x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Ali Story: The triple treat of parks, games and KFC meals

Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences of growing up in the UAE. This week, why a visit to the park and a trip to KFC were such a treat.

Most kids love fast food outlets like McDonald's and Burger King. But for me, KFC was my Santa Claus.

The wonderful thing about KFC was that it was cheek by jowl with the Old Airport Road park my friends and I used to visit with our families when I was 9 and 10 years old. The park, or hadeqa, is still there today, I'm pleased to say - and so is the KFC, next to what is now the Rocco Forte hotel and by Zayed Sports City.

We had the best of both worlds in close proximity: the opportunity to enjoy games and green pastures, with a trip to a fast-food joint that offered up western fare that was, at the time in the 1980s, very new to Abu Dhabi.

Nowadays, we hear about how families don't hang out together as much as they did back then and I think ever-increasing technology has a lot to do with that.

Back then, going to the park gave us kids the opportunity to really let off steam in the open air. The whole experience of having fun was linked with the outdoors and being close to nature. Our nation's father, Sheikh Zayed, had made very sure at the beginning of the UAE that he would give us places to enjoy by establishing lush, verdant parks with decorative features and proper amenities to enjoy.

We used to have a couple of small gardens in our own areas. But when it came to really having fun we embraced all the climbing frames, slides, see-saws and roundabouts we could find.

There was also a zipline, in which the two objects holding up the lines were pineapple shaped! I'm sure many Abu Dhabi people my age will recall them.

Most of the families in the park were not Emiratis but Arab expats - some were teachers, office workers, bank officers and labourers who worked in the oil industry and construction. Most of them were making a good living and, in a way, it was the start of the metropolitan Abu Dhabi that we know today.

I would see about 20 families in the middle of the park, but about 20 metres apart. My friends and I would end up playing football with some of the other children, often without knowing who came from which family. We went in the cooler months, and most of the parks came alive in the winter. The weather was also cooler when I was growing up than it is today.

Even some of the girls played football, as well as hide-and-seek, volleyball and badminton. At the age of 8 or 9, we can mix. Girls perhaps stop mixing at a later age - at which age specifically depends on the attitude of their families.

Going to the park also meant I smelt barbecue for the first time. It's the nature of Arabs that if you cook something nice, then it can be shared. Some of the kids would come round and offer to share small dishes of kebabs or tikka. Other families who had made baked potatos or salad would offer some to the other families. We would be sharing food, and we would all join and play games together.

But on days when one of the fathers would shout: "We are going to take you to KFC!", my God, the excitement!

It added a whole new level of anticipation to our park visits and was one of the most important parts of Abu Dhabi. That's why that branch is one of the most successful in the whole GCC region.

KFC really made an impression on us. For the first time we could sample US fast food, and it was my first experience of fried chicken, 7-Up, Pepsi and Mirinda. I was always getting a snack meal (two pieces of chicken wings), with French fries, but then it progressed on to the dinner box (a chicken breast, a thigh and a leg).

Most of my experiences with KFC were not just during the park visits but when we used to go and play sports at the club. The bus would actually stop at the KFC, when the players would buy their meals and go home.

So for me, going to the Old Airport Road park was important. Providing public spaces for community recreation is a key target for Abu Dhabi Municipality and I believe this is vital. Most of the parks we had in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s have not been removed. This is down to the Government's commitment to this end.

I hope we reach a point where every community in the UAE can achieve the well-being that comes from being able to visit a park - listening to the birds, touching grass, falling down, rolling over, getting dirty and climbing trees, all these activities are important for kids.

These are what stay in the mind more than pastimes undertaken indoors. Most parents take their children to indoor facilities; while these offer more safety and a sense of security, you lose the sense of adventure that's such an important part of growing up.

As I'm now lucky enough to have my own farm which my young son can enjoy, I have stopped going to the park - but I have not stopped going to KFC!