Tamir Nassar: Father and Teacher
My father, Tamir Nassar lived a full life and died at the age of 92. He used to tell me that he didn’t know his father Khalil Nassar, who died before he was born in 1902 in Ain – Ksour, a small village in the Aley district of Mount Lebanon. His mother Martha took care of him, his brother Shaker and his two sisters Hana and Jouriyyeh. Khalil my paternal grandfather was the Moukhtar (Mayor) of the village, preceded by my great grandfather Abdullah.
According to the family tree, the Nassar's, like many Lebanese Christian families, have their origin in Houran, Syria, and were known as the Ribi’-Mids ( a quarter of a solid Measure) because the assets of the family were distributed among four brothers, each took a quarter. Eventually, three brothers emigrated to different villages in Lebanon, Ain-Ksour, Souk El Gharb and Dhour Shweir. The fourth brother settled in Palestine, and later moved to Beirut.
During World War I life was hard and famine prevailed due to a sea blockade and to the invading locusts. Father told me that some families ate their pillow stuffings of bran in order to survive.
My father had to wait for his brother to finish his education at the Souk el Gharb School, and later at the American University of Beirut (AUB), to be able himself to join the Souk el Gharb School for his secondary education. Daily during winter each student had to bring a wooden log to heat the classroom.
After obtaining his high school degree, he took a teaching post at Ain Anoub, a village below Souk el Gharb, until he was offered a job in 1925, at AUB as an assistant to the professor of Histology and Neuroanatomy. Two years later he was rewarded on his good work and AUB president Bayard Dodge extended his contract with a simple letter of appointment. (See Letters)
During the late twenties, Dr. Ariens Kappers, one of the most acclaimed international neuroanatomists from Amsterdam, joined the department as a visiting professor. Dr. Kappers who took a liking to my father (See Articles) and took him as his permanent assistant, refusing to go anywhere or do anything without Mr. Nassar in company. Furthermore, my father once told me that he learned from Dr. Kappers all the neuroanatomy he needed.
My father who had an artistic talent, although little crude, used to draw tens of teaching charts simplifying some aspects of Neuroanatomy and microscopic anatomy. The colored charts were hanging allover the spacious laboratory on the fourth floor in Van Dyke bldg. overlooking the Mediterranean and more importantly the ladies dormitories below. Generations of Medical students including myself benefited from those charts and some of them rest vividly in my memory.(See Instructional charts here)
Professor Kappers was interested in the Anthropology of the area, and thus took my father along during field trips to study the Anthropology of different tribes in the Syrian and Transjordanian deserts (steppes); these expeditions were continued by Dr. William Shanklin and resulted in several publications (See Articles and the Albums in the sidebar.)
Besides, my father had a special sense of humor which he invested in his unique teaching approaches. For example, as students are looking at tissue slides under the microscope following his guiding remarks, and when he notices that it is becoming monotonous and senses student’ fatigue, he stops his remarks and addresses one of the students: Samir, are you following, or are you eating pumpkin? And follows that by an anecdote, in this case, it is about a naïve person who climbed a tree to eat from a climbing cucumber plant, which is intermingled with a climbing pumpkin plant. After some good time, his brother waiting under, asked him how many cucumbers did you eat so far? The response came “I haven’t finished the first one yet”.
Tamir Nassar loved his students, and they in turn, loved and respected him. During the practical slide exam, when he finds that a student is giving a wrong answer, he pulls on his ear saying: “are you sure number ten is a lymphocyte”? This alerts the student and gives him a chance to rethink the answer.
On the other hand, ask any AUB, MD graduate between the mid 1920’s and mid 1980’s, what is Ain el Deek (eye of the roosters)? Invariably and promptly the answer comes: Normoblast. Tamir Nassar had an amazing capacity to relate medical terms to simple analogies which stick to one’s memory… forever. He taught for sixty one years following this method
Rare are the occasions when I meet MD colleagues, graduates of AUB, be it at an international conference in the US, Europe or in exotic locations around the world, who don’t pose the question “Keef shwareb el Natour?” (the moustaches of the vineyard keeper) or the “hadeed lal bei’buyer” (Moustaches of the buyer of scrap iron and metal) the latter referring to the mast cell that engulfs everything.
Towards the end of his career, when the Nursing School director asked him to continue giving the course to her students, as he used to, following his post retirement, he told me: I don’t really feel like it son, students are no more the same as before, they are fed “cows milk” instead of “breast milk”, and thus, as soon as they enter the lab, they move their feet kicking about, asking whether the lab of the day is short or long. This dismays the teacher and suppresses his enthusiasm.
I must admit that I enjoyed having Tamir Nassar as a teacher and a father, although the disadvantage laid in the fact that while other classmates benefited from his helpful remarks during exams, I was always assigned to Dr. W. Shanklin who was a kind person, but pronounced words in an incomprehensible dialect.
Nabil T. Nassar, MD, FACP
Feb. 20, 2007