The Path the Child Took

"Ali Al-Rishi"

It would be very difficult to explain the path that led me from being a child memorizing the Quran in the neighborhood mosque–while pledging allegiance to his friend the sea–to being a student at the Benghazi University in Libya. It was perhaps my second year at the university when this photograph was taken; in it, I am giving a lecture on Einstein's application of non-Euclidean geometries in his theory of general relativity. As you recall the ebb and flow of your childhood interests, your experiences collide in your mind and grow murky–all you can do is throw the dice. When you gamble on matters of memory, you put yourself at the grave risk of compromising truth or clarity. 

I’m not gambling when I say that my interest in matters of physics and math began in high school. Back then, it was possible to find a college student in Benghazi pursuing such interests– it was possible for such an obsession to run its course. Benghazi was a real city back then; a social institution whose members had the right to discover, and address, the concerns of society. 

Benghazi was a medium-sized city with a prosperous history. It had thrived in Greek and Roman times, despite becoming a mere village before and after the Islamic conquest. In the mid 1800s the city started to germinate; houses, streets and markets appeared. Modern Benghazi, like many other cities, was born from the womb of migration–a womb in which the pain of estrangement and anticipation mixes with hope, openness, and a spirit of adventure. Modern Benghazi's residents have origins in every city and village in Libya, and their roots even extend beyond the sea. Benghazi was a melting pot for cultures; its sons and daughters carried, in equal parts, Libyan and foreign influences. 

A migrant who ends up in a society born from the womb of migration will experience the trials and tribulations of racial and cultural differences. However, such diversity will not always lead to pathological phenomena such as bias or discrimination–sometimes, it will forge a culture of tolerance that nurtures respect for individual differences. Away from the eyes of the collective consciousness that had besieged him in his native environment, a migrant may experience a newfound freedom; one that would offer him–provided he has the necessary desire and aptitude–the space to thrive. 


Though my intellectual interests were not common in Benghazi, they were not completely anomalous. For instance, my high school chemistry teacher, Hussein Makhlouf, combined his interests in the natural sciences and math with an interest in the humanities, poetry, theater, fiction and public affairs. He wrote plays and reviewed Arab and international literature. One time, he suggested that I translate a work by the Irish writer James Joyce. I was humbled by the suggestion, even though I knew I was just a student, without the training needed to translate a man for whom English was a mere raw material, and whose works would require tremendously experienced translators. 

This was Benghazi then. A child greets the “Poet of the Nation,” who passes time in his neighborhood coffee shop, as its owner decorates the walls with a picture of John F. Kennedy, in spite of the prevailing beliefs. And then the chemistry professor, who crosses bridges to other realms, urges that same child to translate the writing of James Joyce–only for that child to decide to explore non-Euclidean geometries instead.

Born in Benghazi, he is an academic and activist in human rights and constitutional governance. He studied at Benghazi University and obtained his Ph.D. from Boston College. He taught physics and philosophy for several years at Fitchburg State University and Northeastern University in the United States.

Ali Al-Rishi
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