sounds of abu dhabi

I’m off sick from work today (and probably tomorrow) with gastroenteritis (as diagnosed by a UAE based expat doctor, and given the track record of medical professionals here I’d say that’s as likely to be correct as telling me I’m pregnant).

But seriously I’ve been placed on a liquid-only diet for 24 to 36 hours and given my current feeble state and lack of any of solid foods I’ve pretty much been lying in bed all day.

And so I have become more aware of the sounds of the city I live in…

from my 17th floor flat in downtown Abu Dhabi, the cacophony of sounds tells part of the story of a modern day tower of Babel where various cultures and behaviours clash with each other.   Mysteries of the Middle East.

Car Horns
Since I live in a building located at the corner of a major intersection, traffic is a big part of the soundtrack. And the car horn is used very liberally, probably a close second to the gas pedal in terms of frequency of use…!!   Imagine the sounds of multiple car horns, going on up to 5 to 10 seconds, echoing throughout the city. Now imagine this happening all hours of the day.  It can really drive you up a wall, especially when you come from a country where unnecessary honking of your horn constitutes noise pollution and would probably land you a traffic fine / ticket.

I think that this practice stems from the backgrounds of the majority of Abu Dhabi’s population (countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and Syria).  For instance, in a country like India, on the streets of Bombay, the sounds of the car horns can drown out a conversation… you can hear it in the background on a mobile phone conversation and know immediately that that person is outside somewhere.  But the horn seems to have a practical use over there.  Truck drivers, as an example, often won’t have a side-view mirror with which to look out for traffic coming up from the side.  So a message will usually be printed on the rear of the truck saying “HORN OK PLEASE” indicating there is nothing offensive about beeping incessantly to let the driver know you’re approaching from behind… in truth, the horn is used in a way that seems to make traffic flow more efficiently.  Every square metre of the road will be used and drivers will be intimately familiar with every corner, curve, dent or sceatch on their vehicle.  They will use their horn to nudge other drivers over and fit into into that cardboard box sized space in between two lanes on a two lane road… (one reason why I think that many cars don’t have side-view mirrors).   So this is one mystery that I think have somewhat solved…. :)

Call to Prayer (Adhan)
In my opinion, one of the most delightful sounds of the Muslim world is the five-times daily call to prayer (aka Adhan).  It is a pre-recorded chanting that lasts for 10-15 minutes and rings out from the minarets of the scores of mosques scattered around the city of Abu Dhabi.  I think that all mosques use more or less a standard recording…. While I have heard some expats complain that it wakes them up with the first call just before sunrise, I find that it is actually quite soothing and enchanting.  It’s also a good way of knowing when all of the Muslim taxi drivers (which is most of them) have stopped to pray (and therefore not a good time to try and hail a cab).

The mystery for me here is why Western expats come to a Muslim country and complain about things like this.  Deal with it or go home!

Sirens of Emergency Vehicles
Traffic congestion is a major problem in all parts of downtown Abu Dhabi.  There are four reasons for this problem 1) traffic lights are not calibrated so you will hit every red light unless you drive at 160km/h and 2) this is a city built for 600,000 people which now has close to 1.2 million and 3) there is a shortage of parking here so people are forced to park in the roadways and ‘invent’ their own spots which disrupt the flow of traffic and 4) there is no public transit system in this city so everyone is forced to either buy a car or take a taxi (of which there is a critical shortage).

Now imagine the dilemma faced by an emergency vehicle trying to reach the scene of a car accident to treat the injured.  As in any other city around the world, ambulances, firetrucks and police cars will use their sirens to make their way through the city and to warn vehicles ahead that they should make way.  Not here.  In a country like Canada you might see cars pulling up onto the sidewalk, driving through a red light or going out of their way to avoid blocking the vehicle.  In Abu Dhabi cars stops an intersection with an ambulance behind them with its lights flashing and sirens blaring will typically stay still until the traffic light turns green.  The only thing that I can attribute this to is they are afraid that the cops won’t accept the excuse that they are intended to make way for the emergency vehicle. To add insult to injury, traffic will continue to flow even if the emergency vehicles are within sight of those moving across the intersection.  You’d also expect that on an open road that the flow of traffic would yield or pull over and make way.  Forget it.  They’ll keep driving, barely even noticing that an ambulance is trying to pass them.

My theory on this mystery is this has simply to do with lack of enforcement by the road authorities (i.e. not ticketing drivers who do not move aside) and lack of education (not teaching would-be drivers in driving school that this is road etiquette).

…all part of the fun of living here…