Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Day 8

We spent all day in Abu Dhabi today, so there is a lot to be said and a lot of pictures to show for it. After i skyped Jenn this morning, i met with my class at 8:45 to get on the bus to go to Abu Dhabi. A little bit about Abu Dhabi, it's the largest Emirate in the UAE, making up about 80% of the land mass. It has nearly all the oil in the country, which means it has all the money. It is also a city and an island. So when you talk about Abu Dhabi, it's sometimes difficult to know when you are talking about the city, the emirate, or the island. Abu Dhabi is about an hour and half south of Dubai along the coastline by car. Once you leave Dubai, it's nearly all desert. I slept on the bus ride there, but from what i gather there wasn't much i missed as far as scenery. Our tour guy was a really enthusiastic guy named Mosa from Morocco. His name means Moses, but it sounds like Mussad when he says it, which is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. Since Arabs and Israelis have such poor relations though, i didn't think he would be named after their intelligence agency. He talked the whole time about tons of things related to Dubai and Islam, but i didn't catch most of it cause i was asleep. When i woke up, we were pulling up to the Skeik Zayed Mosque. It is the largest mosque in the UAE and the 3rd largest in the world. The largest is in Mecca and the 2nd largest is in Medina, both of which are in Saudi Arabia. Still, this thing is really impressive. The exterior is white marble and it glistens in the sun. At night, they hit it from all directions with lights and the white marble reflects the light for huge distances. Mosa told us the area the mosque takes up, but i can't remember not. The courtyard is huge though as well as the inside. During certain holidays and special events, both the inside and courtyard completely fill with devout muslims coming to pray. It would be quite a site to see considering the size of the area.

Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The courtyard is on the left and extends a good amount further, i just couldn't frame the whole thing in my camera without standing way farther back.

The entrance to the inside of the mosque. I don't know the significance of the domes, but this mosque has well over 100 of them. A typical mosque i've seen usually has only 1 or 2.

Wealthy muslims from around the world contribute to make mosques like this beautiful. There are mosaics and stone carvings from workers around the Arabic world here. People come from Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, and many other places just to work on this mosque. It seems like it is constantly being worked on as well. People are doing little touches or additions to detail all of the place. There are lots of designs set into the white marble exterior of most of the pillars and walls. It resembles stained glass to me and there is an incredible attention to detail. Here is a picture of me putting my thumb next to one of the flowers so you can tell the scale of the kinds of small cuts they need to make to put these flowers together, and they are all over the place. Being the biggest mosque in the UAE, this is a big place for national business to be conducted, which is actually what was going on today. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa, is also the president of the UAE. Some dignitaries from the government were meeting inside in the morning while we were there, so we couldn't go in. We actually came back a little later in the afternoon just so Mosa could show us the inside and tell us a little more about Islam. All the girls in our group had to wear an abia (traditional robe) and a head scarf while on the grounds of the mosque. Some other tourists were there, and any men wearing shorts or tank tops also had to put on a traditional robe, though it's not called an abia. The abia is what women wear, but i don't know what the white robe men wear is called. I was told women wear black because white is see through most of the time and can be considered immodest. When we came back in the afternoon after the dignitaries had left, Mosa showed us around inside the mosque. It was a quick tour because afternoon prayers were starting soon so he wanted to be out of there before it began to fill up. But going inside just to see the shear size of the place was pretty amazing. We all took our shoes off before entering and walked through the big sliding glass doors into an enormous room. It was probably around two football fields in length. In the picture inside the mosque looking down the room, i am standing in the center of the mosque looking north. This room extends in the opposite direction the same distance, so it's definitely spacious. This whole room and the courtyard will fill with people during the month of Ramadan while they fast and pray during the daytime for the duration of the month. Everyone prays facing west, which is different from the states since they face east. All muslims pray facing Mecca, so it depends on where they are. There is a little sticker on top of my desk in my room at the academy with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca. The inside is just as ornately decorated as the outside, if not more so. Mosa tells us the carpet alone cost around $3 million. The center of the mosque has a little pulpit area of the priest, called an imam. The mosque is open everyday for muslims to come and pray throughout the day, but on Fridays, the imam will give a short sermon and then lead the gathered worshipers in prayer from the pulpit at the center. Behind him on the exquisitely decorated wall are forms of flowers with Arabic writing on the pedals. Mosa tells us these are the 99 qualities of Allah. I of course don't know what any of them say, but i was a little surprised to hear that muslims don't believe man was created in Allah's image. The expression they used was, "the Qur'an says Allah stretched forth his hand, but it didn't say he had 5 fingers." It was an interesting stop and i really admired all the work that goes into building and keeping up the mosque. There are plans to add a large garden area surrounding the mosque here within the next few years. Just outside the mosque is the grave of Skeik Zayad. it is surrounded by a large marble gate and the entire thing is covered in white marble. We weren't allowed to take pictures of this area, but there is a small building inside the gate next to the grave (also made of white marble) and inside sits an imam reading, or more so singing, the Qur'an over a loud speaker so everyone can hear it walking by to go into the mosque. Mosa says there are about 4 to 5 imams that trade throughout the day, but they sit in the room and read the Qur'an from sun up to sun down, every day all day. They have been doing it continuously since 2004 and he said they can usually get through it once every 5 days or so. It is a great honor and privilege for these imams to be allowed to read the Qur'an in this fashion at the Sheik's tomb. I get the feeling it's similar to the honor given to the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington, DC.

After we visited the mosque in the morning, we took a tour of the city of Abu Dhabi, which is on the island of Abu Dhabi. It's a small geographical area and is quite different from Dubai. Though they have much more money, they are far less developed. However, Abu Dhabi has been taking lessons from Dubai and is predicted to blow up pretty soon here. We visited the heritage village here in Abu Dhabi, and it was ok, but nothing great. I took some pictures of the huts made of palm fronds. The view from the beach was kind of cool. In the foreground are model dhows and abras used by citizens of Abu Dhabi in the earlier part of this century, and in the background is modern Abu Dhabi's skyline. So far, Dubai has far more impressive buildings, but Abu Dhabi is looking to put themselves on the map also. There are plans to build a building in Abu Dhabi twice as tall as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. There are many more projects as well since everything in Dubai seems to be on hold for the moment due to the credit crisis. Abu Dhabi is looking to flaunt their cash soon here. One of the first attractions built was the Emirates Palace Hotel. It was an attempt to compete with the Burj al Arab in Dubai, but architecturally doesn't really match up. The inside is incredibly beautiful though and holds the real key to Abu Dhabi putting themselves on the map. There is a museum inside, or maybe more so just a display of the big projects that Abu Dhabi has lined up for the next 15 or so years. The island of Abu Dhabi is surrounded by several other islands that are currently undeveloped. One of the islands has been chosen directly adjacent from Abu Dhabi as the site of future tourist destinations to compete with those in Dubai and Europe. The name in Arabic is Saadiyat Island, which translates to the Island of Happiness. Kind of a dumb name in my opinion, but they have way more money than i do, so they can do whatever they like. However, they plan to build another branch of the Louvre in Paris, a new Guggenheim museum, a large opera/ballet/performing arts hall, and another building that i don't remember what it is supposed to be for. All the buildings are incredibly neat in their own regard.

along coastline in model from top to bottom: new Guggenheim museum (pile of blocks), new Louvre (domed top), new Center for Performing Arts (space ship looking thing), and the last square building on the bottom with curved interior area

So this was a bad description and not the best picture of all the buildings to be put on this island, but the architecture behind it all is pretty amazing. The one that impressed me the most is the design for the dome of the Louvre is amazing. They layer it with two domes, each with holes in them so it allows natural light in. Here is a computer rendering of what it is supposed to look like inside once the dome has been completed and the museum is open. I like how is kind of gives like a tree canopy effect, or that of a starlit sky. For those of you interested in seeing more about the developments on Saadiyat Island, i would recommend this website. They have pictures of all the buildings there with a lot of detail included. It's pretty astounding what they want to undertake and makes me definitely want to come back and see the finished product in a few years. All these projects are lined along the coastline, but in the center of the island, they plan to build another big project, which is the Sheik Zayed National Museum. The entrance is on the bottom of the picture there and the whole thing is underground, but those big crazy insect wing looking structures will be coming out of the ground and i assume let in natural light. The whole area is supposed to be very lush and green also, so it's almost like they stole a scene from Avatar or something. I am not sure if people will be allowed to go up into the wings or if there will be exhibits up there or anything, but it's neat looking. I don't know what kind of exhibits there will even be in there, but they gave me a book about this project before we left the hotel. On our way out, we also passed a gold ATM, which literally dispenses gold bars. You buy them by the ounce, and as you can guess, they are quite expensive. I don't remember the price in dirhams, but it converts to about $1504 per ounce, which is roughly the current market price in the USA for an ounce of gold. It's obviously a novelty and i have heard you can get gold for much cheaper in the gold souk in downtown dubai, but it was kind of a funny little thing to see. I actually saw on in Mall of the Emirates next to Ski Dubai also, but it wasn't functioning and didn't have any gold in it. This one almost looks like a vending machine, which may have been a more apt name for it than an ATM. You can see through a glass window area at a selection of the bars and coins they have to offer, make your purchase, and a gold bar drops out at the bottom.

After the Emirates Palace, we went to another hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi and went to the restaurant on the top called Cristal for lunch. It was pretty good stuff for a buffet style. They had good fish, which i usually never eat unless it's really good. At this point in our trip we were supposed to visit a city called Masdar outside of Abu Dhabi. It's being designed to be a completely sustainable city, generating it's own electricity from solar and wind power, and with an aim to be a zero emissions, zero carbon output city. It's just being built now, so it's not really up and running at full capacity at this time. Right now there is just a research center and dormatory area, but there is an idea that there will be homes, shopping centers, mosques, etc., all completely sustainable and green. The city will only be about a 5x5 kilometer area, or something like that. Not big. Our appointment was at 3:00, but we got bumped because apparently Hilary Clinton was in town and she takes priority over us. Our instructors were trying to get Masdar to let us come anyway and said they thought Hilary would love to meet a group from ASU while there since it would be good for publicity, but apparently that wasn't the case. Probably cuz Arizona is a red state. I could care less anyway. So instead of going to Masdar at 3:00, we postponed out appointment there and went back to the Zayed Mosque and Mosa took us inside.

When 5:00 came, we were finally allowed to go to Masdar and see the facilities. I don't remember the guy's name who was guiding us around, but he was really cool. He talked to us a bit about some of the projects they were working on with desalination of the water and with the solar panels they are using and the issues they are running into. Then he took us over to see the institute they have on the site there. They let us ride in these little pods they plan to use all over the city when it's done. They are called Personal Rapid Transports (PRTs) and they drive themselves and are controlled by magnets underground. They sit up to 4 people, two benches facing each other. They aren't on tracks or anything and they are pretty quick. You just get in and push the button of a predetermined desintation, it closes and wisks you away to wherever you want to go. The only destination right now was from the main meeting area to the Institute. It's kind of a research center as well as a university called Masdar Instititute, and it's run by MIT in Boston. They are actually recruiting students at this time for Master's of Engineering programs they offer. The thing that speaks to me about this is that it's completely free. The government of Abu Dhabi is trying to attract engineers to the programs at Masdar, so they offer to fly you out for free, give you free tuition and books, free room and board, and even pay you while you're here. That speaks to me a lot. I really like the thought of that, and i wouldn't mind doing something with solar panels or the like since nearly all space crafts use them for power and i could easily take the work i do with me to any job i wanted to do with NASA. I could come out here and get a Master's degree for free, get paid tax free money the whole time, and not have to work 40 hours somewhere else while i do it. Plus, i could roll around in a sweet PRT all day, maybe deck it out with a sweet sound system and paint flames on the side. Probably not, but that would rule. The programs are heavily research based, so i would be doing probably half research and half thesis. This is assuming i can even get in. I work hard at my schooling and all, but i wouldn't call myself MIT material. That's another year and a half away anyway, so who knows where i will be by then. It's definitely something i want to consider very strongly though.

Masdar was our last stop of the day. We all piled back on the bus and headed back to the Academy. When we got back around 8:00, a lot of people wanted to go to the mall and eat at Chili's, which didn't sound cool to me at all. I wasn't all that hungry and i can eat at Chili's in the states anytime i want (cuz that's how i roll). The internet wasn't working either so i couldn't talk to Jenn , and i was so tired that i just decided to stay home. I found Shaheem and had him teach me how to tie on my sweet head scarf i bought at the Abu Dhabi heritage village today and then i just went to sleep for the rest of the night.