The United Arab Emirates is full of magnificent mosques, each a statement in itself with towering walls, solid doors, and minarets reaching to the heavens., The most impressive of these is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in UAE’s capital city Abu Dhabi constructed between 1996 and 2007. A photography assignment in 2009 took me to the expansive grounds of the largest mosque in the country. During this project I met a gentleman who refused to ever pray in the opulent building at Maghreb “because it was too extravagant” and this feeling of discomfort resonated with me.
I grew up in a small village in the UK—a very average Church of England education with my only understanding of the Middle East coming from BBC broadcasts beamed onto my family’s television screen. They were richly biased with antagonists preaching of ‘fatwa’ and ‘jihad’ and paid very little attention to the cultural stories of the Middle East. I have always considered myself open-minded and liberal, yet my journey towards understanding the real Middle East and shedding pre-programmed ethnocentric baggage has been as complex as it has been unexpected.
Much like the man I met at the Grand Mosque, I was daunted at the size of the establishment but for very different reasons. This inspired me to try to understand the concept of humility so crucial to Islam. This curiosity drove my interest to photograph not the iconic, opulent buildings but the other mosques. Scattered throughout the seven emirates (that make up the UAE) they are structures most people drive past everyday without a second glance. Almost invisible to passersby, they sit quietly within the barren landscape with exteriors scorched by a continuous and relentless sun. They are an oasis for travelers and a focal point for communities living in the very harshest of conditions.
Most of these small mosques were built with limited resources because of a pressing need for a place of prayer in smaller communities. As such they evolved into the scenery, exempting themselves from the strict structure and designs of the urban planner. They fade into the frantic background of everyday life, their humble statement a testament to the spirituality of those who toiled to build them. Although these mosques exist within a strict religious tradition, they are often eccentric and creative. Each one struck me because of some common characteristics: rich in individuality, resolute in purpose, and refusal to follow the constraints of roads or beaches while obediently facing Mecca.
This project has been a 10-year road trip through the UAE—a journey of several thousands of miles driving on the sun-scorched highways between sprawling urban centres such as Dubai and remote northernmost extremities of the Empty Quarter. Since beginning the project, I unexpectedly found myself developing a great affection for these buildings and my photographs have become my journey of understanding. I grew to appreciate how these mosques welcome anyone in need of shelter regardless of their religious affiliation. I wonder about all the lives that have crossed their thresholds and the stories these buildings can tell. I no longer see peeling paint but humility in all its rugged and tarnished beauty. The other mosques are disarming because they are simple, uncomplicated, and full of humanity.