A space in RAK for the heart and for the soul

By day it is an unremarkable place, but at night the prayer ground and its surrounding car park at the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Ras al Khaimah come alive with walkers and joggers out for their health.

Ras Al Khaimah , United Arab Emirates- December 09, 2010 ;   Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Ras Al Khaimah. ( Satish Kumar / The National ) For On location
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At first glance, the prayer ground and its surrounding car park are little more than an expansive slab of tarmac at the city's centre. By day, it is downright plain.

As night falls, however, the car park becomes one of Ras al Khaimah's most popular recreation areas. It is a park without a tree or shrub in sight, but people flock to it in a daily ritual to run, walk and cruise around the one-kilometre wall that loops the prayer ground.

Aisha al Fala, 25, power-walks down the prayer ground with pink track-suit bottoms beneath her abaya. Men jogging have trouble keeping pace with her.

"It's the best place in the city," says Aisha, an Emirati pharmacist. "It's a suitable place for a woman, everyone comes here just for the walking."

She has lost 10kg since she began walking here seven years ago. "Before," she says bluntly, "I was fat."

That's hard to believe. Even with a flowing abaya, she is a wisp of a woman.

To the untrained eye, there is little beauty in this scene. The only lights are from the minarets of the adjacent Sheikh Zayed Mosque that glow a ghostly green through starry lattice work, and from the Dream Residence apartments, its neon lights a flickering purple in an effort to live up to its name.

For the most part, the car park is dark, and this is part of its popularity. The darkness around the prayer ground can offer a shooting star or two, if you raise your eyes skywards.

More importantly, women in RAK prefer to exercise under the cover of darkness. Clad in their trainers and abayas, they enjoy the comfort of camouflage and anonymity, protection from the prying eyes of men.

Many of RAK's young people first learnt the art of cruising here, under the watchful gaze of older cousins and brothers. When they come of legal age to drive, this is where many return, to circle the prayer ground with some cardamom tea and R&B, or Arabic love songs.

The first runners arrive around 4pm, when work and afternoon prayers are finished.

Abdul Rahman al Nuaimi, 30, and his friend, Waleed, are on round seven by 5pm.

As a transport manager, Abdul knows how to get around. But when the area where he used to exercise grew crowded with housing and hotels, he was no longer able to park his jet ski at the beach. He joined the Hilton gym but soon missed the relaxation of socialising outdoors.

"Most of my friends are coming here," he says, motioning to Waleed.

"Mr Waleed, he's like my brother, we like to walk and talk about everything. Business, life. You go running, walking and then you get a solution for the problem."

Naim Yassine, 62, a Palestinian-Canadian accountant, is another prayer-ground regular. At 1.87 metres tall, he is a giant of a man, if not quite to the extent that he once was. He's 17kg lighter, and all the better for it. He talks in extended sentences about high cholesterol and his brush with near-death that led him to the prayer ground - not for his spiritual health, but for the physical variety.

The accountant manages about 500 metres before the sentence reaches a full stop. But, he will tell you, perseverance is key.

After two kilometres, his stride and his sermon on health are both gaining pace and the sweat is pouring through his white undershirt.

Of course, there are days when he comes to the prayer ground not to walk, but to pray.

Thousands of Muslims gather here every year on the first morning of Eid. In those moments of prayer, the ground is a place of beauty.

Sheikhs and labourers pray side by side. Arrivals include Ford pick-ups packed with workers, and SUVs with television screens, their seats full of children dressed in their new Eid clothes, girls in glittering gowns and boys with new prayer mats.

Women form a black band behind men gathered at the front. Beyond the wall, a handful of prisoners in shackles pray beside their guards.

Once again, the prayer ground brings people together.