When we arrived at the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi for a highly anticipated visit, little were we aware of the almost seismic impact of pop singer Rhianna visiting the same mosque last October on an unsanctioned private tour for the purpose of shooting photos as part of her first ever concert appearance in the Emirate. Even in the face of western culture that sometimes bombards with constant streams of sensationalist news and image, it was still very surprising that almost nine months after Rhianna being ousted from the Mosque grounds she continued to have such impact on any and all that visit. Even though she had dressed herself head to toe in a black jumpsuit with a scarf covered head, she so immensely upset the status quo and local sensibilities with her provocative poses blasted all over social media that everywhere we went shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people we encountered, all spoke about Rhianna as though it were "breaking" news, a fresh wound, a continuing indignity.
We thought we were careful in choosing our attire, intending to show only the utmost respect, but that was based upon the pre-Rhianna world. In the post-'poser' world, there is now a sign as you enter the compound depicting "right" and "wrong" ways to dress before you enter the Mosque and, in this regard, at least one of us, apparently failed the "modesty" test and was thus immediately directed to the basement to change into a borrowed abaya to cover up for "inappropriate" dress. Feeling like an unfortunate victim of the transgressions of a certain pop singer, writer Hoffman emerged draped in full cover up and thus passed the dictates of decency and taste. We both then entered the mosque with a group of school children lined up at the entrance, none of whom had any dress issues because of Rhianna.
We were not disappointed once we finally passed through the portal! Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest religious center in the United Arab Emirates and the 8th largest Mosque in the world. The equivalent of five football fields it was built from 1996 to 2007 and was quite beautiful in appearance and moving in effect on us. The compound can hold up to 40,000 worshippers and the design is inspired by Persian, Mughal and Moorish influence. Abu Dhabi sees a core mission in reaching out cross-culturally to others and sees the development of Sheikh Zayed as a fulfillment of that mission by providing a center for cultural tourism. The Mosque was inspired by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first President of the United Arab Emirates and long-time ruler of Abu Dhabi who saw the structure as an immense dream, an ever-present white structure, adorned in jewels and grand in its endless marble outlay and decorative touches.
Our personal "immense dream" also expressed itself more secularly with our stay at the Shangri-La Hotel, the Mosque literally in an eyes distance of the hotel. Shangri-La, as the name implies, is a magical place; an Arabian oasis connected by winding waterways featuring Arabic traditional boats known as Abras. The customer service was extraordinary. Honestly, it was a very different sensibility than what we have experienced in most hotel stays.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque put its own unique stamp on our experience. Any commotion caused by last October 's incident is mere noise in comparison to having had the opportunity to spend time at the Mosque. If Rhianna's antics somehow encourage people to visit Sheikh Zayed then she will have at least accomplished something lasting.