x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The Ali Story: Songs of laughter and celebrations filled my family home

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

Mum had just woken up and entered the living room still rubbing her eyes. The video camera's bubble wrap packaging was still on the floor, and I was pounding it, thump-thump-thump. "So who wants a piece of cake?" Mum called out.

I immediately stopped pounding and quietly climbed onto a chair. Mum cut the cake but gave a bigger slice to my sister, the one with "Merry Xmas" emblazoned on it.

"Why can't I have the big piece?" I howled. Mum placated me by offering me a second slice but refused to give me my sister's piece.

Treating girls with as much love and respect as boys has always been a way of life. Of course, it doesn't mean that I was always so understanding of it.

My parents liked to join in when our Filipino maids wanted to celebrate Christmas. They put up a "Merry Xmas" banner on the wall, and the maids would bake a cake. One Christmas, Dad asked my sister to read the banner. "Mmmerry … Merry," she stumbled. Dad caught all of this on his first video camera, a huge Sony model.

My mum played the key role in my and my sisters' upbringing but she got terrific support from our maids. I think living in close quarters with our Filipino, Sri Lankan, Indian and Pakistani house help enabled us to develop open minds towards other cultures.

Dad's video reminds me how unique it was for an Emirati family to celebrate Christmas with the maids. It was just not accepted here, never mind encouraged. But this was my parents' way of showing appreciation for the affection our maids showered on us.

When Dad returned home from work in the afternoons, Mum would call out "Hala Karim". I was just a baby, but I remember that on hearing this I always wanted to be picked up by him, so I would start jumping and crawling. Hala means "hi" in Arabic. In Islam there are 99 descriptions of God, and all Muslim names originate from these. One of these is my father's, "Karim", which means "servant of the generous".

I also remember speaking to my dad on the telephone when he was away, and he would say: "Hala Ali."

I would say: "Baba, when are you coming back?"

"I'm coming," he would reply.

I don't remember much more than this conversation but sometimes he would return late at night from one of his trips while we were asleep, and he would surprise us at breakfast the next morning.

Our Hamdan Street apartment had a green wall, and we had a Persian carpet decorated with a bright, red design. We had a sofa, an utterly Western concept, compared with the traditional majlis, and our television set was lodged prominently in the corner of our dining room.

Things never stayed in one place though because every time Dad travelled, Mum would indulge in her favourite hobby: reorganising the furniture.

She would change every single thing he was used to. If he was used to seeing the TV on the left side when he entered, she would make sure when he returned he would find it in the far right corner.

And guess who inherited this trait? Yours truly and one of my sisters. We can't leave things alone. Sometimes we cannot even find our own belongings.

Mum's other talent was her distinctive, mellifluous singing voice. She sang us lullabies, and those songs have remained in my heart. She would sing to me when I was in her womb, so I guess my love for music began before I was born.

I inherited a good voice from my mother, as did one of my sisters. Believe it or not, I even recorded an Arabic pop album in 2001. I left for university in the United States before it was released and to this day I have no idea if it was a success. My Mum feared my singing was a vain pursuit and was disappointed in me.

Music was not a passing fancy with me, however. My sensibilities soon evolved unexpectedly from pop to the classical and religious genres.

I realised this around the time it became clear that Sheikh Zayed, the father of our nation, was in failing health. I wrote the lyrics and set to music my feelings for Zayed. I think my self-released album gave a voice to the country's sentiments at the time.

As for Dad, he is a talented artist and expresses himself with a piece of charcoal and sketch paper. He did an oil painting of Sheikh Zayed and is a talented calligrapher to boot. I remember when he did his calligraphy, he would always teach me while he did it. "You have to hold the pen like this. And then you draw the aliph [the first letter in Arabic alphabet] like this."

Islam forbids the worship of religious idols or photographs, so we show our devotion by hanging beautiful calligraphies of verses from the Quran. One of the first objects to be installed in a new home is one of these scripts. We believe our home is then blessed by the power of the holy Qu'ran and all that it exhorts us to live by.