6 - 12 July 2000
Issue No. 489
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Feats of flexibilityGenerations of AUC students know his as the door that is always open
Profile by Fayza Hassan
"The Muqattam is still one of the few areas of Cairo where one does not feel the pollution that is choking the city," says Abdel-Khaleq Allam, the vice-president of student affairs at the American University in Cairo. Eight years ago he settled at the top of the mountain and has never regretted it since. He leaves his house every morning before 6.00am, heading for the Gezira Club, where he takes his daily exercise. "As I go down in the early morning," he says, "I can see Cairo below under a thick blanket of smog, and the thought that we made the right choice when we moved to this area is constantly reinforced." He enjoys the relative peace, space and silence the plateau still offers its inhabitants, and claims that he and his wife Fawqiya no longer need to repair to Abu Sultan as they used to every summer and on weekends in the past. "The weather is different here," he says, "cooler in summer and dryer in winter, and the wind cleans the atmosphere."
In cap and gown after receiving his PhD
Listening to him, I am possessed by the desire to move at once to such pleasant surroundings. I suggest in jest that now that he is retiring from AUC, he should give some thought to establishing himself as a real estate agent for the area. Allam is a convivial person, easy to talk to. Far from being offended, he laughs good-naturedly at the idea. "And of course you will tell your prospective clients that it is totally safe at night, coming back from a party," I say rather deceitfully, knowing, since I have tried it on several occasions, that the road leading to the top of the hill is very poorly lit. Allam hesitates, then laughs again. "You know, my wife and I have lost the urge to attend many functions. We are early birds and like to be in bed by 11.00pm."
We are sitting in Allam's AUC office on the first floor of the main building, sipping coffee, surrounded by rows of books and a large number of trophies. He was Egypt's gymnastics champion in 1946 and also won several national awards in diving; he remembers fondly the way it all started, his proficiency at the parallel bars leading him in leaps and bounds to a career very remote from the one he had chosen for himself when he returned from Ohio State University with a master's degree in physical education and later, in 1953, with a doctorate in health and safety education from Indiana University.
As a young boy, Allam became interested in sports in general and gymnastics in particular. He wanted to become a champion. At school he approached the coach at the school gymnasium one day and asked to be shown how to use the parallel bars. The experience quickly ended in disaster, for the coach's arm on the one hand and Allam's pride on the other.
A friend of his to whom he recounted his misadventure suggested that during the summer they both enrol with the German physical education instructor of the Ahli Club. "The fee," says Allam, "was 5 piastres a month." He was a good teacher and with his help Allam made rapid progress. In the fall, on the first day of school he dashed to the gymnasium, launching into a demonstration of his skills to show off his newly acquired proficiency to the coach who had jeered at his discomfiture three short months before. Having completed his exhibition, he was invited by the rather baffled coach to become a member of the school's gymnastics team.
...with late President Anwar El-Sadat in Ismailia in 1979;
...with Mrs Suzanne Mubarak at AUC's 2000 midyear commencement;
...with President Mubarak and Richard Pedersen, then AUC's president, in 1986
So far Allam, who grew up in Munira, had been a brilliant student at the Ismailia School, known for its academic excellence. He was now becoming a distinguished athlete as well, and began to notice that the school's PE programme was in need of improvement. When Ismailia won the gymnastic competition against the Ibrahimiya and Fouad I schools, he was asked to join the Ibrahimiya, which boasted better athletes and placed more emphasis on sports. This he did promptly, and with a group of his new classmates, also obsessed with physical fitness, spent the whole year in the gymnasium rather than the classroom with the not entirely unexpected result that he failed his Thanawiya Amma exams and was forced to repeat the year. He passed on the second attempt, but without the grades necessary to get him into medical school, his first choice. He was not very excited by the other faculties on offer and decided to enrol at the Teachers' Institute, which was opening a new department of physical education. In his first year, his class won the Universities Cup, beating the Military Academy, which he was asked to join. It was easier said than done, however, and Allam's name was pulled out of the list of admissions 26 times, he says, because he did not have the proper recommendation (wasta) necessary in those days to open the doors of the academy.
Finally giving up, Allam remained at the institute, earning a scholarship to complete his graduate studies in the US and took his first appointment to teach physical education at Fouad I School, which had one of the worst reputations and where many of the students were older than he was. Taken several times for a student by the headmaster, he resolved to wear the tarboush, by then unpopular among the younger generations, and grow a mustache. Thus disguised, he felt that he had a better chance of distinguishing himself from his charges. The following year, he moved to Qubba Al-Namuzagiyah (experimental school), where Hani El-Nuqrashi, the son of the then prime minister, was among his students. Here Allam hesitates: "I am not sure that I want you to publish what I am about to tell you," he says. "I'd better not say anything, I think; I don't want Hani to be upset. I have always liked him very much. I saw him recently, he is now an important engineer in Germany, his son has just graduated from AUC and I had his daughter here too, he is such a nice person..." Pressed to go on with the story, he finally relents. "Hani was one of my favourite students," he reminisces, "but one day I saw him beating up a boy and I was upon him in a second. Having separated the combatants, I slapped him without even asking him what the fight was about. I have always taken the side of the weaker as a principle. During my school days, I jogged a lot with my friends and whenever we chanced to meet a man harassing a girl in the street, we would beat him up until he promised never to do it again. I hate bullies. Anyway, Hani went crying to the headmaster, who called me in and informed me that I was not about to see the end of this. Slapping the prime minister's son was no mean affair in those days. The headmaster was really furious and I fully expected to be fired. Having nothing to lose, I told him I would not return if he did not expel Hani. 'It is either him or me,' I told him haughtily. 'Him', my superior answered at once. I pretended to have misunderstood. 'Him,' he repeated; 'you can go, Hani will stay.'
"The following day, Hani's father arrived at the school and I braced myself for a dressing down, but when I entered the headmaster's office, El-Nuqrashi Pasha stood up and shook my hand. He told me that I should always chastise his son if I saw him misbehaving. He told me that he had been an educator himself and appreciated what I had done. The headmaster suddenly seemed to embrace the same point of view and we never talked about the incident again."
Allam is proud to remind us that Qubba Al-Namuzagiyah was attended by such luminaries as Atef Ebeid, Mamdouh El-Beltagui, Mohamed Nosseir, Mohamed Sheta, and many others who are now famous in various fields.
At the time of the 1952 Revolution, Allam was in Helsinki in his capacity as the coach of the Olympic diving team. He came home soon after, but left for the US to study for his doctorate. After completing his PhD in 1955, he went to work as an inspector at the Ministry of Education, and later resumed his teaching career at the Institute of Higher Physical Education. With his friend Adel Taher, they began at this point to think about creating a kind of organisation under the aegis of the Socialist Union that would serve as a framework through which Egyptian youth of all classes would have access to sports. This had been one of Allam's pet dreams and for a while he concentrated his attention on the project. "I was really dedicated to the idea," he says. Soon, however, disagreements developed between the officials in charge and Allam was assigned to a desk job that he hated. At a loose end for the first time, he began to think of going back to the States. "Disappointed by the turn of events, I was confiding a friend who worked at the time at AUC. He suggested that I apply for a position at the university."
Hesitantly, he took a holiday from the youth and sports organisation and joined AUC in 1966 as director of records and administrations. This was the beginning of a successful career which spanned 34 years, at the end of which Provost Tim Sullivan commented: "To many, Allam is AUC. He has actively participated as the university evolved from a small private college on the sidelines of Egypt's educational scene, to a full-scale mainstream liberal arts university, with graduates including the sons and daughters of Egypt's most powerful and influential."
Most of the older students remember Allam's political leadership at the university in the critical time immediately following the 1967 defeat, just one year after he had joined AUC. A personal friend of Labib Shoqair, minister of education at the time, Allam was asked to write a report in Arabic, outlining the positive sides of the university and proving that its administration and staff had no close connections with the CIA, an accusation Allam had hotly refuted. "I sat up all night writing the report," he recalls. The minister invited his two deputy ministers, Mustafa Kamal Tolba and Mustafa Kamal Helmi, to review the report and prepare a recommendation that would be sent to President Nasser. "The report must have allayed their fears," comments Allam, because, a decree was issued reversing the decision to nationalise the university and placing it under special sequestration with directives to the sequestrator, Hussein Said, former minister of higher education, "to protect the funds, property and rights of the university." Allam credits Said with safeguarding AUC's independence until the sequestration ended in 1974.
Among the students, Allam has acquired the reputation of always being there to help. "He acted as a troubleshooter on our behalf," says photographer Randa Shaath. "I always came to him when I was refused permission to organise an activity on the grounds that it was political and therefore forbidden by the university statutes and he was never stingy with his good advice. He helped us organise our political demonstrations in an acceptable way and always told us in no uncertain terms what the right course of action was. We never regretted listening to him."
Having been at the centre of things for so long, Allam is not really ready to retire yet. He will come back as a consultant to the university but what would give him deep satisfaction is to act as an adviser to the students, helping them to improve the quality of their lives and make the right choices. "In time, I have developed a concept of happiness," he says, "and I wish to pass it on to the future generations."
photo: Randa Shaath