Distraction Free Reading

Abu Dhabi Soundmarks: Building Community in the Midst of the Pandemic, One Voice at a Time

Editor’s note: This post is the fifth in our five-part series “COVID-19: Views from the Field.” Click here to read an introduction written by series organizer Rebekah Ciribassi.

Editor’s note: Click the links throughout the article to experience the soundscape of Abu Dhabi under COVID-19

In March 2020, I arrived in Abu Dhabi from the island of Sardinia, Italy, to shelter in place with family members, here. As I recently documented elsewhere, after the lockdown was imposed in Italy, the soundscape of that place, and especially the culture of talking, physical contact and making face-to-face music, changed significantly.

Here in the United Arab Emirates (the UAE), a place I didn’t initially plan to be during this time and where I am observing a national stay-at-home order, the urban soundscape—songs, sounds, voices and prayers—has also shifted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are uniquely culturally inflected and place-based. In this piece, I explore how nationalism, belonging and religious identity have shaped the soundmarks, or “the things that make the soundscape of a place different from any other place in the world” (Guzy 2017) and experience of living on lockdown in the Arabian peninsula.

Abu Dhabi: Internal Contradictions

This is my third visit to the Arabian gulf and to Abu Dhabi; it’s a place I’ve come primarily as a visitor, and never in my capacity as a researcher. As an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, my ethnographic work ‘til now has focused on the Navajo Nation in my book, The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language and Diné Belonging (2017), in the American southwest, and, more recently, in Sardinia (2019 and forthcoming). Here, I am struck by the many contradictions of this young country which was founded in 1971: extreme and recent wealth, shimmering high rises, women with luxury-brand hand bags and shoes, clean and beautifully maintained public spaces and parks, free public parking, mandatory health insurance for all residents, citizens and non-citizens, and an extreme and genuine love for country on the part of Emirati citizens I have met.

Photograph of buildings at night. A full moon is in the sky.

facilities workers playing the national anthem on their portable speaker system around the apartment complex

For example, two Thursdays ago, we noticed grounds keepers at the apartment complex where I am staying setting up a large, portable sound system, and testing it with a few Arabic pop music tunes. A few hours later, we hear a song playing on repeat, off in the distance, people clapping and singing along to it. A few minutes later, three employees, face masks on, wheel the unwieldy sound system to the entrance to our unit, letting the song play, at full volume, two times through. It was the Emirati National Anthem, “Ishy Bilady (‘Long Live my Country’)”  a highly produced, pop-inflected song featuring a skilled male vocalist.

While there have been shortages of facemasks and rubber gloves in Italy and the US, the UAE’s tremendous oil wealth translates to availability of these protective supplies for all. There are thermal scanners in each mall entrance, employees who individually take your temperature when you enter the grocery store, and the over thirteen COVID-19 testing centers recently built in the span of ten days, with the goal of creating enough centers to test each resident or citizen—almost 10 million, total—nationwide (Webster, Haza & Dajani 2020). On the rare occasions I have left the apartment over the last eight weeks to walk to the grocery store, I feel safe and that the epidemic, while grave, is largely under control here.

At the same time, the UAE is a country built on the backs of migrant labor (80% of Emirates residents are from elsewhere), where outsiders greatly outnumber Emirati nationals. These same immigrants, the majority of them from India and Pakistan (roughly 40% of the country’s residents), live here their entire lives, raise their families here, but can never become citizens (nor can their children; there is no birthright citizenship), and are returned to their country of origin the day after their work permit expires. In the case of female migrant domestic workers, for example, who willingly come to the UAE to work, they must be sponsored by the family that hires them, meaning that, when they arrive, they are often required to surrender their passport to their employer (Halabi 2008: 43).[1] In the cases where workers are legally bound to their employers, sponsors can exercise a huge amount of power over the lives of their contracted employees, and breaking work contracts can be so costly that domestic workers remain in untenable employment situations because they have no other options left (Halabi 2008: 44; Khalaf & Alkobaisi 1999).

Aesthetically, we see the distinctions between citizens and non-citizens through different dressing styles, where many Emirati men typically dress in a long-sleeved, white ankle length garment called a kandura and an optional white cloth headdress called a ghutra, and Muslim women often wear a black angle-length garment, called the abaya, and sometimes also cover their heads in a hijab[2] or veil. There is a huge amount of variation in style of both abaya and hijab, and I love to see the creativity that goes into these dressing choices as a form of personal expression. At the grocery store, there are detergents sold to specifically launder these items, to maintain the blackest black and whitest white of these garments. During the pandemic, we see these same differences between citizens and non-citizens play out in the choices of protective hand covering, for example: at the grocery store, hands are divided by those who put on clear rubber gloves, supplied by the supermarket at the entrance, and those who enter with their hands already covered, often in elegant black gloves made of leather or stretchy cloth, worn as additional protection and donned to match the color of one’s abaya and headscarf. In this and in other ways, the line in the sand between who is a citizen, and who is not, seems often sharp and immutable.

Shifting Soundscapes

In the UAE, the soundscape is also filled with the daily call-to-prayer from the multiple mosques within hearing distance. As of March 14th, religious events and Friday prayers in all mosques have been canceled for an indefinite period, as they have been across the Arabian Peninsula. While this iconic sound—the adhan—has continued, the prayer has shifted in two critical ways. First, according to local imams, the language of the call itself has changed for the first time in Muslim history. Now, instead of “come to prayer” (“hayya alas-salah”), the muezzins (callers) are reciting the words: “pray where you are” (“al-salatufi buyutiku”), reinforcing the national stay-at-home order. Second, since people are no longer lining up to pray at the mosque, the second call to prayer (iqama), typically delivered more quickly and in a more guttural, spoken voice immediately before the prayer begins, has also been eliminated. So, the absence of this second, reassuring sound is also felt as a new soundmark in the landscape.

The call to prayer is broadcast live, five times a day, from the prayer hall of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and then transmitted through loudspeakers from the minarets (towers) to over 200 mosques throughout the city. In Abu Dhabi, four highly skilled muezzins share this job, each of them specializing in their own version of reciting the call, each with their own elocution of the words, each using their own maqam or mode (similar to a scale) uniquely suited to their voice. Like Indian ragas, each maqam has its own personality and distinct sound, and allows the muezzin to musically improvise in ways specific to that mode and to the pitch and color their voice (Saeed 2011). Aesthetically, the skill of the caller is based on the sound of the voice, creating an “auditory faith space” (McPherson in Eidsheim & Meizel 2019: 440) where the beauty of the voice and the elocution of the words takes precedence in the assessment of both the quality and sincerity of the muezzin. These four very different voices accompany us throughout our days under lockdown, making the experience of being here feel irreplaceable and unique to Abu Dhabi.

Building Community

New rituals have also been added to the millennial ritual of the call-to-prayer. I now see middle-aged women in their morning jogging clothes, mainly French expatriates, talking to each other over the hedge of the walking path, masks on, straining to hear one another while observing the stringent social distancing guidelines. On our own morning walks, we now sometimes see a young father, on his third-floor balcony, completing an up-beat workout routine to a Bollywood soundtrack, with his three year-old daughter in his arms, bouncing up and down in time to the music. We have also participated in a ritual that sprung up spontaneously in the third week of March: the 8:00 pm “balcony call.” For around 120 seconds each night, families and individuals living in our wing of a large, sterile and suburban apartment complex, come out onto our balconies to make communal noise together and to thank essential workers around the country, such as medical workers returning home on the Cleveland Clinic shuttle bus to our complex. Balconies are adorned with red, black, green and white Emirati flags and large rainbow drawings; on these balconies, we can see young children with their young Filipina caretakers (a common sight throughout the Emirates), families, and individuals living by themselves. Residents are from all over the world; it’s chaotic, boisterous, and anything goes. I bang a wooden spoon against a pot, one neighbor claps, another woops, others playfully sing brief melodic fragments of well-known tunes. Many people hold candles and illuminated cell phones, some shine flashlights on adjacent buildings, and others simply stand and silently witness the scene. Perhaps most unusual, for the last few sessions, someone, from somewhere in the complex, honks what sounds like a very loud, flatulent-sounding fire engine horn. It’s always unexpected and makes us laugh, a sound that seems completely out-of-place yet deliciously welcome for that reason. National pride remains strongly intact during these events, both for guests and citizens. Last night, at the end of our two-minute cheering session, I saw a boy who looked to be around 8 or 9 waving an Emirati flag from his balcony. He then called out in a high-pitched voice into the courtyard: “thanks, UAE!”

Like the call-to-prayer, the timing of what in Italy they call a “sonorous flash mob” is inflected by both place and the specificity of the pandemic. First, since there is a night-time curfew imposed from 8:00 pm-6:00 a.m. (called the “national sterilization campaign,” now 10:00-6:00 a.m.,

An emergency alert on a cell phone screen in Arabic and English reading "The national sertilization program will be in process from 8:00 PM today until 6:00 AM tomorrow for your safety, please comply with instructions to stay home. (AD Police)

An emergency alert on a cell phone screen in Arabic and English reading “The national sertilization program will be in process from 8:00 PM today until 6:00 AM tomorrow for your safety, please comply with instructions to stay home. (AD Police)

our event is timed to begin with the onset of the curfew. So, it becomes a sort of making lemonade out of lemons, creating a feeling of “alone, together” out of our homebound and socially-distanced isolation. Second, since music and other sound is not supposed to be made during the call-to-prayer, our flash mob also waits until after the final evening call-to-prayer, isha, has sounded and finished. Since isha occurs a fixed number of minutes after sunset (ca. 90 minutes) and thus changes by a few minutes each evening (Katiya 2007), our most recent flash mobs began at 20:02, then 20:04, and right now (as of 4/18) begin at around 20:15. Last, our flashmob is sometimes timed to coincide with the arrival of the Cleveland Clinic shuttle bus, a bus which arrives each evening bringing medical workers back from this hospital to their homes in the complex. So, our flash mob becomes a way to thank the country’s medical workers, and specifically to thank those living in our complex.

New Rituals in a Siloed World

I love this particular coming together and the unique moment it represents. I appreciate how, in this siloed apartment complex that feels like the glitz of Las Vegas meets the scorching heat of Phoenix meets the sounds and smells of the Arabian gulf, people are choosing, if ever so briefly, to reach out to one another of their own volition. If we as human beings find sanity and community through the creation of structure and ritual, then this new ritual is our own way of searching for sanity amidst the chaos of the pandemic, with so many plans, lives and livelihoods upended. This ritual, as with so many human communities, is also tenuous and fragile: last night, for example, it didn’t happen, and so we wonder whether it will again, tonight, or whether it will perhaps be replaced by a different set of sounds in the Abu Dhabi soundscape.

UPDATE, 5/08/2020:

Eight weeks into the stay-at-home order in Abu Dhabi and after beginning jotting down initial thoughts for this piece, life here has begun to feel like the “new normal.” I do not yet know when I will be able to re-enter Sardinia, to complete my quarantine and retrieve my belongings, there, and eventually return to New Mexico for the school year, ahead. I also know that many of us in this pandemic do not have the luxury of what some are calling the “white collar quarantine” (Scheiber, Schwartz & Hsu 2020) and that I am in a position of tremendous privilege compared to many other non-nationals living in the UAE. Instead, as a songwriting anthropologist, I’ve begun collaborating and writing songs over Zoom with interlocutors/artists in Sardinia and in the U.S. and with other Fulbright scholars sheltering in place in various corners of the globe, about our shared experiences of the pandemic. The soundscapes which sounded so new and exotic to my ear when I arrived have faded more into the steady background hum of the rhythms of what has become my daily life. The shifts of songs, sounds, voices and prayers in Abu Dhabi have become a part of not just a collective soundmark belonging to this place, but of my own personal soundmark, however fragile and contingent that might be in this moment of change, uprooting and displacement for so many.

[1] The decision to hold onto an employee passport is made by individual employment agencies on a case by case basis, and is technically against UAE labor laws.

[2] The local variant of the hijab is called the sheila.


Thank you to translator Al Reem Al Hosani for her translation and cultural consultation on this piece.


Guzy, Marinna. 2017. “The Sound of Life: What Is a Soundscape?” Folklife, 5/04.

Katiya, Siddique. 2007. “Explanation of Muslim Prayer Timing.” ‘Aisha Charitable Support Services Montreal, Canada, http://www.as-sidq.org/articles/prayer.html.

McPherson, Eve. 2019. “Robot Imams: Standardizing, Centralizing and Debating the Voice of Islam in Millennial Turkey. The Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies, Nina Sun Eidsheim & Katherine Meizel, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saeed, Saeed. 2011. “Capital Muezzins: The Faces of Abu Dhabi’s Most Familiar Voices.” The National, 8/01.

Scheiber, Noam, Nelson D. Schwarz & Tiffany Hsu. 2020. “White-Collar Quarantine’ Over Virus Spotlights Class Divide.” New York Times, 3/30.

Webster, Nick, Ruba Haza & Haneen Dajani. 2020. “Coronavirus: UAE Boosts Testing Capacity as Thousands Visit Drive-through Centres.” The National, 4/12.


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