By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Saturday, November 14, 2009
Despite the loss of a leg and his sight, nothing deters young inventor Mohannad Jibreel Abudayyah from pressing on. The 22-year-old space engineering student at Dhahran’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) continues his quest for knowledge and applies his almost limitless imagination to create practical solutions for everyday problems.
As a youngster, his passion was to take apart electronic toys so that he could understand how they worked. “I was notorious for unraveling all toys — so much so that there was a word in the extended family that I should not be allowed to touch anybody’s toys. Whenever I was around, my cousins and elders would prompt others to hide all their toys. ‘He is coming; remove all the toys,’ they would say,” Abudayyah told Arab News during a recent interview. “My idea was not to break toys per se — I wanted to understand the technology behind them. I would unscrew them and would try to put them back together, sometimes unsuccessfully.”
Something that held his fascination for a long time was the transistor. “I would look at it and wonder for hours how it worked. Such was my passion for understanding the mechanics behind it that I saved every halala that I got as pocket money during my childhood days in Jeddah. When I had enough money, I went out and bought a radio. The idea was to open it and to see what went into that small machine, how it worked, how it managed to bring all those sounds from across the globe into my room? I remember asking a cousin: ‘How does this work?’ He took the new radio and pointed at the on-off button. ‘Just press this one, and it will work ... it is that simple,’ he told me. ‘No, not that. I mean how does it work?’ He excused himself saying he didn’t know and that he didn’t care. ‘In fact,’ he told me, ‘no Saudi will be able to help you. Only the Japanese know all that stuff,’” Abudayyah said.
He recalls vividly that conversation of years ago. “I told my cousin, ‘Why do only the Japanese know? Why do we not know?’ My cousin was plainly irritated by my persistent inquiries. ‘We lead a good life. God has given us the money to buy all the technology in the world. They make; we buy. This is what I call a good life. Alhamdulillah.’ I told him he was wrong. ‘Those who are making the technology have a good life. What if they were not there to invent all these things? What use is our money then?’ I asked my cousin. He couldn’t take it any longer and went away, leaving the conversation in the middle of nowhere.”
To make matters worse, there were no books to guide Abudayyah. “I would spend all my time just thinking about technology. What makes the refrigerator work? How does that clock sound an alarm exactly at the hour it is set to? What technology is at work bringing those images live to our television screen? How does that airplane glide in the sky? They were all simple questions. But nobody had the answer,” he said. “People would get irritated by my questions. When I got no answers from my parents and cousins and friends and uncles and aunts, I decided to search for answers in books. Those were not the days of Google and Wikipedia. Unfortunately, there were no books on science and technology in Arabic, or maybe they were there but not available in Saudi Arabia. I decided to take the time-tested trial-and-error route. I removed one part and then another and used different permutations and combinations till I succeeded in getting the radio circuit right. Since then I have dreamed of nothing else but to be an inventor — to make a qualitative difference in the lives of people through my inventions.”
Abudayyah once convinced his brother to hand over his car to him for certain experiments. “You will not believe it, I told my brother, ‘Give me your car, and I will turn it into an airplane.’ My poor brother — he agreed. The end product was neither a car nor an airplane. It was a piece of junk. That only confirmed the worst idea about me: Mohannad simply destroys things.”
Over the years he has succeeded in turning ordinary toys into useful items. “You must have seen those chimpanzee toys hanging in corner shops. You just clap close to the soft toy and the chimpanzee starts clapping. It is available for SR50. What I did was to use that technology for a different purpose. I made a coffee-and-tea-vending machine. One clap and the machine pours hot coffee; two claps you get a hot cup of tea. It is very simple but interesting. So I am into modifying simple technology to suit our needs,” he said. “I have created or invented many such useful gadgets.”
Beyond the novel inventions of his youth, Abudayyah now is developing new type of deep-diving submarine with a university research grant. “A prototype is ready. I have conducted experiments in the lab in a simulated environment. This involved a lot of money. Initially I used my own money, and then KFUPM helped me. I am using the university lab. I am working out of the university budget. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has complimented me on my work. When I met him in Jeddah sometime back I was delighted beyond words. The king’s words still ring in my ears: ‘You are the Kingdom’s pride.’”
Abudayyah lost his eyesight and one leg in a freak road accident a year ago. “I had a flat tire and was trying to fix it. I had parked my car far off the road but a young, guy slammed into my stationary car. I was fixing the front tire. The whole vehicle fell on top of me. I went unconscious. What happened was I was taken by ambulance to an ill-equipped hospital. There, they wanted permission to operate on me — and they needed the money before they did anything. My father was in the United States at the time, and I was unconscious. They just amputated my leg rather than repairing it. When I woke up several days later, I realized I had not only lost my leg but my eyesight too.”
His whole life changed after the accident, but the passion to invent only got more insistent. “Now I was conscious of the needs of the people with visual impairments. I enrolled at KFUPM and started studying space engineering,” he said.
Abdulrazzak Al-Turki, who suffers from visual problems and who is a successful businessman, has been a mentor to Abudayyah. “He will be the first space engineer with visual impairment,” Al-Turki told Arab News. “I see myself in him. This accident and tragedy has only strengthened his resolve to do better. He has huge potential, and I would urge businesspeople to come forward and help such exceptional young men in realizing their dreams. Corporate houses have a duty toward society. He is a role model for youngsters, and his success will spur a whole new generation of young Saudis.”
Since his accident, Abudayyah has delivered 100 lectures, telling young inventors how to get started and how to keep going in the face of adversity. “I have trained more than 600 people in the process of invention, and I have taught more than 300 engineers and students how to become professional inventors,” he said. “I have got certificates from Europe, and I am doing a book on how to be an inventor. Nothing is impossible in this world. You just require determination to pursue your passion.”
Abudayyah praised Al-Zamil Group and the South Rub Al-Khali Company (SRAK) for their generous monetary assistance to his projects. He thanks his professors and especially KFUPM Rector Dr. Khaled S. Al-Sultan. “He helped me lot and if it were not for him and other professors, I would not be at this university.”