In the Beginning, There Was Al Nasr School in Derna

"Mohamed Zohny"

The six stages of my enriching educational journey, from primary school to my PhD, unfolded over six different cities. All these cities came together to shape my values and my intellectual dispositions, each of them contributing a different ingredient, an extra color and thread to the fabric of my life. Spread out over three continents, the distance between the nearest, and farthest, of these cities was 15,000 km. At the time, primary school was the highest qualification available in Derna, which forced us to move to Benghazi for high school, before moving to Egypt for university, since higher education had not yet been established in Libya. 

We were the first generation to go to school after the end of the Italian occupation and the country's independence; we were a generation of dreamers, eyeing a better tomorrow. Most of my companions in this dream–which has dissipated with time and turned into a nightmare– have now departed. I know, and I hope, that it will not be long before a new generation rises from the ashes like a phoenix, and before the nation rises to rebuild itself. 

 

My real education began in Al Nasr school in Derna, which at the time, was known as "The Red School," for the color it was painted. Originally built under the Italian occupation as a school for Libyan girls, its location was a source of anxiety for some; it overlooked the famed Sidi Mohamed Bey graveyard. I had to make my way through the graveyard to get to school, all the while terrified of stepping over a grave or bumping into a sepulcher. When it rained, I had to take the longer road instead of this shortcut, to avoid getting drenched in the mud. Generally, I didn't fear crossing the graveyard on my own, even though I did feel better if my classmates accompanied me. After all, we were never spared the stories of ghosts and evil spirits. (This photograph captures Al Nasr school, and the graveyard’s fence on the right. I am standing outside the school.)

Staring at an old class picture that looks like it was taken towards the end of primary school, perhaps around 1947 or 1948, I tried to put names to faces, but my first attempt was hopeless. Returning to the photograph, I slowly began to draw out the names lost in the murk of my memory. Some of our teachers also appear in the photograph; the two most memorable ones were Mr. Ahmed Fouad Shneeb and Sheikh Hussein Lahlafy, who had a tremendous impact on the class in general, and on me in particular. 

 

Towards the end of primary school, perhaps in the fifth year, and or even earlier–if I am remembering correctly–two girls unexpectedly joined our class. They belonged to a prominent family, one of those who had returned from their exile in Syria after Libya's independence from Italy. At the time, Derna did not have a girls’ school with a competitive quality of education compared with the schooling they had received abroad. Having the sisters with us neutralized our childish behavior, and enlivened the dynamics in our class. 

Distances have separated me from Derna, but an inexplicable nostalgia has remained. As Al-Taie says: A boy forever longs for his first home.

Born in Derna, he completed his studies in Benghazi and at Alexandria University, then obtained a Ph.D. in Agricultural Sciences from the University of Cambridge. He worked as the Director of Research and Technology Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). His autobiography “The Juice of Life” was published in 2018.

Mohamed Zohny
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