After spending a few nights in Dubai getting situated, we headed off to the cultural epicenter and capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. In general, the Middle Eastern culture is very conservative in their dress and practices. We are visiting this region during Ramadan, where it is strictly prohibited to eat or drink anything in public from sunrise to sunset, regardless of whether you are a practicing Muslim or not. With temperatures nearing 115F during the day and high 90s in the evening, it’s difficult to spend more than 10 minutes outside, especially under these strict jurisdictions. Even in this heat, most Muslim women are fully dressed in their abayas, hidden from the sight of men and often only leaving their hands and eyes exposed to the public. Muslims are called to prayer five times a day, all of which are broadcasted from loudspeakers in the minarets of the numerous mosques that fill the cities. In Abu Dhabi, this call to prayer originates from the city’s largest mosque, the Grand Mosque, where up to 40,000 Muslims can gather at one time, shoulder to shoulder, to pray in unison and community. We had the opportunity to visit this extravagant mosque, though I was only permitted to enter if dressed in the traditional women’s garb.
Heading out of Abu Dhabi, we were excited to finally leave the bustling cityscapes we had found ourselves in over the past week. We headed south to Liwa, UAE where we arrived at the edge of the largest sand desert in the world, also known as the Empty Quarter. The Empty Quarter is an expansive stretch of sand dunes that stretch across the borders of the UAE, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.The climate is harsh and unforgiving, with summer temperatures reaching up to 133 F. The landscape had eerie beauty to it – endless rolling dunes with only the sound of the wind whipping against the sand. The wind builds in strength as dusk approaches, creating beautiful shadows, colors and textures in the sand that gives an eeriness that is hard to describe. As dawn nears, the wind dies and the desert is covered in a blanket of silence so that all you can hear is the ringing in your own ears. We drove for miles exploring the sea of dunes in different shapes and sizes and somehow found ourselves at the border of Saudi Arabia. Quickly realizing we had gone too far, we turned around and headed north, out of the desert and back to civilization.
Along the way, we offered a ride to a Pakastani laborer who was heading up north to see his brother on his day off. Working 10 hour days, 6 days a week as a driver for a large oil company in the desert, Ehraim left his home in Punjab, Pakistan 4 years ago because of the constant bombings and dismal future a life in Punjab had to offer. He came to the UAE to survive, leaving behind his mother and four sisters. Ehraim was an open, friendly and humble man who came to the UAE in search of a better life. His story is similar to another set of brothers we met, who left Pakistan to open up a curtain shop. It’s amazing to see how much of the local population of the UAE is made up of Pakistani and Indian immigrants looking to secure a brighter future for themselves and their families. It’s difficult not to think back to our own country and the similarities that can be drawn between ourselves and Mexico…it makes me wonder what untold stories they have…