Attia Abdel Salam Ashour's autobiography

Below we give a version of Attia Ashour's autobiography which was written in Arabic and was posted in Cilic Egypt on 31 May 2011. It appears that it was originally published by the Egyptian Mathematical Society in 2004 but we have been unable to find this:


Attia Abdel Salam Ashour's autobiography

In the first quarter of the 20th century, Damietta was a small city whose activities ranged from agriculture, fishing and small handicraft industries such as the construction of boats and the manufacture of furniture, and it was one of the ports used for trade with the Levant.

My grandfather worked for my mother in this trade while my father was a farmer, so our house was on the southern end of the city, between it and the fields. I still remember the house that my grandfather furnished with Belgian furniture that he imported to provide for his daughters. The interiors of the rooms were decorated with Belgian or French style paintings, while the fields surrounded it.

In that house I was born on 13 September 1924, I was the first child after four daughters who grew up with me for many years, and after three years my young brother Ehsan was born.

I began my education with books, but led by a sheikh who belonged to al-Azhar, an authority in Sunni Islamic thought, and who may have been receiving an al-Azhar salary. We learned Arabic, Quran and arithmetic from the age of five. I was very quick to learn arithmetic and was able to perform calculations quickly. It attracted me and fascinated me for no reason.

At the age of seven, I attended primary school. In Damietta at that time, there was a single primary school for boys. The government followed a girls' school for one of the nuns' sects. Damietta was a remote country and the teachers were subjected to a harsh regime. The teachers entered the classroom at the sound of the bell and went out on the bell. There was no negligence or slacking, and the inspectors inspected our notebooks and held the teachers accountable. We learned the Arabic language, arithmetic, history, geography and "things about health" which would now be science. We learnt the English language taught to us by an English teacher who also wanted us to study French; there was also a French teacher. The elementary school was for four years, and a student could then enter the military college. Although the education was not comprehensive, it was a good education and the teachers were really interested in teaching us, although some of them were very harsh. I remember a teacher who beat us very harshly. And there was a huge man who taught us mathematics. In the four years of study, mathematics was very easy for me. It was based on learning arithmetic and computation, which I easily mastered. This may not be a measure of mathematical ability, but at the time it was a measure of excellence. To go to school we looked for someone who was going to Damietta with a donkey to take me with him, or I walked for a long distance on the side of the Sharqiya canal that is now closed, and then a train track was on the other side. Damietta is a very rainy country and has muddy land. My mother would be standing on the roof of the house watching me as I was going to school in a far area of Damietta. Despite this hardship, we would love to go to school and feel comfortable going there.

When we completed studying there, there was no primary examination committee in Damietta. We had to travel to Mansoura and stay there for three nights. The Damietta tradition was to take every student with 25 piasters for his expenses.

I got my elementary qualification in 1935. Damietta did not have a high school, and my sisters completed their secondary education in Cairo. My older sister did not complete her education after elementary school and then she married and lived in Cairo. My second sister did not attend primary school. She joined a secondary school in Cairo and she lived with her big sister as well as the third sister, but this situation became no longer possible. My fourth sister (also older than me) joined an internal school to complete her studies. Life was not easy during that period. My mother sometimes had to leave us and travel to Cairo to help her daughters. I had to make a decision after I got my elementary qualification, and my father felt that I should work with him on agriculture and trade. But my mother, to whom I owe much, was determined that I should complete my studies, and she changed the life of the whole family to achieve this.

The result was that I decided to move to Cairo. It was a difficult decision. We lived in Damietta in our house fit for a king. Bread was baked in the same house. Vegetables and fruits came from our cultivated land. We did not need anything. In Cairo we would need everything. The property of my mother and her money were in the hands of her uncle, who would not give her any dues except with difficulty.

It was important that we moved to Cairo and settled in Abbassia, a district of Cairo, and I entered the Fuad I secondary school (now Abbassia secondary school) because children were given free education. The Abbassia secondary school was great and famous for two things. The principals who were very important figures, and at that time the headmaster of the Abbassia secondary school, with about one thousand two hundred students, was a prestigious figure perhaps more important than a university president now. The second thing that the Abbassia secondary school was known for was the players of the ball. At that time the high school teams were as famous as clubs teams are now, and were as famous for ball games as the sons of the families of Abbassia soldiers. The period was also full of political events after the 1936 treaty. [This treaty between Egypt and the United Kingdom required all British troops to leave Egypt except those necessary to protect the Suez Canal.] We knew about politics from the time we were about 10 years old. We used to go out on demonstrations, sometimes we were shot at or sometimes made to sit in school to prevent us from demonstrating ... etc. My younger brother Ehsan (now a full professor at Zagazig University) took part in demonstrations, and was in the Husseiniya primary and secondary school.

Despite these activities, the school had an excellent system. In addition to the basic usual topics, we studied subjects such as physical education and painting, which were also studied very seriously. In addition to important courses such as Arabic, mathematics and French (which we studied in the third and the fourth year), there were English teachers, Egyptian teachers teaching English, and Egyptian teachers at the highest level that would not have been possible with English teachers. Despite the strikes and the political aspects, the system worked well. The gatekeeper has orders not to open the door if one was more than a quarter of an hour late, and it was not a good day for your family to say that you have missed the quota. We had financial difficulties, so we asked for exemption from fees. There were degrees of exemption: exemption from one quarter of the fees or half or three quarters or full exemption, but it was a "defect." The supervisor or agent asked us outside the class to inform us that we had received the exemption so as our colleagues would not know, because poverty was a stain.

Another very significant change is that Ismail al-Qabbani (a pioneer in education in Egypt who made great efforts to develop education by devising ways such as intelligence tests in schools) used to say that the teaching was very excellent and the teachers were fully accountable and the inspectors were coming to inspect (like Ali al-Jaram, who was an inspector of the Arabic language). But Ismail Qabbani had the idea of establishing a model school on a better level. After our success in the second year of secondary school, he established the Farouk I School and selected the distinguished pupils from Fuad I and from the Al Qubba Secondary School. In the model school we had distinguished teachers in all subjects, I have an unforgettable Arabic teacher named Abdel Baqi. I found out later that the old members of the Arabic Language Academy knew him. The distinguished secondary teachers were well known, as were the senior inspectors of the ministry.

Mathematics was easy for me, and the teachers, in addition to their teaching ability, were good at dealing with students. For example, Abdul Rahman Fahmi, who taught me in one of the years, knew I was fond of reading Sherlock Holmes novels and mathematics was so easy for me, he let me bring Sherlock Holmes with me and put it in the drawer to read it. After that, my fellow student Abdulrahman Fahmi continued studying with me. We wrote joint books and we were together for a while taking part in the committee for the placement of high school examinations. At Fuad I School I started my friendship with Abdel-Azim Anis, which continued after we moved to the model school and the university ... so far.

The system was then that after the fourth year of secondary a student gets a certificate of general culture, which does not qualify for entry to university, and then after the fifth year get the university entry certificate if required. In the secondary school there was no choice but in the last year of the Mathematics Division, it was possible for the Mathematics Division to join the Faculty of Engineering or the Faculty of Science. Life at that time (the beginning of the Second World War) was very difficult. Just getting bread was difficult, and that had an impact on our interest in life. We did not think much or plan for the future. I got my university entry certificate in 1940 and I had to choose. I did not have a clear plan for the future, but I wanted to join the Faculty of Science to study mathematics, and here there came pressure from my family. My cousins, for example, were older than myself in the Faculty of Engineering and they were successful, and other relatives were in medical school. Even my grandmother, who did not know anything about the colleges, used to say to me, "Do you really want to study in the Faculty of Science?" I was always determined to make my own choice. It would have been easy to succumb to the pressure. Luckily, my father was neutral. If my mother insisted on my fate, she would leave me to make my choice, so I always say there are two women who have influenced my life: my mother and my wife. One factor that made it easier was that the Faculty of Science cost 18 or 20 Egyptian pounds, while medical, engineering and agriculture fees were about 48 Egyptian pounds, but this was not a major factor.

I entered the Faculty of Science at Fuad I University in 1940 and spent four years until I got my special degree in mathematics in 1944 and graduated with the same payments as Abdel-Azim Anis and Fouad Ragab. The study was like playing, so we turned chemistry into mathematics. We studied in the first year pure mathematics and applied mathematics, chemistry and physics, but I was one of the worst people in practical physics and I did not like it at all. In pure science, Dr Mohamed Morsi, Ahmed Al-Jabr, Al-Tafazal and Dr Amin Yassin taught us pure mathematics and analytical mathematics. We used to study in the mathematics laboratory. The laboratory consisted of two parts: the first was the use of logarithms of 7 digits (we used to teach 4-digit logarithms at the secondary school), and we were studying the solution of spherical triangles. For example, these topics are no longer relevant. We were using hand calculators, and we also had geometrical models, which lasted until the third year. In the second year there was a crisis in teaching: Dr Amin Yassin (who had a doctorate from the University of Leeds) was not offered the post of assistant professor at the Faculty of Science, because the position had to remain empty until it was authorised, so Dr Amin Yassin went to the Faculty of Commerce. Professor Sadek Bishara was a distinguished lecturer who spoke throughout the lecture. The student felt that he has absorbed everything but was not given a chance to write it down. You found yourself forgetting everything after the lecture. It was Dr Sadiq Bishara who taught us in the second year analytical mathematics and projective geometry. In the second year I also started to learn from Dr Ali Mostafa, a supervisor who taught us applied mathematics. In the third year we studied three-dimensional geometry and mathematical analysis. We also studied multivariable calculus and partial differential equations. We also studied astronomy in the third year as a side specialisation with Ibrahim Hilmi Abdel Rahman, and he had a very big influence on us. He was the youngest teacher and therefore the closest to the students.

The courses we studied were the same as those of the University of London, and our examinations were external examinations from the University of London, so it was not difficult for us to be directly accepted for a doctorate in England after we received a bachelor's degree.

Appointed as an assistant at the Faculty of Science on 3 October 1944, I worked for a year and two months until I travelled to England in December 1945 having been awarded a scholarship to obtain a doctorate. There were two scholarships: a scholarship from the Faculty of Science and an Insurance scholarship. The person who obtained the insurance scholarship became a company manager when he came back. The insurance scholarship was for 7 years. I chose the university scholarship. The director general of scholarships turned me down and tried to tell me that I should give it up. Otherwise, he said, when I returned to the university it may be to a salary of 25 pounds per month, while in the insurance position I would get many times that, but it was clear to me the choice had nothing to do with money and appearance.

I was assigned to study for a doctorate with a professor in Scotland who was appointed to supervise me by Dr Mohamed Morsi Ahmed (then head of the mathematics department), but I wanted to study in London. Dr Ahmed Hammad, one of my teachers, was one of the leaders of applied mathematics. Dr Hammad gave me a letter to Sydney Chapman and arranged for me to be interviewed by him. In that interview, Chapman immediately admitted me as a doctoral student. Chapman could not supervise me since he was moving to Oxford University in the same year, but arranged for me to continue my doctorate with one of his colleagues, Albert T Price, who had already completed his doctorate under his supervision. I received a Ph.D. in 1948 after studying the properties of electrical conductivity and ionospheric ionisation (i.e., ionised layers of the atmosphere). This was the beginning of a long scientific collaboration that followed with Sydney Chapman and Albert Price.

I returned to Fuad I University in early 1949, but I did not stop carrying out scientific research. In 1952, I was awarded the first prize in science, which was the highest scientific award granted by the state at that time, and I already got it. I also travelled in many scientific missions to England, and the United States of America in pursuit of research in the subject of my specialty, that is the mathematical study of the magnetic field of the Earth and the fields of induction. Chapman and Bryce also had the privilege of encouraging me to apply for a D.Sc., the highest degree awarded by British universities, and in August 1967 I received the great honour which eased the pain and sadness after the 1967 setback.

Sydney Chapman had another important role in my scientific future. In 1954, he invited me to attend the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics Conference, of which he was the president. This invitation was the beginning of my association with this union, which continued until I became Vice-President (1971-1975) and then as its president (1975-1979).


JOC/EFR April 2019

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