Talking with a rich Muslim
Three weeks ago I had an opportunity to meet and chat with an Egyptian businessman at a conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Bali.
He was the first Egyptian whom I personally had met in my life. He was obviously very affluent. And although he did not mention it, I assumed that he was a Muslim
``When were you sick last?” he posed as a rather awkward question to me. I could not respond right away as I haven’t really been sick in recent years. Whenever I start feeling like I am catching a cold or experience some physical ailment, I cancel all my appointments and take a good rest. My belief is that even a minor illness can deal a heavy blow to someone’s health if he or she stands at the threshold of old age.
``I don’t remember the last time when I fell sick. Why do you ask?”
``By sickness, I mean, you have fever, you don’t eat well, feel uncomfortable and cannot sleep at night ― that kind of thing.”
Later I found that he was trying to explain why he had no time to have a so-called hobby. I asked him earlier that morning what his hobby was. He could not think of an answer. It appeared from his facial expression that he had not come across the word ``hobby” in several decades. I explained my question again ``What do you do when you have spare time and don’t work?”
``After you inquired me about my hobby, I thought about it all day. I am always kind of sick. I cannot afford to think of a hobby or something like that.”
``You look fit as a fiddle. Why do you complain of sickness?” I looked intently at his handsome, healthy-looking face beaming with gentle smiles. In my eyes he looked like Santa Claus or the KFC mascot, Colonel Sanders, whose statue stands in front of the famous chicken stores.
``Oh, no. Let me show you my secret note.” He pulled out a small piece of paper out of his pocket. There were some 10 boxes, each box bearing the name of a company and two or three words scribbled below it. In between his chat with me, he confessed, he made a note to remember things to check. ``You see, these are problems that await my attention. Companies are spread all over the world. Fortunately a few of them are silent in turn at night.”
It sounded incredible, like a page from a fiction novel, but it was true. ``Hey, you sound like the British Empire where the sun never sets! Why don’t you turn off the sun for a while so that you can take a rest?”
Suddenly I realized that I was taking his situation too lightly. And he was not satisfied.
I changed the tone of my voice and asked ``Why do you live like that?” He replied: ``I worked hard all my life. Now I have seven hotels and many companies. You know, problems crop up from time to time in all these ventures and I must make decisions to resolve them.”
“How much money do you have?” I asked. ``Money? Well. You know money is like a snow ball. It is always snowballing,” he explained moving his two arms in big circles. ``My wife is a lawyer. She is interested in women’s rights. We don’t need money, and we really don’t care for money.”
``When do you plan to stop working?”
``I will work till I go.” He is one of those really energetic businessmen, usually a founder-CEO, who continues working until he is physically incapacitated.
“What will happen to your money when you are gone?” I asked. ``We Koreans are very interested to know where the money of a rich man ends up after his death.”
``I don’t know. Someone will take care of it,” he said. Perhaps because he read the expression of disapproval on my face at his answer, he began to explain his religious cause regarding his work.
``I would rather do what I really want to and enjoy hobbies. I don’t understand you. Everyone lives on earth just once, right?” I said.
His voice dropped. ``Have you been to Cairo? On the street, there are numerous people without homes and food. Hordes and hordes of such people. I must help them. I have to work. No time to care about art, culture, hobbies, etc.”
This philosophy of life sounded too black and white. Should one choose between the two pendulums ― a life dedicated to ceaseless work, philanthropy and altruism without enjoying oneself and a life devoted to the enjoyment of art, culture and the sights and sounds of nature?
Our conversation ended up with him inviting me to Cairo so that I could see those people on the street. I had no objection. ``Don’t expect too much. I will just offer you rooms to stay and show you around. You have to buy your tickets.” Well, I understand that. He needs an endless flow of money to help his compatriots.
Hopefully I will get the opportunity someday to visit him in Cairo and write about my experience and understanding of his work of philanthropy for his countrymen.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.