What’s in a Naim?
Bill Naim submitted his life story below in August 2020.
In January 2019, Bill was interviewed by Debra Forbes for this website.
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. My father, Naim Abdel Sayed, was a Coptic Orthodox Egyptian. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is an Oriental Orthodox Christian church based in Egypt, Africa and the Middle East. The head of the Church and the See of Alexandria is the Patriarch of Alexandria on the Holly See of Saint Mark, who also carries the title of Coptic Pope. My mother, Geovana (nee Fenech), was of Maltese/Italian parents. She didn’t mind using my father’s name but baptised both my sister Lillian and I as Catholics without the knowledge of my father. My baptism record stated my name as being William Joseph Abdel Sayed; however, my birth certificate showed William Joseph Abdel Sayed Naim. Arabic names are patrilineal, which typically means you traditionally use your family given name, followed by your father’s first name.
My early childhood memories were overwhelmingly sad and dysfunctional as I experienced a rather lonely existence. It all started when, in November of 1941; my father (a lawyer) was on his way home after entertaining some of his prospective clients and tragically passed away while crossing a tramway intersection line. The tram lights were darkened due to an imminent intensive aerial bombardment by the German Air Force; unfortunately, he failed to see the tram and was instantaneously killed. At the time of my father’s passing, I was 9 months old and, because he died intestate, this meant that my mother had to earn a living. As lawyers sometimes say, “where there’s a will, there’s a family; where there’s no will, there’s still a family“. I later established that I could have inherited his estate on turning 21 but, in the meantime, his family would be the official custodian. Mother used to take me to visit my paternal grandfather perhaps once a month. As I recall, they were a well to do family who owned several jewellery shops but the visits were curtailed as I was being cared for by my mother’s two brothers. On reaching the age of 4, I was sent to a French boarding school (St Vincent de Paul) whilst my sister had been sent to an Italian boarding School (Sacro Cuore) 5 years earlier.
At the ripe age of 13, I was taken from being a boarder to external (in the same school) for the next 3 years. After matriculating, I attended an Italian college (Don Bosco), where I was hoping to become an electrical engineer. Unfortunately, after one year due to the political turmoil in Egypt, that was short lived. My mother suggested that I should attend an English school (Victoria College) with a view to joining her two brothers who lived in Melbourne; realistically, this was a wise decision.
In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser became the elected president of Egypt after overthrowing the monarchy (King Farouk). His neutralist policies led to tense relations with the Western powers. During the same year, he nationalised the Suez Canal, which for all intents and practical purposes was owned and run by the UK. Due to this retaliatory act, the UK, France and Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, but prudently withdrew amid international condemnation by the rest of the world. As a direct result, Nasser’s leadership increased and the United Arab Republic was formed. He then systematically announced that all Europeans living in Egypt should leave, be it Italians, French Maltese, Greeks, and particularly British citizens. My mother’s father was Maltese and regarded as a British citizen in view of Malta being a protectorate of United Kingdom Overseas Territories (UKOTs). My mother kept her father’s citizenship and was therefore regarded as persona non grata. When she pointed out that her son is Egyptian, they simply told her that he could also leave. This was somewhat of a blessing to a great majority of young students.
Speaking from personal experience, considering that I and similar of my friends frequented French, Italian, English and Greek schools, we were not inducted in the inner Egyptian, Arabic lifestyle, particularly as we only learnt minimal Arabic in schools – a total of 4 hours a week.
With three years of English schooling, and having matriculated as well, my mother and I left Egypt in 1962. I was 20 years old. With Nasser sequestering all our possessions, we were only allowed 20 Egyptian pounds each. Or so they thought as in fact we managed to take more! Meantime my sister Lillian was married and opted to stay in Alexandria with her Egyptian husband; she passed away in 2001.
Following a 16-day cruise on the P&O Oriana, we transited Perth to undergo an immigration check. An officer asked me what exactly was my correct surname – Abdel Sayed or Naim – so I instinctively took this opportunity to say Naim. The reason for this was mainly because I considered my milieu to be European and was somewhat embarrassed with the surname, Abdel Sayed. And I subsequently dropped my paternal surname of Abdel Sayed and made it officially William J Naim. In hindsight, I’m not sure that decision was right.
On the Oriana, I was lucky enough out of 25 chosen contestants to win a 1st prize award for my singing and was given a letter from the ship’s captain to present myself to Channel 9. I was truly overwhelmed. In Egypt, I was a very quiet, introverted, and particularly shy teenager due to my boarding school days. At the age of 7, the nun introduced me to the school/church choir due to showing promise in that field, and that was the start for my love of singing. During this time, my mother paid for my singing tuition with a well-known professor by the name of Cordone and, while still a student, I learned the bel canto and sang with him at various concerts.
I naturally intended to follow a singing career in Australia; however, as I had to earn a living, this came to a halt particularly because my paid job consisted of shift work. We spent a short period of time with my uncle until we could get back on our feet.
Because of my linguistic ability, I successfully joined Qantas at Essendon Airport as a check-in agent and, 34 years later, I became the Airport Duty Manager at Tullamarine.
I voluntarily left Qantas in 1993 after the amalgamation with TAA. I became a Centre Manager for Watsonia shopping centre for but subsequently joined the Crown Casino as Manager for Wardrobe and Cloakrooms. From 1998 to 2000, I managed a retail outlet for air conditioning based in Eltham. I tried Real Estate with Ian Reid Eltham for a short period of time, but found that it wasn’t my thing. On turning 60 years old, I decided to retire gracefully and travel the world with my darling wife who has blessed us with 5 wonderful children. I certainly never imagined that out of my solitary youth I would end up having such a large family. I am now fully retired and heartily enjoy travelling whenever possible. At the same time, I try to keep myself fit.
I trust this adequately explains the background of the Naim family which will help my grandchildren and their families understand what occurred many years ago as, in essence, their real surname should have been Abdel Sayed, meaning powerful and complete.
My biggest creative achievement was my family.