ABU DHABI // Ali Alsaloom wants to be your first Emirati friend. The self-made cultural ambassador says newcomers arrive in the country burdened by misconceptions and often with nowhere to turn for answers. His book, Ask Ali: A Guide to Abu Dhabi, will be launched today at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. "On the first page it tells the readers that I am their first local friend and I am there to help them be introduced to more local people," said Alsaloom, a 31-year-old Emirati.
"A lot of westerners, when they arrive, go to their embassies or to websites for cultural information and they are often misinformed. "They come to our country but they never meet any local people. How can they know what locals think if they never meet any?" Alsaloom developed the idea for the book late last year after compiling the content from his advice column, Ask Ali, which appears every week in M magazine in The National on Saturday.
He was given the nickname "Ask Ali" by his fellow students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where he studied hospitality, management and tourism. "When I was in the classroom in the US everyone had questions about the Middle East and they would always come to me. 'Ask Ali', they would say. I have carried the name with me ever since." Alsaloom returned to the UAE and worked as a tour guide for the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. He received so many questions that he decided to start his own website, and now offers cultural awareness classes to the public and corporations.
"When I returned to the Emirates I realised the only people who had written cultural guidelines for foreigners were foreigners themselves so I set up an internet portal with essential information about language, traditions and culture," he said. In November 2008, he began answering readers' questions in M magazine and after a year he had enough material to put together a book. The book is not just for westerners who come to the UAE, he said, but also for Emiratis who want advice on how to talk to foreigners, as well as people whose lives stradle both cultures.
"I will never forget the first question I was asked for the magazine column," he said. "It was from a 15-year-old Emirati girl who had been brought up in the UK. She had come back to the UAE and she didn't know what to do, how to fit in or understand the local accent. I referred her to a few places and people and we are still in contact now." The 192-page guide has advice on everything from finding a parking space to social graces. The book also has handy hints - it advises readers to take a sweater to the cinema, for instance, because of the air conditioning - and also includes a brief guide to the other six emirates.
Ask Ali: A Guide To Abu Dhabi will be available for free to subscribers of The National. Anyone subscribing to the paper for the month following March 15 will receive a copy of the book. Alsaloom will have his own stand at the book fair, which begins today at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre and runs through March 7. firstname.lastname@example.org