Ismail Rifaat is an Egyptian-born American. Shortly after graduating with distinction as an architect from the University of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1957, he earned a scholarship to do graduate work at Harvard University. For political reasons, the Egyptian government switched his scholarship to the Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) in Zurich, Switzerland. He left Egypt for Switzerland in 1959. He lived in Switzerland for over eight years, where he completed graduate work beyond a Master’s level, and worked for many prestigious Architectural firms.
With conditions deteriorating in Egypt into a police state, he decided to immigrate, first to Canada where he maintained residence for over two years, then to the US in 1970. Rifaat became a citizen and received his architectural license in New Jersey in 1975. He obtained his planning license a few years thereafter. During his career of over five decades, he was involved in a leadership position in numerous large scale architectural and planning projects internationally. He was also selected by the UN for two planning assignments one in Libya, and one in Qatar.
Rifaat’s family background is pertinent to understanding his intellectual development and his character. His father, Ibrahim Rifaat, a prominent scientist and structural engineer was one of the founders of the Faculty of Engineering in the University of Alexandria in 1942. He also founded and presided over the Alexandria branch of the Egyptian Society of Professional Engineers. Ibrahim Rifaat earned his Diploma and Doctorate from the FIT, Zurich; which explains his elation about Ismail going to the FIT instead of Harvard. Ismail’s grandfather Hassan Rifaat was chief justice of the highest appellate court in Egypt; he went to Jesuit schools in Alexandria, and obtained his law degree in Cairo. Ismail’s father’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Ismail Sabry -after whom Ismail was named. Ismail Sabry received his law degree in Paris, France, was Attorney General of Egypt, Governor of Alexandria, and a famous poet; one can hardly find an educated Arab-speaking person who is not familiar with Ismail Sabry’s poetry. Ismail’s great grandfather studied ship building in France, and was instrumental in building the Egyptian armada which the Russians, British and French found to be threatening, and joined with the Austrian fleet to sink it in the battle of Navarino. Ismail Rifaat comes from a family of honorable civil servants who spanned the gap between Eastern and Western cultures for several generations.
Ismail appreciates wealth, and has diligently worked to attain ‘the American dream’. However, he considers myself a compassionate humanist who finds difficulty in silently watching the suffering of fellow human beings. Although he does not practice a particular religion, he is not anti any recognized religion. He considered the inconsistencies among religions, monotheist and otherwise, and believes in the essence of religion as expressed in the wise saying: “do unto others what you would have others do unto you”.
Ismail was married for 47 years. His wife Souna was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. He dropped everything to free himself to take care of her until she succumbed to cancer in 2006. Ismail has two children and three grandchildren.