The Secrets of Life

Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi - New York, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, January 29, 2010
Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi
Photo illustration by Zach Dischner via Flickr

From the 1950s series, Egyptian-born Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi tells how he left his homeland to gain spiritual and intellectual liberty. The artist and scientist believed freedom was a synonym for life itself, and a precious treasure deserved by all.

Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: humanism

As a young man, I was greatly influenced by the stories I read about the heroism of great men of the past. What I learned of their love of freedom made a deep impression upon me. However, it was the merciless circumstances of my own experience which made book lessons secondary and led me to believe in and hold onto freedom as a hold onto life itself.

Gradually freedom became for me not only a synonym for life, but even for the Almighty. For the sake of freedom, I preferred to leave my country when tyranny was throwing independent thinkers into chains. In order to speak my mind and gain intellectual and spiritual liberty, I suffered the material and moral hardships of voluntary exile. This, I found, was the inevitable price of the task I had set myself, that of upholding the principles of my beloved birthplace and serving the ideas in which I believe.

Life taught me all this, and I followed its teachings with confidence and ease, never regretting that I obeyed them. How could I regret what was simply justice to myself and my most deeply held principles? As much as I believed in freedom for myself, I believed in freedom for others and tried to realize it for them. Thus, I learned not to be egoistic, since egoism and loneliness are twins and both are contrary to human dignity. Likewise, I learned that endurance and perseverance are ingredients of this dignity. “The secret of life is but endurance, whether for the happy or the unhappy.” However, it is endurance of the struggling fighter in the cause of a noble belief, which he preaches for the benefit of mankind, not the submission of the stricken coward that is a man.

Life taught me, as well, not to blame others as much as I blame myself for failures, which might have been avoided if I had been wiser and more wide awake. Hence, life taught me tolerance—even if I were slapped for it—for I found that toleration is an element of loftiness and loftiness is fundamental to human dignity. I always feel that the blow aimed at me does more real damage to the aggressor himself. Moreover, a tolerant attitude toward him makes him feel the meaning of this inevitable and automatic punishment, and often brings him back to the human fraternity. However, I have never believed in the toleration of evil at the expense of my dignity and idealism.

Finally, I leave it to time, the recorder; and to faith, the supervisor; to do justice to me and the principles in which I believe and for which I sacrifice. I know that justice will be done, though it may not come soon or ever be known. It is freedom which has made and sustained all that is worthwhile in me. It is a most precious treasure that life has granted me. To the extent that I have helped to preserve and enlarge it, I feel that I deserve life.

Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi was born in Cairo, studied medicine in London, and returned to Egypt to research bacteriology and teach. Also an accomplished artist, Shadi published several collections of poetry, wrote scripts for operas, and painted. He immigrated to the United States in 1946.