Dérive of Abu Dhabi – Rose Martinez

In TimeOut Abu Dhabi’s January 23-29 edition, Yas Waterworld is featured on the front page, and Al Bahar Towers, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Corniche and other resorts and hotels are pictured in the article “Instagram Abu Dhabi”. Timeout magazine is a tourist’s guide to the main attractions or, as novelist George Perec says in Approaches to What?, the “extra-ordinary” places of a city. Does one really get to see or get a feel for what a city is like by going to those destinations? Tourists may end up creating a partial or distorted image of a city, in this case of Abu Dhabi. Perec states that even locals overlook, go about their day ignoring the “the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual.”  Perec goes on to say that the “trivial and futile” are “just as essential” when looking for “truth” or in understanding a city and its inhabitants. Through a dérive—a random passage through or wandering of a place in order to encounter new and authentic experiences—of Abu Dhabi, I was not only able to pay attention to the things that go unnoticed, such as litter, but to draw relations or question the physical and social aspects of the city.

Guy Debord, a situationist theorist, in Theory of the Dérive, defines derive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” which “involve playful constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.”  A dérive is different from a stroll  because in a group of 2 or more (for “playful constructive behavior” or feedback) you are reacting and responding to the varied possibilities of the environment, the “psychogeographical effects”. A city provides more opportunity or chances of varied environments. However, Debord says that you have to be aware of the limitations of chance as cities have “constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones”. Those “constant currents” that pull you in or “fixed points” that keep you in, can be those main attractions found in Timeout magazine, in which the tourism industry is the force behind the current. Or, what Debord was getting at, the dérive is a tool to get out of the routine or current by experiencing a new store you have never been to, while at the same time being aware of those currents, whether noticeable or not. Perec addresses unnoticeable currents. Unveiling or bringing to the foreground the “obvious, the common, [or] the ordinary…” can be a new and authentic experience as well, despite walking by ‘the common’ every day. Although the attractions, like the Grand Mosque, Emirates Palace, and the Corniche are wonderful and luxurious sites to visit and experience, these sites do not help you understand or question the important aspects of the city—the everyday life.

Part of my study abroad orientation, Global Education took us on a bus tour of Abu Dhabi. On this tour the driver took us by the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Heritage Village, Yas Island, Marina Mall, and the Corniche. Those destinations are big tourist sites and musts.  The tour left me with a superficial or one-sided overview of Abu Dhabi. However, I did begin to notice the highway, expressway and roads of Abu Dhabi, how car dominated the city is compared to New York (yet I heard that Abu Dhabi is rather walkable compared to cities like Riyadh). The expressways and lanes are necessary to get to the big tourist sites and the tourism industry must have had influences in the development of the city.  The editor’s introduction to Perec’s Approaches to What? says that “Perec’s task then is to foreground what is continually missed when traditional notions of significance are applied”. The traditional notions of significance are those tourist destinations that are highlighted in the news and magazines. Perec is irritated that the ordinary is forgotten and asks how one should give it a “tongue”. Perec answers with description and by asking trivial questions like, how, where, when, or why ‘bricks’, ‘concrete’, or ‘our rhythms?’  The Dérive app, a web based application that guides you through a dérive of the city by the randomization of task cards with instructions like walk two blocks and then turn right. The app not only guides you through a random tour of the city but also guides you in forming trivial questions of the everyday life in the city.

Derive #1, Friday February 1st, 2013

1. Follow a phone user
3. Find a dustbin
5. Find and pick up a piece of litter
7.  Find a crowd
2. Follow something red
4.  Move west
6. Find a traffic light


Beginning at the door of NYU Downtown Campus, searching for a phone user was easy. A NYUAD security presumably on break was using his cellphone. The next task card, follow something red, made my group (Professor Menoret, Babak, Nushkia, Daniel, and I) head towards Sama Tower. The only red object insight was Alex’s red bag. The next task card, find a dustbin, my group had a conversation of what counted as a dustbin, as we passed a dumpster. We decided to see if stores nearby had dustbins as there were no street dustbins in site. At a variety/dollar store, we found dustbins on sale. Heading west, the next task was to find and pick up a piece of litter. Litter is something that is definitely “infra-ordinary” as George Perec says. This task made me notice how clean the streets of Abu Dhabi are as compared to New York, so clean that I begin to notice the mop and bucket laying on the side of stores. What does the mop and bucket reflect? Is there a regulation that stipulates that store or building owners must keep clean their part of the sidewalk or street? Is there a sanitation truck that sweeps the streets?

The next task card, find a traffic light, made me notice that there aren’t traffic lights at every street and corner, as there is in New York. Heading to a traffic intersection, a multiple lane expressway, for traffic lights, I noticed a fancy street dustbin. The bin is fancier than usual; this could be because we were walking along a pedestrian walkway near a traffic intersection where at the other side of the intersection stood a set of shiny tall buildings. The next task, find a crowd, made us realize we had passed a crowd of men while looking for a traffic light. We headed back towards them. The crowd was predominantly, if not exclusively men. Where are the women?  Are the women home or did these men leave their families behind when they emigrated here?IMAGE 1A

The crowd of men was at a strip of decaying apartment buildings and deteriorating or abandoned storefronts. On a storefront window pane there was a sign that read something like, “This store has moved to ‘X’ place”. Why is the store moving? Why are these buildings decaying? Is there an urban renewal project in mind? If the store is moving why are the men gathering here?

8. Follow a shopper
10.  Search for public transit and follow it if you can
9. Find silence.


The next task, follow a shopper, led us to the Central Souk. The Central Souk is a mall, one of the many malls I have heard there are and seen in Abu Dhabi. Even though there was less activity in the streets as Friday is a weekend day, we assumed there would be at least one person shopping at the souk.  As inconspicuously as we could, we followed a middle to older aged woman from the central souk into an alley behind tall apartment/office space buildings. The women led us straight to her residency. This place was a hidden alley that we wouldn’t have otherwise ever ventured to. The ambience here was really different. It was enclosed, narrow, quiet, shaded area where sounds echoed off the buildings. The tall buildings being so close to one another created abstract figures on the sky when looking up and permit only for small slits of light to pass through into the alley.


This place is definitely a chance of ‘psychogeographical variation’. The next task, find silence, led us into a building in which the elevator had Egyptian hieroglyphics as a wall pattern and from the elevator into an empty suite. Why was this space empty? Or more importantly, would we have gained such easily entry to this space if it weren’t Friday morning?

11. Follow a couple
13. Follow something black
15. Move east
17. Find a couple
19. Find sound
21. Follow something green
12.  Ask someone for their favorite building
14. Turn right in 2 blocks
16.  Look for a dog and move away from it
18. Find a dustbin
20.  Turn left in 2 blocks
22.  Sit for 2 minutes

Following a couple we weren’t sure were tourists, led us to a park. Along the fence of the park there was cat food and a plastic bowl of water. The only other place I have seen stray cats was when I visited the Corniche. Why are stray cats fed? Are they strays? Who feeds them? Are you allowed to feed stray cats? How are stray cats treated? Is there a big stray population? Do these cats keep rats away?IMAGE 4

The park from within is a nice oasis from tall buildings and traffic. However, you still have a view on all four sides of the park tall buildings. It reminds me of reminds me of a mini version of Central Park in New York which is also surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. The park was neither full of people nor empty. How often do people frequent the park? Who frequents the park? How many public parks are there in Abu Dhabi? How are the parks distributed throughout the city?

Dérrive #2, Saturday February 2nd, 2013

1. Move south
3. Observe something Egyptian
5.  Follow a dog-walker
7. Find a juice seller, buy a drink if you’re thirsty
9. Find sound
2. Take note of urban decay
4.  Find a street light
6. Listen to Arabic being spoken
8.  Move east
10. Turn around


For our second dérive, we had created task cards specific to Abu Dhabi; tasks inspired by our first dérive with Dérive app’s general urban deck. Many of the things we noted or questioned during the first dérive became the subject or directives of Abu Dhabi specific task cards. ‘Take note of urban decay’ was the task card I created after the contrast between deteriorating buildings and shiny new towers made an impression on me. Cat should replace dog in the directive ‘follow a dog and walk away from it’. ‘Find something that is ‘ladies only’. If you are of the right sex, check it out’, ‘Diagonally cross a hyperblock’, ‘Follow the tallest building for 7 minutes,’ ‘Find a palm tree,’ ‘Figure out the direction of Mecca and walk towards it,’ “Find a license plate, numbered lower than 3000,’ and ‘Listen to the different air conditioning sounds around you’ are trivial, mundane directives that get you thinking about and responding to the everyday life. Most importantly, questions of the everyday life might reveal things about the extra-ordinary.  You might begin to see how extra-ordinary events affect or may not affect the everyday life. For example, the directive ‘Diagonally cross a hyperblock,’ an individual may have been able to diagonally cross the hyperblock in a straight line, but because of how the buildings are situated within the block will be forced to make turns to return to the diagonal. The question that arises is how is my everyday life affected by something big like Abu Dhabi’s grid?

Text and images by Rose Martinez



What is Dérive app

Dérive app gets you lost in your city and lets you share that experience with others. Build your own task cards and invite others to play with you.

Immersed on the path of the gospel

Angela Reinders is based in Aachen, in Germany, and recently used Dérive app as part of a liturgical service. She’s providing a writeup of her experience. Getting hints and tasks to stop and move without even moving, does this make any sense? Sounds like kind of a play, and yes, it is one: Following famous