(writer digitally, not surgically enhanced by loving daughter, 14)
Sheikh Zayed's Grand Mosque boasted the LARGEST carpet in the world and space for 40,000 worshippers facing Mecca and praying at the same time.
On the relatively pedestrian Abu Dhabi cityscape, this Macedonian marble masterpiece loomed large and dazzlingly white. Its orb-like opulence jutted out at us from many angles on our taxi-rides about this strange city. Strange because their is nary a sign of life. No washing on the line, no Granddad having a shisha pipe on the balcony in his stripy boxers, not a window box of petunias nor a tea towel on a windowsill.
Everything and everyone is locked up, shut away from the heat and the desert dust. Surviving, cocooned in cool air conditioning, behind closed doors during the hottest months of the year July, August and September. Motorists leave their cars running when they pop into the souk (market) for supplies. Either that or return to a vehicle reaching temperatures of 46+ degrees. There is movement from car to building and back. And that's about all.
The date palms, some still with fruit, that line the roads are as beige as the buildings. Despite being on the coast you feel like you’re in a desert. On sand. Surrounded by extra salty sea thanks to the outflow of the city's desalination plant being pumped back into the ocean.
Abu Dhabi has the largest oil production of all the emirates, 2.9 million barrels per day (on quick search). So naturally it costs only $USD30 to fill a large car. $USD100 for a bottle of whiskey on the other hand. Large fast cars are a plenty. Don't be surprised if your taxi is a brand spanker BMW 740. Maseratis and souped-up Mercedes are everywhere and sometimes go on holiday with their owners. Pop them in the aircraft hold. No worries.
Sheikh Zayed’s mosque is the largest in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest mosque in the world. It cost a cool $USD45 million. The guidebook cautioned, head, neck, arms, legs must be covered. I wore my only full-body-coverage outfit, cardigan over long dress. And into a bag went my full length red silk nightie. Not to layer-up later all boho-chic-like, but to be my head scarf. The H put on jeans and a long sleeved shirt and shoes. Covered.
The mosque operators are one step ahead of those not used to hiding flesh and issued free-of-charge synthetic black abayas to all inappropriately clad women. Kandooras for men. You just had to leave your security details. Pesky tourists have been pinching them.
‘You must put this on,’ said the assistant to me, holding out an abaya.
I’d just fashioned my nightie into a headscarf a la Princess Anne and dropped my (halter-neck) dress (under my cardy) so low it kissed the floor.
‘Can you see my bum?’ I asked.
‘Your dress is transparent,’ she giggled, in an amused not offended way.
I pulled the garment over my head and was instantly contained in an airtight tent perfumed by the previous wearers sweat.
‘It’s so those naughty men can’t look at us. Isn’t it?’ said my companion, pulling up her hood.
‘Yes,’ said our assistant, giggling again.
I yanked off my cardigan and stuffed it in my bag. When I got outside I realised I should’ve gone commando, it was 40 degrees combined with a mirage inducing glare from tonnes of WHITE; that on top of 3 hours sleep and jet lag, was enough to make any wannabe Bedouin hail a camel and run for a goat hair tent.
We wandered the great gilt pillared walkways beside rectangular blue tiled ponds. I stopped at the corner water fountains over large scalloped basins and slurped the icy cool evian. Beside the underground ladies loos was a circular green marbled room with a modest fountain in the centre. For feet washing before praying. When in Rome…I can testify it’s the best foot spa my sweaty trotters have ever enjoyed. I could have stayed there for yonks de-swelling my airplane-cankles. Instead, I patted my feet dry with the paper towels provided and on we walked across a sahara of marble into the main mosque. Barefoot. And twinkle toed. Ready…
Still it was hard not to be in awe of the magnitude and the sheer audacity of this massive spiritual and architectural achievement, even sweating and swooning under my abaya. Islam is a religion of tolerance and love and in its vastness this place drenched in light, inside and out, is more than welcoming.
No one was praying in the main mosque, although they were in private side prayer rooms. I expected I might witness people prone in prayer. I’d slip in amongst them like I've slipped into pews in gloomy European cathedrals and stared at the frieze of saints on the ceiling and thought of lost loved ones. Reflected. Aside from the feet washing there was no hands on.
All I could do was gawp at the audaciousness of this legacy lovingly left by the late Sheikh Zayed. The good looking guy in the kandoora, whose photo is still on every calendar (he died in 2004). He cut a dashing figure, an Arabian knight with gold Rayban aviators in his pocket and his pet hunting falcon in leather hood on his arm. His mausoleum is located beside the mosque on the north side. You could almost feel his presence.