When I was between 13 and 15 years old, my friends and I on a Friday or Saturday night could regularly be found haunting the Fairfield Mall. We would smoke marijuana and drink pony bottles of Miller High Life in the darkened woods in back of the mall near the Westover Air Force Base, climb the low branches of trees, sing at the top of our lungs – I can remember particularly bad renditions of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” – and play jokes on each other. One involved placing a pretend fishbowl – just our hands spread apart the distance of a large bowl – on top of a friend’s head. As the bowl descended over his head, we would stop talking although we would still be moving our lips as if speaking. If we were sufficiently high and the surrounding area sufficiently quiet, the target of the joke would get sufficiently freaked out. What games, what fun.
Then, if it was still early enough, we drifted over to the mall for slices of cheese pizza with hot red pepper flakes and grated Parmesan, to the T-shirt kiosk for a new Queen, Eagles, or Kansas silk screen, the head shop to check out the lava lamps, and to the games arcade to tilt pinball machines and try our hand at (drinking and) driving on what would now seem to be rather antiquated video games. Sometimes, we would bump into some of the girls from school. Maybe one or two of us would split off with one or two of them. But generally it was just teasing and giggling and then off we all went on our merry ways.
When the mall closed, our gang would head off in different directions of home; those of us living in Aldenville running across Memorial Drive to the entrance of the Massachusetts Turnpike, and walking along that toward home. There was Dan, Jimmy, Benji, Glenn, sometimes Jeff and Denis. We weren’t so much trouble as we were at loose ends. We called ourselves the Choirboys after the Joseph Wambaugh novel.
This was in the mid- and late 1970s. We were the precursors, I guess, of the mall rat culture of the 1980s, which was driven by consumerism rather than boredom, and the swarming gangs that invaded North American malls in the 1990s, which led to the decline in popularity of single-edifice malls and the resurgence of strip malls, with less chance of loitering and trouble.
There are several malls in Abu Dhabi, the newest one, the Khalidiyah, opened just days ago. They cater to the middle classes (lower and upper) and the wealthy, with their iStores and their upper-end jewellery stores, their perfumeries, their IKEAs. No Sears or JC Penney’s here.
Nor are there any drunken teenagers at the Abu Dhabi Mall, which I have visited now three times since arriving here in late January. One must be eighteen to buy alcohol in Abu Dhabi and a teenager that age here is not likely to be found in any of the hotel bars, the only places where alcohol is sold – these are the hangouts of adult expatriates and tourists, but more on that another time.
Rather, malls in Abu Dhabi are about family and friends.
What you’ll find at a mall here are numbers of people – and I mean large numbers, though the places never seem crowded – all dressed in national costume, which, for Emirati men means a white djelaba and a red-and-white checked headscarf kept in place with a black braided egal, and for Emirati women means a black abaya with a thin veil. (More on dress code later, too.) But malls aren’t just for Emiratis. Every expat community is represented here, from dour chador-wearing Iranian moms and their bright, round-eyed children and beautiful kohl-eyed Lebanese women – so youthful they cannot be told apart from their daughters – to thin Indian men in their twenties enjoying Baskin and Robbins ice cream and Pakistanis holding hands with their best mates.
Teenage Indian girls wear black Ts with messages appliquéd on them in silver buttons, words like Beauty or Star. They wear tight denim pants, designed in Europe or North America, or knock-offs imported here from India or China. Teenage Arabic or Muslim girls wear black T-shirts with the same appliqués and tight denim, too, so I’m told. But they cover their Western fashions in abayan modesty.
I haven’t seen any lava lamps in any of the shops in the malls here. Nor is there a video arcade. The internet café, however, has two separate components. In the front are a dozen booths with broadband connections to the outside world. Here, you can sit down with a can of Red Bull or Sprite or a cup of coffee and surf the web. In a glassed-in room nearby, each of the twenty computer terminals is taken by an adolescent boy, hardly a one of them immune to acne, some with imperfectly put together native headscarves, others with hair sticking up in unnatural ways, all of them taking part in some fantasy game where they get extra lives for capturing or eating the right item before being struck by a fast-moving object of death.
On the level just below me, three boys, in long-sleeved T-shirts or sweatshirts and jeans, all about nine or ten, are playing soccer with a blue water-bottle cap. Surprisingly, they are able to control it the way they would the regulation-size black-and-white orb. When two women walk by in full abaya, the boys skilfully move the game to their invisible chalk-line border, avoiding touching them.
Any swarms I’ve seen have been of boys 13 to 15 years old in their white or pastel djelabas and headdresses horsing around and loudly laughing into cellphones, or of families, crisply starched, thinly bearded father, thin mother in an exquisite abaya – we call it burqa bling here – an in-law perhaps, and children in tow, the six-year-old son, the four-year-old daughter and a third in the stroller.
Any fishbowls are in boxes, to be taken home and filled with water, plants and fish. Any pizza is in the food court. And there’s no Barry Manilow. Just the music of this Babel of languages.