By Mohannad Al-Haj Ali
Steve Jobs, arguably the most influential CEO in the world, is the biological son of an Arab American who was born in Homs, Syria, and studied at the American University of Beirut.
With accolades that include CEO of the decade and person of the year, Steve Jobs is routinely voted one of the most influential and powerful people in the world. He catapulted Apple to the world’s leading technology company through the iPod revolution and innovations that followed such as the iPhone and the iPad. The creative mind of Steve Jobs is often chronicled, including his life story as the adopted child of a modest American family.
What most fail to realize is that his living biological father is of Syrian origin. Abdul Fattah “John” Jandali emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s to pursue his university studies. Most media outlets have published little about Jandali, other than to say he was an outstanding professor of political science, that he married his girlfriend (Steve’s mother) and by whom he also had a daughter, and that he slipped from view following his separation from his wife.
An American historian, however, has now stirred controversy over the role of genes and their superiority over nurture in the case of Steve Jobs, by describing Jandali in a detailed critical article published briefly on the Internet before it was suddenly removed, as “the father of invention”, given that Jandali’s daughter Mona (Simpson) – Steve’s sister – is also one of the most famous contemporary American novelists and a professor at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
The 79-year-old Jandali has deliberately kept his distance from the media.What is known about him lacks detail, and is both one-sided and a source of curiosity at the same time. Here is his story as Jandali himself told it to Al-Hayat.
Jandali in Syria
Abdul Fattah Jandali was born in 1931 to a traditional family in Homs, Syria. His father did not reach university, but was a self-made millionaire who owned “several entire villages”, according to his son. His father held complete authority over his children, authority not shared by his traditional and “obedient” wife.
“My father was a self-made millionaire who owned extensive areas of land which included entire villages,” Jandali said. “He had a strong personality and, in contrast to other parents in our country, my father did not reveal his feelings towards us, but I knew that he loved me because he loved his children and wanted them to get the best university education possible to live a life of better opportunities than he had, because he didn’t have an education. My mother was a traditional Muslim woman who took care of the house and me and my four sisters, but she was conservative, obedient, and a housewife. She didn’t have as important a part in our upbringing and education as my father. Women from my generation had a secondary role in the family structure, and the male was in control.”
The American University
Jandali did not stay long in Syria. “I left for Beirut when I was 18 to study at the American University, and I spent the best years of my life there,” he said.
He was a pan-Arabism activist, and his star soon began to shine. He headed an intellectual and literary society which had a nationalist bent and counted among its members symbols of the Arab nationalists’ movements such as George Habash, Constantine Zareeq, Shafiq Al-Hout and others.
“I was an activist in the student nationalist movement at that time,” he said. “We demonstrated for the independence of Algeria and spent three days in prison. I wasn’t a member of any particular party but I was a supporter of Arab unity and Arab independence. The three and a half years I spent at the American University in Beirut were the best days of my life. The university campus was fantastic and I made lots of friends, some of whom I am still in contact with. I had excellent professors, and it’s where I first got interested in law and political science.”
The university’s Campus Gate magazine published in its 2007 spring issue an article by Tousef Shabal in which he says: “The Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa Association was founded in 1918 and dedicated to cultural and political activities. Between 1951 and 1954 the society was headed by Abdul Fattah Jandali, the now deceased Eli Bouri, Thabit Mahayni and Maurice Tabari. The decision to disband the society was taken after the events of March 1954…” a reference to the violent demonstrations that took place on the university campus against the Baghdad Pact.
According to Shabal, the society consisted of “diverse political groups such as Arab nationalists and communists, and competition for the managing positions was red hot, but in the end went in favor of the Arab nationalists.”
When Jandali graduated from the American University in Beirut, Syria was going through troubled political and economic times, according to Jandali, and although he wanted to study law at Damascus University and become a lawyer, his father did not agree, saying that there were “too many lawyers in Syria”.
He continued: “Then I decided to continue my higher studies in economy and political sciences at the United States where a relative of mine, Najm Al-Deen Al-Rifa’i, was working as a delegate of Syria to the United Nations in New York. I studied for a year at Columbia University and then went to Wisconsin University where I obtained grants that enabled me to earn my master’s and doctorate. I was interested in studying the philosophy of law and analysis of law and political sciences, and I focused in my studies at the American University on international law and the economy.”
The birth of Steve and Mona
While studying in Wisconsin, Jandali met Joanne Carole Sciebele by whom he had a boy while they were both still students, but Sciebele’s father was conservative and wouldn’t agree to them getting married, so she gave her baby boy – Steve Jobs – up for adoption.
Initially, a lawyer and his wife approached, but did not proceed with adoption when they found out the child was a boy and not a girl as they wanted. Another couple came forward, neither of whom had gone through university education, and adopted the newborn baby after agreeing to the mother’s condition that the child be given a university education later in life.
Abdul Fattah (who added “John” to his name) returned and married Sciebele, and they had a daughter and named her Mona, but he then traveled to Syria – part of the United Arab Republic at the time – intending to enter the diplomatic corps.
The United Arab Republic
“I had two basic paths open to me after graduating,” Jandali said. “Either go back to my home country and work with the Syrian government, or stay in the United States and in university education, and that is what I did for a while. I went back to Syria when I got my doctorate, and I thought I’d be able to find work in the government, but that didn’t happen. I worked as a manager at a refinery plant in my hometown of Homs for a year, during which Syria was part of the United Arab Republic and run by the Egyptians. Egyptian engineers, for example, ran the Ministry of Energy in Syria, and the situation wasn’t right for me, so I went back to the United States to rejoin education there.”
According to Jandali, his wife decided to break up with him while he was away in Syria, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his academic work.
“I enjoyed university education very much, it was a rewarding profession, but unfortunately during the sixties and seventies in the United States the pay was very poor for academics, and in general they did not enjoy great respect due to the prevailing belief that professors only taught because they couldn’t do anything else. That is stupid and wrong, of course. I was an assistant professor at Michigan University then at Nevada University. I purchased a restaurant and became interested in making money, and I gave up academic work to run the business. After the restaurant I was a manager at companies and organizations in Las Vegas, and then I opened two restaurants in Reno and joined the organization that I manage today.”
Jandali describes himself as an “idealist”. “Any job I want to do, I try my utmost to see it through completely or not do it at all. Academically, I was very successful. In business management, after a couple of difficult years, I improved. For example, now I run the organization I work in. Success in the world of business requires you to be interested in your assistants and staff and to have a clear vision.”
80 years: No to retirement
Jandali is that rare case of a person continuing work beyond the age of retirement, and it is something he is proud of.
“Next March I’ll be in my eighties, but to look at me you’d think I was only in my sixties because I’ve taken care of myself, looked after my health, and I love work. I think retirement is the worst of western societies’ institutions. When people retire they become detached, grow old and stop looking after themselves. Enthusiasm for life dies out and energy levels drop, and they effectively kill themselves, even though they’re still alive. I’m not planning to retire even if I leave my position here after a year or two. I’ll dedicate myself to writing, I might write a book or two. My daughter is a very successful novelist with five books, and I plan to move on from my work, and I’m thinking of writing about the Arab World, perhaps a historical narrative with analysis for the future.”
But even so, Jandali has not been to Syria for over 35 years. “Not because I don’t want to, but because of the worry which affects an emigrant when he wants to go back to his home country after so many years, and over what might await him there. I’m thinking of visiting Lebanon and Abu Dhabi next summer to see relatives,” he said.
He doesn’t hide his nostalgia. “I miss my family in Syria. When I left, my closest relatives were still alive. I miss my culture and society and the tight social bonds between relatives as well as the standard of living. Here in the United States there is technological advancement and abundant opportunities for growth and work, but it’s not life itself, and while one appreciates the individual freedoms in western societies, there are times when you really feel that you are alone, that you don’t have the moral family support that you have in the east. I’m not talking about one’s mother or father, but the wider family, relatives, that entity that makes you feel you are part of it, that’s what I miss most about my home country. Of course I miss the social life and wonderful food, but the most important thing is the outstanding cultural attributes which in general you don’t find in the West.
“If I had the chance to go back in time, I wouldn’t leave Syria or Lebanon at all. I would stay in my home country my whole life. I don’t say that out of emotion but out of common sense. I think I’ve wasted my energies and talents in the wrong place and in the wrong society. But that’s just theoretical talk, and what’s happened has happened.” So what remains of his Syrian identity and Arabic culture after nearly 60 years in America?
“I’m a non-practicing Muslim and I haven’t been on the Haj, but I believe in Islam in doctrine and culture, and I believe in the family. I have never experienced any problem or discrimination in the United States because of my religion or race. Other than my accent which might sometimes suggest that I’m from another country, I have completely integrated in society here. I advise young Arabs coming here, however, to get a university degree and not prolong their stay, as there are lots of opportunities in the Arab World today, particularly in the Gulf. The good minds of the Arab world must stay there, as they might be able to help their countries there more than they can here.
Father of invention
Responding to his being called the “father of invention”, Jandali says: “My daughter Mona is a famous writer, and my biological son is Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple. The reason he was put up for adoption was because my girlfriend’s father was extremely conservative and wouldn’t let her marry me, and she decided to give him up for adoption. Steve is my biological son, but I didn’t bring him up, and he has a family that adopted him. So if it’s said that I’m the ‘father of invention’, then that’s because my biological son is a genius and my daughter a brilliant writer. I thank God for my success in life, but I’m no inventor.
“I think that if my son Steve had been brought up with a Syrian name he would have achieved the same success. He has a brilliant mind. And he didn’t finish his university studies. That’s why I think he would have succeeded whatever his background. I don’t have a close relationship with him. I send him a message on his birthday, but neither of us has made overtures to come closer to the other. I tend to think that if he wants to spend time with me he knows where I am and how to get hold of me.
“I also bear the responsibility for being away from my daughter when she was four years old, as her mother divorced me when I went to Syria, but we got back in touch after 10 years. We lost touch again when her mother moved and I didn’t know where she was, but since 10 years ago we’ve been in constant contact and I see her three times a year. I organized a trip for her last year to visit Syria and Lebanon and she went with a relative from Florida. I always take the side of the mother because the son will always be happiest with his mother.
I’m proud of my son and his accomplishments, and of my work. Of course I made mistakes, and if I could go back in time I would have put some things right. I would have been closer to my son, but all’s well that ends well. Steve Jobs is one of the most successful people in America, and Mona is a successful academic and novelist.”
On the likelihood of Steve Jobs being regarded as an “American-Arab”, Jandali says: “I don’t think he pays much attention to these gene-related things. People know that he has Syrian origins and that his father is Syrian, that’s all well-known. But he doesn’t pay attention to these things. He has his own distinctive personality and he’s highly-strung. People who are geniuses can do what they want.”