I was fortunate this year at work to go to Abu Dhabi (capital city of the UAE) for a library conference on March 16-20. This was the annual conference of the Arabian Gulf Chapter (AGC) of SLA. For non-library types thats the Special Libraries Association – consisting of government, legal, corporate and highly specialized academic libraries. However, this conference was almost 90% academic librarians, so in my mind, it should have been the AGC of ACRL, the Association of College and Research Libraries. But, SLA it was.
From the perspective of a western librarian, there were a few things unique about this conference. First, the preponderance of men. Not just the vendors – men as conference delegates. And they weren’t spring chickens, either. Most as it turned out did not have any professional qualifications, yet were in charge of various national and non-expat staffed libraries. The majority of the sessions were in Arabic. Those that were plenary or keynote sessions had translators, so we listened on headsets. However, because many of our ‘professional conversations’ are loaded with jargon and unique phrases, a translator who does not speak librarian-ese would have trouble. And trouble he had. And sadly, the sessions were not at the calibre we expect in N.A.
Ah well – it was a fantastic week nonetheless. I reconnected with some of the vendors I new and met some inspiring speakers that I hope to work with in the future. I’ve brought back to my colleagues lots of news and new ideas to consider. I stayed the weekend (that being Friday and Saturday for me) and was glad I did.
The conference venue was a Fairmont hotel and it did not disappoint. I had a stunning view of a ‘creek’ that separated the island downtown of Abu Dhabi from the mainland.
Across this saltwater creek was the beautiful Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. The largest in the UAE, certainly, and quite possibly the largest Mosque in the Gulf. It’s stunning architecturally. Workmanship and materials came from Italy, the UK, Germany and of course the UAE. The massive chandeliers were made of Swarovski crystals. The stained glass windows came from Murano, Italy. The stainless steel from Germany. The clocks were from Switzerland. The marble also came from Italy. The hand noted carpet inside is the largest in the world and had to be completed inside the mosque. The dance of light through the windows and against the chandeliers was beautiful. The structural columns with palm tree tops are gold leafed. The pools of water were tiled in various shades of blue to allow changing hues of water during the passing of the morning light until the evening. The 4 minarets are so tall that they have blinking lights to warn airplanes on the top of them. The Iman who crafts the ‘sermon’/lesson delivers the transcript to all the mosques in the UAE so that every Friday during prayers, the population here the same message. The call to prayer, which is sung live (it’s recorded in other places) it broadcast simultaneously to all the mosques in the UAE so everyone is called to prayer at the exact same time, 5 times a day. Totally balanced and completely symmetrical.
Women had to wear abayas with hooded head covers to enter. Some of the men – those wearing shorts on the 33C day – were told to get thobes. To get these garments, we got a peek at some of the inner workings at the mosque and discovered that the gardens surrounding the mosque were overtop of a huge underground parking garage with a high tech directional system to guide each car to the next available empty spot. The mosque was also serviced by the hop-on-hop-off bus and taxis.
As stunning as the mosque was, the shopping was even better for those of us from Qatar. There was a greater selection of groceries. I even found an organic health food store. There were small liqour stores on the corners in funky neighbourhoods. The shopping malls were marvelous, with shops like Asics and Adidas having just as much fitness gear for men as for women. I even found a Birkenstocks store. We don’t even have one in Doha despite the fact that we can wear sandals 99% of the year….The Starbucks coffee tasted like Starbucks coffee. The drinks weren’t watered down. And, you could have a glass of wine just about anywhere.
The employees in the service industry that I dealt with (hotel staff, taxi-drivers, store clerks, etc.) were much more engaged with their work and seemed genuinely happy. They actually wanted to ‘help’ make things go better for you.
The roads were open and not congested. For the most part, people followed ‘the rules.’ No crazy honking or disfunctional roundabouts. Next time, I’m probably going to rent a car to get around with.
I’m definitely going back to the UAE. We have a cheap airline here called ‘Fly Dubai’ that does the one hour flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi for around $200 Cdn return. Sounds do-able to me!