‘I am what I remember’
I am at the stage in my life where I spend a lot of time remembering, and what I really enjoy are those moments when I recall things that might interest or amuse my children, grandchildren and friends. There are few things more important than contributing to a legacy for the benefit of others — as long as it is simply part of a teaching process, there to help others, rather than as something they are obliged to follow. After all, who knows what future generations might make of what one has to say? The ancient Egyptians carved and painted their lives and thoughts for generation after generation, and then disappeared from memory or understanding for the best part of 2,000 years; yet nowadays our lives are enriched by what we learn from these ancient ancestors. Had they not left us their history to remember them by, they would have disappeared for all eternity, and their great kingdoms, which endured for thousands of years, nothing but the lone and level sands would remain.
My reason therefore for writing my letters, articles and books is to leave a thread of memories and thoughts for those I love to perhaps enjoy or learn from in the years to come. I may be old, but I have a young mind and, as the saying goes, “An old man with a young mind is much younger than a young man with an old mind.” I hope so, and that’s why I enjoy remembering what it is to be young.
I have, for example, been relishing the sweet Egyptian oranges that I brought back with me from Aswan at the end of my recent trip up the Nile. Looking at them reminds me of the first oranges I ever saw, when I was just a young child. These exotic, colourful fruits were so wonderful to behold, so attractive, so tempting. I ate a couple of them with the skin on, not knowing that they could be peeled, and assumed that the sourness of the skin was a contrast to the sweetness of the flesh. What I did know about fruit was that dates had stones in that could break one’s teeth, and that’s the reason why I didn’t try to chew deep into the oranges. You could say that we all now eat oranges, and that this is merely a childish memory, and ask what there is to be learned. But that introduction to a fruit previously unknown to me gave me a lifelong appreciation for the novel and the different: I would always prefer to try than to decline. The lesson? By trying, we learn, while by declining, we don’t. That sums up the advances of the scientific revolution in a nutshell. Or perhaps I should say in an orange peel.
When you reach an age where you have a wealth of past experiences, no matter how insignificant they may seem, it is worth writing them down for posterity — just as the ancient Egyptians did.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Recently we have been discussing all the gadgets that we take for granted in modern life, whether they are needed as essential tools or desired as gifts, such as mobile phones, the internet, TV, games and so on. Modern children have almost unlimited access to them and would look on a tin can as something that belongs in the trash. So let me tell you a little story about the desirability of tin cans.
In the 1930s, in the reign of King Abdul Aziz, Americans from the Chevron oil company, which had the oil concession, visited Riyadh and brought with them tinned food. For my friends and I, who were small children at the time, it was a revelation to see the Americans pierce the cans with a metal tin opener and reveal the food within: Sardines, peaches, condensed milk or corned beef. Each novel food tasted exquisite to us. But what sticks in my memory is not the food, but the empty tin can, which I wanted so much to own and which my friends and I would fight each other to possess. In our young hands, the can became a container, a toy, a drum, a rattle, a walkie-talkie — the possibilities were endless and only constrained by our imagination.
We took as much pleasure in our priceless collections of tin cans then as children do now in their vast collections of Lego, Star Wars figures, Nerf guns and dolls. Those tin cans contributed as much to our daily joy and happiness as any toy does. And, no doubt one day, when the iPhone has long been discarded into the dustbin of history, the stories the children of today tell in their old age will be the same as mine about the tin cans of my childhood. Their beauty... Their utility... Their desirability... Exactly the same.
What I learn from this is that we can gain so much happiness — the greatest driving force of human endeavor — from the simple things in life, if only we allow ourselves to do so. I am a big fan of simplicity, which is why I knew that I would call my autobiography “A Life of a Simple Man” decades before I sat down in 2008 to write the opening words.
So, mentioning events such as these memories helps put into perspective what happened before, and hopefully provides us — and the generations to come — with lessons, or examples, of how we might live our lives. And, when you yourself reach an age where you have a wealth of past experiences, I hope that you will write them down for posterity, just as those ancient Egyptians did. Who knows, but future generations might just learn something from your past.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Ofﬁce in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.
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