Abu Dhabi made my head spin. I wasn’t there very long but I began to understand what people like Thomas Friedman mean when they talk about the collisions in the middle east between old worlds and new.

Old World and New in Abu Dhabi isn’t as profound as in a city like Cairo or Athens or Jerusalem, for instance, where you’re literally walking on ancient roads. Abu Dhabi only came into being as a modern city in the 1950s; it was a fishing village before that, primarily. Here’s a picture of Abu Dhabi’s main street, in about 1964:

Now everywhere you look are glass-clad high-rises, with more on the way: huge construction cranes dot the skyline and signs proclaim the coming of this new office tower, or that new apartment building. Of course, what they really need are window washers–there is so much sand and salt in the air that all those glass windows on all those buildings? Filthy.  This photo is from the 22nd floor of the building we stayed in – the haze over the cityscape is from the schmutzy on the window.

These new glass high-rises,which look like the same anonymous buildings in LA or Chicago or New York are going up alongside crumbling decrepit terra-cotta buildings, with laundry dripping from the balconies and air conditioners that look like they’re going to plummet at any minute onto the heads of people walking on the sidewalks below.

The call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day, a literal reminder of ancient days, as are the rows of shoes lined up outside the mosques. Does anyone ever steal the shoes of people at prayer? But other than those calls to prayer, it’s a quiet city – there isn’t the cacophony of horns and sirens that make up street life in Manhattan and even the construction sounds are muffled.

Because it’s quieter, that means when you finally manage to cross the twelve lanes of death-defying traffic to get to the corniche, the paved parkway that curves along the beach front, you can look out at the water and almost imagine you’re not in a city at all.  Of course, when you turn around, the tall buildings are right there–a sort of bad Miami Beach look to it:

At the beach, bikini bodies lounge in chairs next to women who are fully clothed and wearing head scarves–the ultimate SPF:

This woman was wearing thin cotton trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and her veil. She spent a long time in the water playing with her kids and the veil never once budged out of place. She either totally had the scarf tuck-and-fold down pat, or some serious bobby pins.

Abu Dhabi seems like a city in a hurry–it’s developing an entire cultural “zone,” complete with museums, universities, and of course that ultimate in 21st century haute culture, a gallery space currently showing pieces from Larry Gagosian’s private collection.  I mean, once you’ve got Gagosian, you’re pretty much arrived, haven’t you?

How do you balance the frequently conflicting claims of old world and new? It can’t be as easy as just importing Gagosian’s Warhol paintings, or putting up some glass office towers…can it?

Old Abu Dhabi photograph courtesy of Geoff Pound