x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Ali Story: A trip to Dubai's Chicago Beach remembered

Dubai was considered too far to go for a day trip back then but we had three days vacation so Dad promised the family he would take us to Chicago Beach.

Last week, I told you about the magic moment after Friday prayers when I was about 5 or 6 years old, when I broke the news to all my school friends that I was going to Chicago Beach.

I still remember their reaction: You're going to Dubai?

It was a big deal back then. For us, Chicago Beach meant we were going to see real waves - that's what it was famous for. We didn't even know the Abu Dhabi Corniche at the time because we lived in the desert at Bani Yas.

Dubai was considered too far to go for a day trip back then but we had three days vacation so Dad promised the family he would take us to Chicago Beach.

After the mosque, we went back to our house. My father wanted to leave but my mother had prepared lunch. My mother said: "It's fish - it's a light meal." Every Friday, most Khaleejis eat fish.

Then she looked at us and said: "I have a surprise for you." My father looked at her because he didn't know what she was talking about. She told him: "It's a surprise to you as well."

Then she said our aunt Badriyah was coming with us.

We didn't see my aunt or my cousins that often. She had eight or nine children and because we're different ages, my sisters and I would relate to the cousin who was similar in age as each of us.

Of course, my father was happy because it meant there'll be another man: my aunt's husband.

But we had to wait for them to arrive, which took an hour and a half. They had a big American car and we packed into my family's Mercedes and drove straight out onto the highway then headed north to Dubai. There were trees beside the highway to Dubai then but this is 30 years ago so they weren't as big as they are now. But even then they were beautiful.

Our first stop was a little cafeteria right beside the highway. I still remember my first experience when I entered this place with my father and I'd look at everyone else there. Most of them would be taxi drivers or labourers from India and Pakistan. It was completely different to what I was used to but we had something in common because we'd all come in to purchase something, so we're not that different.

Along the way we'd also pull over beside the road and drive a little way into the desert. This was my mother's favourite thing: cooking up some tea for everyone, using a stove that was in the back of the car.

It was amazing what you could fit in the back of a Mercedes. There were badminton rackets and a football. I'd go and explore the area, finding little lizards and bringing them back to my mother.

From both mothers the next question was: "Who needs to go? Once we're back in the car, don't even think we're going to stop." And we'd head off into the desert, boys in one direction and girls in the other, trying to find somewhere private.

Then we'd all jump in the car and we'd drive back onto the highway. By then we'd have mixed between the cars so some of my cousins were in our Mercedes and some of my sisters were in my aunt's car.

Both my dad and my aunt's husband were captains: they were driving. But the co-pilots were always my mother or my aunt.

By then we had crossed the border between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It hasn't changed much since then. The colour of the asphalt changed; it represented unity between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are different but they're linked and that's what matters.

At Jebel Ali, all the other kids were saying to me: "Ali, it's your mountain." Because my name is Ali, this happened every time we went to Jebel Ali.

Except there isn't a mountain there. One story my dad and mum told us was that the name comes from when Dubai was much smaller and everyone lived by the creek. There was a doctor called Ali who was famous for curing people so people from Dubai used to go to him. If someone was sick, people would say "jubail Ali". In Khaleeji Arabic, jubail means "towards" and Doctor Ali lived on the Abu Dhabi side of Dubai, so they'd direct them towards Jebel Ali. I don't know if it's true but it's a theory.

After Jebel Ali, we'd be looking for the start of Dubai but there'd be nothing, nothing, nothing. Until the 1990s, the first building was the Sheikh Rashid building, where Emirates Towers is now. Until then, there'd be a couple of small buildings but that was the first real one. It was a real highlight because it meant we were in Dubai. Later on, the first building was the Crowne Plaza and that was famous to us because it had a McDonalds in it. It was like a theme park to us.

But that day we just went as far as Jumeirah and the Chicago Beach Hotel, where we checked in. That when my father said we'd also be going to Dubai Zoo and then to my uncle's farm in Sharjah. That would be something extra to make my school friends jealous when I was back in Abu Dhabi.