July 05, 2019 Share

Measles in the basement

When I was growing up, my eldest brother had a tremendous wedding celebration. Our house had several rooms and they devoted one side of the whole house for them after the marriage. There was a small room and a big room. Then, the system was when a man married a woman, you’d pay a dowry. But more modern people would buy furniture for the new home. And they did that. One big room and the smaller one next to it was devoted for this young man, his wife, and their future children. And they had kids and they grew up there, up until the kids were 12 or 13, supported by my father. Because my eldest brother was working with my father.

The wedding was for outside the family. This was a custom, and you can rent a stage, and construct the stage in the courtyard. Our courtyard now had a stage, like in the movies, where it was all furnished and an orchestra, not a full orchestra, but a small group would play music. In the courtyard, the men would dance the Dabke, in a circle. The women would make this sound, “Yeyeyeyeye!” very loud. My sister can do it, not everyone can.

The trouble with that wedding, was that me and my older brother had the measles at the same time! We were having a problem with that disease, and we couldn’t join the crowd. They put us in the basement! But before it was a basement, it was a storage for charcoal – I mean, it was clean at the time. We hardly knew what was going on, except the noise from the celebration. And here was some people with measles and fever. It had happened at the same time, me and my brother, measles is very contagious. It wasn’t easy life…

Dabke is a Levantine folk dance, which means it originated from a region in the Middle East that includes the countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. … Today, dabke is seen all throughout the world at weddings, family gatherings, and celebrations.


Adventure in the Hills

When I was growing up, we used to do boy scouts. And we used to go camp somewhere almost every summer. As a result, we learned a lot about the Middle East. One year we went to the north, to what became Turkey later, and Lebanon, and then Palestine before trouble started. All these were done with us as boy scouts! Then we also used to have camps organized by teachers and so on, from different countries. In some suburb in Damascus, you’d go through a large area, where groups of boys that came from all over the Middle East. Like Jamborree in Europe, a worldwide boy scouts get together and camp together. I was not rich enough to go to Europe. My friend’s brother did, he went to Jamborree. But we had a local one like that but for Syria, for about a week or two. We went to Damascus, in a mountain village.

Scouts of Syria, The Damascene Scouts of St. George reaching the top of Hermon Mountain on foot in August 1933. From the book “Syria” by Amer Badr Hassoun. 
Image Source: Pinterest Rimi syrian

It tasted like kerosene

It was really great, we would learn together, work together, camp together, cook together. Apparently the group leader had brought some guy who used to be a cook from a school, so instead of us wasting time cooking, he would cook. This guy one day spilled the kerosene in the food! And there was no food. It tasted like kerosene. That was terrible. No matter how much you cleaned it…


We camped in the mountains, where there was a hill and a fountain down below. Usually when you’re a boy scout, you would take turns and guard at night in the freezing weather. Everyone is sleeping except for this one person guarding at night night. There was one guy who couldn’t stand it, so he went back to bed!

The emotional part of it, was a year or so later, we went back to this particular hill after we finished camping. We went back up the hill, to reminisce. It was a really emotional time, to go up the hill and only a few months ago you were there with the whole boy scout. I started crying, it was so emotional to remember. In the pre-Islamic Arabic literature, there was a poet who wrote and started the poem, with an opener describing these kind of things. 

Syria 1958 Pan-Arab Scout Jamboree MNH Set 
Image Source: Coventry Stamps & Sci-Fi


My best friends

I can tell you right now, I never forgot my best friends. That question, of who my childhood best friends were, always comes to my mind, that same question. Second year elementary school, my best friend was just a regular child, a student. And I had two other ones in second year. They happened to be twin brothers. These were my earliest good friends that I remember. I don’t know how you would describe friendship at the age of 7 or 8 years old. But it was so strong that it is still with me now. I remember when I asked myself the same question, I wondered how it can be that strong. The names of the two twins were after Arabic heroes. The heroes themselves were brothers. The last time we were in touch was many years ago.

There was a time, when I was older, we were adults… There is always some trouble in the Middle East, and there was some trouble with colonial powers and local leaders. We had trouble in Iraq. What happened in Iraq affected students everywhere in the Middle East. There was an internal revolt in Baghdad. A new government came in. At the time England was the occupier of Iraq. The French were occupiers of Syria and Lebanon. The British were occupiers of Jordan, Palestine…

There was some kind of revolt in Baghdad by a young man to try to get rid of the British. We as students or young people, got excited in Aleppo. So we run away with some ten friends, we organize a team to fight. Of course our families wouldn’t allow that, so we had to run away. I left a note for my father that I’m going to be fighting…and we run away! We went to Baghdad. The thing that’s interesting, we took a truck to go to one city along the Euphrates, and all the way down to the bottom of the Gulf. There is a city, called Abu Kamal, at the border between Syria, Iraq and Palestine. And well, we wanted to go further, but the governor of that city was quite smart. He never allowed us to leave the city. We tried to get permission every day to cross the boundary. He told our ambassador, I have knowledge of today and yesterday. But I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. He kept telling these kids who were trying to go, trying to tell us, you better watch out!

What we did was, we had a few dollars in our pocket, so we went ahead and rented a boat and took it up the Euphrates, all the way to Iraq. We got to a place where there was a war! We couldn’t cross because there was a battle right there. Guns and everything! We were in the dessert. I had a pair of binoculars that my father had given to me as a gift because something I did for the house. I used it and then I lost it there. I really feel bad about it. So we sat down there and we didn’t do anything. The city wouldn’t allow us to go. The people there, the villagers, were very generous. They hosted in their homes, good food, good treatment. And here we were, there was a battle going on, and we were enjoying life and the generosity of the rich people.

Then finally, we decide to keep going, and we get to a point where we were returning home, coming from Iraq back to Syria, horizontally. Apparently was so upset, crying that we were gone. Apparently he heard where we were, and he didn’t waste a minute, took a taxi, and rushed to where we were. I was with my friends at the edge of the river, washing clothes. It was hot and dirty, you know. One of my friends goes, “Look behind you!” And I see my father above my head! Anyway, that was the end of it. He took me to a friend’s house to stay. Then the next day we went back home, and I felt relieved! For the first time, we had someone who was responsible, a father.

Before there was a revolutionary man who was trying to recruit high school kids to join a revolt against the British. It was stupid, but to us, we were heroes! We were stupid, young people, emotional activists… We were at least 10 friends from high school, out of 30, who managed to keep together to travel from Syria to Iraq. Before that there were about 30 high schoolers before we went who were excited. We wanted to fight, but fight who? It’s not easy to raise kids, in an area that’s not stable.



Journey to the United States

I was dreaming about becoming a doctor. But again, I couldn’t afford it. I was not rich enough to do anything on my own. After high school, after the baccalaureate, there was a competitive exam in the summer after I finished. It was asking students to pick up and send them to Europe for education beyond high school. But Europe was closed because of the war, so instead they sent us to Egypt. And I was one of those four from Syria, to be picked up. So I was sent to Cairo. And the door was open for education beyond high school.

That summer before I passed the exam, was really an uncertain time. I had just finished high school, I didn’t know what to do. My father and mother couldn’t send me to Europe. Someone said, look go to your high school, there is a letter for you! There was a letter from the minister of education in Syria. They said we elected to send you to Europe for education. That was great. I went to Damascus, and that the door is closed for Europe. But we can send you to Lebanon or Egypt. I selected Egypt. I went to Egypt for four years at the expense of the government. I couldn’t afford it so I was lucky to do that.

When I finished the four years, I came to Columbia University. I was at Havemeyer Hall. When I came, the first thing I did was I had to go to general studies. I had to convert from one degree to the other. Ultimately I wanted to go to engineering. In any case, my application was accepted. I had to pay tuition for the first year.

Havenmeyer Hall, Columbia University
Image Source:
Library of Congress

My brother Abdul, younger than me, who did very well and went to Brazil, he told me he would support me. He did, and he sent money to me for the whole first year. But then he applied for a U.S. visa when he was Brazil and he got it. And of course he wanted to drop everything and come to the U.S. He came to the U.S. with whatever money he saved, not much. Although we had the impression that he made a lot. But it takes a lot of money to live in New York. He came, and he supported me the first year, but then he went bankrupt. We were so hungry… We used to go to the Cedar Restaurant and live off of bread. You order a dish, but usually the basket of bread is free.

There was this research project that we needed to do for our degree. The project consisted of extracting oil from cotton seeds. Then in the government, there was something called the Atomic Energy Commission at the time. They were offering scholarships. So I got one. Instead of getting $100/month, I was getting $300/month. That was great!

Jitto, student at Columbia

Then through that, I had a chance to take the qualifying exam for the doctorate. I passed. There was this Egyptian guy in the program. We had teachers who were really biased against this Egyptian guy. No matter how well he did on the exam, he would always get a bad grade. This poor Egyptian fellow, took the exam 3 times! He felt he did very well, but every time he flunked. The system at the time was loaded with individual interests. If you liked someone, you could help…

Anyway, once I got my doctorate, I worked for DuPont. The work for DuPont was interesting. They usually send a scout to various schools looking for people they want to hire. Dupont interviewed me the first round, and nothing worked out. Then this second round, they said we don’t have a guy from Persia. And the Dean said, we don’t have a guy from Persia but we have this guy! …and that’s how I got hired. I’m not from Persia, but close enough! It’s amazing how life works out. So I went there, and they immediately gave me an offer.

That’s how I ended up in Chattanooga. They sent the technical and creative people like him to experience the plant-level. They were making this beautiful fabric that was going on the market. They thought they should  know something about plant problems. So we were sent here for 3 years to get some experience. We were supposed to go back, but in those 3 years, everything happened at Dupont. All the patents gave out, or were about to give out. Nylon and other fabric, all these fabric patents gave out and everyone could make them. And also, cotton was finally getting its act together. It used to be awful because cotton was difficult to iron, to get the wrinkles out of it. Cotton would wrinkle so badly. They had finally fixed the wrinkle problem with cotton and so cotton was coming back while these patents were giving out. So Dupont needed some new patents.


They went into building material, all this stuff that you see, Tyvek, that’s one of them, but not fabric anymore, which was I was working on. We were basically doing quality control for what was coming out of that plant. Gradually, Dupont got worse. Now that plant is closed and Dallas has taken over Dupont, and it doesn’t even exist anymore.


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