Dubai: Behind the wheel of a 2014 Toyota Land Cruiser with an Abu Dhabi number plate and classic Emirati oud music strumming in the background, a young Emirati man has made his way through all the 50 states of the US.
Ali AlGhfeli, a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in Computer Engineering and Artificial Intelligence, documented his road trip on social media. A viral video, showcasing a compilation of Americans from every state saying an Emirati phrase and sticking their state flag on AlGhfeli’s truck, has caught the attention of thousands of people, including Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US.
AlGhfeli shares a video alongside Al Otaiba, where the ambassador expresses his support of the young man’s unique travels. In the video, the envoy says, “It was so amazing to hear all the stories and all the trips and everything you’ve done. This is the best way you could possibly represent our country. Meeting average Americans, telling them who we are and what we believe in. You’ve managed to get to all 50 states and telling everybody what our country means to us.”
Beginning of the journey
AlGhfeli was working in New York City in September of 2019 when he decided he wanted to take a road trip that surpassed his previous travel experiences.
“I had a holiday and I never like to waste my holidays. I love travelling or learning something new. I wanted to really explore North America but I wanted it to be a unique road trip. I didn’t want to just cross distances in my road trip, I didn’t care how many kilometres I drove, I wanted to make sure I learn about the history of an area, meet their people and share my culture,” AlGhfeli says.
“I was in New York and I called a friend in Seattle telling him that I’m coming to visit, but I’ll be travelling with my own Land Cruiser from home. He didn’t take me seriously. When people saw my car in Times Square, they thought it was Photoshopped. But I did indeed get my car shipped and that’s when my trip began.”
From New York to Maine to Miami, AlGhfeli began driving along the East coast first. He then crossed through the southern states and made his way up north to Seattle in Washington state, just in time to proceed with his final semester at university. In December last year, AlGhfeli completed his graduation, got behind the wheel of his beloved Land Cruiser, and resumed his journey, driving along the West Coast.
“Early 2020, I left my car in the West Coast and came back to the UAE for what I hoped would be a short visit. The pandemic happened and I had to put my trip on hold. When flights reopened, I came back around August and continued to visit the few states remaining,” he says.
He concluded his journey with a drive to Washington DC where the memorable visit with the ambassador occurred. “It was my dream to meet [the Ambassador]. He’s such a powerful personality and he’s so humble. We spent a good hour discussing my travels,” AlGhfeli said.
Unique adventures on the road
Travelling alone across thousands of kilometres comes with some interesting experiences. AlGhfeli said his travels included a chance to closely experience different groups of people, integrating within communities and sharing cultures.
The young man from Al Ain found himself living in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania. He also stayed at Native American reservations in Arizona. In the South, where AlGhfeli believes the most generous people reside, he spent numerous nights in farms with strangers who opened their home to him. In Kentucky, an invitation from a local country singer led to a night of learning about country music and its culture. On the porch of an elderly couple’s home, AlGhfeli reminisces of staying up late nights learning and sharing with people who have never heard about the UAE.
“I’ve gone to places that no one ever goes, I’ve met unforgettable people. Sometimes I tell people I’m in this state, they tell me ‘What are you even doing there?’. I like to explore and really meet people and experience things,” he says.
“What struck many of our conversations was my car. They see the Abu Dhabi numbers and they’re fascinated. They take pictures as I’m driving, they wave me down on the road to chat with me. The car was a great icebreaker for me,” he shares, explaining that many Americans were not familiar with the car brand at all. “This leads me to sharing my stories and culture. They’re very curious about us. They often tell me that I’ve changed their views on the entire region.”
The viral video
The video that spread AlGhfeli’s story was a compilation of clips where people would place a sticker of different states onto the iconic Land Cruiser and say the phrase, ‘Marhaba Al Saa’. The phase, which translates to ‘Greetings on this blessed hour’, is an exclusively Emirati traditional phrase that made the video gain a lot of popularity on social media.
Behind the wholesome video, AlGhfeli explains, “I knew that I was travelling 50 states, and I wanted to make one simple video that encompasses that entire journey. Every person places a flag sticker and says that phrase. What people didn’t see was that behind every person in that video was an interesting story. I would only ask someone to put that sticker after I’ve had an experience with them.”
In the USA, however, AlGhfeli’s Land Cruiser gained popularity before the viral video. The young man shares numerous occasions where people would recognise his vehicle in the most remote locations.
“I met a man in Washington who told me that he is a friend of a man I spent a day with in the mountains of Colorado months earlier! A few days ago, my university adviser told me that she shared my posts with her friends in Arizona, who surprisingly said that they had in fact met me when I was there in 2019. When I drive, random people in caravans would stop me saying they’ve seen my car on social media. It was surprising how they all remembered me,” AlGhfeli says.
With hundreds of new friends scattered across the United States and iconic photographs of an old Abu Dhabi-registered car parked before renowned American landmarks, AlGhfeli prepares to return to the UAE as his unforgettable trip comes to a close.
He wants his viewers to learn from his long year on the road. “People often travel to take photographs and post scenic moments. You should travel to learn and experience new things. Every person you meet can open a whole door of knowledge and perspective. Throughout this trip, I strived to make an impact wherever I went hoping to represent my country in the best possible light.”