My most disappointing travel experience was to the Taj Mahal, where I discovered that pretty much every image I had seen of it had been heavily edited. It was a moment of realisation: of understanding that for many writers and readers alike, travel writing and photography isn’t necessarily about sharing the truth, but engaging with dreams.
Much to my surprise, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was as picture perfect as Pinterest suggests. The subliminal symmetry of the white marble imported from Italy and Macedonia and inlaid with amethyst, onyx, and mother-of-pearl, lines the entire floor of the mosque. Reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, the columns are decorated with flower motifs and set with stones (which haven’t been looted, like in India) and reflect beautifully on the glistening white tiles. Cooling pools of reflection added to the sense of peace and help detract from the scorching temperature, an uneasy sense of privilege, and fear of contributing to the potential exploitation of my fellow people.
I watched as mosque employees strode back and forth in the central courtyard, with no protection from the blistering sun, polishing the marble to the benefit of worshippers and visitors alike. Moments of reflection, photo opportunities, education and wonder for thousands of visitors courtesy of a day’s labour for many more migrant workers. They worked diligently: striving back and forth, reminding women to keep their head scarves on, providing directions and soap in the shockingly-clean bathrooms. As I washed my hands, I watched as a group of female visitors took the hand towels they provided without eye contact. No ‘thank you’ or mere acknowledgement of their humanity, as though somehow the towels had just miraculously appeared when they needed them. The invisibility of the human continues, until we want something from each other.
Inside, the moment I stepped on the carpet, my feet were engulfed by a softness I hadn’t felt since leaving wondrous Persia. My guide explained that the largest carpet in the world was made by 1,200 weavers in nearby Iran (my feet do not lie!) in under 2 years and, as my toes can attest, each step feels like someone is cuddling you. Glittering high above hang 7 brightly-coloured chandeliers embedded with over 40 million Swarovski crystals… Despite being covered in 24-caret gold, the mihrab is refreshingly-simple against the extravagance of the prayer hall. It sits gently against the backdrop of the Wall of Allah where the 99 names attributed to God (in the Quran) are engraved in Arabic calligraphy. I’ve been in dozens of mosques across the world, and have never seen anything like it. Very moving. Despite being unable to read Arabic and not a Muslim, as I stared up the wall, I felt a warmth and a sense of spirituality. But labels don’t matter to me. My personal feeling is once we’re willing to move beyond the politicalisation of religion, man-made edicts which perpetuate fear and our (often) optional ignorance, we’ll finally start to see each other and work towards a cohesive society, in which our spirituality transcends labels and intolerance.
I grew up in cathedrals and churches decked out with famous and priceless artwork, and I have never felt entirely comfortable with the relationship between excessive opulence and religious edicts instructing worshippers to ‘donate’ money for the poor, although I appreciate the beauty. Do we really need a Michelangelo sculpture in the church when we’re campaigning to raise money for a homeless shelter? I think not. At the mosque, I felt the same about main prayer hall, and this is probably why I prefer the simplicity of the exterior (even with its 24-carot gold elements…).
As I walked around the mosque listening to Russian, Mandarin, French and a bit of English, I felt happiness that our mutual interests, albeit to varying degrees, had brought us together. Human connectivity (without actually engaging, which suits this introvert perfectly). I highly recommend taking a complimentary 45-minute tour as you learn more about the founding of the UAE, architectural details of the mosque and information on Islam. The tour was prompt, well-organised and informative: the fantastic guide talked of interfaith openness, explained design details and more on Sheikh Zayed’s vision for both the mosque and the country as a whole. It was also the only time I met an Emirati (aside from immigration). A must-visit.