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Abdel Mohsin Al-Qattan was born in Jaffa on November 5 1929. His father Hassan worked as a merchant in Jaffa’s thriving orange trade. His mother, Asma’ Khader, originally from Lyd, was descended from Egyptian parents who had fled the colonial labour camps set up to build the Suez Canal and had settled in Palestine.
Abdel Mohsin’s father was illiterate yet both he and his wife Asma’ (who was partly literate) realised the importance of formal education for their children in the challenging interwar years, when Palestine's traditional and relatively isolated society had been confronted by the ruthless demands of the twentieth century, by the arrival of British colonial rule and by the increase in Zionist immigration to the country.
Abdel Mohsin was first sent to the Ayyubieh school in Jaffa then later, at the age of 15, to the Arab Higher College in Jerusalem, headed by Palestine’s leading educator of the time, Khalil Sakakini. In this secular but nationalist environment, the young man flourished, showing a keen interest in Arabic poetry and history. Any early signs of homesickness were dispelled by the immense charisma of his headmaster, whom Abdel Mohsin would continue to admire well beyond Sakakini’s death in 1955.
At the end of the Second World War, and while still a boarder in Jerusalem, Abdel Mohsin was called home to bid farewell to his dying father, who had suffered a stroke. Then, in 1947, he enrolled at the American University of Beirut where he began to study political science and economics. As he said goodbye to his bereaved family, little did he know that this would be his last visit to Jaffa for another fifty-one years.
In March 1948, as the Jewish assault on Jaffa intensified, Asma’ left the city with her young family and took refuge in neighbouring Lyd, where her brothers lived. Soon after, uncertain of his family’s fate, Abdel Mohsin returned to Palestine but got no further than Lyd, by which time his family had already fled again, this time to Jordan.
It was there that they were finally reunited in early 1949. But the family was now destitute. The young student was thus faced with the need to feed his mother and siblings and returned to Beirut where he dropped his political studies in favour of the more financially promising business school, a decision that he would always regret in later life.
Upon graduating in 1951, Abdel Mohsin returned to Jordan where he taught at the Islamic Academy in Amman. But his involvement in Baathist politics made him a target for police surveillance. Moreover, his meagre salary hardly provided for his large family. His mother now suggested that he seek work in newly enriched Kuwait, where demand for Palestinian teachers was high. Reluctantly, the young activist accepted and left for the desert principality in late 1953.
Blessed with a strong personality and a sharp sense of humour, he soon attracted the attentions of the then head of the Department of Education, another distinguished Palestinian educator and exile, Darwish Miqdadi, whose daughter, Layla, would eventually marry Abdel-Mohsin in 1954.
The young couple struggled in their respective teaching jobs to support Abdel Mohsin’s family in Amman as well as their own. Their first child, Najwa, was born in 1956, followed by Hani (1958), Leenah (1960) and Omar (1964). For the independent and ambitious Abdel Mohsin, the life of a teacher soon lost its attraction and he was quickly recruited by the young Sheikh Jaber Ali Al-Sabah as Controller General of the Ministry of Water and Electricity, where his considerable managerial talents and phenomenal memory were first put to the test. Yet even this well-paid position soon frustrated him and in 1963 he founded Al-Hani Construction and Trading Company with 10,000 dinars of savings and a bank guarantee from a Kuwaiti friend, Hajj Khaled Al-Mutawwa’ who became his principal partner. Helped by enormous demand in Kuwait’s booming petro-economy, business grew at a phenomenal rate. The company would eventually become one of Kuwait’s largest contracting firms.
In spite of his successful business career, Abdel Mohsin continued to be deeply involved in Palestinian and Arab politics. He represented his people on several international visits, accompanying Ahmed Al-Shuqairi to China in 1964 and supporting the nascent PLO in its infancy days in Kuwait.
In 1964, he was granted Kuwaiti citizenship. But schools in Kuwait were not yet providing the kind of education to which both he and Layla aspired for their children, so the family decided to settle in Beirut, where they remained until the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Abdel Mohsin continued to work out of both countries, as well as deepening his involvement in Palestinian politics. In 1969, during the Palestine National Council held in Cairo, he was elected Speaker, a post he would resign a few days later after the PLO factions refused to agree on a unified command of the organisation’s military and financial assets. This marked the end of his direct involvement in politics, although he remained a member of the PNC until his resignation in 1990, along with his friends Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu Loghod, in protest at the PLO’s pro-Saddam stance in the Gulf Crisis.
In the early 1990s, after undergoing heart-surgery, and in light of a recession in the contracting industry in Kuwait, Abdel Mohsin turned his attention almost exclusively to charitable work. From the early 1980s, he had already been involved in social and charitable work on a variety of levels, as one of the founders of the Welfare Association in Geneva and Palestine’s representative in the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.
Moreover, throughout their married life, particularly after the increasing success of his business, he and his wife Layla had been keenly – but informally - involved in charitable work, particularly educational and cultural projects. Now that the Arab world seemed to be politically, militarily and financially bankrupt, the need to invest and reinvest in educational and cultural reform seemed particularly urgent. Thus, in 1994, the A.M. Qattan Foundation was launched in London and by 1999, had become fully active in Palestine through a range of projects of an educational and cultural nature.
In May 1999, Abdel Mohsin returned to Palestine for the first time since 1948, visiting his hometown and accepting an honorary doctorate from Bir Zeit University. “They sowed and we harvested” he said in his acceptance speech, quoting Khalil Sakakini, “so let us now do the same for future generations.”
The A.M. Qattan Foundation is today one of the leading cultural and educational institutions in the Arab World. With an annual budget of over $2.2m almost entirely underwritten by the Al-Qattan Charitable Trust, and over 70 staff working in Ramallah, Gaza City and London, it has set a precedent for independence, transparency and innovation in several of the fields in which it has intervened. It has also built a considerable network of partners, both individuals and institutions, in a large number of countries, both among the grassroots and on a more official level.
Abdel Mohsin Al-Qattan has also actively supported a number of other institutions over the last forty years. These include the Institute for Palestine Studies, the American University of Beirut, the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, the University of Bir Zeit and the Ahmad Bahaa Edin Foundation (Egypt)