Time Out speak to local legend about the expat-Emerate divide
With the city’s expats currently outnumbering locals by 92 per cent to 8 per cent, Dubai’s ethic make-up is nothing if not unique. And while the phrase ‘cultural melting pot’ carries plenty of positive connotations, culture clashes are a constant obstacle for Emiratis and immigrants alike. Having made it his business to unite the capital’s communities for the past four years, Ali Alsaloom, the man behind Ask-Ali.com, has just released his first book, offering tips for those eager to befriend their neighbours.
Why did you decide to do what you’re doing? If you look into the history the UAE, all the books, the websites, all of these great publications are not written by Emiratis. So I wanted to be the person who takes this risky path and start writing about my own country.
What are the main aims behind the new book? People know that we Emiratis are very hospitable, that we are very generous, very friendly. But you just ask any expat: ‘Do you really know that, or did you just hear that from someone?’ Nine out of 10 people that I meet, they don’t know any Emiratis, so this reality becomes fake. It becomes: ‘No they’re not very kind, they’re actually very shallow, they only care about buying a new car, they drive so crazy, they’re not very polite, they speak loudly.’ So all the positive, hospitable things become a negative, because you’re not able to prove it in your daily life.
So what’s the difference between the Ask Ali guidebook and all the other books? One fact. It’s the only opportunity to read something about this country and automatically make a friend with a real person, called Ali. All I’m trying to do is create a role model for all my brothers and sisters, to say it’s okay to be friends with British people, American people, South African people, Australian people. It’s okay, even though it’s part of the Westernised culture to drink alcohol. We have to accept it as much as we want them to accept our own modesty and culture.
Why do you think it is that a lot of Western people don’t make many Emirati friends? No expat is able to make a friend with an Emirati for two simple reasons. First, the language. One of the first virtues in the essence of our Arab culture is making sure that nobody loses face. So if we can’t speak English perfectly, it is embarrassing for us. The second thing is alcohol. Simple as that. Alcohol is the path to many negative things in life. This is the truth. But we have a value that says we have to make sure our guests are happy and for some reason we believe that by offering too much alcohol to everybody we are doing good. You go to the Dubai Golf Cup, the Abu Dhabi Tennis Championship, the concerts, all of which are serving alcohol. How many local people do you see there? It is not in our religion! This is one of the biggest issues that I would like to raise awareness about, that we don’t need people to feel bad for us. We celebrate every day, we just don’t include alcohol in it.
Does it bother you that there aren’t any other Emiratis doing what you’re doing? Of all the magazines in this country, there’s not one pure Emirati chief editor. It’s sad. But what’s more sad is that we go out and open our mouths, ‘Look at these people, they’re so ignorant, look what they say about us, they’re really bad.’ I tell them, ‘Shut up! At least these people are writing about the UAE. What have you done? Nothing.’ But no, it’s not bothering me. If there is anybody in the future who does a better job than me, then my goodness, please come to me. I would love to work with someone who owns a big international travel guide, because this is going to be the first step to fixing the stereotypes about Emiratis that unfortunately are being projected overseas. Some people are surprised that I am overtaking their companies, selling more copies of my guidebooks. I know that doesn’t make them happy. But it makes me happy.
Ask Ali: A Guide to Dubai is available at Magrudy’s, various locations including Dubai Festival City (04 232 8761), and Il Fiume Restaurant & Café, Marina Heights Towers, Al Sufouh Road (04 422 4664). To contact Ali, visit www.ask-ali.com