The resurrection men: meet Abu Dhabi’s architectural alchemists


To the untrained eye, there may be little to recommend abandoned buildings, but to Abu Dhabi’s architectural scrap merchants their contents are their livelihood and everything is up for grabs.

A prospective customer looks through discarded household goods while the scrap merchant, right, holds court in this building earmarked for demolition. Sammy Dallal / The National
A prospective customer looks through discarded household goods while the scrap merchant, right, holds court in this building earmarked for demolition. Sammy Dallal / The National

With his dyed black hair, “gold” watch and dusty blue shalwar kameez, Farid looks a most unlikely magician. But over the last eight years, the smiling trader from Waziristan has mastered a skill that has eluded princes, kings and scholars down the centuries. With his broad smile and warm hospitality, Farid not only has the easy charisma of a born salesman but he is also blessed with the ability to turn the base metal of our unwanted household detritus into the alchemical gold of hard cash.

Farid achieves this by recycling architectural salvage such as sinks, doors, windows and air-conditioning units – the latter for Dh375 a piece to scrap metal merchants from Sharjah and Mussafah – as well as domestic objects abandoned by the former tenants of buildings that are now earmarked for demolition.

Luckily for Farid and the other traders engaged in his particular brand of urban recycling, there is no shortage of source material.

While most of Abu Dhabi’s large-scale construction projects may be taking place off-island, the relentless forces of redevelopment continue to make themselves felt in downtown areas such as Khalidiyah, Al Markaziyah and Tourist Club in a more piecemeal fashion, building by building, plot by plot.

In 2012 alone, at least 78 abandoned buildings were demolished as part of an ongoing campaign by the Abu Dhabi Municipality to rid the capital of unseemly, unsightly and unsanitary premises.

To the untutored eye, there may not be much to recommend 20-year-old commercial buildings, dilapidated villas and crumbling cabins, but to the second-hand dealers like Farid their contents represent a vital livelihood.

Qiyam has lived in Abu Dhabi for 20 years. For most of those he was a driver, but he now ekes out a living trading second-hand goods with the bachelors who occupy the tenements around Liwa Street. Twin televisions take pride of place in the smashed window of his gutted shop, but only one works.

“A man has no need for this TV,” Qiyam explains. “He will bring it here. Maybe Dhs50 I will pay. Then maybe I will sell it for Dhs100 … I will take the non-working TV to one of the big yards in Mussafah.”

For the rest of this story, please visit The National.

For pictures, see Architectural Salvage in Abu Dhabi: more windows and doors than rag and bone.

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