Egyptian journalist Yasmeen Saad uncovers the previously untold story of Henry Sleeper Harper's 'dragoman' Hammad Hassab.
Hamad Brik's heartbeat accelerated. Everyone swayed towards the sea in submission to the ship's defeat in its war against death.
Hamad saw his Arab friends lying in one corner of the ship lamenting themselves. They sang loudly: "Cry and whine, Harden. Cry on the drowned young men, you drown, 11 young men, at the age of 25, seven of whom are bachelors. They knew that once the ship sank, no one would know their names, no one would know their story, no one would write an elegy for them, and they would be forgotten.
Hamad tried not to be distracted by listening to the words of elegy. If these words had entered his mind, he would not think of any rescue attempt. He looked away in order not to see the moment when the sea began to embrace the ship. He then he said to Henry and Mira Harper: "I assure you, we will not die today".
These events are not part of the famous American film "Titanic", nor fantasies of the authors' imagination. However, they were real events and. I spent two years searching for the story behind Hamad, the only Egyptian Titanic passenger who managed to escape the tragedy of the shipwreck. These are the details of Hamad' story as told by his family.
Hamad's grandchildren do not know the exact date of his birth, no records have been kept, but they know that he was 27 when he was on Titanic.
"My grandfather was beautiful, his eyes were blue, his face was full of life, his hair was black, and he was tall and well-built. Nothing distinguished him from the other foreign passengers except for his oriental clothes" says his grandson Mohammed Sirajuddin. "But when he wore his Qufftan, he looked like a professor, he really did" and by that Sirajuddin refers to Hamad's graduation of Alalamya school, which was equivalent to Al-Azhar's certificate at the time.
"Sheikh of Arabs" is Hamad's was the nickname given him by family and friends. He was proud of his heritage and the fact that he descended from the long family-tree of Al-Hussein, and he had a certificate proving this heritage. As he had 15 acres in the area of Kafr al-Jabal, the people there also called him Sheikh of Arabs. However, he did not like the nickname because it implied privilege.
Hamad who taught himself three languages - English, French and German - and spoke fluently, to become Sheikh. He loved traveling, worked as an interpreter at Thomas Cook and His Son for tourism at the Shepheard's Hotel in downtown Cairo. Hamad made a lot of friends from all over the world while working there. He also invited them to his house and visited them back.
Life opened her arms wide-open to the handsome young man Hamad. After succeeding in work and traveling to different countries around the world, he had no choice at that time but to search for his life partner. Hamad chose to marry a respected noblewoman like him. He married the granddaughter of the Kharbutli family Fatima Hussein Kamel Katukhdh Kharbotli.
It was only two months after the happy marriage, that Hamad knew he would become a father, but this was not the only news he received at the time. His friends, the American couple Mira and Henry Harper, invited him to travel with them on a ship which the world and the passers-by in the streets were talking about. It was the wonder of wonders, the ship that does not sink, Titanic. Hamad agreed to travel with them leaving his newlywed bride alone in Cairo.
"My grandfather agreed to travel with Henry Harper and his wife, Mira, because of Henry's strong temptations for the beauty of the ship. He also had many friends in America, who he wished to visit so he figured that this would be a good opportunity to see the world with his friends on the famous ship. Who would refuse such an opportunity?" says Sirajuddin. "It is not true that he accepted the offer because it was free, or because he did not have enough money to buy a ticket on the first class of Titanic. His wife and his brother Said were wealthy, and he was rich because of his work. He had a villa in Kfar Al Jabal, a house in Shubra and another one in Heliopolis. He was generous always holding parties for his foreign friends in his house. He invited Henry and Mira to some of these parties as a payback. No young man in the world would reject such an offer, and the voyage was only for a couple of days so he would return to his wife quickly"
These parties that Hamad held for Henry Harper, a well-known American and a member of the board of the Harper Publishing House and Hamad's best friend, was not just a payback for the ticket for the Titanic's first-class, which cost $4,350 that is $100,000 today, but also for taking him to spend several days in Paris to get on Titanic from Cherbourg port.
"The mysterious Arab" is the nickname that the American site that documents the lives of the Titanic's passengers gave "Hamad". When they began to collect data about him, they found nothing about him, and all the survivors said that they noticed that some Arab traveled with them on the first class, they knew him from his features, but he was not talking to anyone. Many girls tried to talk to Hamad but he refused, the only ones Hamad sat with were Henry and Mira.
Mira Harper, a name you will find associated with Hamad through all of the EncyclopaediaTitanica data. The private servant of Mrs. Mira Harper is what was written on Hamad's job description on his ticket. He was the one always sitting by her side and even in the only picture of the lifeboat No. 3, which Hamad, Henry, and Mira was in, Hamad was the one sitting next to her, not her husband, and that raises a question in everyone's mind: what is the nature of Hamad and Mira's relationship?
When I asked Hamad's grandson if Mira fell in love with Hamad, he smiled especially when I assumed that it was only from her side. "My grandfather was tough, nice, educated, and the foreigners liked him. My grandfather was an adviser to his friends Henry and his wife Mira" replied Sirajuddin. "There was an intellectual friendship between Hamad and Mira and no more.
During Mira's marriage, she did not have the blessing of having children. Mira probably encouraged the idea of traveling around the world, since she was the one that could not have children and that was discovered because her husband got married after she died and had a boy. Did Mira consider Hamad as her child? That is another assumption.
When someone faces death, his true personality outshines and acts naturally. So was the friendship between Hamad and Mira the reason why he was the one sitting beside her on the lifeboat and not her husband who was sitting on the other side of the lifeboat?
Sirajuddin hesitated to find the answer to the big question that revolves around Hamad and Mira's relationship. He replied "maybe Mira had a feeling for Hamad. Mr. Harper trusted my grandfather deeply so I doubt that Hamad had feelings for her and he did not even contact her after his return. But he always mentioned that he loved her because she never lied and she always listened to what he said and he wished that we were somehow obedient like her. But he also mentioned that he did not sit with anyone while he was on Titanic; he just went to the restaurant, or to the movies [sic], or just sat with his friends. He did not even attend any of the dancing parties that they had back then".
Hamad told his grandchildren the story of the night in which he saved his friends from drowning on Titanic, saying he was wandering around the ship when he heard the sound of a radio call in the control room, where the ship's watcher called out all the ships to come to rescue them. Then Hamad new that the ship has split and that it's only a matter of minutes and it would drown. Hamad ran to tell his friends Mira and Henry about what he just heard and then brought them to the lifeboats location. Then he carried Mira and Henry and threw them in the lifeboat, and cut the rope connecting the boat to the ship. His only concern was to save his friends, and that is what actually happened.
Hamad's story is maybe true, perhaps exaggerated, as he wanted to showcase himself as the Egyptian hero to his family, who did not give up on his friends at the time of hardship, the hero who fought death and won.
Assuming what Hamad said was exaggerated, this would be because the lifeboat he and his friends Henry and Mira was in is boat No. 3, which means that boats No.1&2 sailed. This information means that the ship must have already informed all the passengers that the ship was sinking. The ship crew must have gathered all the women and children to rescue them and put them in lifeboats No. 1&2. Thus, the two lifeboats sailed before Hamad and his friends could get on them, and according to the time it would take, the rescue of his friends was not a secret.
On the other hand, it was forbidden for the men to get on the lifeboats. Hamad and Henry managed to get on one with Mira, they even saved Henry's dog Sun, who was with them on the boat. The boat also sailed half empty. No anyone knows how these men get to the boat, no one knows why hundreds died and there was a lifeboat which sailed half loaded. "Hamad" is the only one who can answer if his story of what exactly happened that night was true or not.
The Titanic sank. These were the headlines around the world the day after the shipwreck. The news spread even before the lifeboats returned to the shore. The Carpathian, the ship that saved the survivors in the lifeboats, informed the authorities of the tragedy. The people had lined up on the shore waiting for loved ones or the bodies of their loved ones; since the ship was picking up the bodies found in the sea on the way to the port.
Al-Ahram published an article on April 17, 1912, in which it confirmed that it got in touch with the company responsible for the Titanic "White Star Line". The company asserted that there were no Egyptians or Arabs passengers on board. This is of course what the company said to escape the murder scandal. Some Arabs were shot, and the majority of the people who died that night were the third-class Arabs.
At the time, no one from the Hamad's family came to disclaim this news, or to even declare his presence on Titanic. This is because they received a telegraph from Hamad, who sent it to his brother Sayyed at 5:20 am on the 18th of April to the Mena House Hotel, the Telegraph contains one phrase: "We are all fine." No one knows why Hamad wrote the telegraph in the plural "we" at this critical time.
After reviewing the events, Hamad may not have sent the Telegraph in the first place. He may have been unconscious during this period, according to his family. He did not return to Egypt for three years after the Titanic sinking, and no one knew anything about him.
Fatima al-Kharbutli gave birth to Hamad's son, Hassan, in his absence. Hassan grew up in his uncle's house. He was nicknamed "Hassan the stranger" because of his father's history. Some believe Hamad drowned with Titanic and some others believe that he has gone to foreign lands with no return, between this and that, Fatima waited with her son.
Three years later in 1915 to be specific someone knocked on Fatima's door and that someone was Hamad, who finally returned to her. Some foreign friends brought him to the house. She hugged him in silence; without doing an investigation with him, or requiring justifications, or even talk about the years in which he was absent. The important thing is that he survived his dramatic Titanic experience; he faced seas and returned to her and their son. Hassan is no longer a stranger.
"We do not know what happened to my grandfather during the three years during which he was absent. He did not talk about this period. He had a strong personality, no one could talk to him about something he did not want to talk about" says Sirajuddin. "So we figured some reasons by ourselves why he could not come to Egypt to his wife and his son after the ship sank. He certainly suffered from a traumatic shock; something he saw on the ship caused him to lose his memory, and when he regained it immediately returned to his home or was detained there during the investigations conducted in America after the ship sank, and returned when he was released. But what we know is that my grandfather would not leave his family voluntarily"
Hamad stayed at home for 10 years, never traveled to anywhere, fearing that what happened in Titanic would happen again. The question here is what did Hamad see on Titanic, or on the night of the shipwreck that caused him to disappear from his family and his country for three years? Then stop talking about it after his return, and is afraid to travel anywhere for ten years? It seems like Titanic did not just drown those who died that night but also broke the hearts and drowned the dreams of those who lived. To see death in front of you daring you for a whole and almost see it in everyone's eyes is not an easy thing.
"Hamad disappeared from the media after his return. He did not go to anyone to speak about himself being the Titanic survivor. He did not even tell his family how beautiful the ship was, and they did not ask in return" Says Serageldin. "I think my grandfather did not go to the media because he returned to Egypt after 10 years and by then this particular Titanic news was not the headline. The subject was forgotten. He did not want to be in the spotlight. Perhaps he just wanted to live peacefully with his family so he would not lose them again".
Hamad got rid of any connections related to Titanic; he did not see Mira and Henry again and quit his job as a translator. Hamad then worked in Nazlt-Elsiman with foreigners where they rented horses from Hamad's stables. Hamad also planned unforgettable Cairo' outings for them to let them see all of the great historical monuments that he fell in love with. But we keep wondering why then did he attached himself from every Titanic' memory? Was it because of the traumatic experience that he endured on Titanic and what he saw then? Was the ghost of Titanic chasing him and he just wanted to ignore it? Or was he involved in something else and tried to escape from it?
Hamad is the father of 6 children, Hassan, Ezz al-Din who later worked as an engineer in the high dam, Attiyat, Ihsan, Aida, and Dalal. He is also the grandfather of 16 grandchildren, who regularly visited him in his own villa at Kafr-Algabl. His grandchildren enjoyed his exciting stories and his lasting chivalry. They also obeyed and respected him; he was a funny playful grandfather but when he says "quiet!" they all have to be quiet and do what Sheikh Al-Arab orders them to do.
Sirajuddin wanted to reaffirm his grandfather's love for his grandmother and the fact that Hamad traveled when she was pregnant does not showcase that he loved her less. "Hamad was so deeply in love with Fatma; he ate whatever she ate, he wouldn't eat until she did, when she got sick he was the one besides her until she recovered. He was compassionate towards her and he was so tender and protective as well; no one could even look at her not even once while he was around" as Sirajuddin says. "Fatma loved him deeply too even after he died".
"My grandfather never got sick before that day, he was about 100 years old and he felt sick in the morning so we got him a doctor who later informed us that our grandfather was dying," says Sirajuddin. "we gathered around him until he passed away peacefully".
The family of Hamad does not have his death certificate, so his grandson Sirajuddin estimated that he died in 1964 or 1965. Hamad died peacefully on his bed; among his loving family, without facing the waves, without listening songs of elegy, far away from the Titanic's ghost.
Originally published in Arabic in Al-Masry Al-Youm (Egyptian Today), 3 August 2018