A Farewell to Baba: In Loving Memory of Gamal Mahmoud

Image shared from the Harvard Gazette. Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

It’s around 2005 or so. I get off the plane for a NAC in Miami and head down to baggage claim. There’s a boy waiting with his fencing bag in the terminal who looks lost. So I get my bag, approach this kid, and ask him: “you okay dude?”

It’s a young Yasser Mahmoud. He tells me it’s his first time traveling to a NAC alone and he doesn’t know where to go, how to get there, or anything much more than how to tie his shoes. So I hail a cab for us, get him to his hotel, and give him my number in case he needs anything.

Little did I know that this small chance interaction in the Miami airport would open my door to the Mahmoud family, and boy, am I grateful it did.

Fast forward a few months later. It’s the Big One event, which, as the name implies, was a New England collegiate tournament that had hundreds of competitors per event and was a battle royale to make it to the top of the heap.

I had a good pool, but all of a sudden, I enter my first DE and I start to choke. I’m down 7-2 at the break. And that’s when Gamal Mahmoud approached me.

He placed his hand on my shoulder, and in his deep, raspy, Boss Nass voice, he looks me in the eye, and says: “you were the one who helped my son in Miami, yeah?”

I nodded.

“Then this is what you must do.” He gave me some detailed tactical pointers that I wouldn’t have ever seen in a million years. I came back and won 15-9 with ease. But here’s the punchline: Gamal was my referee in that bout!

After the bout, we talked, and Gamal invited me to come train with him at Boston Fencing Club (BFC). He saw potential in me. He believed in me, and I quickly realized this was not an ordinary Fencing Coach.

He gave the most physically taxing lesson imaginable, requiring frequent hand movements and beats to lunges, followed by a fast recovery with no break to rinse and repeat. No matter the shape you were in, collapsing on the ground by the end of one of his lessons was commonplace.

This was a man with endless wisdom. There was a brief period where I considered joining the Air Force and was enrolled in a local ROTC program. When I showed up to the club in uniform one day, he sat me down, explained to me the horrors of war, and said: “you might one day be causing destruction when I think you can be a builder and creator.” I quit within a week.

This was a man whose belly laugh filled the room and brought joy to everyone around him.

This was a man who didn’t have students—he had family. Because anyone who had the pleasure to train with him didn’t just call him coach, but “Baba” (Arabic for father). And the beauty of the Mahmoud family is that they treat the entire Fencing community as their own children.

This was a man whose kindness was infectious. There are some figures in the Fencing community who people love or hate depending on who you speak with, but I never met anyone in 27 years in this sport who didn’t have anything but unbridled love for Gamal.

Gamal had a theory about Fencing (as told to me by Magnus Ferguson) that a Fencer goes through three stages in their life:

  1. The stage in which they know nothing
  2. The stage in which they think they know how to fence (perhaps as results come in)
  3. The stage in which they are ready to learn how to fence

My goal is to always learn to fence, because he wouldn’t want me to rest on my laurels but always strive to learn and treat the sport as a never-ending journey. It’s hard to think of Fencing without Gamal in it, but every time I pick up a weapon to give a lesson, I will strive to be as honorable, kind, and joyful as he was. I’m honored to have been a part of Gamal’s journey in Fencing, and grateful he was a part of mine.

Lastly, I can’t think of a better tribute to the legacy of Gamal Mahmoud and of course, the legendary Hanan than their children Yasser and Taysir. It has been a pleasure to watch Yasser grow from the lost boy in the airport to an amazing coach who teaches with the same love, passion, and boundless energy his father brought lesson-to-lesson. When I see him strip coaching his kids, I see them look to him with the same admiration and love that Gamal’s students had.

Taysir embodies the same kind of “no bullshit” approach to refereeing synonymous with Hanan while having the same joie-de-vivre and sense of humor identical to her father. She is an amazing referee, a mentor to many, and a true reflection of her amazing parents.

Yasser and Taysir, Gamal was and always will be proud of everything you’ve done. Your continued involvement in this sport and impact on your students and mentees is a gift to anyone who encounters you. It’s the same gift Gamal imparted on all of us. You’re carrying the Mahmoud family legacy in the most amazing way possible.

On April 5, 2022, we didn’t lose a fencing coach. We didn’t lose a referee. We lost American Epee Fencing’s Baba. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. “Verily we belong to Allah, and truly to Him shall we return.”

Tributes from the Fencing Coach Community:

Magnus Ferguson: There are too many fencers to count for whom Gamal was an unwavering source of support, stability, and kindness. He was gentle, but expected our best. He was serious, but laughed easily. It was obvious that he cared passionately about our happiness and well-being, and he spoke with great pride about his students to anyone who would listen. Gamal had a generosity of spirit that was rare and irresistible…I had only recently returned to the sport after a long hiatus, and his words [shared above about the three phases in a Fencer’s life] were so affirming and generous, as if to welcome me back to the fold and assure me that I was in the right place. A conversation with Gamal almost always felt like this: a secret aside, a wink, and a squeeze of a shoulder. I am so grateful to have grown up with Gamal in my corner, and I am even more grateful to have known him again as an adult, and to have discovered that he was still proud of me.

James White: I loved watching him teach a lesson.

Maestro Gamal: ok…hit me.

Student: from over here? (They were at advance-lunge distance)

Maestro: No: get on a bicycle, ride over here, and then hit me.

Julius Reiner: The Mahmoud family such a mainstay of my fencing experience in New England. One of the highlights of my reffing career was Gamal coming up to me after a bout to complement my having made a tough call with the promise of observing me for a higher rating whenever I made it to a NAC. Alas that never came to pass but it really boosted my confidence. And it always makes me chuckle whenever I look at this photo of me with my mom at NCAA regionals that Gamal totally photobombed

Shawn Brooks: For years I would see Gamal refereeing at Nationals and other large tournaments. At one of the National Championships, I forget when, (2001 or so?) I was watching a bout at the end of the day.

Clearly it had been a long, grueling day for poor Gamal. He was sitting on a folding chair during one of the one minute breaks with a thousand yard stare, clearly exhausted. I ran to a food vendor that was still open and bought him a coffee.

At the next minute break I walked over and handed the cup of coffee. He accepted with a huge some that we’re all so familiar with and said “Thank you my friend. Thank you, thank you!” while clapping me on the back.

Evidently he really needed that cup. What a huge loss for the sport. He was such a kind man. We’ll all miss that giant smile of his.

Beck Rist: I had the good fortune to be in his class at Northeastern University, where he taught a free phys ed course for fencing (cough, tnx for the bone, neu). He was very kind and fun to learn from. I have seen him throughout my years since then; I am sad to learn of his passing and honored to have been able to meet and learn from him.

Ari Feingersch: He was one of the nicest referees, and was always supportive of me. He truly loved fencing, and it was easy to see. The community will not be the same without him.

Rosa Hearne: He was so kind to my son when reffing NEIFC and at NACs – all smiles! truly just enjoyed fencing, watching fencing, being with fencers! He could recall touches from bouts from decades before!

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