completely dominate the space. When I asked why he does not move to another locale, he noted that his wife works nearby and that the apartment is spacious compared to other buildings in the city. He remembered the old market and noted that many of the small shops that used to operate there moved to Sector 13; the shops are perfect for these laborers as he noted because "they like to bargain for the sake of bargaining." He then made a reference to another space nearby which used to be a center for Bangladeshis referred to as Mulla building. It was recently demolished and as a result all accompanying activity shifted to this small square.
I remembered that building which was part of my research on informal gathering sites in Abu Dhabi in 2010. An extract from a published paper reads:
Mullah building – an unassuming throwback to 1970 Abu Dhabi – is located at the corner of Muroor Road and Electra Street in the city’s Central area. Immediately noticeable on my second visit – Friday evening – was a large number of people who were mostly standing in groups with some sitting on the lawn as well. There was also a large gathering at the back of the building, particularly around what seemed like an entrance towards a shopping area. Approaching this entrance I noticed that it leads towards an internal shopping street which was filled with shops. Most signs were in Hindi, some in Arabic. Shops included grocery stores, a hairdresser, and a restaurant which was full.
Within the slideshow above, you will find images that were taken on March 12, 2010, around 6pm, prior to the building’s demise.
These gatherings were quite visible due to the proximity to the street, unlike the current square "behind Alam market" which is hidden because of the particular structure and spatial hierarchy of the superblock. Here, the arrangement is such that there are 3 transition zones from the city proper so that when one is within the confines of the square the city appears remote. Activities are thus further moved inside, away from the avenues and boulevards of Abu Dhabi, giving more privacy and protection for the Bangladeshis and also "sanitizing" the city from the sight of "loitering" laborers.
Indeed there seems to be a policy in place to empty Abu Dhabi’s central area from low-income residents, bachelors and construction workers by raising rental rates. This was recounted to me by a design director in a major architectural firm and also by my interlocutor in Sector 13. A change in rental policy would allow landlords to raise rent based on locale and building condition. The opening of the ultra luxurious WTC mall right across from Sector 13 seems to be a portend for such developments.
In the meantime though, the square with the tree is thriving, ebbing with the flow of people who use it as a place to meet friends, purchase gifts to take back home, and sample some Bangladeshi food. In a city which denies any other outlet for these workers, the mere presence of such a space is suggestive of the tolerance and welcoming of strangers that has characterized Abu Dhabi. The physical and spatial structure of the sector nurtures and encourages the formation of such ethnic nodes.
It could conceivably be called Little Bangladesh.