x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Ali Story: Bittersweet memories of university in the US

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

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

My mum had tears in her eyes when she came to Abu Dhabi airport to see me off. I was bound for the US; my resit and scholarship had all happened so fast - I had had less than three weeks to pack up my things and say goodbye to my family. Despite her tears, Mum was clearly happy to see me back on track.

In a way, my journey to bridge cultures started right at the airport that day. Waiting for my boarding pass, I overheard two voices arguing in Arabic. My cousins, Mansoor and Salem, were both heading to Washington DC but didn't speak a word of English between them.

In fact, that's why they had enrolled at a US university – to learn English. When I saw they were having problems, I offered to help them get through the airport procedures. By doing so, I gained their undying gratitude. I was the same age as them but Arabs feel deeply obliged when you offer help. It's like they are beholden to you for life.

Once we had our boarding passes, we killed time by wandering around the duty-free shops. When the final call for boarding came, we couldn't find Mansoor. We went frantic and looked all over for him. We decided to board, Mansoor or no Mansoor, and when Salem and I got on the plane we found him happily ensconced in his seat!

We stuck together throughout our journey to Washington. It was refreshing to see how curious Mansoor and Salem were about their new home. I had travelled extensively in the UK and Europe but this was my first trip to the US. My initial impression of the capital city was comforting. Washington had the buzz and structured planning of a political capital, with huge swathes of greenery punctuated by stately buildings. But while I was taking in the scenery I was also thinking: "Wow, I'm in the land of Spider- Man, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and all the heroes of my teenage years."

We were warmly welcomed at the UAE Embassy. During our interviews with the cultural attaché we received our admission papers, welcome kit and our first stipend cheques. The three of us then trooped off to the University of North Carolina, in Charlotte. We spent our first night there in a hotel.

The next morning, Faisal Al Zahabbi, an older Emirati undergraduate, came to show us around and generously offered us the run of his three-bedroom house for the next few days until we got our bearings and our own apartment.

I had chosen the university because I had been under the impression that it was somewhere that enjoyed warm weather. However, on the day we arrived, the campus was totally snowed under. I rented an apartment and started my studies but simply couldn't adapt to the cold. I hate damp, cold or snowy weather, and quit after four months of utter discomfort. After considering a move to Boston, I switched to the Brevard Community College, Melbourne, on Florida's east coast, to pursue my degree in hotel management.

The other universities I had been to had a substantial Middle East student population, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and mingle with other nationalities. I was so grounded in the values of Islam that there was never any fear of losing them if I opened myself up to other cultural influences.

My student stipend was US$1,650 per month. It was to cover food, transport, accommodation and books. Part of the challenge of studying away from home was to learn life skills and financial management. Therefore, I looked around for opportunities to make some extra money. After a stint selling Nascar racing jackets at the local flea market, I started a restaurant with my Arab friend Adam. We called it the Middle East Buffet and chose a striking palm tree logo for it. It was on the university boulevard and it was to be launched on September 13, 2001. Or was it?

Two hours after disaster struck on 9/11, Adam called me to ask how I was feeling.

"I'm OK, but I'm thinking of alternative options," I said. "This will cost us a little bit. We'll have to take down the signage and put up a new one changing 'Middle East' to 'Universal'."

Although what happened was tragic, it prompted me to think out of the box. Was I emotionally and financially affected? Big time. But I had to believe in me. Instead of opening on September 13, we opened on October 3. And instead of an Arabian buffet we devised a theme in which the menu, service and atmosphere were all coordinated according to the region from which we were serving food that week.

Close friends from different countries stopped by to share recipes from their home countries and offer tips on dress and ambience.

We had a lot of fun, and expanded into catering and banqueting as well. Due to the additional streams of income, the restaurant was close to breaking even within three months. From there, we didn't make that much money, but at least we didn't go under.

When I returned to Abu Dhabi a year later, I roped in a business partner who ran the restaurant on a day-to-day basis. I was still involved, but it was difficult to contribute from overseas, so I sold it.