A disappearing way of life: inside Abu Dhabi's old Tourist Club
Hamdallah Ali first set foot in Tourist Club in 1968, a time when takeaway dinners meant going fishing. Mr Ali had come from Cairo, Egypt, to visit his friend and when he suggested they go out for a meal, his friend reached for fishing hooks and a reel.
“We cannot eat out,” Mr Ali’s friend told him. “There is no restaurant, nowhere to eat.”
Mr Ali stayed for two weeks.
“Then I ran,” says Mr Ali. “There was nothing here.”
When Mr Ali moved permanently to Abu Dhabi, 15 years later, the city’s eastern quarter known as Tourist Club was expanding rapidly as the oil-led construction boom transformed the country’s capital.
By the late 1970s, cranes filled the skies. But the side-roads and areas around many of the buildings were still sand.
Tourist Club is now undergoing another major transformation as boom-time buildings reach the end of their lifespan. Last month, the municipality announced it had demolished 220 buildings and earmarked another 272 for removal.
This overhaul was brought to the forefront after the emergency evacuation of a 13-storey building of more than 100 of its residents due to structural damage.
“They say by 2020 there will not be any old buildings here,” Mr Ali says. “All of this side of Abu Dhabi, it will be new.”
Tourist Club was always an informal name, one that puzzled new arrivals to the city because it referred to the long-demolished entertainment centre that once sat beside Le Meridien Hotel.
Today, it’s clear that even this historic neighbourhood has not been immune from modernisation. New hotels and malls have opened. Modern street names were introduced and, in 2014, the area was renamed Al Zahiyah, "the bright" or "colourful". And now, the handful of older buildings that survive from the first wave of construction are either being renovated or replaced.
But flickers of old Tourist Club remain. Stand in the lobby of any of the low-rent tower blocks and all sorts of people pass through to the elevators: a Tamil man carrying his daughter, 3, in from the school bus, a middle-aged Chinese woman in a black abaya, a young Syrian returning home with fresh flat bread from the hole-in-the-wall Shalqar Bakery across the street.
Mr Ali’s building is the typical Tourist Club blend of families and bachelors, the name for working men on low wages supporting their families overseas.
Its watchman, Saeed Mohammed, sits and watches people come and go throughout the day. Between washing the halls and overseeing repairs, he tends a patch of sugar cane he has grown from seeds and sits on the stairs with his relative Ahmed, drinking sweet tea prepared by his son. His day is punctuated by prayers at the local mosque, his forehead marked by a dark spot from hours spent in supplication.
Mr Mohammed spent his first summer in the Emirates working as a bricklayer. “I had to change my shirt three or four times a day,” he says.
On its completion, he became the building watchman, when the neighbourhood was new. “As long as my health is good, this is the most important. It’s my fate, my destiny. My fate is here. If the house here is good, why would I leave?”
But eventually, everyone leaves.
Children raised in Tourist Club flats have repatriated, or moved on to flats in newer neighbourhoods, reaping the rewards of their parents’ hard work. The elderly repatriate when they retire, unless they can find sponsorship through adult children who have remained in the country.
Mr Ali has lived in this building for 30 years but no longer knows his neighbours. His adult daughter has moved to Dubai and his sons have returned to Egypt. Now 70, he will soon follow them.
“It’s very difficult for me because I think it will be like a new city, a new me. But this is life. You return home again.”
Nobody knows how many people live in each high-rise. “There’s 36 flats and maybe, oh, six in a flat,” says Mr Ali.
Mr Mohammed shakes his head. Once Mr Ali leaves, he says “there’s maybe 14 in a flat. It’s hard to know, really. They don’t know how many live there. It changes by the week.”
Families rent flats by the year but bachelors rent bedspaces by the week. For them, city life in a crowded flat is preferred to government-managed labour camps in off-island suburbs, where they can face isolation.
As the age of a building rises, the income of tenants drop. Space is initially rented by the flat, then the room, then the bedspace. The number of beds per room rises as the building falls into disrepair.
When the 13-storey building was evacuated last month, families were placed in hotels but bachelors took their belongings and left, scattering across the city.
Older buildings remain in demand because of their affordability and community feel. An old two-bedroom flat can rent for as little as Dh30,000 annually, a 10th of the price paid for a hotel-apartment rental on the adjacent Al Maryah Island, which is separated from Tourist Club by a bridge.
When old high-rises are knocked down, middle and low-income families move to mainland suburbs like the industrial district of Mussaffah, which is quickly becoming a residential area.
Independent businesses have been squeezed out of old neighbourhoods due to tighter regulations. The demolition of older buildings will be their death knell.
Naveed Baig runs Al Mujahid Printing Press and Stationary from the base of one of these older buildings. External air-conditioning units cover the outside walls, an old tree stump protrudes beside the front steps, and from a nondescript doorway at the back Mr Baig reveals a hidden world.
Large manually operated machines that can staple books and perforate receipt books sit in one corner. In another are order books, laminating machines and rolls of paper. And over the two cramped but efficient floors, workers man four Heidelberg printing machines, fans whirr, and a strangely sweet aroma of ink hangs in the air.
Mr Baig has been operating from this building since he arrived in the UAE from Lahore, Pakistan, 14 years ago. He’s seen the changes. “Owners renovate some buildings, others are demolished.”
High-rises have sprouted beside it and cars fly past on a new road outside that replaced the simple street that once had a grass verge down the centre.
Mr Baig makes flyers, business cards and menus for restaurants. But business has been tough in recent years.
“There are more charges and no more walk-in customers. At least not many,” he says. “This building will be demolished eventually and we will go to Mussaffah. In Mussaffah, if I have business, I’ll feel good.”
Sooner or later, the old buildings of Tourist Club will be demolished, the people will move on and a way of life will disappear. When this happens, few original residents will be here to mourn its passing.