Vacant lots, the urban landscape and a place for prayer

The neighbourhood around these vacant lots, now turned into places of prayer, is a microcosm of the eclectic mix that is Abu Dhabi.

From time to time, Mohammad Heanif leaves his work in a tailor shop and goes to pray. Sometimes he goes alone; other times with friends. But Mr Heanif, a native of Chennai in India, does not go to a mosque. Instead he walks out the side door of a building in Abu Dhabi's Tanker Maiy neighbourhood and kneels on a prayer rug in a vacant lot that has been turned into a makeshift place of worship. Atop what appears to be part of a wooden cabinet, a speaker is often placed.

From it sounds the daily prayers. Below the speaker sits a beat-up wooden box filled with colourful prayer rugs for people to use. Anyone tempted to take them to keep seems warded off by their symbolic importance. Every day, this empty lot welcomes observers at all times. One night a man who seemed to be doing some sort of yoga spent at least an hour alone in the lot. For Mr Heanif, the vacant lot as a place to pray is a matter of convenience. He can easily slip out from work for a while. He says turning the lot into a place to pray is a natural fit.

Around the corner, rugs for people to pray on are scattered over another vacant lot. It is also a storage place for collected cardboard, neatly bundled to be used again. Like most vacant lots, litter is scattered about this one. A Pepsi can, the box for a toy called Space Shots, some food wrappers - a reminder perhaps that commerce will try to put its mark on just about any empty property. Whoever first decided to use the lots as places to pray certainly had no trouble convincing others that it was an appropriate use. Surely, no landowner was going to come by and say people could not pray there.

The neighbourhood around the vacant lots, now turned into places of prayer, is a microcosm of the eclectic mix that is Abu Dhabi. It features an Indian eaterie where South Asians make eating rice with their hands a truly skilful art. There is an Ethiopian coffee shop in which the waitresses act like beloved sisters ready to sit and listen to their customers' every concern. At the nearby shisha cafe, football is such a passion that crowds gather not just to watch Arab nations play, but also to root on others playing a video version of the game. There are, almost at every turn, the little grocery stores so prevalent here, stacked with the same brands of tuna, bread and cans of corn.

But for an American, it is the residents' choice of what do with the empty lots in the neighbourhood that stands out. Other cities I have called home have featured an around-the-globe array of eateries and gathering spots. In Washington's Adams Morgan neighbourhood, you can travel from a taste of Ethiopia to El Salvador to France in a few minutes' walk. But a vacant lot there would most likely be home to much different callings - a weekend flea market, a makeshift basketball court, a rallying spot.

This is not to say that religion does not have prominence in the landscape. Sixteenth Street, which abuts Adams Morgan, long ago earned the nickname Church Row. Among the houses of worship on the street are the Foundry Methodist, which Bill Clinton attended, and the First Baptist, where Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter worshipped. The Islamic Center of Washington is on the other side of Rock Creek Park on Massachusetts Avenue. Opened in 1957, it lies in the heart of the city's Embassy Row. Up the hill is the vice president's residence.

At the dedication of the Islamic Centre, the former US president Dwight Eisenhower said: "America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are." And so it is with the vacant lots in Tanker Maiy. For some residents not to see in them places in which to pray would indeed be for them not to be who they are.

For their sake, one hopes the developers stay away.