Friday, October 15, 2004

Diaa and clouds

Diaa and clouds
Diaa and clouds, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Fredette asked about my husband and I realised that I haven't really written about him much, other than in passing. This is partly because it's been fairly painful, but some of the pain was, in fact, released by my trip to Toronto. The photo shows Diaa at the controls of his Beechcraft C90, a photo taken by a friend who was traveling to Germany with him on his last trip. When he heard what had happened on the return trip, Mohamed sent me copies of the photos that he'd taken in the plane as they were preparing for take off. The second photo is one that was taken in Petra on one of the airline's inaugural trips from Sharm el Sheikh. He'd tried the trip and the tour himself to see that things ran smoothly and was clowning around with the Jordanian Bedouins at Petra.

If any of the women ever had any questions about why I would move to Egypt, I do believe that the photos pretty much answer them. He was drop dead gorgeous, extravagantly intelligent, and full of visions and drive. It was sort of like being married to a tornado. I never knew where he was going either physically or mentally (I was NEVER bored!) and only God had the power to stop or slow him down. We had one hell of a good time together.

Diaa grew up between Egypt and Sudan, a living example of the saying that every Egyptian has a Sudanese uncle. His cousins were the children of one of the first leaders of the Sudan after the country split from Egypt around the 60's, but his father was a government employee, an engineer in the department of irrigation. He moved to Egypt for university in the late 60's and his family soon followed.

After he finished his first engineering degree at the University of Cairo, he had to join the army like all Egyptian men unless they are only sons. During the '73 war, he served as the commander of a mobile missile station and while he had some pretty good stories about having to hijack a train from Cairo to get his missiles delivered, he wasn't a natural soldier. After the war was over, he enrolled briefly at the American University in Cairo to work on his English and go to grad school. The experience whetted his appetite for adventure and he ended up applying for grad school in North America.

He was accepted at a number of universities in Canada and the United States, but the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario offered the best financial deal, so that is where he ended up. He applied for his student visa at the Canadian embassy in Cairo, was accidentally given a form for an immigrant visa, which he filled out being totally unaware of the significance, and he was granted immigrant status. This turned out to be something of a problem when he traveled to Canada for school in 1975 because as an immigrant he couldn't go to university right away. He had to spend a month or two working the assembly line at Budd Automotive while the university sorted out the situation so that he could attend classes. The experience left him with a strong desire never to do that again.

When we met, we were both graduate students, he in chemical engineering and me in social psychology. It was an odd match in terms of our ways of dealing with the world and our terms of reference. He was mystified by subject matters that had no formulas, while if I never saw another number (having taken statistics and multivariate analysis) it would be only too soon. I taught him English, while he talked me into becoming active in the Grad Student Union, an organisation that we served for a number of years as President (Diaa) and Chairman of the Board (myself). It was the only time in our 24 years together that I was able to tell him to shut up in public with impunity, and I took full advantage of it. Any concerns our fellow students had about our "taking over" the group were very quickly dispelled as we often disagreed over tactics and goals.

Diaa decided to start his own business while we were still in grad school. At first we supported the business from our work as teaching assistants, and later when I'd decided that I really didn't want the PhD just as I was starting to work on my thesis, from my jobs. We were married in 1980 in his thesis advisor's garden and our son was born in 1981. Our daughter was born in 1983 and while the children were young we tried to spend at least two months a year in Egypt so that they would have some sense of family there.However, the business started to demand longer and longer trips to Egypt and Sudan with increasing regularity....the impetus for our move.

About the same time that I finally got tired of being a single parent in 1988 and we moved to Alexandria, a severe recession hit North America and Europe, but Egypt was a wild west economy. Years of nationalisation by Nasser were replaced by Sadat's and later Mubarak's efforts to bring Egypt back into the international arena. The country desperately needed goods and infrastructure, and Diaa was there to help build the infrastructure and import the goods, in his case wheat, corn, and soybeans to feed the poultry industry. He built an innovative company around grain bagging plants that were mounted on barges (a combination that he designed) which could be towed out to ships in harbour, thus avoiding the high costs of bagging grain in the US and the costs of waiting for a berth in the frantically busy harbour of Alexandria.

After that success, he moved on to build a massive computer-driven grain discharge terminal with storage siloes in Egypt's deep water port of Dekhela, just west of Alexandria. For this he had to have government cooperation and he got it. He also financed the entire operation by himself with capital from his first company and loans. When the grain terminal was being built, he realised that he needed to move the goods, so he built a trucking company with a fleet of 100 Kenworth trucks to move the grain.

While we were still living in Alexandria, Diaa went to check out flying lessons for our son, who was a total flying freak. At the age of 10, he was having his father bring home FAA manuals to be able to play his flight simulator games more realistically. Diaa found that there was no way for Nadim to learn to fly before he was 18, but the instructor took Diaa up for a spin and he was hooked. He enrolled at the National Aviation Institute in Imbaba and for the next few years worked on his private pilot's license and then his commercial license. He took flying very seriously and was a star student.

Once we'd moved to Cairo for the sake of the businesses which now required more time with governmental bodies, banks and so forth, Diaa had to commute to Alexandria for the grain terminal and a new soybean crushing plant that he was planning near Alexandria. Egypt has some of the most dangerous highways in the world and none of us were very comfortable with the amount of time he was spending on the road.

His desire to own his own plane was beginning to make a lot of sense, but rather than just buy a plane, he decided to set up Egypt's first regional airline to service the booming tourism sector in Sinai. Then, as now, a huge number of tourists were flying directly to the Red Sea for holidays, but they also wanted to see the antiquities of Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Petra and Cairo. To do this in the mid 90's, they would have to take an Egypt Air flight to Cairo, overnight, and then fly to one of the other destinations, repeating the whole procedure on the return. This would kill a number of days in a 2 week vacation for which the hotel bill in Sinai was already paid. It was a problem. Orca Air flew day trips from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Petra, and Abu Simbel, so that the tourists could leave in the early morning, see the antiquities and return for a late dinner in Sharm.

Diaa used the Beechcraft C90 to check on things in Sharm, Alexandria and Cairo, and sometimes he hit all three cities in one day. He also occasionally flew charters himself if they were interesting enough. One time he took four days off to fly a French film crew around Egypt. Busy man. Along the way he taught his son and daughter to fly, and just before Nadim left for college he soloed in the C90 on a trip to Borg el Arab to inspect the soybean crushing plant.

The plant was over 90% finished and financed again by Diaa when he was killed while making an emergency landing in a rice field just northeast of Cairo in June 2000. The landing was successful but as he taxi'ed the wing tip hit a palm tree flipping the cockpit into a low concrete wall. He was killed instantly when his head slammed into the roof. Within 48 hours I had about six banks on my doorstep panicking over the fact that we were currently in debt for the cost of the plant (a quarter of a billion dollars US) and Diaa was no longer there to manage the situation.

I found myself sitting in board rooms trying to learn the ropes of the companies and helping the banks to secure their own positions at a time when what I really wanted to do was go crawl off into a corner and just cry. But it wasn't a normal situation at all. There were banks that could have crashed with this event. It was, to be quite honest, four years of hell. At the time our son was a freshman at Columbia University and our daughter a junior in high school in Cairo. I had put aside money to assure their educations, so I told them to keep on track while I helped to sort out the mess. Unfortunately, Diaa was also a one-man show, like many entrepreneurs, so the mess was considerable.

Finally, it's over. The trucks are rolling, the soybean plant has started crushing, Orca will be flying again soon, ships are discharging at the terminal in Dekhela. We lost ownership of the soybean plant and most of our shares in the trucking company and the discharge terminal are pledge to banks. Basically, we lost almost everything but none of that really mattered when we lost the most important thing of all....Diaa


Larry Nolan said...

Your husband was an amazing man. Thanks for telling us about him.

Badaunt said...


Also, have you thought about writing the story of your lives together? For publication, I mean.

Terri said...

I'm speechless. What an interesting man. What an incredible life. (I charter airplanes, mostly leaseback, and coincidentally just today put a King Air C-90 on leaseback.)

Thank you for sharing a bit of Diaa's and of course, your, life here. You must be an amazing woman and were obviously married to an amazing man.

Sarah said...

I really loved reading about your life with Diaa and I'm saddened to read the end of the story. You must be a tremedously strong woman. Have you considered writing a book? I think you have a unique voice that's a compeling read.

Anonymous said...

In your case, your life is more interesting than many novels...a memoir would be cool, but you're so young. You have so much more life to live yet! I have appreciated following your writerly limbering in the course of this blog - wonderful descriptions of your daily life in Cairo, out in the desert with your horses, in your rural home, or in town with your friends. I echo those who encourage you to write.

And you must know so many fascinating people - I met quite a few in the nine months I lived in Cairo in 1983. Some of them populated my amateur attempts at fiction for many years after that. You must have access to amazing material.

Yes, miloflamingo, please do write more!

Leila of Dove's Eye View -

R said...

Dear Marianne,
I have nominated you for the Best Of the Blogs (BOB) contest (although I'm competing in the same one) because I think your blog has high chances to win.

I am also running for the best journalistic blog in arabic... I would appreciate you voting for my blog in the arabic catergory in November


Eyes said...

Thank you for sharing this story. It sounds like your husband was quite a visionary and an incredible man.

You are an incredible woman too. Thank you again.

Helen said...

You live an amazing life. Thanks for telling it to us.
Whenever I read your blog I end up feeling enormously optimistic.