The Brain in Bahrain passes

by ChessBase
2/5/2004 – Yousuf Ahmed Al Shirawi was one of the best-respected personalities in Bahrain. He was a scientist and minister in the government, responsible for many pioneer projects in the Arabian island state. He was also a dedicated chess player who in 2002 organised the Kramnik vs Deep Fritz match. Yousuf al Shirawi died on Tuesday at the age of 76. Here's a portrait of an unforgettable man.

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Yousuf Ahmed Al Shirawi, who called himself a "son of Muharraq", went to school in Bahrain, then on to the International College, Beirut, followed by the American University, Beirut (AUB), where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in chemistry. He was the first Bahraini to graduate from the AUB. He also later studied in Glasgow, from 1953 to 1955. He married Dr May, daughter of the late intellectual and poet Ibrahim Al Arrayed and they went on to have six daughters.

Mr Shirawi held a string of government positions throughout the 1950s and 60s, including director of oil affairs, director of development, secretary of the administration council and assistant director of education. He is credited with helping to pioneer civil aviation in Bahrain and in 1970 was appointed a director of Gulf Aviation, which grew into Gulf Air.

The causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia

Another landmark of his career was the building of the King Fahad Causeway, linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The 25km causeway opened in November 1986 and was described at the time by King Fahad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as "a 20th century miracle". Mr Shirawi was awarded Saudi Arabia's King Faisal Medal by King Fahad.

Vladimir Kramnik talking to Yousuf al Shirawi in 2002

Away from work, Mr Shirawi was a skilled chess player and was one of the founding members of the Bahrain Chess Federation. He was also interested in fishing, astronomy and other sports.

Yousuf Shirawi died in London on Tuesday of a heart attack at the age 76. His wife Dr May was with him at the time.

On a personal note

I met Yousuf Ahmed Al Shirawi on May 25, 2001, in the five-star hotel Le Royal Meridien in the capital of Bahrain, Manama. We had come to plan the Kramnik vs Deep Fritz event to be staged in Bahrain at the end of the year (it was delayed by a year due to the 9/11 attack). We had been through about twelve hours of travel and were quite exhausted. But His Excellency, as we were instructed to address him, was there with his daughter Dana to welcome us with a sumptuous dinner. Quite typically he organised the seating in the restaurant so that he was able to get to know and converse with as many people as possible.

Yousuf Shiravi in a press conference with Sir Jeremy Hanley, sometime Minister in the British government

Very soon it became evident that this highly respected former minister in the Bahraini cabinet, who was the initiator and driving force behind the forthcoming man vs machine match in Bahrain, was an intellectually vigorous 73-year-old, with a wry sense of humour. He loved to discuss cultural and scientific matters, often putting off pressing appointments if a conversation became interesting. He was also an enthusiastic chess player who often signed off his correspondence with the supplement "Chess enthusiast". He actually went to his chess club four times a week to play for a few hours.

During both my stays in Bahrain I found myself seeking Yousuf's company (he soon told me to address him by his first name, and he called me fondly "Freddy"). We had numerous very enlightening conversations, at least for me, and I picked up more about mediaeval Arabic culture from him than from any other source. For instance he told me about a short period in Arab history, in the 8th century, where three important things happened. First of all chess was introduced. Secondly Arab scientists calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the exact length of a southward journey that caused the north star Polaris to sink by three degrees. And finally the most profound development, the introduction of the zero in the mathematical system (picked up from Indian astronomers at the time).

Discussions in a tea room of the hotel

From Yousuf I also learnt the etymology of the word "algorithm". This derives not from the Greek algiros (for pain) as many think, but from the name of a ninth century Arabic mathematician, Mohammed al-Khowarizimi. [al-Khowarizini means from the city of Khowarizm, the Arabic name of a city in Russia]. It used to refer to arithmetic procedures like long division and square root extraction (which before calculators, all schoolchildren had to learn by heart). Today, in the age of the computer revolution, it has of course taken on a new meaning.

At the time (May 2001) I put together a multimedia report about our visit to Bahrain for ChessBase Magazine Extra Vol. 82. Here is a brief summary and a short video excerpt of Yousuf al Shirawi narrating some of the above.

GM Raymond Keene on Yousuf al Shirawi

I first met Yousuf al Shirawi on my initial trip to Bahrain in 1981, when I was invited to open their chess centre during the Merano Korchnoi-Karpov world championship. They didn't pay any fee for my trip, which included giving a simul – but they covered all my expenses and afterwards they took me to the gold souk and said "choose anything you like for your wife"!

Raymond Keen in Bahrain

Yousuf was the prime mover of chess in Bahrain. He came from humble, i.e. non royal, origins, and it was his life mission to educate people and make them think. He was Bahrain's first chess champion, Bahrain's first foreign scholarship student, Bahrain's first minister without the usual royal connections. He had great drive and energy, and rose to become minister for everything in the Bahrain Government as well as Chairman of Gulf Air. His daughters – six of them – are charming, well educated and very liberal.

Daughter Dana being interviewed by GM Daniel King during the 2002 match

I met Yousuf again in 1999 when I visited Bahrain for the second time to promote their national board game dama. Yousuf pledged he would raise the money for a dama, chess and mind sports centre. This is where the Kramnik-Deep Fritz match was played three years later.

Yousuf told me that the first thing he did every day was to solve the Times daily chess puzzle, which he used to have faxed from London and then accessed by email when the technology improved. Together we decided that we would hold a great chess event in Bahrain, either the world championship or man vs machine. It was a terrible blow to him when the terrorists attacked the Trade Center in New York. First of all it meant that the match had to be postponed and nearly did not happen. Secondly Yousuf was a rational human being whose roots were in the Arab enlightenment of Baghdad in the 8th to 10th centuries, when all the best scientists, mathematicians and chessplayers were Arabs. To see his co-religionists resort to unlawful violence which contravened the basic tents of his faith was a horrible shock to him.

Yousuf had been very ill with leg problems recently, but I had no idea he had an illness which was life threatening. I am sure he was solving chess problems to the last – or possibly playing bridge, which he liked just as much! He was one of those giant tsunami-like personalities whom you think will never die.

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