Your day in Abu Dhabi begins at five in the morning, when you regain consciousness to the sound of singing that permeates the air: the first of five daily calls to prayer. There are no obnoxious taxis, no drilling into the concrete of Fifth Avenue — only the soft lull of Arabic while the morning is still cool and dark, before the desert sun has risen.
By 8 a.m. or so you may choose to venture out into the city. Probably more like 8:30 a.m. After all, you are not even considered late until 45 minutes past your meeting time — every college student’s dream. Everything is “Insh’allah time,” rooted in the Arabic word Insh’allah which means “if God wants.” With a culture so fundamentally tied to religion, you will hear this phrase daily, a deep wish or hope for something to happen even though it is beyond your control.
Abu Dhabi is filled with industrialized, concrete buildings, shops with neon sale signs and mosques with glowing green lights all coexisting right next to each other. You notice that most of these signs are in both Arabic and English, as you hungrily eye the shop which reads, “Shwarma.” Upon entering for lunch, the man behind the counter eagerly hands you a piece of falafel to try. Of course, your eyes light up, and you immediately order the falafel. It comes in traditional form, wrapped in pita bread, stuffed with pickled vegetables and topped with a spicy sauce.
In the afternoon, you decide to visit one of the Arabic shopping markets, a souk. Although they are more commercialized than their former traditional appearance, your eyes still widen in admiration of the antique jewelry, array of spices and hookahs that look like works of art. This is certainly not like the Williamsburg Flea Market you are used to, with its shoes from the ’90s and stands of wheatgrass juice.
You cannot help but fall into a sense of relaxation, as if Abu Dhabi has slowed your usual New Yorker pace to match that of the Emiratis around you. Men in their ankle-length, cloth, white kanduras and women in their black, covering, flowy abayas all appear to float so gracefully without any rush.
Compared to the attitude in New York where everyone keeps to themselves and pushes their way through the crowded sections of the sidewalks, you are in utter shock at how many people have acknowledged you. Not only acknowledged you, but greeted you with, “Welcome to the United Arab Emirates.” There is a sincerity and genuineness to the tone of their voices that you would normally only find in a close friend or long-time professor.
At night, the city comes alive again, echoing strange juxtapositions of traditional Arabic music and Justin Timberlake in the same store playlists. You sit outside in a patio area, spending the evening immersed in quality conversations with shisha, coffee and dates. In the heart of the U.A.E., it is impossible to feel like a stranger.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 6 print edition. Hannah Treasure is deputy features editor. Email her at email@example.com.