Five Arabs that made history

Gamal Abdul Nasser

Nasser is often heralded as one of Egypt’s greatest leaders; as the second president of the nation, following the resignation of Naguib in 1954, Nasser led the country for 12 years until he died in office. Nasser’s considered manipulation of the superpowers during the cold war favoured Egypt’s global position and his iron fisted leadership freed Egypt from colonialism.

Gamal Abdul Nasser left behind him a great legacy and whilst some freedoms were lacking, including free elections and a harsh economic climate, Arab unity was at its strongest and leaders abroad mourned among citizens after his death. Thousands turned out into the streets for his funeral – something unlikely to happen in today’s society. His unique character and patriotic loyalty to restoring the dignity of his people, his Pan-Arab ideology and his connections with revolutionaries and freedom fighters across the globe, made him and Egypt a force to be reckoned with.

This is an excerpt from a film about his life – if you would like to read more, please click here for a book recommendation.

Abu al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi

Born in Al-Andalus, Al Zahrawi is considered one of the greatest medieval surgeons of his time. His pioneering discoveries and his 30 volume compilation of medical practices earned him the title; Father of Modern Surgery. He devoted his life and genius to the development of medicine and some of his advancements in surgical tools and technique are still in use.

A handful of his achievements include; the first description of an ectopic pregnancy, the first physician to identify the hereditary nature of haemophilia, he specialised in curing disease by cauterization and invented several surgery tools such as those to inspect the interior of the urethra, the ear, throat and so on.


Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid is an Iraqi-British architect and the first woman to have received the Pritzker Architecture and the Stirling Prize. Her habitable artworks stand tall in a number of nations in their signature futuristic style. Surrounded by Bauhaus inspired buildings in Baghdad, Hadid took this as her inspiration and her oeuvres have since been described as “powerful, curving forms” with “multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry to evoke the chaos of modern life”.

At the age of just 27, she was working as a partner in the Netherlands and by 30, she established her own London-based practice. Her completed projects include the Roca London Gallery in London, Galaxy Soho in Beijing, Pierresvives, Montpellier and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan. Other Hadid creations can be found in Germany, Sustra, Spain, Scotland, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Moscow.


Mohamed Ali Pasha

A revolutionary, a reformist and Turk born in 18th century Macedonia, laid the foundations of modern Egypt for the next century. Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha began his work as commander of the Ottoman army, became a Wali and then the self-titled viceroy of Egypt. He hugely reformed and reconstructed military, economic and cultural institutions and established a professional bureaucracy inspired by already effective European systems. Through these reforms, Egypt reclaimed its stature as the hugely progressive and powerful state it once was. He also sent many Egyptian intellectuals to Europe to French and English in order that they would return to the country and benefit Egypt’s cultural and political development. Ali Pasha’s initiative bore the Arab literary renaissance, also known as the Nahda.


Djamila Bouhired

Born in 1935, Djamila Bouhired became an Algerian militant and nationalist who opposed French colonialism. Whilst studying, she joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) working as a personal assistant to Yacef Saadi. Yacef Saadi is incidentally another great North African figure; a rebel, activist, fighter, writer and now a senator. Bouhired’s family had become embroiled in the revolution before she had finished at university, but pushed on by the forced daily praise of France every morning at school; she deepened her involvement with the rebels and quickly rose in status.

In 1957 she was captured and tortured by the French police, but still refused to divulge any information. She was then tried and accused for orchestrating a bomb in a cafe which killed 11 people – the actions of her lawyer raised the profile of her case, which led to great international scrutiny. The French were then forced to postpone her death sentence and eventually release her from prison. After Algeria’s independence, she became the chairwoman of the Algerian Women association. She still lives in Algeria as an activist, regularly speaking out against government and taking part in political protests.


Djamila with Nasser

As an introduction to some of the key characters which have shaped the history and exported the culture of the Middle East with pride, I hope that you have now been encouraged to delve into the many books that can be found on Nasser, Ali Pasha, Al Zahrawi and the FLN in Algeria.


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