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Chapter 1: The Early Years

My full name is Nebil Yousif Misconi. I am the second son of Yousif Yacoub Misconi, a Christian Catholic. My mother was Columba Salim Dawood Kako. I was born in 1939, and I have five brothers and one sister. We jokingly called each other the Magnificent Seven after the famous American western movie. My father was a well-known scholar in Iraq, specializing in the fields of Arabic history and literature, Mesopotamian history, and world history. My father published several books in these fields, and some of them have serial numbers at the Library of Congress in the United States. His accomplishments throughout his career earned him great respect and love from the Muslim community in Iraq and abroad. Since his passing in 1971 there have been many writers and scholars who still write articles in newspapers and magazines about him even until today.

My Near-Death Experience

When I was seven or eight, I developed an abscess in one of my teeth. This may not sound especially noteworthy, but this abscess is the closest I have ever come to death. At the time there was no cure that we knew of, and we had never heard of penicillin. My father and mother took me at eight o’clock at night in a rented horse- drawn carriage through the streets of Baghdad to the dentist’s office. Unfortunately, he had just closed his clinic and gone home. Luckily my father saw a pharmacist he knew who was just closing his shop, and he told the pharmacist about my problem. The pharmacist told my father that I was very lucky because they had just gotten a new medication called penicillin a few days ago. We got a nurse to stay with me overnight and inject me every four hours with penicillin. It was so tough that I had black-and-blue marks on my bottom that made it difficult to sit for several days. The next day, the dentist said if it weren’t for the penicillin, I would have died during the night. I’m not sure which year that was when penicillin came to Baghdad, but my guess would be either 1946 or 1947, shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Baghdad College, an American High School

After elementary school I enrolled in a new school called Baghdad College, which was run by American Jesuits. It was called a college but actually was a junior high and high school, covering grades 7 to 12. To my knowledge the Christian archbishop in Baghdad contacted the pope in Rome and told him that a lot of Christian students were not getting any Christian education, so the pope suggested sending American Jesuits to Baghdad. The American Jesuits built a fantastic high school that looked like a college in the United States. The school was put on acreage on the periphery of the city. Most of the American Jesuit fathers were from Boston, Massachusetts. The College was the only school in Baghdad that introduced green chalkboards in the classrooms, colored chalk, yellow pencils with erasers at the end, yellow legal pads, and other things that were kind of amazing. They had six yellow buses, similar to the ones in the United States, that were named after the vowels A, E, I, O, U, and Y because they said that Y was sometimes a vowel.

The American Jesuits also built a university in Baghdad, Al- Hikmah University. Al-hikmah in Arabic means wisdom. I guess you could call it the Wisdom University. The president of this university was the late Jesuit father Richard McCarthy, who in my opinion was the most brilliant Arabic scholar ever to come to Iraq, or to the Arab world for that matter. He was fluent in Arabic and even wrote several books in Arabic. His language skills were really remarkable. He gave a graduation address at Al-Hikmah University, which my father and I attended, in the presence of Abdul Karim Kassem, Iraq’s prime minister at the time. He gave the speech fluently in classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is different from colloquial Arabic, which is what is spoken on the street. There are differences in the use of words and the way it is spoken.

At Baghdad College all the subjects were taught in English, so I learned science and math in English. Sadly, though, the Jesuit fathers were forced to leave Iraq in 1968, shortly after the Ba’ath Party came to power. The Iraqi government then took over Baghdad College and also Al-Hikmah University. The Jesuit fathers where disheartened because they really enjoyed living in Iraq and had good relationships with the students and their families. Father Richard McCarthy had to leave Baghdad and his legacy of brilliant work in Arabic literature and Islamic history. In 1971 when I was in the United States, I contacted Father McCarthy, who was in Boston, and visited him. He spoke endlessly of his memories of his time in Baghdad and kept saying how he missed those days. I saw him again in 1974 along with my mother when she came to see me. He passed away a couple of years later as I recall. I hope that one day Iraq will remember the contributions of Father Richard McCarthy to Arabic literature and Islamic history.

Hollywood Movies

Going back to my years in high school, I recall that Hollywood movies were very popular. They were shown in major movie theaters in Baghdad and other major cities with Arabic subtitles. So I saw many classic American movies, such as Gone with Wind. In those days many American actors, like Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe, were icons in the minds of the educated class in Baghdad who followed these movies. 


In those days I also used to go regularly to the USIS, which was the US information service center in Baghdad, which was basically an American library. There were also USIS centers in Cairo, Beirut, Istanbul, and many other cities around the world. The USIS had a lot of books on every subject, including all major science fields. On one of these visits I picked up a book titled Stars. It was an introductory book on astronomy with beautiful photos of spectacular nebulae, galaxies, and stars. I must have read this book at least five times; I couldn’t let it go. It inspired me so much and made me curious about astronomy. I told my family about this book and what I learned from it briefly, and they were impressed and interested in hearing what I had to say.

Reading this book was my first encounter with astronomy and my first window to the universe. Another book that captured my imagination also came from the USIS, a biography about the great rocketeer Dr. Wernher von Braun. So two books, one that dealt with the essential basics of the cosmos and one about the basics of rocket engineering, captivated my imagination. This took place in 1956 while I was in my final stage of my graduation from high school. The two fields, in my opinion, were interrelated since at that time I thought that rocketry could play a role in space exploration of the solar system and perhaps beyond. Added to this was the fact that there were no astronomers in Iraq at the time and no institute to teach astronomy or rocketry.

I was excited by the idea of perhaps being the first male astronomer (Iraq had one female astronomer who had moved to the United States) or the first rocket scientist in the country. That was just an added bonus to my real enthusiasm for astronomy and rocketry, though. I had to make a big decision about which field was more exciting, which one would be more rewarding, and which field would satisfy my curiosity better. I believe that these major conflicts are common for young people, and having to make this choice certainly played a major role in helping me achieve my goals better.

I learned early on that I could be an astronomer or an astrophysicist. The difference between the two titles is somewhat nebulous. An astronomer is a scientist who is trained in astronomy in both observations and theory fields. An astrophysicist could be a physicist who just decided to get into the field of astronomy. Actually both titles are often interchangeable. However, typically an astronomer could be dealing with observations only or observations and theory, while an astrophysicist deals mostly with theory and not necessarily observation methodologies. Some physicists claim that astronomy is a branch of physics. Classical astronomers disagree and consider astronomy as the father of sciences. The argument goes on and on, but in this book I will use the two titles interchangeably.

I was extremely impressed by Dr. von Braun’s career and his accomplishments in the field of rocketry, so he became my role model. I always thought that maybe one day the United States could put a man on the moon and that certainly Dr. von Braun would play a major role in this fascinating endeavor. So I started concentrating on the field of rocketry with the idea of specializing in chemical engineering so that I could participate in building rockets that one day could carry men to the moon and beyond. I started visiting a relative of mine, George Misconi, who graduated from a university in Denver, Colorado, in chemical engineering. George was a brilliant chemical engineer and a brilliant student in school at all stages. The American company Kellogg, which was building the first petroleum refinery in Baghdad, hired him. He listened carefully to my dreams regarding rocketry, and he told me that chemical engineering was only a part of rocket engineering.

After finishing high school I heard of scholarships being offered by the Baghdad Pact, an alliance similar to NATO, that included the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. The scholarships were for Iraqi students to enroll in the University of Istanbul, Turkey. This was an opportunity for me to enroll in either chemical engineering or astronomy, both of which were not offered in the University of Baghdad and in Iraq as a whole. I immediately applied for these scholarships and was granted one. I began preparations to travel and enrolled in the University of Istanbul.

The only drawback of this endeavor was that everything would be taught in Turkish, which meant that I had to learn Turkish. After considering this requirement I thought, Well, why not learn another language? Learning Turkish turned out to be an easier task then I originally thought simply because Turkish has about thirty thousand Arabic words in it.

The Trip to Istanbul

In early September 1957 I bought a ticket on the Orient Express to make the journey from Baghdad to Istanbul. The journey, which took four days and three nights on the train, was the most wonderful trip. I went through Syria and then southern Turkey and to Istanbul. The Orient Express had two cars dressed with magnificent mahogany wood that belonged to a British company called Thomas Cook. These two cars provided lodging, and I got to sleep through the nights in my own cabin. The journey was very special mainly because the scenery was breathtaking. For the first time I was introduced to mountainous terrain that I was not accustomed to, since Baghdad is a flat land. My best friend and later my roommate was Asim Mustafa Al-Tikriti, who was a relative of Tahir Yahya Al-Tikriti who was prime minister of Iraq in the late 1960s. Asim was impressed with my ideas about rocketry, and so he also decided to enroll in chemical engineering.

I spent a whole academic year learning Turkish, as I could not enter the university until I passed the language exam. As it turned out, I excelled so much at learning Turkish that the teacher asked me not to attend class anymore and to study on my own because I was so much more advanced than the other students. This arrangement gave me a lot of extra time to spend reading about astronomy and rocketry along with magazines, such as Life, Time, and Newsweek during my frequent visits to the USIS in Istanbul. These activities helped to enhance my knowledge and fluency of the English language.

Becoming a Journalist Correspondent

Another thing I was interested in doing was to become a journalist correspondent. Tewfik Al-Simani, a friend of my father, was a newspaper mogul who owned all the presses in Baghdad, including a premier daily newspaper called Azzaman, i.e., the Times. Al-Simani (Arabic for Simon), a Christian Catholic, was a pioneer of journalism in modern Iraq. There were two other major newspapers in Baghdad also owned and run by Christians. I worked for Al-Simani for one summer while I was in high school. I published several articles about famous English writers, such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Morley, Elizabeth Browning, and so on. These articles gave me some popularity among the educated class in Baghdad. I also published, translated, and adapted stories from an American magazine called True Story. I received some criticism from Iraqi communists who claimed that I was popularizing American life. Educated ladies (some I knew and many I didn’t know) in Baghdad, on the other hand, were making phone calls to me encouraging me to continue translating these stories into Arabic, telling me that they were enjoying them.

I did most of this newspaper work when school was stopped for about three months because of the Suez Crisis between Egypt and England, France, and Israel. The government of Iraq, which I believe feared student demonstrations, ordered this stoppage of schools. The Suez Crisis started because Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company. The war ended when the Soviet Union threatened nuclear war and the United States did not interfere.

The Turkish authorities issued a press pass for me, so I could travel around the country via bus and ship free of charge as part of being a reporter. My student friends were envious of that. Using this press pass, I was able to go to soccer games in Istanbul. One of these games was between the Soviet Union (at the time) and Turkey. This was a big game and part of the playoffs for the World Cup. The Soviet Union won 2 to 1, and when they scored the winning goal, Turkish fans threw glass bottles on the field. The Turkish army had to hurry us into a ditch behind the goal to protect us from the glass bottles. It was a scary moment for me and the other journalists. The chaos lasted about ten minutes until the army, riding on horses, chased the fans away from the field.

In return for this traveling privilege, I told Al-Simani that I would be starting a new column in his newspaper called “Istanbul Letter.” I started sending him a letter every two weeks to be published in his newspaper. He told me my column was popular among the readers.

Many interesting events happened with my use of my press card. One involved a visit from ex–prime minister of Iraq Hikmat Sulayman while he stayed at Istanbul’s Hilton Hotel. Hikmat Sulayman became prime minister of Iraq from October 1936 to August 1937. He came to power after a coup by General Bakr Sidqi, who tilted toward Nazi Germany forced the king of Iraq at the time, King Ghazi, to flee to Lake Habbaniyah, some sixty miles from Baghdad. This lake was a British air force base. Nazi Germany sent two planes to fly over Baghdad to put fear into people’s minds and show who was in charge. The coup lasted for about six months, and then the British were able to bring and reinstate the king back in Baghdad. Prime Minister Hikmat Sulayman was arrested. Turkey interfered and lobbied the king to save Sulayman from hanging, since his family had Turkish roots.

Many years later, Hikmat Sulayman asked my father to teach him English, so I got to know him. When I heard he was visiting in Istanbul, I went to see him and interviewed him for the newspaper. The main highlight of this interview was that he told me that he believed “that the biggest problem for Iraq is that it has oil which attracts foreign powers.” 

The Iraqi Consulate Celebration Party

In another incident I was invited to the Iraqi consulate for their celebration of the coup d’état that removed the royalty and instated General Abdul Karim Kassem as the prime minister of Iraq. I interviewed the consul and photographed the display they made for the revolution, which included a statue of General Kassem made out of ice. I wrote an article in the newspaper describing the ceremony and my interview with the consul. I mentioned that as time passed by, I watched the statue of the prime minister melting. After the article was published in the newspaper, I became worried that I may be reprimanded or punished in some way for the comment about the statue melting. Luckily nothing happened, and slowly my fear disappeared.

Gala at Sultan Abdul-Hamid’s Famous Palace

I received another interesting opportunity because of my journalism during my third year in Istanbul. I heard that there was a gala for local and international journalists to be held in Sultan Abdul-Hamid’s palace, which had been built during the Ottoman Empire. The gala was held inside a huge room where Sultan Abdul-Hamid used to receive the ambassadors from Europe. The room had a huge crystal chandelier and beautiful rugs, along with magnificent decorated walls and ceiling. Among the attendees, I recall seeing Miss France and European actresses. For the first time in my life I had to rent a tuxedo to go to this gala, and I invited one of my student friends to go with me. We took a cab to the palace, and when we arrived, we told the driver to go passed the gate to the main building.

The driver said, “Are you kidding me? I can’t go inside the palace; it is forbidden.” I told him, “Don’t worry. I have passes, and they will let us in.” He said, “Oh my God, this is something special. I never dreamed of doing this ever.”

The gala made us feel like we were in Europe, and the butler announced our names as we came in. The attendees were mixed, with ladies and men, and the ladies were wearing the latest fashionable gowns. The band played American and European songs, and everybody was dancing, including me. I asked Miss France for a dance, and she accepted. To say the least this night was one to be remembered. At the end of the gala they had a lottery for all kind of goods, such as refrigerators, cameras, and so on. My friend won a camera, and I was shocked as I won only a hair comb, the least expensive gift in the whole ensemble. However, that misfortune did not take away from the thrill I had that night.

Writing Poetry in Turkish

Since I had a year to study Turkish, I decided to indulge in Turkish poetry and started buying some poetry books. Turkish poetry was not necessarily written with rhyme, but I enjoyed reading the poetry that was written with rhyme the most. I tried sometimes to compose some lines, but I wasn’t really good enough with the language yet to write good poetry. As it turned out, after four years in Turkey, I perfected the language so well that I wrote my own book of poetry, Iki ve üch yanyana, meaning Two and Three Side by Side. When I wrote the book of poetry, I was twenty-three years old. The first poem explained that when you say two and three side by side, it could mean thirty-two years or twenty-three years.

My best friend in the later years in Istanbul was Burhan Said. His father was Arab, and his mother was Turkish, so he had relatives from his mother’s side living in Istanbul. Burhan read my poems and liked them very much. He said they should be published, and it so happened that one of his relatives was in the publishing business. He asked me if I wanted to ask his relative to help me publish the book, and I said yes. His relative, whose name I don’t remember, asked me if he could show the book to a Turkish literature professor at the University of Istanbul, a standard procedure before publishing a book. I was a little nervous when I saw the professor reading my book of poems and didn’t know what the outcome would be. The professor emerged after a couple of hours and said it was very good and should be published on good shiny paper.

I was delighted to hear the professor’s recommendation and was very thankful. Burhan’s relative put in motion the process of publishing. An art student friend of Burhan’s relative made the cover, which was very nice. I paid Burhan’s relative a small amount of money to get the project started. Unfortunately Burhan’s relative had some financial crisis. I never heard from him again, and the book was never published. Burhan kept apologizing to me about this unfortunate outcome, but I told him not to worry. I said we could do it some other time and that I was very busy with my studies anyway. The book never saw the light of day and is still unpublished.

Harassment by Turkish Students

My first year in Istanbul I stayed in a Turkish dormitory with Turkish students and some Iraqi students who had the same scholarship as me. There was some slight harassment from the Turkish students in the dormitory once they knew that we were from Iraq. They often told us that we came from one of their colonies that they had in the Ottoman Empire. Others said that we had their oil and were selling it to the world and making money, which should rightfully belong to them. Whenever they engaged me in such political arguments, I tried to change the subject and not involve myself in the discussion. I was a Christian, so I was careful not to engage in anything dangerous for me, but my other colleagues had a lot of arguments with them and sometimes contentious ones. At times things came close to physical threats and action by the Turkish students, but none of it really happened, thank goodness!

What Dating…Girls?

On the romantic side, I was really miserable because I only dated three or four Christian girls during my entire stay in Istanbul. This was primarily due to the fact that I was Christian and was afraid to date any Muslim women. My other friends were Muslims, so they were in heaven. They were dating girls freely, and in those days Istanbul was much of a European city. Dating was allowed and wasn’t a closed society by any means. I don’t know how it is now, but I’m curious to find out!

European Tourists

In my first year in Istanbul, I had time to mingle with many European tourists, most of whom were students. They came from Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries, and they all spoke English. I learned so much from them about European life. This was such a thrill for me to communicate with these students and enlarge my horizons in science, literature, social issues, and on and on. I also listened to their arguments about their politics, customs, traditions, and so on. Most of them were conservatives, and a few were socialists or communists. This interaction with these European students kept my fluency of English intact.

Fen Fakültesi

The school that I enrolled in was called in Turkish Fen Fakültesi. Fen is an Arabic word meaning “art,” and fakültesi obviously means “faculty.” The school was really similar to a college of arts and sciences in a US university. It was a beautiful building with nice auditoriums. When I showed Hikmat Sulayman, the former prime minister of Iraq that I previously spoke of, the building of the college, he said, “This college was built by Iraqi oil money, and I know about it.”

Nonetheless, the main question at this time for me was whether to enroll in chemical engineering or astronomy. I agonized about this decision for quite a while, and finally I decided to enroll in chemical engineering with the knowledge that I could switch to astronomy anytime I wanted. I was told that my earned credit hours could easily be transferred between the two fields when applicable. This fact made making my decision easier.

It was time for me to go and visit the astronomy department in Istanbul and see what it was like. The department was about four miles away from the College of Science, so I took the bus. As soon as I saw the observatory dome, I knew I had arrived at my destination. I introduced myself to the professors in the department, and they welcomed me and asked me if I wanted to see the telescope. I said yes, of course. This was early in the afternoon, and I saw the students drawing sunspots on a piece of paper mounted at the focal point of the telescope, as part of their training. The department impressed me, and as I recall, the telescope was a twenty-four-inch refractor (i.e., lens) built in Germany. I should mention here that Turkey and Germany had a close relationship that went back to the First World War when the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany.

The astronomy professors asked me to come back at night and visit in order to see the moon and other celestial objects using the telescope. I accepted the invitation, and then I went one night and took a look through the telescope as they pointed it at the moon. The craters of the moon were impressive to see. I knew that the telescope was meant to be for student training and not for research, especially since it was inside the city of Istanbul where the sky did not get dark for viewing.

This activity was so impressive to me that I started thinking seriously about enrolling in the astronomy department. However it was not the time to make that decision since I was just entering the university as a freshman. Also I was discouraged when I learned that there were no more than twelve students in the department of astronomy. This made the decision to enroll in astronomy much more difficult.