x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Ali Story: memories of Budapest's 'ocean'

To me, Hungary is the beautiful sound of cold air in the trees and it is my memories of my first river, my first "ocean" waves, my first drawing on the ground and my first attempt to be understood.

In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

When I was 9 years old I went to Budapest. That was where I first saw a river and where I stood in an ocean for the first time and was knocked down by the waves, screaming with delight.

I remember my father telling me to get my swimming trunks because we were going to the ocean; even as a child I was confused. I knew that Hungary was a country surrounded by countries. Of course the "ocean" was fake. It was a pool with a wave machine, but to me it was amazing. They don't have access to the ocean? They build one. It opened my mind to what was possible. I remember looking around. There were people from all over the world, all strangers but I felt this bond; we were all waiting for the same moment together, for the wave to wash over us.

As a child I was very small for my age - I used to get called "Jaik", which in our Arabic Emirati dialect means "too little". Every time the wave hit I was washed up to the other side of the pool while my elder sister, who was with us on that trip, stood firm.

I became closer to my sister on that trip too. I saw how she was looking out for me and trying to protect me. She was worried perhaps I would touch a woman by accident. She didn't know how I would react to seeing women in their bikinis. But I had been in Spain; I had already seen that people are different and that it is okay. You are still you and true to what you believe.

I have my father to thank for that lesson and for the memory of that day. That was the day I started to enjoy Hungary. My father had told my sister and I that we would love it but we could not understand the language; it all looked so old, like walking around a huge museum, and the people did not smile easily. My first impressions were not good.

We had rented an apartment. It was on the seventh floor with an old fashioned lift - the sort you have to pull the cage doors open and shut. As we arrived an old woman got out of the lift. She had a shawl on her head so I wondered if she was Muslim. She had a loaf of bread under her arm. It was like something out of a black and white movie.

I was carrying my panda bag. I'm embarrassed to say I always had it; it was like a cuddly toy and a bag in one. The old woman didn't smile - we must have looked a strange group to her - I was holding my father's hand and I remember squeezing it. I always did that when I was nervous and when somebody didn't smile, I felt that way. A smile is like a release. That's why in my speaking engagements today I always tell my audience that my energy comes from them and their smiles.

My father did not talk when we were travelling but when we arrived at a place he would say: "This is how it will work: Rule 1, don't open the door to anybody. Rule 2, I have to do x, y and z. There is food here for you, you are safe here ..." and so on. He had a clever way of showing us where we were. He took us on the bus and as we were riding he would suddenly say: "Look at that tree!" or "Look! An ice cream shop." We walked back the same way that the bus had gone, stopped in that shop and we looked at that tree so we recognised the path. He was preparing us in case we got lost. His style is where I got some of my own story telling style when I speak.

One day, my sister was being lazy and I was hungry. I wanted her to cook me an egg but she said: "No. We have no olive oil." What could I do? I went to the window and looked out and there were two beautiful girls playing in the communal park below. They were drawing with chalk on the ground. I thought: "Maybe they have olive oil!"

So I went downstairs. They smiled at me. I walked up to them, took the chalk and tried to write O-I-L but they didn't understand. Then I started drawing. I drew a pan and fire, I drew a chicken and eggs and I pointed and gestured but they didn't understand.

At that moment my father returned. He asked, "What are you doing?" When I explained, he said: "Since when does olive oil come from a chicken?" The girls began to laugh when they finally understood. He said: "Why did you not draw an olive tree?" I said, "But I have never seen one. I can only draw what I know." Was I innocent or what?

The more I have travelled, the more I have seen, the more I can communicate. To me, Hungary is the beautiful sound of cold air in the trees and it is my memories of my first river, my first "ocean" waves, my first drawing on the ground and my first attempt to be understood.

It helped me appreciate that human beings can always adapt if you are patient enough and that you can communicate with anyone. However, it takes time and you must develop your skills.