Nick Leech explores Al Mehairba, a neighbourhood that exists in the minds and relationships of its residents, but is strangely absent from local street signs and city maps
It’s late in the afternoon and I am hot and confused. After an hour’s exploration of the six blocks that stretch between the palace district in Al Bateen, 13th, 30th and 19th streets, I still don’t know where I am. The other side of AlKhaleej Al Arabi Street is clearly signposted as Al Mushrif but my side of the road remains resolutely mute. According to my mobile, Etisalat places me firmly in Al Bateen, but given that this neighbourhood has a character all of its own, I know that neither can be true.
From the outside, the visual cues suggest an area that is discreet, wealthy, and inward-looking. Much of the neighbourhood is dominated by large, multi-home compounds that often seem palatial with their mature palms and bougainvillea cascading over high perimeter walls and as I pass open gateways there is always a strong suggestion of family-focused activity and a pleasantly unhurried life within. The atmosphere here is one of anonymous restraint and the area’s private health clinics, embassies, and ambassador’s residences comes seem entirely appropriate, as do the private offices like the one belonging to the Saudi Military Attaché. A closer inspection however, reveals a neighbourhood with a peculiarly moth-eaten quality, and as I venture further inside the number of tumble-down villas, vacant plots, and abandoned boat trailers increases.
As dusk approaches, I duck down a side road. Here, amongst the obligatory 4×4’s, speedboats, and what seems like an Iftar tent on every corner, I spy my first residents. On a battered sofa, three men sit next to the largest cooking pot I’ve ever seen and as I approach they grin. I greet them in Arabic and they respond in unison. “What’s with the pot?” I ask. “It’s Ramadan,” says the eldest. “Each year our boss gives food to the poor and every afternoon we serve them. Ten minutes ago there were 250 people here.” Between them, Yusuf, Abdul Lateef, and Abdul Kareem have lived in the area for over 40 years and when I ask “Exactly where am I?” Abdul Kareem laughs. “Al Marharba” I think I hear him say. “As in hello?” I ask. “No,” he laughs as he says the name again, more slowly this time, “ME-HAIR-BA”.
Elsewhere, preparations for the coming Iftar feast are beginning in earnest and a steady stream of porters appears from the compounds, each carrying a huge tray of steaming food on their head as they weave toward a different tent. Some of these are modest, temporary structures while others are fully equipped with glazing, air conditioning, luxurious sofas, and expensive audio-visual equipment.
At the corner of 30th and 19th streets, a new playground has just been built by the Abu Dhabi Municipality. It’s the only real piece of public open space in four blocks and as such is popular with local families, even though the Iftar feast is fast approaching. Mysa shepherds her five children as they leap from one climbing frame to the next. “We come from the other side of the road,” she explains. “There is nowhere else for the children to play but here there is shade and equipment for all ages.” A block away, on 32nd street there’s also a new fitness trail which attracts a steady stream of joggers and walkers including Wail Al Madini, a resident who uses the track regularly. “The sports surface makes all the difference,” he beams as I struggle along beside him. “I also like the shade of the trees and the breeze from the passing cars. It makes running much easier.”
If Al Mehairba’s public realm is starting to see some much needed improvement, its residents appear to fair far better when it comes to health care. The neighbourhood is home to an embarrassment of medical services: the Gulf Diagnostic Centre, Al Khaleej Family Medical Clinic, and Exeter Medical Centre as well as several chemists including the venerable Al Razi 24-hour Pharmacy which has been dispensing medicines since 1971. Dotted around Al Mehairba’s perimeter, these facilities draw people from all over Abu Dhabi but I doubt that many cross the street or turn the corner to enter the charmingly ramshackle labyrinth within.
As neighbourhoods go, there really isn’t much to Al Mehairba but I find myself liking it nevertheless. Ignored by the rest of Abu Dhabi, it’s a neighbourhood that seems only to exist only in the minds of its residents and they seem to like it that way. Like a miniature city within the city, Al Mehairba has its own pace and rhythms as well as its own cycle of development and decay. This may not make it a pretty place, but it does make it interesting, as does the fact that Al Mehairba resolutely refuses to feature on any street sign, website or map. Just try searching for it and see what you find.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi