My last visit to Sector 13 was in 2010. At that time it was a discovery of sorts, as I was drifting aimlessly behind Madinat Zayed Mall looking for gathering spots that I would find with ease in Dubai. Here things seemed a bit different, but then I spotted a large group of South Asian workers standing near a bus stop along Electra Street. As I got closer I discovered that this particular gathering was not restricted to the bus stop but also included an adjacent empty lot and a space behind a dilapidated building which on its ground level had a restaurant, mobile phone shop and a typing center. Such retail establishments typically attract large number of migrants. Venturing behind the building another world revealed itself with parking areas converted into meeting spots, hidden squares and a vibrant retail setting.
Here is what I wrote:
There was intense activity as well around this area which is adjacent to a large empty lot and is overlooked by a series of stores. People are concentrated around this retail edge – their numbers significantly higher from my initial visit several days earlier. Again similar to the previous setting all users are male and from South Asia; the occasional female would pass the space quickly, although I did not observe any incidents of harassment while there. Interestingly I did attract some attention while I was setting up my camera and tripod which led to a series of conversations. One of these was with a young adult from India who said that he comes here from Khalifa City to meet his friend who resides in "Bani Yas" outside of Abu Dhabi. Others observed that many come here from as far away as Dubai and Sharjah. I observed similar intense sites of gathering as I moved further into the block – one particular square had more than 300 people.
So as I approached this space again last Friday I did so with trepidation. Would I find these same settings unchanged? Would it have retained that same level of vibrancy? And would I find that "secret" square, centered around a tree which was the sector’s geographical as well as social center. Furthermore, it wasn’t just a matter of detecting change or lack thereof but I also wanted to decide on the spaces that I with the help of assistants will map and observe.
One of the unique characteristics of Abu Dhabi’s superblocks (sometimes exceeding in length 170m) is that they appear inscrutable, their edges dominated by high-rises blocking views to the interior. Moreover, the absence of through roads enables an interior space that is isolated and remote. Such were my impressions on the first visit and they have not changed since. Yet there was one substantive modification: the area adjacent to the bus stop which led me to this block in the first place is not used anymore. The main reason is that the dilapidated building overlooking it is fenced off and slated for demolition. Thus the main activity of gathering shifted to abutting buildings and the wide sidewalk in front of them (Figure 1).
Moving further inside I found the second "activity node," a space inside a "sub-block" dominated by a large electric-power structure. Around this structure there were a variety of gatherings, and the sidewalk was also used as a storage area (Figure 2).
It is here that I encountered Mohamed Rajib, a Bangladeshi longtime resident of the area, who took it upon himself to inform me about its various problems (overcrowding, occasional crime) and also that many of the people come from other, remote parts of the city as well as labor camps. The main reason is that it provides a relief of sorts from the cramped living conditions that many of the workers have to endure. He also directed me to the area I was looking for, namely the square with the tree ("There are many people there"). And indeed as I walked towards this square I found it precisely as I remembered: a tree in the middle and eating establishments on the periphery; in addition there was also an "illegal" vendor selling goods on a blanket.
It was quite obvious that this square represents the sector’s socio-geographical center, due to the large number of people and also the visibility of the city’s main landmarks, specifically the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which replaced the old souk that used to exist nearby. The attractiveness of the tree was not just because it acted as an anchor and centered activity within a large open area, but also because it seemed to suggest a sense of permanence in an environment that can only be described as transient. The sense of insulation is strong which became evident as I was immediately perceived as an outsider surrounded by curious onlookers. One of them, another Bangladeshi, suspected that I am from the municipality, an indication of a sense of fear and an awareness about their tenuous status as service workers occupying and contesting a space in the middle of a fast-changing, globalizing city (the World Trade Center nearby intensifies this feeling of marginalization and exclusion). Upon hearing that I am a researcher/writer he implored: "Write good things about us."
Another curious observation: when asking about the name of the district, people would look at me with a complete sense of confusion and say that this is Electra Street and everyone knows this area; no further specifications were given, such as a well-known landmark (e.g. store/restaurant) (also note that the city’s official name for the street is "Zayed the First"). As urban sociologist AbdulMaliq Simone would note (in an African context), the sheer fact that locales in the city are not known by any particular name indicates that they exist outside a specific geography — they are almost virtual. Such sites have "no specific location, but yet can still be located." These are ephemeral spaces given significance by their inhabitants.