x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Ali Story: Lessons from animals

Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

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


Last week I told of a life-changing visit to the former Czechoslovakia when I was 8 years old. I took home more than memories. My heart had melted when I saw a tiny golden German shepherd puppy in a market and my father had been persuaded to let me keep her. I called her Rita. I thought she was the cutest thing I had ever seen. My mother did not feel the same.

"Where did you find her?" she screamed as I first brought Rita to the house. I felt the world had turned dark. My father and I had no chance to answer before she ordered me and the puppy I was holding in my arms out.

Muslim, non-Muslim and expatriate friends alike are surprised when they hear about Rita, my first pet. There is an assumption among some expats that Arabs do not love animals and that some even hate certain animals, including dogs.

Growing up with Rita taught me a lot about my own cultural heritage, the faith of my father, his tolerance and how each generation must take the lessons they learn and improve their own world by opening the minds of others.

I will explain. My mother found it difficult at first to have a dog in the house. In fact, Rita never did live inside the house, she lived in the grounds in a little covered corridor so she had shelter and air. My father explained to my mother that Rita would protect the house when he was away. My mother could accept a dog only if it had a purpose. And so our journey began.

My father wove a palm leaf fence to mark Rita's territory just outside my bedroom window. He left my window open so that some of the air conditioning would cool her.

My mother was softer towards Rita than she showed. The morning after Rita arrived, my father saw her filling the water bowl and making sure the dog took it.

There is nothing in Islam that says you should hate or fear dogs, or any animal. A true Muslim will not enter heaven if he does not treat animals well. It is about context. Part of the experiences of the Prophet Mohammed tell of a man giving a dog water to drink from the same bowl as he himself drinks. The dog is thirsty and this is an act of charity and respect. The man still goes to heaven.

I don't blame anyone who is afraid that being near a dog will break their ablutions, their Wudu, or bring disease or that angels will not linger when a dog barks. They are only living what they have been taught.

Living in Bani Yas very near to the mosque, Rita, my father and I faced this first-hand.

A lot of people did not approve. It did not help that Rita started to grow and change. Her blonde hair, which was so beautiful and unusual, turned dark and her ears pricked up. She barked at the call to prayer. People would say to my father: "Do you think your prayers are answered when you keep that dog?" They called her "haram". My father's response was to say he would train her, that they would see and that I should not worry.

One day my father was training Rita, throwing a ball for her to catch and bring back. It was late evening and a group of men were sitting around a fire outside. On the far side of the street there was a man running. Everyone saw it like it was slow motion. The men started shouting to the man not to run, my father went to stop Rita ... but she was gone. My father told me later he had never run so fast but he couldn't catch her. In desperation he shouted: "RITA!" At the final moment she froze right in front of the man. My father told him to walk away slowly as he put the leash on Rita. The men were fascinated by Rita and how my father could control her.

When Rita was four one of my father's friends, who was a police officer, asked if they could use Rita for breeding. I remember going with him to see the most amazing thing - Rita and nine puppies, all blonde, like she used to be. Suddenly, I realised how much faster she had grown than me. She had been a tiny puppy in my care. Now she was a mother and I was still very young and small myself.

At that moment I said to my father: "Don't bring her home." I knew she should be with her puppies. She came back to us with one puppy six or seven months later but the puppy did not survive.

Rita lived with us for many years. When she was seven or eight she trained as a sniffer dog for the police. I was abroad, in the UK at a sporting camp, when she passed away. She was 10 years old and I was devastated.

Today I have salukis, gazelles, goats, chickens and a horse. I believe we must treat all animals as the souls that they are. My father taught me this and Rita taught me this. She was a very wonderful soul.

I keep a picture of her to this day and video footage of the flight all those years ago when, as a little boy, I carried a tiny puppy in a basket all the way from Czechoslovakia to Abu Dhabi.

Continues next week