Through the keyhole: Al Ain’s hidden gems

British-born photographer Alex Jeffries moved to the UAE in 1996, but his passion for Al Ain, one of Abu Dhabi's cities, can be traced back to childhood. He shares with some of his intriguing imagery taken to record its unique and quirky history

Alex Jeffries 20-years’ experience as a professional photographer make him well-qualified for the creative industry that he works in, but it is a personal passion for one of the lesser know emirates, Al Ain, that his latest project focuses upon.

As a child, Jeffries often visited his father who worked as an engineer for the Royal Oman Police, and it was his encounters on these trips that piqued his interest in the Arab World. “I visited my father regularly from the UK during school holidays. I loved the people, the culture, the beautiful scenery and environment. The adventurer in me began to visit Al Ain, mostly to see the oases and old forts, but before too long I couldn't resist the emirate’s rustic beauty.”

Al Ain is largely untouched by the oil riches that have changed the landscape of other cities in the region, there are no skyscrapers or 10-lane highways, and looking out across the skyline the tallest buildings are the mosque minarets, while sprinkled in amongst these there are friendly drycleaners and beautiful little abaya shops.

Although it has thus far maintained a slower pace than elsewhere in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Jeffries’ concern that the way of life may soon be altered beyond recognition prompted his move to chronicle the quaint and quirky architecture located throughout the neighbourhoods in a new book, Doors of Al Ain.

“Whenever I travel to visit places I like to photograph real life: alleyways, washing lines, people going about their usual life in a different location. There are intriguing doors everywhere in Al Ain that may soon be replaced by new designs in the next few years – these old buildings and features may one day be gone.”

Jeffries’ project fuelled further exploration of the emirate as he went in search of obscure doors and hidden oases, and he was surprised by what he uncovered. 

“There are still a lot of old buildings in Al Ain, down an alley, over a hill, at the end of a road. If you look a little further you'll be greeted by a little door, red or green or maybe blue, with perhaps a crescent moon, or a drawing of a palm tree on it. Often I found a mini majlis outside one of the doors, where friends and neighbours will sit and chat.

“The most telling thing I discovered on my travels looking at the doors, was how often they were open and inviting, especially during Ramadan. You have to consider the history of the people to understand why, it's such a beautiful thing.”