Every few more days I live are like the gift of a lifetime
I am holding on to a pregnant cloud filled with water, with tears of sadness and joy. As the cloud floats over Riyadh, I steer it toward the grave of my father, sprinkling the earth around it with some cloud tears to call his spirit up to join me.
Together we fly over a city that has changed such a great deal since his time, since that giant of a man King Abdul Aziz united a peninsula torn apart by tribal warfare into one of civility and progress. We smile at the fond memories of us children running around King Abdul Aziz’s palace while he and my father held important meetings.
Our pregnant cloud then floats across 500 miles of desert, of mountains and childhood dreams. We see oryx, gazelles and lizards scuttle across the desert, a falcon soaring, the sand sparkling, plants and animals yearning for the few drops of water that I squeeze from our cloud, perhaps initiating a spectacular desert bloom of wild iris, desert rose and acacia.
We leave the desert and its untold mysteries behind us, reaching the mountains of the Hijaz, where golden-flowered cacti hoard the little water they receive. Our cloud moves through the valleys of Makkah, admiring the humanity of religious observance and the richness of our religion and way of life handed to us by our Prophet Muhammad.
We reach Jeddah, where the mother of all humanity lies buried, but also my own mother, my brothers Anas and Abdul Aziz, and my sisters Lamis, and Anoud. Our cloud sheds some tears, but we experience only joy in this beautiful assembly of spirits. Together we cross the magnificent Red Sea to Egypt, watching the history of human civilization unfold as we glide over Luxor and Karnak, following the life-giving Nile, its people joyfully welcoming our cloud all the way to Cairo.
For a moment our cloud is seized by the hypnotic voice of Umm Kalthum. The world owes much of its knowledge and civilization to Egypt, as do I, remembering the tumultuous but happy years of my schooling and my family’s time in Egypt.
Setting out from Alexandria over the Mediterranean — that focus of human civilization and interchange — I recall the words of Constantin Cavafy’s poem:
“As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.”
It has been a long journey of adventure and discovery indeed. My mind is flooded with the memories of unforgettable trips throughout the Mediterranean with my friends, that gleaming blue sea, its stunning coastline and striking islands, which seem to hold all the secrets of the universe. Our pregnant cloud absorbs all it can of the sea, blowing on over France and through Paris, dodging past the Eiffel Tower and reminding me of times spent in that beautiful city with my closest friends.
Our cloud is retained for some time above London, adding to the habitual drizzle, as I am back at my lovely house in Kensington, attending the wondrous musicals “My Fair Lady” and “Miss Saigon,” spending my evenings at Mark’s Club, Harry’s and Annabel’s in the company of great minds, and that irresistible mix of English class, elegance and humor around us.
Our cloud moves through the valleys of Makkah, admiring the humanity of religious observance and the richness of our religion and way of life handed to us by our Prophet Muhammad.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Gathering yet more moisture, our cloud sweeps off across the Atlantic, breaking land in New York. I look down at the city I encountered in the early 1950s, the bullhorns of the mighty Empire State Building touching the sky and cutting through the clouds. I remember watching “The Robe” starring Victor Mature — the first film in widescreen CinemaScope — a mesmerizing experience for a young man from Arabia. In New York I discovered the magical new world of capitalist genius and seduction, with billboards singing to me: “Buy One Suit. Get One Free!” I was truly won over by that innocent, optimistic attitude of an America whose winds of confidence were sweeping across the world.
Another wind now swept my cloud across the American continent to California, which, I learned recently, received its name, by way of the Spanish, from the Arabic word Caliph.
The pregnant cloud whiles away some time with its cohorts over the Bay Area, allowing me to look down at the University of Berkeley, where I received my education — in the classroom, of course, but also in life. Amid a generation of hope and enthusiasm, I fell in love with a beautiful American girl, Betty, who became my wife in the 1960s and gave us two lovely children, Sara and Raad.
My children are like my branches, and they have also become my roots, spreading further with my talented and beautiful grandchildren, Kylie and Alec. They may not know it, but they are — each and every one of them — the anchors of my life. As I dream about all they mean to me, my cloud drifts back over Virginia, where I am comforted by the fulfilling lives they lead today, and suddenly our cloud is blown back across the Atlantic toward the African continent.
From above Africa I can see across the vast savannas we visited with my dear friend Prince Saud Al-Faisal and his extended family, in every sense of the term. I see Africa again through the eyes of Prince Saud. We learned so much about ourselves and our world during these weeks of quiet observation spent in Africa each year. Every minute of observation taught us more than a year at university. Not only did we sense our origins as human beings in this vast continent, but also the broad span of our history and its signification on the scale of the planet. With great respect for the splendid animals of Africa, we watched age-old rituals play out on the African savanna, going back far beyond the short history of our own species.
Seeing Africa then, and again now from my pregnant cloud, I cannot but admire the equilibrium of the natural and animal world, so far removed from the mess that we humans have made of our planet and its natural beauty and riches.
A wind again sweeps our cloud away from the African coast, returning it home to my Saudi Arabia, the cloud bursting with the fullness of life, of great adventures, discoveries and so many people I hold dear. I try to hold on to that pregnant cloud, not wanting to land now, forever reliving the moments of my life. I want to tell my children and my grandchildren of its fullness, I want to tell them how much I love them and how much I have enjoyed the entire journey of my life.
Softly, I wake up clutching my fluffy pillow, my cloud, grateful for the life I have led and for the life I still have in me. The pregnant cloud of tears has given me yet more to live for, I have more stories to tell and I can take comfort that in time I will be reunited with my family in the sky.
• 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.