x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Ali Story: Teenage years at Abu Dhabi's Tourist Club

Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

Whenever I think of my teenage years in our beautiful capital of Abu Dhabi, I remember the places and venues that have either been removed or relocated, or are still there but not quite the same as they used to be.

The Tourist Club, which used to be located all the way at the beginning of Hamdan Street, is one place I just can't forget, even though it's now been replaced by a new mega residential and hotel project in the last few years. The entrance is still there, but behind it is just empty land.

The Tourist Club was almost like an assembly point for most residents on the island of Abu Dhabi. Many of the Arab expat families used to register there and obtained a membership to enjoy its facilities, from outdoor sports fields to indoor bowling alleys, and a wax skiing rink. Yes, that's right, we used to have a wax rink, on which most of us in Abu Dhabi actually learnt to skate, and we had wax before the ice rink was built at Zayed Sports City.

There was a lovely, small music cassette store that sold music from our favourite Arabic singers, as well as some international hits such as U Can't Touch This by MC Hammer, Beat It by Michael Jackson and I've Got the Power by someone I no longer remember ... the point is, this cassette store was something big back in the days at the Tourist Club.

There was also the beach that offered water sports activities, with lovely parks. There were alleys to walk in between and, finally, the great Italian Pizza restaurant, which I still remember had one famous face: "the friendly, smiley Indian dude", who knew almost every member of each family that visited the area, to the point where he would just see who was in the restaurant and simply punch our order into the till before we said anything because he knew what we wanted.

Those were really some amazing moments for me, because I actually had the best pizza from that restaurant and probably my first!

The club was really a highlight in my youth, because I got to meet many people from my city. I made lots of friends and participated in sports - playing table tennis and basketball with other boys from the city. I didn't even know all their names but everyone was just so friendly and so happy to play sports with each other without even caring who you were or where you were from.

It was really a great time to make lots of friends, but they were mainly Arab expats and not Emiratis. This is something I never thought of before, but it's true that at the Tourist Club most of its members were Arab expats and very few were Emirati families. I think that was one of the reasons why we, as a group of Emirati members were, in my opinion, lucky to get this opportunity to interact with other international and Arab expats. This played a magical role in shaping our mindset to accept and appreciate others much more readily than those who didn't open up and interact with the other international expats.

And here is something to shock you: even during the 1990s, when the Tourist Club was such a big thing in Abu Dhabi, most of us who visited it were wearing jeans and T-shirts most of the time. I can count how many times I wore the kandura when I visited the Club.Again, this is something that when I reflect on it I find myself answering a very important question: didn't my parents or friends worry that my national identity would be affected? Would my interactions with the Arab expats affect my national identity? The answer is no, it didn't. In fact, if anything, it added more positive values to my understanding and appreciating of my own culture and identity. Yes, I'm more into my national dress and, especially if I'm in the UAE, it's almost impossible to see me in jeans now - I have nothing against them at all, I just feel that I've tried everything and found my kandura is more comfortable to me than jeans.

The Tourist Club contributed a lot to my upbringing here in the capital, and I felt as if I have visited all of the Arab nations because the club had members from all of the Arab countries. Even though it was called Tourist Club, it rarely had any tourists visiting it - it was the residents who enjoyed it the most.