The head of my department at the University took on two foreign students but he did not have the patience to supervise them. He wondered how the young, green lecturer would cope. I came to be supervisor of two Egyptian men ‘of mature years’ as it is quaintly put. That is, older than most students reading for higher degrees.
It took them a while to overcome the culture shock and get their English up to a reasonable standard. It took me a while to get used to them and their ways. They were used to learning facts and looked to teacher (me) to provide them. It took some time to get them to understand that for a PhD you have to find out new facts for yourself and check that they are correct. How do you proceed when even the teacher does not know the answers to the questions he asks?
They were progressing well when the Yom Kippur War began in 1973. The Arab nations attacked Israel which was off guard as Yom Kippur is a religious holiday. The students were anxious about their families especially when, after a few days, the Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal and began heading towards Cairo. A cousin of one of the students was a Colonel in the army and survived with a distinguished war record.
The students remained anxious because the overlying sympathy in this country lay with the Israelis. One day they made a formal arrangement to see me. This was unusual because they often came to my office and I was often in their laboratory. I guessed it must be something serious.
They were both nervous and behaving formally.
“It is about Professor X.” They said.“We think he is a Jew.”
“Yes, he is.” I confirmed.
They were confused. There was some conflict within them. Then they said with some incredulity:
“But… he is a very nice man. He helps us.”
What they learned about other people at that time was more important than the body of knowledge that made up their degrees.
One became the Dean of the Department of Physical Therapy (physiotherapy) in Cairo and the other emigrated to Texas where he is a Professor in a university in Houston.