If you want to cultivate for a season, plant cereals. If you want to cultivate for a generation, plant fruit trees. If you want to cultivate for eternity, teach young people.
Old Chinese proverb
"I want to cultivate for eternity," said Butrus Abd-al-Malik, beaming over 50 years of doing what he wants and coming up with the perfect proverb to illustrate it.
Then he dashed to a classroom to invest another 90 minutes in eternity. At the end, after non-stop lecturing, proverb-quoting, smiling, pacing, bouncing and blackboard-writing, Abd-al-Malik declared, "I love teaching. I live by teaching. I don't know what to do without teaching. I plan to teach as long as I'm able to. Until I'm 80, at least."
At 76, Abd-al-Malik may be setting some teaching records. In 50 years of continuous teaching, both in the United States and in his native Egypt, he has never missed a classroom session. He is so universally loved that students bestow "favorite teacher" awards on him and colleagues lavish him with praise.
"I can't tell you how special this man is," said Earl H. Phillips, chairman of the department of history at California State University, Los Angeles, where Abd-al-Malik has taught Middle Eastern and biblical history for 16 years.
"I've never known anyone who taught for 50 years--I've never even heard of anyone who's done that. And he's never ever missed a class!" Phillips said.
Phillips said Abd-al-Malik "has more than the average number of classes, always with maximum enrollment, sometimes over 100 students. Every one of his students' names is written indelibly in his mind. He's the most active man in the department. And I know he has at least 150 other teaching and speaking engagements every year. He never says no."
Although 70 is the mandatory retirement age for state university faculty members, Phillips said the state personnel board has made an exception in Abd-al-Malik's case because of his academic expertise. He is rehired on an annual basis.
Abd-al-Malik earned a doctorate in Oriental languages and literature from Princeton University in 1935. He taught there briefly, then returned to Egypt to teach in Asyut College, the Evangelical Theological Seminary and the American University in Cairo over a period of 34 years. During that time he traveled back and forth to the United States, taking visiting professorships at Princeton and Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut.
He came to Cal State Los Angeles as a visiting professor in 1969 and stayed, he said, "because I love this place. The situation here is ideal. The climate is much like that of Cairo, and the students are wonderful."
He and his wife, Eugeenie, live in San Gabriel. Their four children, all of whom have graduate degrees, live in the United States.
Abd-al-Malik has taught in the Arabic, Coptic, Aramaic and Hebrew languages and speaks fluent German, Italian and French.
His scholarly works include translation from Hebrew to Arabic of the Christian gospels and several books of the Old Testament; translation from Greek to Arabic of the Sermon on the Mount and the story of Christ's birth, and translation from Arabic to English of a history of Egypt from the 17th Century to the 19th.
"Teaching is my spiritual child," Abd-al-Malik said in introducing another of his endless supply of appropriate quotations. "Alexander the Great said, 'I love Aristotle as much as I love my father. One gave me life, the other taught me how to live it.' This is how I look to teaching. The relation of teacher to student is very sublime."
When the Cal State faculty honored Abd-al-Malik for his 50 years of teaching last June, letters poured in from former students all over the world. "His teaching was unorthodox and original," one of them wrote. "His lectures have sparkle and vitality," wrote another. "He epitomizes the words professor, teacher and friend," another wrote.
In one packed classroom session last week, Abd-al-Malik reviewed a history of the Hebrews as a part of his course on world civilization.
There were the usual reminders of historic dates, cultures and reigns. In addition the students learned that cuneiform writing is the result of tools digging into clay, that Jesus sometimes spoke in the Aramaic language and that the pulse was identified as "the heart speaking in the body" in Egypt in 2783 BC.
The professor called students by name, recited a Mesopotamian system of laws, traced about 10 words back to their Arabic roots and sketched temples, pyramids and rivers on a blackboard while reciting their measurements.
All the while he had quotations, proverbs and funny stories that rang out in a voice that seemed to be louder and clearer at the end of 90 minutes. His steps across the classroom were bouncier and came faster.
And then he thanked his students for being his students.
"This is a very nice day," one of them said.
"There's an old saying that 'You make something what it is by putting a label on it,' " said the professor. "So you made it a nice day by calling it that. Thank you."