x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Ali Story: Mind your lessons, or, the physics of business plans

My education was not limited to my library; much of it came from travel. I visited more than 15 countries with my father, who took me to conferences when I had school breaks.

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

Knowledge is a bit like a Swiss Army Knife; you never know what tool you need at any given moment.

My dad was an educator in the true sense of the word. His response to my every "Why?" was: "Go and look it up in the encyclopedia." By never offering simple answers to my questions, he fostered a respect for research and analysis.

Dad would shop for books on his travels like other parents shopped for toys, and Mum would ensure these were well-maintained by covering them with her trademark brown paper. In particular, my Dad would bring back encylopedias, which inspired me so much I wanted to compile my own.

But as I entered high school, maths and physics became my nemeses. Why did I need to learn maths and physics when I was not in the least bit interested in pursuing them? Time and time again I put that question to Dad, trying to word it differently each time. His answer was always the same: "You may never become a mathematician or a physicist but the applications of these subjects will guide you through life."

And I have to admit that that really is the case. When I make business plans I deal with numbers, and it sometimes surprises me during a presentation when I see the relevance of those physics classes. To all those students who think as I did back then I'd just like to say that the laws of physics are in applications all around us, and you ignore them at your own peril. The same is true of all subjects.

My education was not limited to my library; much of it came from travel. I visited more than 15 countries with my father, who took me to conferences when I had school breaks. I became familiar with English spoken in different Western accents, a talent that separated me from my admiring classmates.

But it wasn't all work and no play - sports and leisure played a significant part in my upbringing too.

The sports club was a gathering place for boys just as the majlis is for men. We learnt loyalty, physical endurance, emotional fortitude and, above all, a sporting spirit. Since sports were linked to the religious calendar we were also versed in the finer aspects of culture. Ramadan, for example, was a time for exciting sports events but also cultural soirées.The club also kept us out of trouble and harnessed our youthful energy in a positive way.

My dad would go the club every afternoon. He was a member of Al Khalidiya (later renamed Al Jazeera), and would become its general secretary. Everyone at the club knew who my father was, but it didn't mean I got any preferential treatment. On the contrary, the other kids would have their fathers cheering them on at table-tennis tournaments but my Dad would be conspicuous by his absence. That hurt. Now I understand; he wanted me to succeed at the club on my own merit. This forced me to shed my shyness and develop my social skills. However, once in a while he would sneak in with the other parents and cheer me on. These moments were very special. He motivated me to become a better player, and I won several prestigious inter-club and regional tournaments as a result.

Sometimes, my dad would give me a ride home from the club and I would be forced to listen to the Arabic radio service from London. I hated it because I was young and didn't understand it. I still remember the way the radio announcer said: "H-o-o-n-a London," (Here is London) I would pester Dad with questions but he would not be distracted from that news service. Just before we reached home I would beg him to let me drive up the driveway, and sometimes he would let me sit on his lap and steer the car. I would honk incessantly until the maid ran out to open the gate.

To improve my English skills, my parents sent me off to a summer camp in the British town of Loughborough, in Leicestershire. I was in seventh grade and was the only boy from the UAE there. I remember the whole thing had a bootcamp feel to it but it was a watershed for me.

I realised, for the first time, that the world was different than I had experienced up to that point, and I was OK with that. Boys from other parts of the world spoke English differently from the way my English teachers spoke the language. Discipline at the summer camp differed from discipline at home. We could only go out on certain days of the week and only with a chaperone. But we were young boys, and we found ways to sneak out and visit the McDonalds around the corner. When we ventured out, I realised girls in this part of the world were different. They didn't mind sharing a Pepsi with you or telling you their names.

I learnt a lot that summer in Loughborough. I could make myself understood in English and I neutralised my Arabic accent to a large extent. But more importantly, I could hold my own among perfect strangers. When I returned from summer camp, I was the same Ali I was when I left, but conversely, slightly different, too.