78-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 78, June 15 - A Special Father’s Day Remembrance: President Sharara Pays a Tribute to His Father
“I often think of him and his wisdom.”
A young Adham Sharara, at age 11, with his father Yacoub (Jacob) Sharara. Photo courtesy of Adham Sharara.
Today is Father's Day. For that reason, I have asked you to share some memories about your father with us, in essence to pay a tribute to the undoubtedly most influential man in your life: Yacoub (also known as Jacob) Sharara.
Many of us remember the incredibly sad news that you shared with us on March 6, 2005:
"Last night my father passed away peacefully after two weeks in Intensive Care at the hospital. May God bless his soul and may he rest in peace. I learnt a lot over the last two weeks about fighting spirit, compassion and positive thinking. My father was lucid until the last moment with a clear and sharp mind. We were at his side when he passed away and we are grateful that he was not in pain and did not suffer."
Whatever "growing pains," controversial issues, election battles, etc. in the ITTF we address, nothing can compare in coping difficulty with the loss of a beloved parent. Today I hope we can make this a special occasion as we discuss your father's impact on you personally and in how you've handled yourself as ITTF president.
If we can go back to your birth, I think I recollect something special. Our good friend Shahrokh Shahnazi once presented you with a beautifully illustrated edition of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. And, if I am recalling that incident correctly, you told him that the book was very special to you because your father had named you after a horse in the story. If my recollection is correct, could you tell us more about the special feeling and hope for your life that is represented in the book?
This is correct. My first name "Adham" is actually a Persian name but also used in Egypt. In Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat (four tomes of Persian poetry), there is a horse called "El-Adhamy," and this horse represented courage, loyalty and strength of character. You need to read the poem about the war between two tribes and the role played by this horse to save his tribe to understand the meaning of the name. My father was inspired by this poem and proposed to name me "Adham."
So, from a young age, what were your impressions about your father's expectations of you and wishes for you?
My father was a teacher by nature. Even if he only worked as a teacher in Canada (English Professor) to fulfill his dream of teaching, in Egypt he worked in the automotive industry (Ford Motor Company and then El-Nasr Motor Company an affiliate of Fiat); but he was a teacher in his soul. So, he exercised his teaching passion on his children. From an early age he was teaching me everything he could on a daily, or even hourly basis. He did not have any expectations of me, he always said that I should choose what I wanted to do.
What kind of relationship did the two of you have?
I would say a normal, healthy and positive father-son relationship. Of course up to age 12 or so, I thought he was the most knowledgeable and intelligent person on earth. Then in my rebel teen years I would not agree with anything he would say. But he was very patient, explained situations to me, listened to my usually opposing view, and accepted my opinions. Of course later, when I was 18 or so, I realized that he was right all the time when I opposed, and I admitted this to him. He would laugh and say that it is normal to think differently and that it was a good thing. He was never upset if I disagreed with him, he always allowed an open exchange of opinions.
Obviously, at some point, you became introduced to the sport. Was it your father who got you started or, if not, what was his reaction to your growing enthusiasm for table tennis?
I started playing Soccer (football) at a very young age. I also started playing Tennis when I was around 10-years-old. But Tennis was more for fun, even though I was very good for my age. Soccer was my passion, I played every minute I could. I even used to practice soccer in my bedroom with a tennis ball to gain control and precision. I made a lot of noise, but my parents never objected. I played at school, at the club, I basically played all the time and became very good at it. I was even asked to join the U-16 National Team when I was only 13. The coach saw me play with adults and asked me to join the training. But two years before, I had started playing Table Tennis at the Maadi Sporting Club (a suburb of Cairo) and I was totally hooked. I came at a time when a bunch of kids my age got into playing Table Tennis and some Chess one summer. We played TT every day, we played all the time, on the table, against the wall, etc. We all improved a lot and I was totally hooked. So, soccer became more of a recreation and fun activity rather than a serious sport I would follow. In all cases, soccer, tennis and table tennis, my father and mother always encouraged me. They liked it that I practiced some sport. I became one of the best TT national players in the cadet category. I was part of my club team and I loved going to all tournaments. My friend and I even went on our own, at 13, from Cairo to Alexandria to watch the table tennis Mediterranean Championships and saw an amazing 19-year-old Jacques Secretin. We were thrilled to talk to him in French. Now that I think back, I don't know how my father allowed us to travel alone at that age.
We all know that you were born in Egypt. At what point did you move to Canada and what was the impetus to move there?
My father felt that my sister and I would have a better future in Canada. Actually he applied to emigrate to Australia, USA and Canada. It seems that Canada responded first and was also better for my mother and sister who had their education in French. We were ready to go in 1967 but the war with Israel started, so all exit visas were cancelled. After one year we had to start the procedures all over again (medical exams, etc.) and finally moved in 1968. I was not happy with this move because I was doing very well in TT in Egypt and I had to leave all my friends and school (Victoria College) behind. However, I adapted very quickly to our new life in Canada and now I never regret this move, and I appreciate the sacrifice my father and mother made for my sister and me.
Can you walk us through the interaction you had with your father in each of the critical stages of your life?
Basically it was always the same. He was supportive and helpful all the time. He never interfered in anything I wanted to do, but always helped me if I needed help. He always gave me choices and let me decide. He always informed me of the possible consequences of each choice. In fact, this is one trait I got from him. I like to give options and to give choices in my private life and in my professional life, except when it comes to professional employee contracts. I always make one offer, take it or leave it. I guess that is a choice after all.
Getting back to table tennis, you began as a player then moved on to coaching. Eventually you started gravitating more and more towards taking successive professional and volunteer leadership positions in our sport. Can you tell us about those progressions as well as your father's reactions?
I think that teaching must be in my blood as it was for my father. Our family, on my father's side, is one of diplomats. So, I gained diplomatic skills within the family -- skills that I apply to this day -- and the teaching part was ingrained in me by my father I am sure. So even in my club in Maadi when I was 12-years-old, I used to coach the girls after my own practice. I also used to coach my team-mates. I also remember coaching daily in the summer a disabled boy. So, coaching was always part of me. In Canada, in Montreal, I was coaching when I was 15-years- old. I was also the coach of the Canadian women's national team at the age of 19 (Sarajevo WTTC’s). My father was very proud of my coaching activities and he liked that I was helping others. It was all on a volunteer basis, which he appreciated even more.
Then, in 1999, you assumed the ITTF presidency at the age of 46. How did he feel about that?
Actually I was 45. In fact, I almost ran for president in 1995 in Tianjin. But circumstances that I did not understand at first prevented me. Later I realized that one must respect seniority and must respect history. It was not my turn to run. So, I withdrew in favour of Mr. Lollo Hamarlund. Unfortunately, Lollo passed away only 5 months after his election and Mr. Xu Yinsheng, then Deputy President, assumed the presidency. This is when I became Deputy. Four years later I ran unopposed for president. It felt right at the moment. I had some goals to achieve and I thought it is best to achieve them as president. But in reality I was never made to be president of such an organization. I am NOT a politician, I am a diplomat and a teacher. I tried my best to lead the ITTF through diplomatic means, and I see the ITTF as a provider of services, especially educational services.
Did you seek your father’s counsel in the early years of your presidency?
Yes, I had to for financial reasons. I was concerned at that time of the effect of my family's finances, and especially our Real Estate investment business, which I had started at a very young age. It was a question of lifestyle. I did not want that to drop drastically. But my father encouraged me and put our entire family's resources behind me. I must thank him and my mother for their help, but the most affected by my being elected President is my wife. Basically she took over the day-to-day operations of our business. Without their help I would not be able to dedicate so much time to the presidency. Luckily we live a simple life so we were all able to manage very well even with a reduced income, or to be more exact, a reduced "potential" income. I discussed situations with my father, and the cultural differences and expectations within the ITTF. He was always very supportive and a good listener.
As is mentioned above, you said that you learned so much from him "about fighting spirit, compassion and positive thinking." Can you elaborate?
My father never said "never," and never gave up. He was an optimist and believed that if you work hard and fight adversity you will always win at the end. Even if you do not achieve your goals, he felt that trying and giving your best effort was worth it. I applied these principles all my life, while being very pragmatic (got that from my mother) and knowing well what to expect realistically, while setting very high goals.
Your mother has also been an extremely loving presence in your life. Can you share a little about her parenting style and how that has shaped you as well?
My mother was strict but very loving. She is 91-years-old and living with us. I still seek her advice and discuss many issues with her. One of the reasons I am retiring from the Presidency is to have more time to spend with my mother and the rest of my family. Since we do not have children, my wife and I took care of very often (most summers and vacations) our 5 nephews and nieces. We were very involved in their early lives. Then we were both very busy, and next thing you know these kids are in their late teens and we missed part of their lives. I do not want that to happen with their kids (there are 5 already and one coming soon, between 1 and 6-years-old). So we want to spend more time with them.
Getting back to your father, what was the best advice he ever gave you?
"Think before you speak. Every problem has many solutions. Think of the best one." I try my best to apply this advice every day. My mother's advice is also very important in my life, "Do what you think is best, but never hurt anyone."
How have you tried to incorporate your father's memory into your own approach toward life?
I often think of him and his wisdom. He was a real diplomat and teacher. He spoke many languages, respected all cultures and religions. In fact, he studied deeply the three main religions. He also started learning Persian at the age of 74. In three months he was very proficient in Persian. I asked him why at such a late stage in life, since he already spoke more than a half dozen languages, would he want to learn a new language. He said "Why not? I’ve read the Rubaiyat in 5 languages, now I need to read it in its original language, Persian."
You once mentioned that your father was "un-ceremonial," does that relate to your own unassuming style?
Yes, he was very modest. He did not like attention and did not like the limelight. Even though he was a proficient actor at University and played many musical instruments (by ear), he was also a very good orator and lecturer. But he did not like fanfare. I am the same. In fact, I am very shy in my private life, but I overcome it in my professional life by sheer determination and mastering the subject I will talk about.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your father?
He was very funny. He had a great sense of humour, and would come up with statements that would crack everyone up laughing. This was great for my mother. I would often hear her laughing at his jokes or funny statements. He was an observer of human behaviour and had many funny anecdotes about that. His favourite movie was "The Party" with Peter Sellers. He would laugh just by looking at the package of the video without even playing it. His favourite TV show was "Faulty Towers" with John Cleese. I suppose you can guess that he had a dry "English" humour.
Thank you very much. I hope that this interview focusing on your father has brought a smile or two to you as you have shared some indelible memories of special times and the everlasting bond between the two of you.
It sure has. Thank you.