A week after the Christchurch terror attacks, Eleanor Barker begins to heal in Abu Dhabi.
It was a terrible time to leave New Zealand; it was impossible not to go. A mere five days after the shattering Christchurch terror attacks, I set off to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. It began inauspiciously.
When I disembarked in Sydney Airport I found myself in a gloomy little triangle in the international transfer area with a couple I recognised as fellow Kiwis thanks to her pounamu, his Blues shirt and all three of us with our palpable grief. They watched over my carry-on luggage as I tried to find out if I had gone to the wrong place — l had. By the time this travel rookie left Australia, my bags were heading home to New Zealand.
Coming off almost 24 hours of travel with luggage lost and a heavy heart, most final destinations will feel like an oasis. In this instance I found myself in an actual oasis in the Arabian Desert, the Jumeirah Al Wathba, the Jumeirah Hotel Group's newest luxury resort.
No conversation about the Emirates is complete without a quick history lesson. Before oil was discovered in the 1950s the harshness of the desert, which covers 80 per cent of the country, dictated traditional, nomadic lifestyles. Only oases and other rare water sources allowed for settled agriculture. Now Emiratis make their own oases.
Everything about Jumeirah Al Wathba embraces and underscores this incredible story. This opulent resort takes the architectural inspiration from Bedouin encampments of the pre-modernised Arabian desert - then turns it up to 11, thanks to the influence of what came next. Stunning Arabic architectural and design flourishes abound at Jumeirah Al Wathba; my deluxe room had its own private balcony overlooking the desert and I saved time every day for my handmade bath. Myriad Aladdin references lie within easy grasp - this place felt fit for a Sultan.
The sand-coloured resort blends and sprawls magnificently over 22,000sq m of desert, with palm trees, lovingly tended infant frangipani gardens and a 1000sq m pool network inspired by the natural falaj, water channels for irrigation, which have been in use in southeast Arabia since the beginning of the first millennium BC. The pool system stretches into the desert and into inlets and coves - including an awesome swim-up pool bar. The resort is positioned to enhance its own prettiness; the sun sets over the pool at the heart of the oasis. Everything is underscored by the constant sound of water.
At the time of my visit the resort had been open only two weeks and there were few guests around. This is a resort of village proportions so it can take a moment to get oriented. Helpful staff were abundant, however - you can't get lost. After checking in, I immediately set out into the desert. Steering clear of the ancient, protected dunes, I photographed some mysterious tracks that looked to me like a large cat.
"A cat was a good guess, but actually, that's a desert fox's tracks" said Sarab, as he looked over my photos later that day. Sarab, Jumeirah Al Wathba's in-house falconer, had just held our small group utterly in his thrall as he demonstrated the prowess of his falcon colleague Sheikha, beloved symbol of the UAE. Sheikha (meaning queen) is a peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on Earth.
Watching a falconer in his long white kandura put a falcon through its paces is a very special experience. The bird rises as if unchained by gravity, soaring elegantly then plunging up to 386km an hour to snatch at Sarab's package of meat and bone and feathers. He needs to stay very focused, she can bowl him over and he can hurt her if he doesn't let go as soon as she snatches her prize.
Despite all his care, Sarab freely admits that Sheikha does not love him. Like all falcons she'd really rather be doing her own thing. One of his runaway birds turned up in Oman, 600km away and had to be flown back in its own business class seat; "I don't fly in business class, but she does." As you'd expect, the story of the falcon who has gone from humble hunter to "business class only" is also the story of the UAE.
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Food and drink is deeply connected to the idea of luxury, so much so that it often becomes overworked and complicated. At Jumeirah Al Wathba the food was allowed to simply be, and I was grateful. I feasted on bread, labneh, olives, Nabulsi goat's cheese and perfectly cooked eggs from the live egg station every morning at the beautifully positioned buffet restaurant, Bait Al Hanine. We had a memorable meal of pasta and fresh seafood on the rooftop bar of Terra Secca. At Al Mabeet you can dine in the desert in Jumeirah's take on a traditional souk or marketplace, or you can order and eat lunch by the pool. There were no bad choices to be made, especially in the mocktail department - a Muslim country is a wonderful place for a non-drinker.
I got to experience another first on my trip; the cryotherapy rooms at Jumeirah Al Wathba's Talise Spa. I've been curious about the the Wim Hof method for a while now so I took the plunge for three strange, time-warped and exceptionally cold minutes. From -10.6C, to -62.1, to -113.6C - nowhere on Earth is this cold! When the third freezer door was opened my companion and I somehow managed to resist fighting each other to get out first.
I felt really, really good - and I needed that feeling for my subsequent mission back to the airport and through some intimidating security to retrieve my bags. It was not the first time I had seen someone holding a gun but it was only a week too late for that. I saw my first gun in Mt Eden, Auckland in the arms of a police officer. I don't like them much at airports and they even more unsettling in your home suburb.
Coming from an Arabian desert fantasy, Abu Dhabi was mind-boggling in a different way. It was a Friday when we made the 45-minute drive from the desert, so most of the Muslim population were at the mosque. The emptying of the city has led the top hotels to fiercely compete over the "expatriate" market's Friday brunch plans. While I was at the airport, the rest of my group were having a marvellous time at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.
When I arrived later at the "most entertaining Friday Brunch" in Abu Dhabi, I was met with a real show of opulence in action. For NZ$230 you can get unlimited premium bubbles and as many sweeps of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style buffet as you can stomach. I piled up on stuff I can't afford to eat at home; especially the bone marrow and oysters. As I was late, the lobster had run dry, much to my sadness. If you like a drink and a spectacle, you could be very happy here.
When I was preparing for this journey in the wake of the attacks, I hoped to have an opportunity to speak to a Muslim person about what had happened. I was both hungry for and afraid of having a conversation like I did with my acquaintance at my local petrol station, shortly after the attacks, as he railed against the violent madness of white supremacy, grief in his eyes. He asked me; "Did you know some of these people were refugees from Syria?" I said that I did, and that I was sorry.
I finally got an opportunity at seven-star hotel The Emirates Palace Hotel, with Communications Manager Mohammed Alaoui. Decorum kept us from dwelling too deeply, but I was grateful I could express my horror at the intolerance that is clearly all-too-tolerated in New Zealand. He, in turn, offered his condolences and his hope for a more peaceful world.
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Thank you for having me and helping me recover. Thank you for showing me such an abundance of beauty in humanity. It was a horrible time to leave New Zealand; it was impossible not to go. "I am not imposing change on anyone. That is tyranny. All of us have our opinions, and these opinions can change. Sometimes we put all opinions together and then extract from them a single point of view. This is our democracy." — Sheikh Zayed
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Exactly 10 days after the Christchurch terror attacks, I had the bittersweet honour of visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, an immense space that can accomodate 40,000 worshippers. As this agnostic young woman walked through the seemingly endless dream of marble and semi precious stone, eyes upturned to the "99 qualities of God, one is blank, because he is unknowable" - I felt the pull of the divine. Artist Kevin Dean designed the jewelled flowers: in the main prayer hall the species come from the Middle East, at the north entrance they come from the Northern Hemisphere, and at the south entrance they come from the Southern Hemisphere. Islam is, after all, an international faith.
In the main atrium, with New Zealand wool under my toes and after a week of luxury and care, I felt peaceful, somewhat unburdened.
I thought of the famously humble "Father of the Nation" and first President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. I thought of the New Zealanders who showed their solidarity and love in the wake of such horror.
"I am not imposing change on anyone. That is tyranny. All of us have our opinions, and these opinions can change. Sometimes we put all opinions together and then extract from them a single point of view. This is our democracy," said Sheikh Zayed.
Or, as our guide for the Presidential Palace put it, "We don't have to be reading from the same book to be on the same page."
A legacy of gold
It is thanks to the legacy of the visionary leaders of the time that the Emirati people were able to share in the boon of oil. Sheikh Zayed made sure that oil revenue was generously steered into healthcare, education and infrastructure for the Emirati people. When Dubai also struck oil, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the leader of Dubai, followed suit.
Today, every citizen of the Emirates is guaranteed free public healthcare and free education up to Masters level at government institutions. If an Emirati marries another Emirati they may also be eligible to receive more than NZ$20,000 from the government. While Pākehā New Zealanders have the audacity to moan about immigration, native Emirati barely squeeze into the country's top three nationalities. They are outnumbered by the Indian and Pakistani immigrants, mostly young men, that power the massive and ongoing construction effort. Although the Emirates have been successful at diversifying their economy into tourism, manufacturing, construction and logistics; the declining oil and gas sector is still the single largest contributor to economic growth. The UAE knows it will need to keep adapting to maintain its golden run.