x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Ali Story: Lonely grief for a profound loss at home

When I heard of the death of Sheikh Zayed, I remember breaking down on the spot.

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

Ramadan is a time most Muslims look forward to and I always enjoy the month, but there's one aspect of Ramadan that is always very poignant for us, and that's because our beloved leader, Sheikh Zayed, died on the 19th day of Ramadan eight years ago.

This year, the 19th day of Ramadan is August 7 - this Tuesday. May God rest his soul in peace.

I wasn't here when Sheikh Zayed died. I was overseas, studying for my MBA in Waterloo, Canada. The news broke in the evening in the UAE, but in Canada it was the afternoon, on the day I was sitting a difficult economics exam.

I was the only Khaleeji (Gulf Arab) in my class of 80 students. There was another Arab student who had finished his exams earlier, so I was surprised when I saw him enter the auditorium. He looked at me immediately, but I didn't say anything as I was focused on the exam.

Just after handing in the exam paper, I saw that I had received a phone call from my sister. Then my brother-in-law, her husband, rang.

"Hey, what's going on?" I asked.

"Nothing, nothing," he replied. "I just wanted to say hello. Where are you?"

I told him I was at the university and I'd just done an exam.

So with all these calls, I was wondering what was going on, but they said they wanted to know whether my exams were going well so I thought that must be it.

Then I got a phone call from my father. He asked me how I was and I said the exam wasn't too easy but everything had gone well. He asked me where I was and I said I was in the auditorium.

He said: "Go to a park or an open area and I'll call you back." I said OK and went to one of my favourite places, a nearby park where there were swans. It was one of my favourite places in Waterloo. I sent him a message saying I was in the park and he called me again.

When he spoke, his voice was very low and very sombre. "Son," he said, "Sheikh Zayed has passed away. May God rest his soul in peace."

I remember breaking down on the spot. Some of the other students saw that I was crying and came over to me to ask what the matter was. They thought I was upset because I hadn't done well in the exam.

Then the other Arab students arrived and told the others: "Guys, just leave Ali alone. His country's president just passed away. That's why he's crying."

There was a moment when some of the others were saying, "Are you kidding me? This is all because your president passed away?"

Then the Arab student said, "You guys don't understand. Their president is like a father to them."

For other people, losing a president is just something that happens. But for us, it was losing a father and a teacher and a member of our family. It was shocking, devastating.

After that, the others understood the situation and how emotional it was for me.

I had seen Sheikh Zayed many times but I met him only once, when I was 13 or 14 years old, with my father, who told me to "shake the Sheikh's hand very firmly". When I did that, Sheikh Zayed smiled.

Shortly after telling me the news, my father called again and said: "Son, I know you had a dream of meeting father Zayed with your degree and to let the whole of the UAE know that Sheikh Zayed appreciated this great effort and all you've done for your country to study different majors and to continue studying to get higher degrees.

"Everyone knows the real gift you can give Sheikh Zayed's spirit is to continue your education and your hard work and to make your country proud when you come back.

"Remember, by focusing on your education, you'll make Zayed proud and you'll be a son of Zayed that the whole UAE will be proud of."

Every year on the 19th day of Ramadan, the memories of this day come back to us, and we reflect on Sheikh Zayed's life. We see everything he did, from planting trees to building houses, offering education for every member of our society and providing endless opportunities for us to develop ourselves and our country. He also encouraged people to live in harmony with those of different nationalities and demonstrate tolerance for other religions - to share our culture with others with pride while accepting other people's culture.

I was never acknowledged by Sheikh Zayed but his son, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed, acknowledged me when he awarded me the Khalifa Fund award in 2010. This was a real highlight of my life.

Sheikh Zayed is gone but his children, via our president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, are continuing his work and supporting his vision. We are all so fortunate to live during a time when we can witness this legacy being realised.