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How To Start Over At 50-65

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What Now?

Introductory Chapter From a Forthcoming Book

(Series: Questions) Global East-West for Research & Publishing (London : 2023)

What is success?

There are as many definitions as there are people on the planet. It is an elusive concept, like Happiness. Everyone defines it from a particular perspective. Indeed, definitions, just like goals and interests, may meet, overlap, interact, converge or diverge.

I may define success as owning £330 billion in my bank account. You may define it as having conceived 330 engine designs. A religious person would see success in finding the way to a Mecca pilgrimage. A journalist would see it in generating a weekly broadcast followed by millions of people. A farmer would find success in an unprecedented crop. Etc.

Success is different from one person to another because our purposes and ways differ.

Seen in this light, the relativity of the concept is fully understandable. On the other hand, however, social groups may identify with one goal, and when they reach it, they feel the joy of success. We see this, for example, with the fans of football or others sports. This means that, beyond the individual, success may be a collective concept.

Yet, it remains particular to a certain group. It is not archetypal to use Jung’s jargon. While all humans can understand success, the meaning is not unique. It is not deeply anchored in the collective subconscious with the same semantic rationale.

That’s why some people believe that at a certain age – let’s say 50 to 65, it is difficult, not to say impossible, to find professional success. Why? Because they reckon success in terms of time.

They assume that after a certain age, one should sit down and watch TV, take care of the garden, or spend time praying to be accepted in paradise.

Life and career are for the youth, while death should be the only horizon people over 50 should contemplate.

Well! These assumptions aren’t right, which I will prove in this book.

***

Several times in my life, I felt driven to restart and embark on, if not a new profession, a new employment, or a new route, sometimes even relocating to another country, with or without much planning. Starting over occasionally ushered me into a new world full of challenges and risks. I had to survive, which I obviously did, because I am now talking about those past experiences and attempting to gain wisdom from them.

At barely 20, I decided that my existence in Tunisia, my birthplace, had reached its limit. I was a student at Tunis University then, but I had long longed for a change. I never embraced a life of monotonous repetition. I was determined to be a great traveller in my diary when I was 14. I’ve read Sindbad tales and seen Hollywood films. I was blown away. Therefore, because they are travel jobs, I’ll be a writer and a journalist. That’s why I chose to flee Tunis, practically running away from its university, to join a French Parisian Lady I met on a beach the previous summer. Not only did I begin a new life in Paris, but I never looked back. She was the same woman I married many years later.

My university years ended when I was 23, and I was forced to leave France. I had no desire to pursue a career in academia. I was a poet and writer who had only published in Tunisian cultural publications or on the pages of newspapers. My goal was to produce books and work as a writer and journalist. I did not alter my 14-year-old journal decision. Despite pleas on my behalf by two Sorbonne professors who submitted a letter to Monsieur le prefet, the Paris Prefecture refused to renew my “carte de sejour” (student transitory residency).

What would I do? Tunis? No way! I don’t have anything to do there. Its cultural milieu was no longer enough for a youngster starting a writing career.

Beirut seemed to me to be the most reasonable option. It’s “a foolish concept,” a Lebanese friend at the Sorbonne told me. Lebanon was at the time in the grip of civil conflict. Its inhabitants were attempting to save their skins by fleeing to France, the United Kingdom, and other European nations as refugees. Newspapers, periodicals, and book publishers included.

But travelling to Beirut was a dream come true for me. Notwithstanding the civil war, Lebanon was still regarded as the most liberal Arab country, a haven of free thinking and expression in the middle of a hell of dictatorships. Hezbollah had not yet been born. That was the end of 1978. The Iranian revolution was only getting started. At the time, publishing in Beirut made you a name in the Arab world. In terms of freedom, even Egypt could not compete with Beirut. In those distant years, no Arab country would ever rival Beirut. Even now.

***

“There is no tourism in Lebanon. Did you not hear about the civil war?”

My visa application at the Lebanese consulate in Paris was denied. Yet “No” did not mean “Stop” to me. I didn’t say my last word. I took a trip to Damascus and arrived in Beirut two weeks later. I’m summarising a lengthy story.

I arrived in Lebanon’s capital with maybe 150-200 bucks in my pocket, if not less. Except for Dr Faysal Darraj, a Palestinian professor who is now one of the Arab world’s top literary critics and intellectuals, I knew no one, and no one knew me.

I was happy in my modest hotel room on the rooftops of Al-Hamra Avenue. Finally, I was living my dream. I didn’t mind seeing or hearing gunshots, bombs, or Israeli aircraft in the Beirut sky; I was content as a child with his chocolate. I brought several manuscripts that will be published by two prominent Lebanese publishers, Ibn Roshd and Al-Farabi. But even before that, I was making a fortune as a cultural critic in Beirut’s newspapers, including Al-Liwa, Assafir, and Al-Mouqif al-Arabi, where I was promoted to a highly sought-after position of cultural editor.

I never regretted my decision. In Beirut, I learned the ABCs of my profession, besides the amazing meetings I made with top-Arab intellectuals. Paul Shaool, Jack al-Aswad, Safi Said, Michel Nimry, Talal Salman, Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Mohamed Ali Shamseddine, Nouri Jarrah, Saadi Yousef, Abbas Baydoon, Kazim Jihad, Boy Ali Yassin, Hazim Saghiyya, Elias Khouri, Nasif Nassar, Khaleda Said, Haydar Haydar, Issa Makhlouf, and many others.

***

Several years later, I ran into major issues with the political police of former President Ben Ali. They not only hindered me from travelling, but they also confiscated my passport when I was trying to leave. I’ve spent ten years (like number 10) living in misery between my house, the newspaper’s office, and the dull bars and coffee shops on Bourguiba Avenue. Then, I made another life-changing decision: I shall never return to the country that had imprisoned me with a Tunisian passport.

When I finally got my passport back, thanks to the assistance of Haj Ahmed al-Houni, former Editor-in-Chief of the London-based Al-Arab newspaper, the first thing I did when I landed in Paris was toss my Tunisian ID in the River. I lived in France without a valid passport from 1998 until December 2010. Yet I was unbelievably happy. I was walking in my old dream — a free writer and journalist in a free country. I returned to Paris, which denied me a “carte de séjour” in 1978. I held a ten-year French residence card. Thank you, Monsieur Lionel Jospin! I have always been welcome by the French socialists since the bicentennial of the French Revolution to which I was invited.

I’ll be travelling outside of Europe again using a French passport. I didn’t return to Tunis until 2019, just for five days, after my elder brother died. Nothing made me feel bad about what I did. On the contrary, everything that happened in Tunisia, including the stampede of the 2011 revolt and the subsequent illegal mass migration across the Mediterranean of disgruntled young people, proved that I was correct.

In May 2007, I wrote a commentary on the “US reports’ policy” on Human Rights and Religious Freedoms in the Arab World. Obviously, I pricked an ultra-sensitive nerve, and Ben Ali’s intelligence, through planted spies with access to anything reaching the editorial desk, would not swallow the commentary. The story was censured. In Tunisia, Al-Arab Daily was extensively distributed. Its founder and Editor-in-Chief, Ahmed al-Houni, who recruited me in 1992 and became my defender in Tunisia, had died. The new management of the publication, based in Tunis, decided I was irreparable and sacked me via a Tunisian-cooked email written by one of Ben Ali’s spooks.

15 years of devoted dedication to the newspaper were erased with one email.

Did I regret sending that story to the newspaper? Never! I posted it immediately on my blog, and it is still there as a witness to a crucial turn in my life.

Eventually, I found a new job as a translator with a Parisian publishing company. But the real event was when Sorbonne University accepted my candidacy for a PhD in sociology. I have decided to crown my research with the highest academic degree, which I did.

Accepting to sit on the university benches and learn has transformed my life. I met new individuals, some of whom will impact my life, putting it on a more prosperous path. And some, like professor Burhan Ghalioun and Dr Hassan Mossadak, will become my close friends.

Another decision I made, following a dispute and resignation from the publishing company, was when I accepted to participate in a conference in Beirut on Wikileaks. It was 2011. The Arab world, Tunisia, in the first place, was in turmoil. So I returned to Lebanon instead of returning to Tunis, exactly as I did in 1978.

The conference was organised by Azmi Beshara, a Palestinian intellectual who has just founded a think tank in Doha: The Arab Centre for Research and Policies Studies (ACRPS). It was my open gate to 8 years in Qatar, where I served as a fellow researcher at ACRPS and then as a Consultant for the MOFA Diplomatic Institute.

****

Today, like I have done every day since we moved into this property, I am seated at my table in the living room, overlooking the garden. I observe the rain pouring on the grass and rhythmically striking the glass of the large door window. I reflect on my career through the perspective of the 14-year-old Tunisian youngster who wrote in his school-lined notebook, “I want to be a writer or a journalist and be able to travel from one place to another.” I’m comfortably established in my sixties. I didn’t notice the passage of time.

According to legend, sand hourglasses were used as watches in the 7th or 8th century. Maybe even before, if we consider the multiple inventions of the Chinese civilisation. When the sand flows through the upper part, time is measured in hour increments.

These days, many people keep an hourglass on their desk or over the chimney in the living room as a decorative piece or use it to reflect the passage of our short time here on Earth. I am not one of them.

Those who are permanently negative about life do nothing but wait to die as they watch the years tick past. They usually consider age 50 to be the end of their productive years. They’ll be able to relax in their proverbial rocking chair and enjoy retirement in 12 years.

People who keep a sunny disposition see it as the complete antithesis. As people turn fifty, they often think about how they want the next decade to shape their life.

Between 50 and 65, many people are known to give up on excellent endeavours. Time is running out, so they tell themselves there is no point. Another person of the same age chooses to pursue a totally different career path, operating only out of their house. When they have more time, they look for exciting new ways to keep their bodies in shape, including going on extended hikes.

The old proverb says, “You get out of life what you put into it.” You’re probably right if you feel your life ends after you hit 50. But if you think your life is just beginning at age 50 because you are so wise and observant, then that is what you will discover. Discovering new interests beyond 50 is a central theme of this book.

In my instance, I was fifty years old when I received my Doctorate, with honours and congratulations from a jury comprised of prominent academics from the Sorbonne, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHSS), and the University of Innsbruck. I finally realised a dream I could not realise many years ago due to unforeseen circumstances.

Fresh chances presented themselves to me. After working as a journalist for two and a half decades, I became a social-scientist researcher. In truth, I’ve never set out to make a career out of reporting, editing, and commenting for the media. For others, it was sufficient. It was not the case for me. I enjoy journalism. It’s one of the finest jobs I’ve ever had. Yet I did all a professional journalist could do. From local to worldwide reporting, from commenting as a columnist to directing staff as Editor-in-Chief. I’ve done it all. In Tunisia, I rose to the pinnacle of my position around 1984. Something else was required of me. Something that my birth nation could not provide for me. It led me to Europe. While working as a journalist, I also published essays, novels and conducted research. Yet, the Sorbonne gave me the means to advance in my career, rise, and thrive.

I donned the spectacles of a young poet who aspired to be a famous journalist, writer, and traveller while I sat at my table facing the garden in the rain. “Did you succeed?” I inquired.

“Yeah, I did,” he said. “Look at all the books I accumulated in my sixties.”

“How many do you have, boy?”

“You know what I mean, old man. We did it. 50 fiction and nonfiction books, a few of which were co-authored with social-scientist colleagues, but the majority were written alone. If we consider the translations we began publishing in Beirut at the dawn of our career and afterwards in Tunisia and Iraq, we should easily reach 60. So, if this is not a triumph for the 14-year-old poet, what is?”

“What about travelling? Did your Sindbad fantasy come true?”

“You enquire as if you are unsure. Take a look at where you are today. London. You were in the Middle East a few weeks ago, and you returned to Paris the month before. We travel numerous times a year. So, did my fantasy come true? I return the question to you.”

Thus boasted the young guy I called to mind. He is happy since he has realised his ambition.

It is extremely humbling for a sexagenarian like myself. I’m not interested in addressing “how did I do it?” today. That makes no difference. So many writers have done it before me, and in some cases, far better. Few accomplished this feat with only one book, no others. Hence, what truly counts for those beyond 50 is an answer to the question, “what now?”

To that end, I urge you: Make it happen! If you want to flourish after age 50, you must act appropriately.

As a result, I wrote this new book.

Thus, I can summarise the results I deducted from my life experience in a few words:

First and foremost, pursue your dream. Don’t give up on what you think is essential to your happiness.

Life is made of compromises, and sometimes you need to be flexible. But refrain from accepting what you deem incompatible with your principles. You will never regret your stance.

Accept learning, even when you reach an advanced age. What is worse than ignorance and fanatism is a position underestimating new sciences and progressive knowledge.

Finally, keep hope in difficult times. Maintain a positive perspective even when everything seems bleak and dark. You will understand later that negative thoughts worsen the worse, and positive thoughts call the solution and make it happen.

*****

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