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Autobiography

On the banks of the Nile, the Rosetta branch, I lived an enjoyable childhood in the City of
Disuq, which is the home of the famous mosque, Sidi Ibrahim. I was born (February 26, 1946) in
nearby Damanhur, the "City of Horus", only 60 km from Alexandria. In retrospect, it is remarkable that
my childhood origins were flanked by two great places - Rosetta, the city where the famous Stone was
discovered, and Alexandria, the home of ancient learning. The dawn of my memory begins with my
days, at Disuq's preparatory school. I am the only son in a family of three sisters and two loving
parents. My father was liked and respected by the city community - he was helpful, cheerful and very
much enjoyed his life. He worked for the government and also had his own business. My mother, a
good-natured, contented person, devoted all her life to her children and, in particular, to me. She was
central to my "walks of life" with her kindness, total devotion and native intelligence. Although our
immediate family is small, the Zewails are well known in Damanhur.
The family's dream was to see me receive a high degree abroad and to return to become a
university professor - on the door to my study room, a sign was placed reading, "Dr. Ahmed," even
though I was still far from becoming a doctor. My father did live to see that day, but a dear uncle did
not. Uncle Rizk was special in my boyhood years and I learned much from him - an appreciation for
critical analyses, an enjoyment of music, and of intermingling with the masses and intellectuals alike;
he was respected for his wisdom, financially well-to-do, and self-educated. Culturally, my interests
were focused - reading, music, some sports and playing backgammon. The great singer Um Kulthum
(actually named Kawkab Elsharq - a superstar of the East) had a major influence on my appreciation of
music. On the first Thursday of each month we listened to Um Kulthum's concert - "waslats" (three
songs) - for more than three hours. During all of my study years in Egypt, the music of this unique
figure gave me a special happiness, and her voice was often in the background while I was studying
mathematics, chemistry... etc. After three decades I still have the same feeling and passion for her
music. In America, the only music I have been able to appreciate on this level is classical, and some
jazz. Reading was and still is my real joy.
As a boy it was clear that my inclinations were toward the physical sciences. Mathematics,
mechanics, and chemistry were among the fields that gave me a special satisfaction. Social sciences
were not as attractive because in those days much emphasis was placed on memorization of subjects,
names and the like, and for reasons unknown (to me), my mind kept asking "how" and "why". This
characteristic has persisted from the beginning of my life. In my teens, I recall feeling a thrill when I
solved a difficult problem in mechanics, for instance, considering all of the tricky operational forces of
a car going uphill or downhill. Even though chemistry required some memorization, I was intrigued by
the "mathematics of chemistry". It provides laboratory phenomena which, as a boy, I wanted to
reproduce and understand. In my bedroom I constructed a small apparatus, out of my mother's oil
burner (for making Arabic coffee) and a few glass tubes, in order to see how wood is transformed into a
burning gas and a liquid substance. I still remember this vividly, not only for the science, but also for
the danger of burning down our house! It is not clear why I developed this attraction to science at such
an early stage.
After finishing high school, I applied to universities. In Egypt, you send your application to a
central Bureau (Maktab El Tansiq), and according to your grades, you are assigned a university, hopefully on your list of choice. In the sixties, Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Science were
tops. I was admitted to Alexandria University and to the faculty of science.

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