Fond memories: Riedel shares Egyptian experiences

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Ron Picking asked LBWCC president Dr. Herb Riedel to do a Rotary program about his childhood years in Egypt, he had no idea how timely the topic would be.

“That was before Egypt,” Picking said as he introduced Riedel yesterday, referring to the recent uprising that deposed longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.

Prior to the demonstrations, Egypt wasn’t much different from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when then 10-year-old Riedel moved there from California with his older brother and his parents.

His parents were German immigrants, his father a veteran of WWII who’d been held as a POW in Libya. But his father also was a mechanical engineer and was interested in working in a third world country. He got a teaching job with a program sponsored by the German government that provided aide to developing nations. The technical school was near Cairo.

Riedel recalled that when they arrived in Egypt, there were assisted through the customs process.

“I suspect this hasn’t changed,” he said. “But you needed to know who to give a little money.”

It was 1969, and Egypt was always in danger of an air raid from Israel. Riedel recalled that when the family vehicle was unloaded from the ship the headlights were painted blue.

While the Riedels experienced nothing of the scale of changes seen in recent weeks in Egypt, they were affected by international events.

Every summer, the family vacationed in Germany. They had been approached by officials with Interflug, the East German airline, and offered tickets at a considerably lesser price than Lufthansa.

On the day the family was to return to Egypt Sept. 6, 1970, they were delayed for hours without explanation. The Communist world wasn’t known for efficiency, he said. Eventually, the flight left East Berlin and landed in Cairo about dawn.

Riedel said he remembers looking out the window of the plane and pointing out a fire on the runway. The family later learned that the fire was indeed a plane, and one of four highjacked by Muslim extremists that day.

Later that month, the family was to witness up-close another event on the world stage. On Sept. 28, the family was awakened in the middle of the night and alerted that the country’s ruler, Gamal Abdal Nasser, had died. The family was advised to stay indoors, closing their doors and windows and keeping the windows covered. Despite the precautions, the Riedels saw no chaos, he said.

“Just a lot of people went to Cairo after he died,” he recalled.

The Riedel children attended a private German school on the Nile. Among the classes taught there was religion, and parents chose whether their children attended Catholic, Protestant or Muslim religion classes.

The family also enjoyed sightseeing, and loved visiting Egyptian antiquities.

Riedel said that while three years doesn’t seem very long to an adult, it is a significant amount of time in a child’s formative years.

“I’ve always maintained a fondness of Egypt and Egyptian culture,” he said.

Asked how he views the current situation there, he said, “They are a great people. They’re not used to democracy and I really hope it is going to work out for them.”

He also pointed out that the oldest Christian community in the world is located in Egypt.