My father passed away four years ago at the end of the month of November. He was 92 and had lived a long and eventful life. He was born in 1923 in the Djurdjura Mountains of Algeria. This economically deprived region of Algeria has always fueled the migration of local inhabitants toward more hospitable shores – France and Europe in general.
Under the settler-focused French colonial system, only about a third of Algerians finished their primary and secondary education, and only about 10% continued their education at the university level. In the wake of Algeria’s independence in1962, there were only 2,809 students in higher education.
My father did not have the luxury or the time to go to school. At 16 years of age, he started digging ditches in the mountains. As a result, he developed humongous hands that were noticeably disproportionate compared to his small stature. Every morning, he would walk the equivalent of 10 miles to get to his menial job. He quickly figured out that he needed to acquire some useful skills if he wanted to prosper. He was hired as an apprentice by a shoe manufacturer who taught him the tools of the trade. When he decided to start his own business, it was inside of a cave dwelling along a winding mountain road.
In the late 1940s, he moved his shop to Algiers, which was about 100 miles from this mountainous location. His business took off in this large city. He specialized in making custom shoes and repairing them. The suppliers for his business where Jewish merchants and his clients were the French settlers known as “Pieds Noirs,” a term used to designate transplants from European countries.
He developed a special relationship with one of the Catholic nuns in his neighborhood. He would make custom shoes for her; in exchange, she would assist my parents in delivering the first three of their, children including myself. When British author and former nun Karen Armstrong was in Boise a few years ago, I mentioned to her that I had been delivered by a nun. She wittily responded, “So, a nun was the first human being you saw.”
My father knew that he needed to save his money and build some capital if he wanted to expand his business. He did so a couple of times by moving his business to larger locales. He also saved enough to buy a small orchard of about 2 1/2 acres in a suburb of Algiers.
Having been deprived of an early childhood education, my father hired a school instructor to teach him the basics of reading, writing and counting in the evenings. Eventually, he was able to read newspapers, write his own letters and personally handle the financial accounts of his business. He understood the power of education as a way out of poverty and a ticket to a better life.
Soon after Algeria’s independence, my father moved the family to a small town near the international airport in Algiers. After we finished our primary education, my father placed his four sons and one daughter in the best high schools in Algiers. For many years, he would drive all of his children to three different high schools every morning. Three of the boys would eventually travel to the United States to pursue their postgraduate studies and receive Ph.D. degrees. Our sister started her undergraduate education at the University of Algiers, but she tragically died in an automobile accident at age 20.
My father was a savvy businessman. One practice that he picked up when he was a shoemaker was the way he rendered change to his clients. He would start by counting the small change before handing the large bills. This gesture inspired honesty, and his clients appreciated it.
My father’s motto in life was “live and let live.” When dealing with other people, my father taught me to look inward and not to blame others for one’s own shortcomings or failures. He loved to remind his children that pointing a finger at someone meant that four other fingers were actually pointing in the direction of the person blaming others.
He lived his life with integrity. He believed in a final Day of Judgment, that all human beings eventually will be accountable for their deeds, if not on this earth then in the hereafter. He loved to remind people that whoever commits an atom’s weight of good or an atom’s weight of evil will see it on the Day of Resurrection. To further understand the meaning of this sentence, the reader is referred to Chapter 99 of the Quran: “The Earthquake.”
In this month of November, I find myself missing the man who raised me and taught me the meaning of sacrifice for the ones you love. I would like to tell him that his sacrifices were not in vain, and I wish he could see us now. If not for his vision, the odds would have been stacked in life against me and my siblings. Godspeed, Dad, until we see each other again.
Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.