crossroads

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  • Published: 13 Aug 2013
  • Updated: 13 Aug 2013
  • Status: Complete
This is a tale of diaspora and kaleidoscopic fortunes spanning three continents. It proves that the most ordinary person has a story to tell.

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1. preface and part one

Preface

I believe that every human life is a story worth telling with lessons to learn and wisdom to gain. Decades ago, when someone reached old age, it was customary to order a portrait to be painted or a photograph taken. Publishing one’s biography was expensive and not feasible unless thousands of copies could be printed and sold. But in this day and age of publishing-on-demand it is now possible to leave behind more than a portrait that does not say anything about a person except how he/she looked like.

In the beginning, my motivation to write about my life was my five-year-old grandson. Like me, his settling in Warsaw, Poland, came through multiple twists of fate, but it did not take us long to establish a very special relationship, marked with mutual affection and trust. I think that the basis for this special relation was my treating him as an adult who deserves an explanation for whatever he is asked to do.

As my seventieth birthday was drawing near I realized that my grandson may never know much about me, not even if I live long enough for him to be an adult. The only viable chance for him to hear the whole story was to write it down for him to read when he is ready.

As I started to write, I came to understand that what I am writing may interest a wider circle of people such as my family, friends and all those who played a role in my life or simply people who knew me.

I admit that I am neither famous nor wildly successful, and people are generally not interested in reading about a Mr. Average unless he happens to be someone with a story that can touch their hearts.

When I started writing these pages, it was just to leave a written record for my grandson and future generations of my family about my life, so they may know me better, especially that I had put roots in a soil that is very far from where I was born. With time they will have no way to trace me – or their family for that matter – and by writing my story they will be able to know where they come from and where that can take them. What is more important for me, is for them to understand the values of our family not by preaching to them but by showing them, how we behaved, where we excelled and where we failed.

There are many more reasons for me to write this story and one of them is to show how tolerant and open minded the Arab society was, from Syria in the north to Abu Dhabi in the south, before this wave of fundamentalism hit our societies and converted a considerable part of these societies to narrow-minded interpretations of Islam.

As an avid reader, who always enjoyed reading about the secrets of the trade of the hero of the story, whether he be a sailor or a detective, I thought that it would be interesting for some readers to learn about structural engineering and its inside tricks.

There is, of course, an element of narcissism in a person writing about himself, but the pleasure this endeavor has given me goes beyond satisfying an egotistic itch; it allowed me to reconnect – even if it was just in thought – with people and places that shaped my life.

As I spent one gloomy winter after another sitting at my computer piecing together seventy years of memories, I couldn’t help smiling at the irony of it all: I was the first engineer in a family of poets and writers, I had never written a single line of prose or verse before, yet here I was writing a book – and enjoying it!

                                Part one 1959-1964

I chose my seat in the empty Alitalia aircraft and thought to myself that this was as close as one could get to a VIP treatment, I was escorted to the airport, whisked through passport control, luggage check and was the first to board the plane. I pressed my face to the window to cast a last look at the land I would be leaving behind: sand dunes intercepted here and there with green shrubs and olive trees behind the humble building of Tripoli Airport. I closed my eyes to avoid the strong glare of the rising sun and realized that closing my eyes is the best thing I could do after a sleepless night. I felt my mind slowly drifting away as I started to comprehend what was happening to me and its very serious consequences. Slowly my memory took me back to the time, when I arrived at a similar airport in Cairo some seven years ago. I felt myself gaining strength as I remembered earlier tunnels I went through in Cairo and how I was able to find the light at their end.

Cairo

The first semester in the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo University usually starts in September, but the paperwork needed to enroll in the university was time-consuming and the different government ministries in Syria and Egypt took their time. I was able to join our classes in late November 1959, some ten or eleven weeks after the actual start of the lessons. It was not my first trip to Egypt as I had visited it with my dad when I was ten years old, but this was the first time for me to be in another country on my own, and with all the adjustments I had to make simultaneously it was overwhelming.

Arrangements were made for me to live in “University City”, a sprawling complex of dormitories, sport facilities, gardens, restaurants and administrative buildings. The dormitories consisted of wings with eight single rooms on each side, each room not more than 5 square meters. To live in such a confined space was not easy for me, especially that I am claustrophobic and those rooms really triggered that phobia. But perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make was eating the restaurant food, which was already paid for, but was almost inedible.

Joining the classes so late in the semester did not give me much time for anything, but trying to catch up on the lectures I had missed. It did not help that mathematics, which was one of the most important and difficult subjects in the preparatory year, was taught in Egyptian Arabic symbols and vocabulary, a very different form from what I was used to in Syria. Most of other subjects were taught in English.

In addition to the adjustments I needed to deal with, there were also a few distractions. For starters, I was not getting any replies to the letters I sent to Esmat the girl I had fallen in love with back in Syria. When I had some free time, I would contemplate why my letters were not being answered and what I might have done to deserve that, but gradually there was another distraction that took my mind off the first distraction.

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