When Ali Alan announced that his car wash on Shaftesbury’s Cattle Market site was closing, residents expressed their disappointment on Facebook. Now there’s good news. He’s re-opening.
ThisIsAlfred met Ali for a chat about his new car wash. Ali explains why he loves Shaftesbury and the Kurdistan-born entrepreneur reveals his unexpected language skill.
When I walked into the Grosvenor Arms for our interview, I spotted Ali immediately. He was dressed in a grey tracksuit and woolly bobble hat, standing in the hotel’s chilly courtyard making phone calls. He recognised me and waved. Minutes later, as we warmed up over a coffee, I noticed that his phone was bleeping or buzzing every few minutes. He’s a busy man.
Ali’s business interests include a barbershop in Somerset and a kebab shop. But it was the recent closure of his car wash, forced by the Cattle Market site’s redevelopment as a Lidl, that gave Ali a sense of how valued his service was. “Even now, every single day, I have too many phone calls. They want to know where we went. They want to know why we go,” said Ali. “My landlord told me that some woman went into him and shouted at him ‘Why you kick the boys out? The boys were so good.’ We were really happy that they were upset because they didn’t want us to go. It’s not my landlord’s fault though,” he added.
Ali’s hand car wash service was popular. He told me, with some pride, how he could restore the original appearance of many drivers’ cars. “I have many customers who have been shocked when they think their car has been re-sprayed,” Ali said. He believes his cleaning is so good he can make old paintwork look new. “Exactly,” he confirmed.
Ali comes from northern Iraq. He’s Kurdish and has a strong affection for his place of birth and its people. He’s also very proud of what he’s achieved since he came to Britain, aged 18, in 2003. Ali has built up his businesses from scratch and he says he has always paid his taxes and does things ‘properly’. “I’ve been in Britain for nearly sixteen years now. I’m a British citizen as well,” he said.
As we chatted, I noticed that Ali had a slight southwest Wales lilt to his accent, not dissimilar to the actor, Rob Bryden. “I learned English in South Wales,” he revealed. Then Ali told me that he had learned some Welsh. He told me this fact in Welsh! “It was a long time ago. I left it there,” he smiled.
As a teenager, Ali had moved to a new country where he couldn’t speak the language, whether English or Welsh. I was keen to know how he felt when he arrived. Was he excited or terrified? “It was really scary. I didn’t speak English at all – none whatsoever. I tried going to college for two days. I didn’t understand. No one was there to translate and even when they said ‘hello’ I didn’t know what that meant. So I left college. I was just working and hanging around with the local people in Llanelli. I always tried and tried. So now I am able to speak English and do all my papers. If I need to go to the solicitors I don’t need any translation. I always do everything by myself,” said Ali.
As you might imagine, Ali had to learn new customs and the British culture. Our food presented the biggest cultural shock. “Sunday dinner! I was looking at it and I thought I cannot eat it,” he exclaimed. So why didn’t he fancy a roast? “It looked weird. I had been invited to one of my friends for Christmas. I couldn’t say ‘I’m not eating’ because I would feel ashamed. So I ate it but I didn’t really want to. But when I tried it, I ate two plates!”
Ali says he was initially repulsed by the British method of cooking vegetables. “It’s the boiling. Back home we cook them in a marinated sauce.” Now he loves a Sunday roast. “I really like it. English Sunday dinner is best. And even when I go back home I tell my parents how to do it.”
I asked Ali what his folks would serve me if I visited. “If someone’s visiting my country, especially if they know us, we feel shame if we take him to a restaurant. We make Kurdish food at home – that is rice, lamb or chicken with okra, butter beans and soup. The food back home is always freshly made, not frozen food. We don’t use that. We have homemade and proper food.”
Ali didn’t try his first Sunday roast until 2007. Now there’s no going back to the burgers and fast food he lived off when he first came to the UK. Ali worked in the food industry when he arrived in Wales, so fast food was easy to find. “My first job in Llanelli was working in a kebab shop,” he said.
Ali decided he wanted his own business, so he saved his wages. “Nearly six years later, I bought a kebab shop because I have always saved my money and I never send the money back. I always put it into my business, to grow the business and to give jobs to other people if they need it.”
When Ali left Llanelli he visited Wiltshire and decided to explore business opportunities in the Westcountry. “I was in Melksham. I didn’t have a job. I went to the Spencer’s Sports and Social Club and asked them if they had land that I could rent or lease, so I’d be able to put a hand car wash there,” said Ali. “I set up three months later. It was successful. I had eight employees who used to work for me. I finished my contract but they didn’t renew it because they needed their land, so I looked around in Warminster, Trowbridge, Devizes, Shaftesbury and Yeovil to find a site. I found the Cattle Market. I’ve been there nearly eight years, but all of a sudden they sold the land.”
With very little warning, Ali faced the challenge of having to find a new opportunity again. “I only had one month’s notice. Solicitors tried to tell me I could make it harder for them to get me out that soon, but my personality is not like that. I gave my word.”
Ali says he had developed a good working relationship with Southern Counties Auctioneers who held the Cattle Market lease. “Simon has been nice to us for the last eight years. He gave me a site for the car wash and I really appreciated it. When I left, he shook my hand and said he had never seen tenants like us. We’ll have a good friendship.”
Ali has been keen to find a new site, partially because he’s responsible for the livelihood of his staff. “Sometimes I employed ten, sometimes eight,” he said.
So how many cars were all of these staff cleaning each day? “It depends. Sometimes we had fifty cars. Sometimes we had nothing, because we didn’t have a roof. A couple of years ago it was raining for eight weeks and in those eight weeks I didn’t earn money. Nothing.”
Ali was dependent on the income for his legal costs. He’s been trying to arrange for his wife to join him in the Shaftesbury home he has bought for the couple. The legal bills have been mounting. “Loads of money for the lawyer and solicitors. The last payment I made was £5,000 to solicitors.”
Ali is clearly not afraid of hard work. He’s been used to it from an early age, when his Dad told him that he had to help out in the family’s brickworks business. “I was six years old. I couldn’t go into school. I was asked to help my dad,” said Ali, who explained that he’s been working ever since.
Ali showed me a photo of his family, taken when he was six years of age. He and his cousins are wearing traditional Kurdish clothing in the picture. The BBC made a documentary about the family firm. He laughed when I pointed out that all the boys shared the same distinctive straight noses. “I still have photos with me now, from 2003 and 2005. The BBC put it on TV,” he said, as he passed me his phone displaying the image.
As we chatted, Ali told me how he follows many of the principles of his family’s Muslim faith. He also has strong views about looking after people. He explained how, on a recent trip home to Iraq, he gave his mobile number to a local hotel so staff could call him whenever they needed a translator for a guest who only spoke English.
“My hometown, Arbil, in North Iraq has really friendly people. If people from a different country go there then their doors are open. They welcome English, Italian or whatever. They know that you have come from a different place and everyone will go forward to help them,” said Ali.
Recently, Ali found an abandoned purse containing hundreds of pounds. Cards inside the wallet helped him to trace the owner to a property on Bell Street. When Ali knocked on the door, her husband appeared suspicious of an unknown male asking for his wife. Ali handed over his find. The woman later traced Ali to the car wash where he refused a reward. He says that if he hasn’t undertaken work for something, he can’t take money for it.
Ali says he loves Shaftesbury and that locals have treated him kindly. “When I go back for more than two weeks, I feel uncomfortable back home. I lost all my friends that I used to hang around with when I was a kid. All my friends are in England – English people – especially in Shaftesbury. They are so nice, they are helpful, they are friendly,” he said.
And Ali says he wouldn’t consider living anywhere else now. “I always wanted to stay in Shaftesbury because I don’t find other villages or other towns as nice. I am really comfortable,” he smiled.
That’s why Ali was desperate to find a new venue for the car wash. It seems that his dignified way of accepting the end of his Cattle Market arrangement paid off. His former landlord helped him secure a new site. “All of a sudden, Udder Farm Shop called me because he knows my landlord. He gave a really good reference. I know it’s a bit out of Shaftesbury, but in the meantime, if tomorrow, I find a site around Shaftesbury, I want to take it, even if I have to sell my house to buy a piece of land, I would do it, definitely.”
Ali says he’s serious about selling the home, which he owns outright. He wants anyone with affordable land that could be used as a car wash to come forward. He’s been shopping around for space but he only needs around half an acre. “Some of them are £400,000 and I cannot afford it,” he said. “If it is a good price to be able to afford it, I will sell my house and buy it – or lease or rent. Anything I will accept, as long as it’s in Shaftesbury.”
The good summer helped Ali’s business last year but he’s not taking any chances again. When the business restarts at Udder Farm Shop, Ali will have a canopy to work under. That means he’ll have trade in bad weather. And Shaftesbury’s drivers won’t have to wait long for Ali’s hand car wash to open on the A30 at East Stour. “Fingers crossed. It’ll be ready at the end of January,” Ali said.