Abu Dhabi, like any other urban settlement, contains traces of its recent past. In spite of urban developments such traces can still be found and form an important components of the city’s urban experience. Wandering through its streets memories are evoked, which can be through a smell, a shop, a city resident or a piece of urban landscape. These act as triggers releasing memories — recent and old.
Figure 1 was taken at the point where Sector 13 intersects with Hamdan street, a major thoroughfare in the city’s central area, during one of my preparatory visits for the mapping project. It captures a moment of rest for two laborers who are sitting on a raised plaza. One is talking on his mobile phone (perhaps to family in Bangladesh) while the other is leaning against the railing looking at the city’s newly opened up-market retail offering, the World Trade Center Mall. He might be contemplating what used to exist in its place, or if he will ever have the ability and means to sample the pleasures hiding behind the inscrutable façade. To the left is a solitary figure, waiting or simply taking a break, while watching me from a distance. The image is significant for what it leaves out. The raised plaza pre-dates the new World Trade Center, leading to the old central market, which started at the other side of the street. There, a similar layout was used by visitors. All that is left is a sunken space, connecting to a tunnel that is now closed. Outside the frame and to the back are shops, some of them relocated from the old souq, which occupy the ground level of an "old" housing complex (claimed to be the old Iranian embassy). At this precise point is an interesting juxtaposition of old/new, past/future. Additionally, there is an existence of multiple layers, and the persistence of an Asian sub-culture that seeks to ascertain its presence and claim part of the city. The opaqueness of the World Trade Center’s façade, accentuated through the use of a Mashrabiya (wooden screen pattern) motif further highlights patterns of segregation and the complex interplay between a city with cosmopolitan ambitions and the existence of a low-income service class that is needed to maintain and establish such a global center.
The image also evokes what Teju Cole in his novel “Open City” calls a “palimpsest.” In his ruminations about New York City as he wanders its streets he writes in relation to Lower Manhattan at the site of the destroyed twin towers: “The site was a palimpsest as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.” Thus according to Cole, one of the unique characteristics of a city is the existence of multiple layers, traces of which may be found and others may have been completely erased, yet their memories persist, making them all the more powerful.
Looking at the precise definition of the term and its origins can also be insightful. The construct can “describe a manuscript or writing surface that has been reused, erased, or altered while retaining traces of its earlier form—and, by extension, an object, place, or area that reflects its history.” Typically such a term would be used in established and ancient urban centers, yet it can also be useful in examining a rapidly urbanizing metropolis such as Abu Dhabi. Indeed in such sites it becomes even more urgent because there is a need to preserve some sense of history and connection to the past. This does not have to be physical but can also be done through social and cultural patterns that persist in spite of erasure and redevelopment.
Figure 2 shows the other side of the street and the tunnel structure connecting Hamdan Street to Sector 13 as it appeared in 2005 prior to the market’s demise. At that time it was already decided that the souq will be demolished and replaced by an uber-luxurious shopping center. I decided to visit the area for one last time before it would be gone forever. There was a sense of sadness and loss permeating the place, which was no doubt enhanced by demolition notices plastered throughout the complex. In addition a fire had partially destroyed a section of the market. Yet in spite of all these ominous signs the area was vibrant, filled with shoppers. In the image, the city’s low-income service workers take a respite on the benches adjacent to the tunnel. Some are alone, but most are in groups. The presence of such a place amidst the city’s high-rises projected a sense of authenticity and “life.”
Jonathan Raban, travel writer, in his account of Abu Dhabi in the 1970s uses the souq as a narrative device anchoring his experience in the city characterized by restlessness, anomie, etc. The symptoms of decay, even squalor become signs that there are elements of life in an “artificial” city such as Abu Dhabi.
The Figure 3 image is the city’s original marketplace taken by the British oil company BP in the 1960s who had concession agreements with the Abu Dhabi government at the time. Oil had just been discovered but no significant change in the city’s urban landscape took place. This would happen later, during Sheikh Zayed’s reign which started in 1967. The market appears primitive and while located at a slight distance from the Central Market, it is certainly its predecessor. Indeed traces of informality and chaos as well as clientele are perhaps no different than the market that would replace it a few years later.
All three scenes represent a continuum of sorts demonstrating Abu Dhabi’s transition from a primitive, village-like settlement to a modern, cosmopolitan center. Some traces of its past have been completely erased, and some remain. Such is the nature of cities everywhere and Abu Dhabi is no different — a palimpsest.
In Figure 4, an advertisement suggests that “what used to be the heart of shopping, is still the same — House of Fraser, Abu Dhabi.” Shrewd marketing or sarcasm?