"My Secret City" is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.
When I tell other Americans that I have been living in Abu Dhabi for seven years, I’m often confronted with what I call The Look. Its exact composition could probably be broken down into 23 percent wariness and 77 percent abject horror—allotting perhaps a small variance for envy and intrigue if the listener has spent time perusing heavily filtered travel photos on Instagram. (Ooh! Sand dunes!) Most know Abu Dhabi as that place where Vin Diesel nonchalantly jumped a sports car between three skyscrapers; where Carrie Bradshaw shopped a lot while wearing impractical ballgowns through ancient labyrinthine markets. But Abu Dhabi is also somewhere in that whole tumultuous Middle East region; its widely held image is a hypermodern city comprised of lavish wealth, intangible danger, and Orientalist exoticism—a live-action Aladdin meets “The Jetsons” on steroids.
Those expectations don’t leave much room for a gay Iranian couple harmonizing ’90s Tagalog ballads. Or the diverse mix of Filipino, Arab and African revelers signing along with them. But they do all fit nicely—well, maybe a little snugly—into Tambayan, the karaoke bar at Al Ain Palace Hotel, a squat cement building abutting a parking lot filled with nondescript cars, the likes of which Vin Diesel probably hasn’t driven since high school.
The first thing to know about Al Ain Palace Hotel is that it is a misnomer. It is not in Al Ain—a lush oasis town on the Omani border where many of the UAE’s semi-nomadic residents would summer before the advent of air-conditioning—but in a utilitarian Abu Dhabi neighborhood of low-rise concrete structures housing South Asian cafeterias and tailors. It is also decidedly not a palace. At 49 years old, the unassuming 110-room hotel is older than the UAE itself by a full four years. When I first walked inside a hotel older than a nation, I decided I could probably forgive the lingering odor of stale cigarettes and a slightly misleading superlative name—though, seven years later, it’s still hard to forgive the cavernous lobby clad in tired orange upholstery and various shades of tan tile.
With a cold Thai Singha beer firmly in hand, the rowdiness of Tambayan can be fully appreciated. Inside the bar, an eclectic jumble of campy nautical-themed rope chandeliers and textured saxophone paintings hang from low ceilings while Soul Ignition—Tambayan’s house Filipino cover band—rocks out on a small stage. Colored lights swirl frenetically around the keyboardist and drummer as two female singers in matching red jumpsuits with hair swishing past their shoulders waste no time kicking off a Celine Dion medley of tightly choreographed dance moves. As the keyboardist bangs out the penny-whistle solo of “My Heart Will Go On,” the lead singer, Negra, belts the final key change while gesticulating with the fervor of Christina Aguilera.
For forty minutes, Negra and Soul Ignition assault the crowd with a barrage of dance moves, vocal riffs, and dramatic poses that would make RuPaul take notice. The two female singers wink and smile through each song with the impeccable timing of a ’60s girl group, while Negra blows kisses to both sides of the stage through a few more Top 40 hits. As faultless as their repertoire of American pop music is (yes to more dramatic Whitney Houston ballads, please), what makes their sets most remarkable is their language versatility.
Between numbers, the band’s banter modulates fluidly between Tagalog and English, code-switching between the two with a smattering of Arabic and Emirati slang to speak to the full range of audience members from the Philippines, East Asia, Africa, and the Arab world. “It’s like we are teaching at a primary language school in here tonight!” Negra says in English after patiently leading a group of Moroccan men through the chorus of a rowdy Tagalog song.
The diverse mix at the bar mirrors Abu Dhabi as a whole. UN data estimates that expatriates comprise roughly 85 percent of the UAE’s overall population—the majority hail from South Asia and the Philippines—a number that boomed in response to the country’s oil and gas exploration and related economic expansion from the 1960s onward. And like the city, Tambayan is inhabited mostly by working-class migrants: tables of Filipino retail clerks, Nepali taxi drivers, and Indian construction foremen who support families by sending monthly remittances back to their home countries.
As the set progresses, the audience generates much of the music choice, throwing napkins scrawled with song titles in different languages into an empty champagne cooler. Negra pulls each one out with the flair of a magician.
“Anak!” Negra shouts the name of the ’70s Tagalog song by Freddie Aguilar with faux-surprise when a young Ethiopian man timidly walks forward to request it. “I have taught you well!”
“Challenge us more than that!” One of the female singers yells to the audience, grinning devilishly. “We will all learn language tonight!” The whole band huddles around their phones between sets, clicking through YouTube to learn the lyrics and melody of unfamiliar requests.
As Soul Ignition wraps up the first of its five sets with a final chorus of Sharkira’s “Waka Waka,” Negra hands the microphone off with a flourish to a Filipino audience member stretching his neck like he’s preparing for a marathon. “Enjoy karaoke!” Negra shouts into the microphone, exiting the stage with a cheeky curtsy.
“I just got to Abu Dhabi last week!” the neck-stretcher excitedly shouts into the microphone as he holds it too close to his mouth, apologizing for the feedback before seamlessly crooning his way through two songs.
The Filipinos in the audience cheer loudly through his short set. Later, a drunk singer will tell me (twice) that it was a compatriot who invented the karaoke machine.
But not just Filipinos step forward to try their hand at Tagalog songs. When one nervous Jordanian man sings “Bakit Pa”—a Tagalog standard by ’90s karaoke queen Jessa Zaargoza— the crowd breaks into cheers after the first few notes. One table even buys him a bucket of Heinekens.
And, like Soul Ignition’s repertoire, the catalogue of karaoke songs expands well past Tagalog. A few songs later, a doughy Egyptian man confidently grabs the microphone to sing “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” a 1961 English-language ballad by Sue Thompson. As soon as the instrumentation begins, a greying Emirati man grabs his Filipino partner by the arm and drags her into the center of the crowd. Squeezing between tables to create their own dance floor, the crowd clears respectfully, forming a small space for them to twirl back and forth.
“I knew this song from when I studied at university in the States in the ’70s,” he explains to me later at the bar, buying me another Singha. “She knows it because it was popular again in Manila at the same time by a different singer,” he says, sweat gathering beneath the gutra on his head. “Later, I’ll try to get her to dance to Arabic music too. It’s give and take!” And then he’s back to the center of the floor, waiting eagerly for the next song.
It gets smoky inside the bar pretty quickly, and if I have any chance of crushing my go-to song (“Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” if you must ask), I need a little fresh air. Pushing my way through the hotel’s revolving door, I nearly bump into the new Filipino guy with his arm wrapped firmly around the shoulder of a brawny middle-aged Lebanese man from the adjacent table in Tambayan. It’s clear the Lebanese man has lived in Abu Dhabi for a while because he’s deep in the kind of reminiscent talk that comes out when you’re happy and glowing and very drunk.
After conversation naturally trails off and a few moments of silence pass, the Lebanese man starts walking in the other direction. His new friend shouts after him, teasing him for leaving so early.
“I’m only going to one of the other bars upstairs! Come, brother!” the Lebanese guy shouts to his new kin in Arabic, waving him down. The Filipino man looks baffled, clearly not expecting the four other Filipino bars like Tambayan jammed into this one hotel, packed with Abu Dhabi residents from all over the world, laughing, clapping, and enthusiastically shouting choruses in a key too high for them.
The eager Filipino guy follows. Standing outside alone with all the Toyota Carolas in that big parking lot, I realize I’m a bit cold and remember that the biting winter wind was one of the most unexpected things when I landed in Abu Dhabi from New York.
The past seven years have brought my own adventure—one that I was repeatedly cautioned before my arrival not to expect. As a student of Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture, I was advised by several Americans that I would struggle to break into circles to “speak the language” or “find the culture” in this town. But after all these songs in Urdu, English, Tagalog, Hindi, and Arabic, I don’t recognize whatever monoliths they were talking about—but I am pretty sure they never walked deep enough into a place like the Al Ain Palace Hotel to challenge their own assumptions about the city’s identity.
The cold wind picks up and I figure it’s probably time for me to head back inside—I’ve got to wow an audience with a little Elton John (and probably sing along with a bit more Tagalog). There are plenty of surprises left tonight in Abu Dhabi.