Usama al-Khalidi grew up with a love of science, nature and art.  As an adult, Usama dedicated his life to inspiring generations of Arab scientists to think outside the box and to embrace a love for learning.

 

A short biography

Dr. Usama al-Khalidi was born in Jerusalem on April 20, 1932.  He was the son of Ahmad Sameh al-Khalidi, a renowned Palestinian educator, and social reformer who headed the Arab College, and Anbara Salam al-Khalidi, a noted Lebanese writer and women’s activist. 

I did not go to school until I was nine. I knew every cave in the area. I knew where to catch scorpions. I knew every plant. I knew every shepherd. I did not know how to read and write.
— Usama al-Khalidi as quoted by Charles Glass in The Tribes Triumphant

Ahmad Sameh was a firm believer in the Montessori system of education, and considered that formal schooling at a young age curbs creativity.  He decided that Usama should not be sent to school in his early years, but allowed to explore the hills and pastures around Jerusalem, running his experiments on the flora and fauna around him.  As a result, Usama only entered elementary school at age 9, and within less than 10 years had already completed his high school and Bachelor of Science degrees.  Usama credits his “out of the box” thinking to this innovative early educational experience. 

Following the Nakba of 1948, the Khalidi family moved to Beirut, where Usama enrolled at the American University of Beirut, obtaining his Bachelor of Science and then his Masters of Science in Biochemistry, under the mentorship of Dr. Stanley Kerr.  Usama went on to obtain his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Michigan.  He returned to Beirut in 1960 and worked as Professor and Chairman of the Biochemistry Department until 1983.  During that time, he established the university’s first PhD program and mentored some of AUB’s most promising medical researchers and doctors. 

From 1983 until 1993 he acted as Professor and Dean of the Medical School at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain promoting the McMaster program of medical education.  In 1990, he also took on the role of Advisor to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Bahrain where he sought to promote technology and industrial incubation schemes.   In 1994 he moved to Jordan where he was appointed as the Science Advisor to Crown Prince Hassan.  Soon after, he established a National Committee to review and test a university entrance exam to complement the official “tawjihi”.  From 1999 until 2001 he held the position of Secretary General of the Higher Council for Science and Technology in Jordan. He later set up the National Center for Biotechnology a virtual center that provides financial and technical support for the development and execution of biotechnology projects ranging in scope from thornless plants to human monoclonal antibodies.  

I remember him as the endless tinkerer with physical shapes, material and ideas. Insightful, razor sharp and delightfully approachable! In pursuit of excellence in learning, science, entrepreneurship, social justice and uplifting the spirit of fellow citizens, Usama remains a beacon of hope and endless inspiration.
— Jean-Francois (Hanna) Tomb - one of Usama’s students
Usama tinkering in his workshop

Usama tinkering in his workshop

Usama published 2 books and over 40 scientific publications in biochemistry.  He also published scores of papers on general interest topics in education, Islamic philosophy and science and technology.  

Usama was awarded the Decoration of Independence (Second Order) by Jordan in 1967, and the Decoration of Distinguished Contribution (First Order) by Jordan in 1998.  In April 2010, a number of Usama’s students organised a Festschrift to honour and celebrate their mentor's scientific and academic achievements.  The celebration was organised as part of the AUB Middle East Medical Association (MEMA) and included a dedicated Usama al-Khalidi Scientific Celebration Day.  

In 2017, Jordan and the United Kingdom signed an Memorandum of Understanding to establish the Sir Isaac Newton-Khalidi Fund, in recognition of the contributions of Usama to science and technology in Jordan and the Arab world at large.  The £3.5 million memorandum will be implemented through the Higher Council for Science and Technology (HCST) and the Royal Scientific Society (RSS) over four years in the areas ofenergy, cultural heritage, water security, agricultural technology and food security, biotechnology and biosecurity, nanotechnology and developing the skills and abilities of researchers. HRH Princess Sumaya bint al-Hassan, who is the president of the RSS, said the agreement would help create a "policy and enterprise infrastructure that goes beyond politics and political missions"(Jordan Times article).

Usama was married to Samia Geha and had two daughters, Mona and Ramla, and four grandchildren, Thurayya, Ali-Usama, Aliya, and Suha.  After battling a long illness, Usama died in Amman on 11 November 2010.


it wasn’t all about the science

Usama was anything but unidimensional.  He collected hobbies and pursued interests in a wide range of fields.  

  • Usama was an avid astronomer exploring different celestial bodies such as black holes, moons, planets stars, and nebulae.  He would often take out his telescope and gaze at the stars for hours, watching for meteor showers or comets or other strange occurrences in the night sky.  
  • Usama was an artist and had a passion for Arabic calligraphy and what he coined 3-D calligraphy.  He created hundreds of paintings, mostly using verses from the Quran, and used silver, copper and wood to mould his 3-D Arabic calligraphy.  In later years, he became fascinated by the Japanese characters and created a number of pieces in Japanese.
  • Usama was a craftsman, and taught himself the art of paper-making.  He introduced this craft to Bahrain and Jordan using only local material, and he promoted it as an income generating project for young Bahraini and Jordanian women.  
  • Usama was a poet having memorised hundreds of Arabic poems.  But his fascination with word forms extended to more modern and even whimsical European poems and limericks, with James Thurber being a favourite.
  • Usama was also a historian having an almost encyclopaedic ability to recount historical events from the Arab region and beyond.  He was a collector of old maps, prints, and Islamic coins.