x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Ali story: Fisticuffs and friends

Since I was small, I could not fend off the big guys who crowded me out. Luckily for me, Haider was a big boy who could take care of himself.

Getting into a few scrapes is part of being a kid no matter where you live. When I was in first grade we moved to our traditional house in Al Mafraq, a 25-minute drive away from Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi Government allocated this neighbourhood and surrounding ones such as Baniyas for about 4,000 to 5,000 Emiratis.

Along with other kids from Al Mafraq, I took the bus to Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib High School. Boys will be boys, and the rides were rife with petty fights.

If you were lucky enough to have brothers or cousins, bullies tended to leave you alone. Alas, I am an only son, which was rather unusual since most Gulf Arab families are large, with extended families averaging about 30 to 40 people. But my father's only brother did not have any sons, only four daughters, and I had three sisters. In all, I ended up living with 16 women. But I think that's why I empathise with women so well: I was constantly bombarded with their point of view.

I was terrified of the fights because I knew that if I ever got into one there would be no one to stand up for me. I was also one of the shortest kids at elementary school.

At the start of every term Mum would make a ritual of covering our books with brown paper, which probably made us the only kids in school with neat book covers at the end of the term. The brown paper became a sort of family trademark.

My dad would help us with our schooling by quizzing us on what we had learnt. We still have a home video of one of his spelling quizzes. Dad would also give my sister and I two dirhams every day before school. When he forgot, we were sure to remind him, as those two dirhams meant a lot.

Every day at school we would recite the holy Quran and study art, maths and music. This last subject was my saving grace. I played the accordion and taught myself the piano. The first thing I learnt to play was the national anthem.

Our school was one that welcomed Arab expats. As they usually got all the top marks, we soon came up with our own informal ranking system just for us Emiratis to regain our pride. I quickly became friends with an Iraqi boy called Haider Saadon.

His cleverness didn't exactly endear him to the rest of the Emirati boys, who thought he made them look bad. Although he had knocked me off my perch at the top of the class, I admired his brilliance and he became the brother I didn't have.

School began at 7.30am and we had a 15-minute break at 10.30am That's when the madness would begin. Kids would try and elbow each other out of the way to get to the cafeteria counter before the food ran out.

Since I was small, I could not fend off the big guys who crowded me out. Luckily for me, Haider was a big boy who could take care of himself. And when he helped me get to the front I could finally use those two dirhams: one for a soda, the other for a falafel or shawarma sandwich.

Haider's father was the gym teacher, a big, burly man I called Uncle Saadon. Haider was an awesome basketball player and diehard fan of the game. He also played table tennis, which was my best game, and I went to play for one of the national junior leagues.

But sports weren't everything to Uncle Saadon. Sometimes if our practices ended at the same time, Haider and Uncle Saadon would drop me off at home. I remember him being very stern with Haider; if he did not do his homework he couldn't practise any sports the next day.

My father knew Uncle Saadon through the Ministry of Education, and we visited each other's homes. Their family included three boys and a girl, the exact reverse of our family. They had a compact house: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The mother did all the housework, and they organised their car journeys so that everyone got to where they needed to be in as few trips as possible.

Even as a child I could sense they organised their lives to make the best of a modest income. But what I remember most is that they were as close-knit as our family; if one of them was hurt, they all felt the pain.

Our neighbourhood may have been all Emirati but we all came from different backgrounds. Each family raised its children differently. Some were extremely religious, but our next-door neighbours were very open-minded. A lot of kids were allowed to stay up late into the night, but my curfew was 6pm and I had to be back in time for Maghrib prayers.

As I recall these times, I realise families everywhere have the same hopes, hardships, joys and sorrows. Their traditions may be different and their gods come in different forms but, hey, we are all one.

Love and humanity are the same no matter what language you use to define them.