x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Ali Story: Breaking bread with family and neighbours

Along with my older sister and two younger sisters, I shared an unusual childhood, one that influenced the attitudes and interests I hold as an adult.

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

Along with my older sister and two younger sisters, I shared an unusual childhood, one that influenced the attitudes and interests I hold as an adult.

My earliest memories of my childhood are as a two-year-old. My mother carried me around all the time with her. Although she wasn't constantly watching me, she was aware of my presence. She would tie me on her right hip Asian-style, then would go about her daily chores, cooking, cleaning and caring. I guess my interest in cooking dates from those days. I love to cook and I like to experiment. I have no problems messing around in the kitchen. I can make you a good steak, but please don't look around the kitchen while I do it. My mum is very organised about what utensils to use and the order in which to wash them, but I'm more like, take whatever you find first. Mum also has a great talent for reorganising interiors. She could easily change the look of our home six times a day. I'm not kidding. She loved to play with space and symmetry. And she did this with me on her hip.

She also has a talent for handicrafts. She can take a piece of waste paper and transform it into the most beautiful flower. She was a natural at this, and she decorated the whole house with her own handiwork. My youngest sister has inherited this talent.

My mum also taught my older sister, who was born a couple of years before me. She was such a good teacher, she became the headmistress at the Al Fateh School in Abu Dhabi. Clearly, her teaching skills rubbed off on my sister, who never missed an opportunity to show me how to do things. "Not like this Ali, like this." Or, "Don't do that, do this."

My dad, Abdulkarim Ali Al Saloom, also worked as a teacher at Al Hamdaniyah High School in Al Ain. As well as his junior teaching responsibilities, he was also the United Arab Emirates representative with the Asian Basketball Association. He attended conferences all the time, so I would only see him intermittently during his short stays at home.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, we lived in a small flat on Hamdan Street, a couple of blocks south of the Arabian Gulf in Abu Dhabi. There were only about three buildings on the entire street. The focus of the government then was to educate and train Emiratis (UAE citizens holding a UAE passport), and our family was at the vanguard of this mission. My mum was one of a handful of Emirati teachers and dad was brought on to work in the Ministry of Education.

The apartments on each floor had doors facing each other with the flat opposite ours occupied by a Palestinian family. I can still smell the cigar smoke from the wheelchair-bound uncle who lived there. He had three naughty daughters, although my sisters were always laughing with them.

Palestinians eat food that is different from our own fare, dishes such as labneh, hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh. I remember how my mother would open the door for one of the daughters, and she would bring in a dish prepared by her mother. In return, we shared our own food with them. There were hardly any other Emirati teachers so my mum's colleagues at school were all expats from the Gulf region: Jordanians, Sudanese, Bahraini, all kinds of Arab nationalities. So even at school she would share their food along with a slice of their culture. And she always brought these flavours home to share with us.

This constant interaction with Gulf expats was a bit unusual for Emiratis in those days. Nationals lived among their own people and had almost zero exposure to Western expats. Even exposure to Arab expats was limited. So sharing food was the beginning of cultural integration for me. It opened me up to the cuisine of other countries, and explains my twin passions for cuisine and cultures. At university, I took a liking to Korean food thanks to my friend Young-Seon Oh. The Korean kimchi is a tad too spicy for me, but I love the kalbi with its small pieces of grilled beef.

I believe breaking bread together is one of the most powerful ways to bond. As you may have heard, Emiratis serve our meals in one common dish and eat off the same plate. Psychologists say that one of the five commandments of happy families is sharing at least one meal per day together. Like many other things we will discover, it is the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon Him) who laid down the Islamic way of life, who gave a lot of thought to living harmoniously.

He was one step ahead of these psychologists when he created this common eating space, which encourages each family member to share the news and views from their day and makes sure everyone gets their share of food. Grabbing extra helpings before others have had their fill is a strict no-no.