x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The day that Nasser kissed a small boy, my father

It was 1960, and an eight year old child in Hums, Syria, was being groomed and prepped to do his best in greeting and welcoming an important guest to lunch at a fancy restaurant.

It was 1960, and an eight year old child in Hums, Syria, was being groomed and prepped to do his best in greeting and welcoming an important guest to lunch at a fancy restaurant.

Dressed in an itchy suit, the boy was reminded to be polite as he was meeting a "true Arab hero".

When the guest arrived with his father, the governor of Hums, the boy extended his hand nervously and even before he had a chance to say anything to the tall foreboding guest, he was picked up, kissed on cheeks and hugged by the guest.

"The future!" cried the guest, holding the boy in the air, as media cameras snapped pictures and tens of admirers clapped.

The guest was the leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the governor, my grandfather, and the boy, my father.

Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, Imam Muhammad al Badr of Yemen and Egypt's Anwar Sadat were also among the guests. All of these historic figures and this moment of euphoria were captured in a single black-and-white photo.

One copy of this photo I carry with me wherever I go, not because I am a fan of Nasser or any of the other figures in it, but of the feeling captured in this photo. I also like to look at that light in my father's eyes and that smile that one gets when meeting someone we believe is bigger than life itself.

Arabs needed an Arab hero, and at the time, they put their hopes in Nasser. He was charming, good looking, and said the right words that people longed to hear, like "unity", "pride" and "power".

It is the 40th anniversary of his death this September, and while Egypt is still paying for the reforms he introduced, his home will be turned into a museum as a testament to a period in which Arab nations had confidence and a sense of pride.

My grandfather, who welcomed him, was one of the officers who joined Abdul al Karim al Nahlawi in staging a coup that ended the union of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic on September 28, 1961.

My grandfather, like many, felt betrayed by Nasser, as he exploited Syria and didn't deliver on his promises.

Everyone needs a hero. I know I do. I have written this past week about ordinary men who rose above their challenges and became heroes, not just to the people around them but to themselves.

I got reacquainted with Antara bin Shaddad, a sixth-century slave, who became a prince and poet, and married the woman of his dream, the princess Abla. If that story is not inspirational, I don't know what is. It seems that many of the heroes I grew up on actually started at the bottom and through courage, persistence and patience, somehow reached the top, even if it was for only a short time.

"True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat," Napoleon Bonaparte said. And while he also disappointed his followers in the end, this man did manage to rule most of Europe at some point.

But is it possible to become a hero in these modern days? Before it was through the sword, military command and rhetoric. Now, it is perhaps through economic and less obvious and "glorious" means that one gets elevated to hero status. Media and rhetoric still plays an important part of feeding that persona.

When the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin was photographed and taped flying a plane as part of the firefighting efforts to put out the blazes in Ryazan region last month, it was an attempt at painting Putin as an action hero of Moscow. I personally felt it was cheesy and no one bought it.

These days, more sophisticated methods have to be used to win over people and promote anyone as a potential hero. At the same time, staged photos of powerful figures kissing babies and looking all "down to earth" still helps to win over the masses, even if the promises never see the light of day.

When were young schoolgirls, we would talk about our crushes on cartoon characters or celebrities, and our ultimate dream of being saved by some kind of a hero whom we watched in some movie or read about.

While I used to agree with them, deep down, I had my own dream. Partly because of my tomboyishness and partly because of what I saw in the eyes of the people in that photo, I decided I wanted to be that hero. A hero whom a child and an old man could believe in.