x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Ali Story: Czechs and balances

Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE. This week, travelling with his sports team.

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

Arabs have a very particular relationship with travel. We share three major reasons for undertaking it.

There is family - coming from the Gulf region the borders that exist today were not always there, so we travel across them to visit for occasions and for summers. There is religion - travelling to Mecca or going for Umra, a smaller pilgrimage. And there are medical reasons such as travelling for treatment.

For me there was always a fourth, even a fifth, reason: my father and sport. Sometimes the two came together.

Every summer sports clubs prepared for their international camp. It was part of the routine at Al Jazeera too. These camps were always enlightening and crazy. You all travel together, wearing the team tracksuit. You feel important. You have this amazing opportunity to see places and meet teams from other countries. We went to Belgium, Germany, a couple of Eastern European countries and, one that stands out in my mind, the former Czechoslovakia.

I was 8 or 9 and I remember this one very vividly because, for a start, my table tennis team wasn't even going. My father, who was a board member of Al Jazeera, was in charge of the volleyball team delegation that was travelling that year. So he asked me, would I rather stay at home with my team or travel with him?

Of course, I chose to travel. Remember I was very tiny then so the volleyball team seemed like giants. They were in their twenties and I was just a child but I was used to being in older company. I was used to travelling with my father too, but this was the first time I saw what he was like with others and how much respect he commanded.

When we arrived at the hotel he called a meeting and he laid down the rules, just like he did when my sisters and I travelled with him. He said: "The first rule is, respect. I don't care if somebody disrespects you, if I hear you have reacted in kind, then you are on the first flight back to Abu Dhabi."

Somebody tried to interrupt and he silenced them. He was so stern. Just like he was with me, his son. That is when I understood what my father meant when he told me: "We are the luckiest people on earth because our Father Zayed is our leader. He never looks on us as locals, or residents, or population. He looks on us as his children."

My father took that as the model of leadership. He looked on the team as his sons. If anyone made a mistake it was a reflection on my father, a son of Zayed, so it was a reflection on our country and on Zayed.

My father understood there are responsibilities in travel. You are an ambassador of your house and your country. And there are also blessings. We experienced both.

Every day we had two picnics, one at a cultural site and another outdoors. I had my first taste of deer in Czechoslovakia - roasted on a spit at a country park. I ate apples, oranges and peaches that I had picked from trees. It was wonderful.

But the most amazing memory was my first experience of owning a pet. I was outside during a break in training one day and I saw two little boys with their father. He spoke some English. He told me they were going to a market where there were pets. He invited me to come. I asked my father and he decided the whole team should go.

All around there were baskets with animals. There was a little sausage-shaped dog, and I asked my father: "What has happened to this dog? Look at its little legs, its long spine!" My father reminded me that whenever there is something incredible that man could never make: a flower opening, a bear caring for her young, a beautiful lion ... we say "Subhan Allah! (Praise the Lord)."

That's when I saw this cute little gold-ish puppy with streaks of black. She was looking at me with very sharp eyes. She pricked up her ears. She put up one paw to me. "Subhan Allah," I melted.

I held her and my father showed me how to put a bit of food on my finger and she licked it off. I didn't think: "I am Muslim. This is haram." It was glorifying God. I felt blessed. I asked: "Can I keep her?" He was about to say no when the whole team in unison said: "Let him! We'll help." He relented. I have no idea why, but I called her Rita.

For the camp it was like Rita had 20 brothers. People think Arabs show no mercy to animals but it's not so. I am soft on animals. I have goats on my farm who think they are pets - they follow me around.

When the week came to an end my father arranged to take Rita on a plane. I had her in her basket, on my knee. But I started falling asleep, my head nodded, my hand slipped. Rita ended up on the floor. When I woke she was gone! In the end the pilot announced it over the radio: "If anybody sees a little puppy ..." and the whole plane was looking. I was so happy when we found her. I kept her close to me all the way back to Abu Dhabi. Once we got there all would be well. But it didn't quite work out that way. My mother opened the door, looked at me, looked at my father and looked at Rita and shut it again on all three of us.

Continued next week