'It's a time to understand what's important': how a visit to Khalidiya uncovered some touching life lessons

The neighbourhood may be quieter than usual, but there is wisdom to be found if you know where to look

Barber Zein Abideen gives Saeed Saeed his long overdue haircut. Courtesy Saeed Saeed 
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It takes a lot to make Zein Abideen smile. And even on this rare occasion, I could barely see it.

The quiet barber from Kerala likes to go about his business at Al Maleeh Star Gents Saloon with minimum fuss. Whenever you step into the booth of this Khalidiya establishment, he often utters a few pleasantries and gets straight down to the stoic work of “making you look fresh".

But on our latest meeting, his eyes lit up and I could tell his face mask was hiding a cheeky grin.

“Oh my goodness, what happened to you?” he said when I walked in. “You look like a wild man.”

Barber Zein Abideen gives the chair a good clean before my haircut. Saeed Saeed

After eight weeks of being cooped up indoors, the hair on the sides of my head had grown to Krusty-the-Clown-like proportions. It was time to finally emerge and make that trip to my old stomping ground of the Darat Al Miyah district of Khalidiya.

'It's like my village in Bangladesh'

I returned to a neighbourhood that was a shadow of its former self.

It was only in March that the place was humming with the bustle of trade, the sizzle of street food and the boisterous laughter of coffee shops. Now, it was eerily quiet.

While a lull in business was expected, with people still encouraged to stay home as much as possible amid the ongoing pandemic, some of the changes were not.

One of which was the difficulty in finding something decent to eat. Normally, restaurants would all but kill to get your patronage in these competitive streets, but when I arrived at the stroke of sunset, my plans to break my fast with a shawarma and eat it outside in a quiet corner were shot. With none of the restaurants physically big enough to accommodate social-distancing measures, they decided to close from sunset onwards.

“What’s the point?” said a waiter from Broasted King Fresh. “No one can eat here and then there is the lockdown [curfew] after. Better close and, inshallah, wait until things get better.”

At least it was open for business. The district’s culinary hub, the legendary Lebanese Flower, long a source of dependable nocturnal nourishment, was completely shuttered. The restaurant, instead, is using the unexpected quiet period to undergo maintenance works for an unspecified period of time.

I managed to quell my hunger by grabbing a couple of samosas from House of Tea, booked my slot in Abideen’s chair, and roamed the streets looking for familiar faces.

I found Abdelwahab sitting in his garden chair outside my former apartment building. After five years in what the neighbourhood calls “the silver building”, due to its once-shiny veneer, I decided to move to Reem Island in 2018 to escape the constant car horns and traffic that kept me up at night. As it turns out, I may have left too soon.

“Now, everyone sleeps well here,” Abdelwahab said with a laugh. “You leave too early. Now the area is quiet and apartments are Dh20,000 cheaper.”

He works as the watchman for the building, and Abdelwahab says the night shifts feel longer because there is no one to speak to.

“After 8pm, it is finished here,” he said. “I sit outside, read the Quran and message my family on WhatsApp. This area feels like my village in Bangladesh, very quiet now.”

The honey seller doing a sweet trade

I finally found some business confidence in Al Sawary Honey & Herbs, where Syrian storekeeper Mohammed Sultan said they have been experiencing strong sales amid the pandemic.

“People are scared and they are doing all that they can to keep healthy,” he said. “So they come here and buy Al Sidr honey [from Yemen] and lots of cloves to help boost their immune systems.”

Some of the stock in Al Sawary Honey & Herbs. Saeed Saeed

While happy about the extra dirhams, Sultan said he was also weary of some of his customers' motivations. “Some of them hear stories that by breathing in the steam of boiled cloves they will get cured of the coronavirus,” he said. “I warn them against some of this silly talk. Sure, have the honey and cloves, but stay home or wear the mask.”

A time to be grateful

My penultimate stop before visiting the salon was to Al Aaam Al Kheir, a small phone shop located on the outskirts of the neighbourhood, near Baskin Robbins. The shop name translates as “good (or a benevolent) year" and I asked its manager, Firas Suwaidan, whether his neon signage rings true.

“We are able to spend another Ramadan so I do feel blessed,” he says. “This is a time, especially with Covid-19, to really understand what is important. If we have our faith, health and families, then we should be happy. Money and other things don't last.”

Firas Suwaidan, manager of phone shop Al Aaam Al Kheir. Saeed Saeed

I shared Firas’s thought with Abideen while he shaved the remaining, offensive strands of my hair.

I didn't expect him to reply as I normally do all the talking in our sessions, but this time he seemed extra attentive to my gibbering.

“That man is right because my wife is not here,” he said.

I asked him how she was back in Kerala.

“She died in January,” he said. “She was feeding my chico [son] and she had a stroke. They called me and I left the shop and the same day I flew back to Kerala to spend time with her in hospital. She was unconscious so I read the Quran to her and after some days she died. I came back to Abu Dhabi just before the shutdown.

"I say alhamdulillah every day that I came back to say goodbye to her. If this happened during Covid-19 and I couldn’t go back and see her, I think I would also die inside. Alhamdulillah, this lockdown is no problem. I feel OK.”