'Yes, I can!'
Reda Abdel-Salam, who was born without both arms, has overcome the obstacles he faced and lived his dream. Angy Essam listened to his story
Reda Abdel-Salam Hassan is the chief presenter on the Quran Radio Station, and his story is an inspiration to all who meet him.
Born in the village of Kuwesena in the Menoufiya governorate in 1964, he graduated from the Faculty of Law in 1987 and then received a degree in Islamic studies and Sharia law, graduating in 1989. Throughout Abdel-Salam's life journey, from birth, education, marriage, fatherhood to work, his slogan has always been "yes, I can."
Abdel-Salam says that the life of any person with special needs, whether he is strong or not, is a series of obstacles and challenges. "Overcoming these obstacles differs from one person to another, depending on one's strength and readiness to accept the disability and make use of every tool one has to achieve one's targets," he says.
When he was born, his family have told him, silence fell over the house, as his parents were in shock at having a child with physical disabilities. "One family member began to shout apparently and my mother began to cry. It was grief mixed with anxiety about the future of this child. A lot of questions apparently were raised at the time, among them how I was going to be able to live with the disability. But my father held me in his arms and kissed my forehead and asked them all to stop crying. He prayed to God to bless me."
Abdel-Salam says that his family have told him that when he was a child there were signs that he was very smart. For example, he started crawling early on, and when he began to walk he would lean on the wall to keep his balance. For his family, these were signs that the child was going to be able to adapt to his condition.
When he was four years old, Abdel-Salam's father applied for him to go to school, and he was adamant that his son should be accepted in a normal school, where he could use his foot to hold a pen instead of his missing hands. However, Abdel-Salam was not accepted at school due to his condition, this becoming a first obstacle in life.
"My father argued for a year with the school administration for them to accept me, and then he decided to find a solution by meeting with an undersecretary at the ministry of education who was an officer in the army. I will never forget what my father said that day although I was only five. He told the officer, 'if your son was like mine, would you accept his being denied an education?' The officer didn't answer. Then my father told him that if he didn't accept me in the school he would go to president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in person."
Abdel-Salam remembers how his father put him in front of a desk and asked him to write. The officer was shocked to see that he could do so, and he ordered his immediate acceptance at school.
"I have always been blessed, even in school. I was very good at Arabic, and in a very short period I was known for being clever. When I reached third primary stage, they insisted on examining me in writing. If I failed the exam, they would kick me out of school. At that time, I learned with the help of my father how to use my mouth to write, as this was going to be easier than using my foot, and I succeeded in the exam."
Abdel-Salam said that he got an A in sixth primary, and all his family knew he was on the right track. He explains that he was very social and had many friends, among them the journalist Ibrahim Eissa. In the third secondary grade, he was the second-best student in the school and tenth on the governorate level.
He then registered at the Faculty of Law because he knew he had to study an academic subject and because studying law entailed reading books, one of his hobbies. In his second year at Law School, he came third in a class of 2,500 students.
Choosing to become a broadcaster at the Quran Radio Station was a decision he took overnight, although he also had what it took for the job. "My Arabic was very good, I enjoyed reading and done Islamic studies."
He asked Hossam Fathi, at that time a professor in the Faculty and now dean of the Faculty of Law, to help him achieve his goal. Fathi set up a meeting with the late writer Abdel-Wahab Metawe, who sent him to see Fahmi Omar.
"Omar saw my condition and asked me why I wanted to work for the radio. I answered confidently that I was a law graduate and that I wanted to work as a broadcaster. He sent me for three months training."
Then came the third obstacle, when Abdel-Salam was not appointed to the job he wanted. "I was rejected as a broadcaster after I had succeeded in the training, yet I was offered another administrative job. I went quite insane," he said. Instead of giving up, however, he took a job on the Middle of the Delta Radio in Tanta for two years.
Abdel-Salam said that he was still haunted by the dream of working on the Quran Radio Station, however, and he got another chance when it advertised for presenters.
"When I sat in front of the committee, I took off my jacket. Then I held the pen and started to write using my mouth. I asked Helmi Elbulak, the head of the committee, to imagine that the pen was a microphone and that I was doing an interview with him. Finally, I opened the door and closed it again. I turned to them then to ask them why they had refused me before and whether I was qualified now."
Elbulak was amazed by his performance and gave him the job on the spot.
"I can still remember my first day as a broadcaster," Abdel-Salam says. "I had the confidence, and of course the great faith in God, that I would succeed. They were all anxious about me, but as soon as I had finished broadcasting they all congratulated me and praised my performance. What made me extremely proud was the great happiness that I saw in the eyes of my father, which I will never forget."
Abdel-Salam added that in his 22 years at the station, he has targeted two things, first to respect the audience and second to meet their expectations. He has also tried to show society that people with special needs can work just as well and sometimes even better than fully able people._Highlights in Abdel-Salam's career include covering the international Holy Quran competition in Dubai in 2003 and covering the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in 2004, when he not only worked as an on-air broadcaster but also as a presenter.
His first programme was masajid laha tarek, or the history of mosques, followed by another called kutouf min al-sira, or stories from the life of the Prophet Mohamed. Today, he presents a programme called maa al-sahaba, or stories from the life of the Prophet Mohammed and his relationship with his Companions.
Abdel-Salam says that he has been so impressed with the content of the programmes that he has cried twice, although that wasn't very professional of him. The first time was when he was presenting an episode from his programme about the death of the Prophet Mohamed, and the second time was when he was covering the pilgrimage in 2004.
In many ways, Abdel-Salam has had a challenging life. He explained that what society sometimes forgets is that people with special needs are human beings. "They have the same rights that others have. They have the right to get married and have children, for example, just like everyone else."
While Abdel-Salam married his wife 18 years ago, the relationship wasn't an easy one at first. His wife was from the same town, and they were neighbours living in the same street. Her father accepted him at first, but then he was rejected as the father said his daughter would not be happy because of Abdel-Salam's special circumstances.
Nevertheless, his future wife insisted on marrying him, and eventually they did tie the knot. They now have a son, Abdel-Rahman, 17, and a daughter, Afnan, 13. Abdel-Salam says that his relationship with his children is based on friendship. "We even favoured different presidential candidates," he says.
He thinks that thus far he has succeeded in overcoming the obstacles he has faced in his life, except the ones he couldn't defeat, like riding bicycles and swimming. What he really wants as a person with special needs is people's help and not their sympathy.
"Sympathetic glances hurt us more than anyone can imagine," he explains, adding that he is astonished that despite the growing number of TV channels there are no media-awareness campaigns about how to help people with special needs or TV programmes dedicated to their problems.
Abdel-Salam also says that he is surprised that people with special needs have not complained more to the government. "There aren't enough jobs for people with special needs, and if there are any available they are small jobs. For example, there are no jobs for us in the petroleum sector, the judiciary and large companies."
Although the government has legislated to ensure that companies allocate five per cent of jobs to those with special needs, Abdel-Salam says that the fines for not doing so are too low (LE1,000) to act as a real incentive. After graduating, he says, he had applied to join the judiciary, but he was not even interviewed.
During the first round of the presidential elections, Abdel-Salam voted for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, and in the second round he voted for Mohamed Mursi despite his reservations about what the Muslim Brotherhood has done over recent months.
"My message to the newly elected president is that people with special needs are Egyptian citizens who have the same rights and duties as everyone else," he says. "The new president should establish a ministry for people with special needs, in order to fight for their rights and help them fulfil their needs."
"My advice to other people with special needs who may wrongly feel that they are less than others, or that disability is the end of the world, is that they are simply incorrect. If I could do it, then so can you! You shouldn't wait for things to fall from the sky. You should work hard and use your mind."
"We should admit without being ashamed that yes, we are different from others, but that we can replace what we lack with abilities that God has given us. You will find them in yourself, if you try."