Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Since my mother-in-law and sister-in-law are visiting this week, we ventured out of Dubai yesterday to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, to take a tour of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque that just opened about two years ago.
The project began back in the 1980’s and is now the eight largest mosque in the world. It can hold over 40,000 worshippers – the size of a town. It houses the world’s largest carpet, dome and chandelier. I found the carpet most impressive because it was all one piece and hand made.
I had always seen the mosque in the past during drives to Abu Dhabi for business, but I never knew much about it. Sometimes such a large structure can be overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from a place that has 28 different types of marble in it. I found it to be a stunning, beautiful building.
I have visited other mosques and religious sites before so I dressed appropriately. I wore jeans and a loose fitting shirt and came prepared with a shawl in case I needed to cover my head. I am always prepared with this valuable accessory anyway as a result of the artic air conditioning indoors here.
When we arrived, I was disappointed at first because women could not go inside unless they were wearing an abaya (the black dress-like garment with black head scarf). While the air conditioning has made me consider this as an option before, I definitely do not carry one of those around in my bag, much less own one. But as we neared the main entrance, I learned that they were giving them out for all visitors to wear. Yeah! I was excited.
I also noticed that they were giving out kanduras, or dishtashes for the men to wear who came wearing shorts. This is something I will never really understand. Why is it that so many Western tourists who visit foreign countries go to religious places wearing something that they would not wear into their own place of worship at home? I’ve seen it everywhere.
Ladies, would you wear your “Daisy Duke’s” to church? Of course you wouldn’t. Of course this is aside from the question if you own them in the first place. (Slang translation: Daisy Dukes - Shorts that are very, very short and show your butt. Named after the character Daisy from the television show “The Dukes of Hazard”).
Of course I struggled with the head scarf having no clue how to wear it in that very nice way the women do so it is flattering to their face and stays in place. Having a camera strap around my neck did not help it either. My sister-in-law and a woman in our tour group helped me fix it a couple of times, but in the end I wore it loose while covering everything. I’m sure it wasn’t the best, but it worked.
To visit the mosque they don’t just let you roam randomly through it, but they have designated tour guides and take you in small groups. It is a great service and wonderful promotion for cultural exchange and understanding. A local cultural guide goes with you to tell you about the mosque and also to answer any questions about religion.
When my parents visited Dubai they took a tour of the much smaller, Jumeriah mosque and had a similar experience. A Dutch woman who converted to Islam gives the tours and answers any question asked. It is very educational.
Of course I had my camera, but I did not take as many photos as I wanted. One, my son was with me. However, I have no regrets about this because it was a different experience for him, and when you take children anywhere new it is always interesting.
Since all the women were covered in the same garment, I quickly realized the only way my son could identify me was by my camera. I always wondered this about small children who grow up with mothers who are covered in public. I assume at home they see them uncovered, but if you are in a country where everyone is in black and fully covered, what is the identifier. I don’t mean this is a sarcastic way by any means, but I’ve always been curious. I wonder if over time they recognize their mother’s form in the abaya, and of course there is always that expensive handbag for some that will make a difference.
My son wanted to run through the mosque – and who could blame him with over 22,000 square meters of space. There is a large outdoor open space as well as the large prayer area inside with that lovely hand made, soft carpet under your bare feet. Before we went inside we had that talk where we needed to be quiet and well behaved since we were visiting a special place. But when I looked around and saw Muslim parents letting their children run free, I took the “When in Rome” approach. At the time this seemed like a better option than strangulation as my son pulled on the tail of my headscarf playfully to hide in it.
I later saw him kneeling on the floor and thought that he was imitating the worshippers who were praying at the far end of the prayer room. Very cute. Oh, but no. He just needed to go to the toilet. Even though we are potty training, and he is pretty much trained, when going to places like this, I don’t risk it just yet. Thankfully!
The other reason I did not take as many photos as I wanted was because I was torn in wanting to experience the place for the first time. I love photography and taking pictures of things, but I also believe that occasionally you just need to step back and observe something and recall that in your memory as well as in a picture frame. There is something to be said about capturing the essence of a place. While first impressions are also important, you also want to give your subject proper attention and convey the feeling of it, or in this case it’s grandeur. The good portrait and wedding photographers usually will not go in and start shooting their clients without having met them first or knowing something about them personally. I have read of the occasional brilliant “cold cut”, but I think this is very rare.
The same can be said for Africa. People go to Africa, but they are so busy taking pictures of the animals, you never really get to watch them because you never paused for a moment to recall where you are and focus on what your other senses are experiencing. This is what makes professional wildlife photographers great at what they do. Of course they have been working on their profession for years, but as a result they understand the animals, spend a lot of time watching them and can often anticipate their behavior.
Maybe this is a naive approach, as I know life and time does not always allow for a retake or another visit. But knowing that this is just an hour and a half drive away and that I will definitely come back by myself another day to take more pictures, I was able to pause, take it all in and envision my next visit with the camera. Our tour was very brief as the sunset prayers were about to begin. We were allowed to stay outside. Listening to the prayer as the sun set, it was a very beautiful experience.

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