Sherif Faragalla gets a little tired of people asking him what he does all day. Unlike most of his neighbours in Sharjah, he doesn't bolt out of his door in the early morning to go to work. He usually sleeps until 1pm, in fact, because he goes to bed late (or early, depending on how you look at it), at 4am. He's not a party animal, but he is most definitely a night owl, a schedule that's ingrained after years of working in restaurants in Rome and Sydney, but more on that later. So if Faragalla doesn't work? There's that question again …
'There are other ways to live'
Primarily, leaving unsociable restaurant hours behind allows him to support and spend quality time with his wife Aya, a schoolteacher. He also makes pizzas (to order) for friends, he reads, he converses with his family at home in Egypt, catches up on Premier League, walks his beloved Shih Tzu, Kiki, eats out and travels. Faragalla, who speaks fluent English, Italian and Arabic, has no children to intrude upon this most civilised way of living, and at 49, he hasn’t retired. He could work, of course, but for now, he chooses not to.
Different, isn't it? What struck me when I first chatted to Faragalla at his home one evening was just how rare and how refreshing it was to have that conversation. Because in today's endlessly stressed-out world, where being "busy" is often worn as a badge of honour and even admired, his lifestyle invites raised eyebrows and probably even suspicion. And so he continues to field the same question, over and over. What do you do?
"Just because I don't go to work in the morning, people think I do nothing or I'm lazy," Faragalla tells me over a breakfast of mint tea and manakeesh. "But there are other ways to live." A longer conversation reveals just how many gruelling hours he invested to get to this place. And therein lies the irony.
The sweetness of doing nothing
Vinny’s, the Italian restaurant Faragalla owned and managed with his wife for 10 years in Sydney, was so busy at weekends, when they sold up to 130 pizzas a day, that he had absolutely no time to break for a drink of water. “It was a killer,” he tells me. “After 10 years, mentally, I was exhausted. Sometimes we would have 15 pizzas in our wood-fired oven, and the dockets were coming in so fast that we had nowhere to put them. At times like that, you just had to keep going and tell yourself it would end soon. I pushed myself hard, and I love making pizza, but I started to feel burnt out and I needed a change.”
When he bought the business in 2005, it was failing. Applying his Italian cooking and pizza-making skills, learnt in kitchens in Rome, and with the help of up to 11 staff, he turned the restaurant around so that within a few years, profits were rolling in. But with only one break every year – for 12 days at Christmas, when he went home to Egypt – he worked non-stop, often putting in 12-hour days, six days per week.
No different to any other entrepreneur who lives and breathes their labour of love, day in, day out, Faragalla’s business was forever on his mind, and even when he had finished work, or was holidaying, there was little reprieve. Fast forward to 2015, when he sold Vinny’s: “I remember waking up and it was such a relief, a weight off my mind. Freedom.”
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The Italians have a name for it. La dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. There's a scene in a barbershop in Rome, in Elizabeth Gilbert's movie Eat, Pray, Love, where two Italian men are educating Julia Roberts and her friend on how finding joy in the mundane requires a certain skill. Tibetan Zen masters instruct people on how to find stillness and quietness during meditation – essentially doing nothing – to heal and purify our minds. So in some countries, and cultures, it's aspirational.
'But for now, my life is beautiful'
Smartphones mean that modern workers are never switched off, checking emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night. In the United States, one of the richest economies in the world, employees are lucky to get two weeks off in a year. It's no surprise that the largest book retailer in the country, Barnes & Noble, announced a huge surge in the sales of books about anxiety this August, up 25 per cent from June 2017. Ditto when it comes to global prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication: soaring. Reams of scientific studies prove that being overworked is bad for our health, and last year, medical experts coined the phrase "sitting is the new smoking" to highlight the risks of a sedentary lifestyle.
But I digress.
As it turns out, Faragalla and his wife invested 10 "busy" years building a business in Sydney, which they sold for more than twice the money they paid. This financial buffer has given the couple an opportunity for one of them to step away from the daily slog. "I don't want to be busy," he tells me. Will you work again?
“Yes of course, I am considering opening another restaurant with my brother in Istanbul, or perhaps investing in real estate in Cairo. I have not retired. But for now, my life is beautiful,” he says.
“No matter how much you work or don’t work, if you have lots of money or don’t have money, what matters is how you feel. How you feel inside, how you feel about yourself, mentally, physically. This is the most important thing in life.”
One final question: would he share his famous pizza dough recipe? “I’ll never teach anyone how to make my dough,” he laughs, waving his hands in dismissal. “No, no, my wife would kill me. You can work it out for yourself.”