Damascus, February 2010
Professor Dr Mohamed Tawfiq Al-Bujairami has become adept at integrating into new societies. Tumultuous political events uprooted him several times and forced him to relocate to nearby countries. Now 72 and happily retired, Tawfiq recounts his journey from young refugee to star of Syrian television.
“I have lived a good life here in Syria and I have been treated very well. Palestinians can obtain high posts and make a career for themselves here,” Tawfiq says. From the 1960s, he hosted Curiosities Around the World, a weekly show giving Syrians a glimpse of the many wonders of the world. The programme, which continued to be broadcast until August 2009, was popular across the Middle East.
Tawfiq spent his early years in Ijzem, a village close to Haifa. He fondly remembers his days there, especially his English classes at school: “There was a heavy emphasis placed upon English instruction. We studied eight hours of English each week and only devoted six hours toward Arabic.”
The war in 1948 suddenly turned his way of life upside-down. When he was 10 years old, the Iraqi army was ordered to evacuate villagers from Ijzem, and Tawfiq and his family were told to leave and prepare for their journey to Baghdad.
The move to Baghdad brought improved living standards and greater opportunities. After graduating in English from Baghdad University in 1960, Tawfiq worked as a college English teacher until he was promoted to a translator and news editor for Iraqi state television. He says: “For several years I taught students how to translate news bulletins from English into Arabic. Once they became proficient in their jobs, I was let go from mine. The Iraqis only accepted us as workers if there was no one else qualified to do the job. But once they could replace a Palestinian with an Iraqi, they didn’t hesitate to do so.”
The political climate in 1960s Baghdad was tense. Tawfiq was expelled from the country in 1964 under suspicion of being a Nasserist. “All of a sudden I became a persona non-grata. During that time, police chiefs holding high posts had the power to expel anyone from the country on a whim. They issued me a laissez-passé with an exit-only stamp,” Tawfiq says.
Several months after his arrival in Damascus, his wife and children joined him to start their new life. The atmosphere in Syria proved to be much more welcoming to Palestinian refugees. Tawfiq didn’t have a problem finding a job, and worked as an English teacher and a news editor for Syrian state-run television. In 1971 he left for England to continue his literature PhD. He returned to teaching in 1980 – and work as a UN translator.
“The United Nations office in Geneva hired me as a translator for several weeks each year. A translation project garnered the equivalent of several months pay from the university and proved to be a welcome addition to the modest university salaries,” explains Tawfiq.
During the 1990s, he worked as a translator in the UN Office in Geneva several weeks a year. He also served as interpreter for the late Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad.
Tawfiq retired from Damascus University nine years ago, but he still has a lifetime of knowledge and insight to share with the world. “I am planning on producing publications about the Arab and Islamic influences upon English and American literature. It will probably encompass several books, as the Arab influence spans over the centuries!” Tawfiq laughs.
By Karoliina Romanoff
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