Mosque and Desert Safari
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Female visitors are required to wear abayas and head scarves to enter the mosque, and can borrow these for free. My outfit, which consisted of a dress with a hemline just below the knee and a cardigan that came to my elbows, must have been extra scandalous because I was stopped at the first abaya stand just outside the parking lot. Other female tourists were stopped at a second table closer to the mosque. It appeared that male visitors were allowed to wear whatever they wanted, including ripped short and t-shirts. Putting the abaya on was transformative. It looked and fit like a graduation gown. I was instantly hot and less able to use my peripheral vision. While I'm sure many women wear abayas made of silk and other nicer fabrics, this was definitely polyester and must be nothing short of hell to wear in the warmer months. I wonder if it would be possible to rig a fan under there like some Disney characters have inside their plush costumes. Temperature issues aside, I have to admit that I felt more comfortable and elegant in my billowing gown than I do in trendy Western clothes that pinch, ride up, ride down and leave nothing of my shape to the imagination.
From the outside, the mosque looks like Aladdin’s palace, with huge white domes and gold everywhere. A massive marble courtyard with a floral mosaic floor was surrounded by three sides of corridors decorated with domes and columns in the same pattern. Huge, gold decorations resembling the fringe on a palm tree sat two-thirds of the way up the columns. Our tour guide said something like one ton of gold was used in building the mosque.
Then again, I’m not sure I’d trust Yasir – our tour guide – on any facts without double-checking them. He was perfectly nice, but not the most skillful or efficient guide. For example, he forgot the name of the Italian architect who built the mosque. At other times, he provided too much detail, like when he attempted to name every single country that had contributed funding to the construction of the mosque. His lengthy recitation of the list, grouped according to regions of the world, was punctuated by pauses, head-scratching and comments like, "Oh, no wait. Turkey belongs to Europe, not the Middle East." He said Greece contributed the most money, which seems implausible to me. Cynthia made me laugh by imitating him continuing his list: “The Maldives… (then she listed other totally random countries)… Israel. Well, we don’t actually recognized Israel as a state.”
Along the same lines, I briefly panicked when Yasir stood in front of a marble wall with gold flowers inscribed with gold Arabic lettering and asked if any of us could name some of the 99 names of Allah that were depicted on the wall. One intelligent tourist volunteered, “Yahweh,” to the embarrassed silence of the rest of us. Others correctly guessed “The Creator” and “The Light.” “Dear God,” I thought, “Please don’t let Yasir attempt to name all 99 of your names.” We were in the front of the group so there could be no graceful exit. What a relief when he only added a handful.
Inside, the mosque’s splendor was overwhelming. The first room we went into had a white marble floor, walls with the gorgeous pink, yellow and blue flower patterns I’d seen outside all over and a stunning dome and chandelier, all in shades of gold, beige, pink and light blue. Cynthia and I later agreed that this was our favorite chandelier, and probably our favorite room as well.
Off to the left was the ladies prayer room, separated from the men’s by windows and pillars. It was the plainest room we saw in the mosque and built to accommodate just under 1,000 women. There was no chandelier, but the gorgeous ceiling was made from the same material as a cameo pin, beige with white flowers on it. Above the doorway was a pretty flower made of light blue stained glass.
Next door, the men’s prayer room was large enough to accommodate over 7,000 men, with some different floral patterns on the wall and the world’s largest uninterrupted carpet. It’s green with flowers or yellow with flowers, depending on the spot, and it was made in nine pieces but finished inside the mosque with the help of scaffolding. There are raised bands running through the carpet, about two inches wide, which help the men line up for prayer. The room also had several gigantic sparkling chandeliers, which were of course incredible but not my favorite because they contained red, green and orange colors that approached gaudiness. One of these is considered to be the world’s largest chandelier, at 15 meters high and 10 meters across, with a weight of over nine tons and a price tag of AED 30 million. On the wall, a flower clock announced in Arabic and English numbers what the day’s prayer times were. There was also a bronze stand for speakers to address the assembly. Unfortunately, our visit didn’t coincide with the call to prayer, which most likely would have been impressive.
When we got bored of Yasir’s increasingly lengthy verbal rambling, I amused Cynthia by whispering in her ear, “How much would you pay me to raise my hand and ask, 'But which tower does Aladdin live in?’ or ‘When do we get to pet Abu?’” Continuing the theme, we (softly) sang Aladdin songs as we toured the remainder of the mosque. I love that I have friends who are happy to be goofy with me.
For lunch, we went to Café de la Paix at the Al Wahda Mall. Cynthia was craving crepes and I tried a Croque Madame. I’ve known about these sandwiches since they were introduced as a vocabulary word in my third grade French class, and I love grilled cheese and ham, but never tried one at a legitimate French restaurant. This one was, of course, made with turkey that tasted like ham (Muslim country) and a good but not fantastic béchamel sauce. It came with an egg, while a Croque Monsieur comes without. The salad it came with had a delicious dressing. They also offered me frites, which I turned down. This country is obsessed with French fries. They seem to come with every meal. Along with my sandwich, I had an awesome mango smoothie. Just like in Vietnam, the UAE specializes in cheap, delicious fruit smoothies. They’re so fresh because they just run the fruit through a juicer and present you with the glass. That’s it – sweet, but healthy.
Thursday night, Cynthia, Jen and I went on a desert safari. We arranged this by calling a guy who worked for the company on his cell phone, getting passed to his brother and receiving a call back from his cousin, who ended up taking us. He didn’t show up at our pre-arranged location until Cynthia called him and directed him to where we were. She kept saying, “Come around the other side of the building” and things like that. We cracked up because the disorganization and personal nature of setting things up this way (versus, say filling out a form online) was so Arabic. Once inside our guide’s white Lexus SUV, we picked up another couple at their hotel and joined five other white SUVs in the desert.
The guides let some air out of each SUV’s tires and we went sand duning, which basically meant driving over – and sliding down – dunes at very high speeds. It was terrifying, exhilarating, nauseating and fun. I was saved from total panic by Cynthia’s previous warning that it would feel like we were going to tip over but wouldn’t. We’d come to the top of a dune, like cresting a wave, and I couldn’t see anything in front of us until slowly the front end of the car tilted sharply down and we sped down the dunes, often sliding sideways and kicking up sand.
After duning, we stopped to pet some camels and then went to our camp. There, we had the option of snowboarding down the dunes, which I passed on because it seemed to me like plastic surgery waiting to happen. We drank Arabic coffee (watery, herbal, not great) and yummy Arabic tea, dressed in our second abaya of the day and took pictures.
I finally got my camel ride, too, on a camel named Sheena. It was jolting and I felt like I was going to fall off, especially when Sheena knelt back down at the end of the ride. The camel handler hissed at her awhile and suddenly she dropped out from under us. I screeched and someone in the crowd asked, “Was that the camel?” I said, “Nope, that was me,” and we all laughed.
Dinner was a Lebanese buffet, pretty good but not as good as Lebanese Flower. After dessert, some people smoked sheesha (not me) and we watched a belly dancer and a traditional Arabic male dance. I was shocked that it was socially acceptable for the belly dancer to wear that bikini top in public. This is a country that covered me with an abaya before I even got near the mosque, because my dress only came to just below the knee cap, where Jen, as a teacher, must follow a conservative dress code even in her free time.
After the dancing, our hosts cut all of the power to the lights without any warning or announcement and, after a stunned silence, someone figured out that we were supposed to be looking at the stars. We laid back on our pillows and sure enough, the stars were huge and bright. Equally without warning, five minutes later they switched the bright lights back on and it was time to go home.