Modern Life

Reinvention Inspiration: A mathematician-turned-poet becomes a social media star

Samer Takriti’s math skills attracted trading firms and hedge funds, but his classical Arabic poems have won him over a million followers.

By Garage Staff — January 23, 2018

Throughout 2018, we will be celebrating today’s new class of reinventors, inspiring people who defy convention while redefining their impact on our world. From city planners to philanthropic entrepreneurs, artists and more, we are spotlighting interesting people doing amazing acts of reinvention.


One afternoon in 2015, a Syrian mathematician living in New York posted a poem he’d written to his Facebook page. Composed in the classical seventh-century Arabic of the Quran as well as the strict poetic meter of that time, the 30-line poem told the story of a man who had lost his son. It had taken the author eight months to compose and polish it.

Samer Takriti was new to poetry. Three years earlier, after the death of his father, a family doctor in Damascus, Takriti had found himself not only grieving but also hungry to communicate what he was feeling. He had always loved words, and the beautifully calligraphed Arabic writing in the classical style, all fitting into neat columns, spoke to his soul in a way that numbers never had. So the mathematician reinvented himself: He became a poet. 

“It went viral”

Takriti’s compositions, posted on Facebook, quickly attracted followers. But his 2015 poem about the grieving father became a sensation. People across the Middle East, Europe and America shared it with friends. Within weeks, half a million people were following Takriti’s page. “It went viral,” he recalls. Perhaps, he muses, the poem provided comfort to people in Syria whose lives were marked by loss, tragedy, exile and the ravages of the Islamic State.

Two years later, Takriti is a poetry star on Facebook, with 1.4 million followers. He posts poems accompanied by his own photographs, and features videos narrated by poems, accompanied by music.

His memory is present in every corner, like a tattoo mark in your palm,
never fading,

Like an inscription in a rock; even with time, it is always there.

From the poem “Son, Don't Grow Up”

From Damascus to Wall Street

As a schoolboy in Damascus in the early ’80s, Takriti  enjoyed writing, he says. But it was math that provided him with a fellowship to study at the University of Michigan, where he went on to earn a Ph.D.

Over the following decades, Takriti’s career followed the roller coaster of the data economy. In the late ’90s, he found himself in the math lab of Enron Corp.

Only months before Enron collapsed in a massive fraud scandal in 2000, Takriti left Houston to head stochastic analysis at IBM Research, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. This involved looking for patterns in masses of apparently random data, a type of analysis traditionally used to predict the movements of financial markets. But now, the mathematicians hoped to understand something more complex than financial markets: human beings. Those companies that figured out how to predict and optimize the behavior of people — whether consumers, workers, or voters — stood to make fortunes.    

In 2005, Takriti and his team plowed through data from email and calendars on some 50,000 of their colleagues to build predictive mathematical models for each employee. While it was only a research project, the work helped set the course for the burgeoning Big Data economy.

A few years later, Takriti left IBM for Goldman Sachs — just in time to experience the 2008 market crash from a perch high above Wall Street. These days, he’s at a hedge fund in Connecticut. During his commute, he often writes poetry on his phone or jots down ideas or phrases for future poems.

The welcome discipline of structure

Takriti’s approach to poetry is very much that of a mathematician. He prefers the exacting meters and vocabulary of classical Arabic — they rein him in and provide discipline, he says. The work, as meticulous as a geometer piecing together a proof, gobbles up his evenings and weekends. “A 15-word verse takes me about 12 hours,” he says.

Once a poem is complete, Takriti emails the draft to his mother, who still lives in Damascus. She’s an expert in classical Arabic, and she has a friend, a professor of the language, who knows even more. The two women comb through verses of poems with titles such as “Sunshine,” “Pity Pity,” and “Son, Don’t Grow Up.” They send back critiques and corrections, and Takriti reworks the texts. “I want to be sure everything is right before I put it online,” he says.

The moon paled and faded away,
When a mermaid shone by the bay,
The stars at her sight went astray,
The sea trembled as she made her way.

From the poem “Morning Sun”

Some things don’t need to be monetized

Friends often ask about the business opportunities available to someone with more than a million fans — a mass audience that’s exceedingly rare for a poet. Takriti tells them he’s not about to quit his day job. Many of his followers live in poverty — in war zones or refugee camps. While they have a deep appreciation for the moments of peace and beauty this mathematician-poet sends their way, “I don’t think advertisers are too interested in reaching them,” he says.

Read one of Takriti’s poems, translated into English:


Son, Don't Grow Up

Why do I see you living life waiting? Quietly and patiently waiting.

The loved one has left, departed. Why do you keep looking and searching?

Alone you are in this world. A lonely shadow of a man roaming.

Eyes tearful and thirsty. For sight of him you are hungry and starved…

His memory is present in every corner, like a tattoo mark in your palm, never fading

Like an inscription in a rock; even with time, it is always there.

O, who stood on the ruins crying? A hamlet squeezed by distress and sadness marching.

O, who asked the stars in the sky about the one for whom the nights have become sleepless as if you were moonlighting?

Your hair has grayed prematurely. Your heart, with the fire of grief, is raging.

Has your mind misled you or has the sight betrayed you? Awake or asleep, there is a shadow looming.

Only yesterday, you carried him around the house. Only yesterday, he stood behind the door laughing.

How can you forget the little baby in your lap sleeping? Or was that the moon in your arms?

Then a cloudy overcast day descended, and all the memories and images were taken away.

When the doctor's trembling voice said "There is no hope; this disease is spreading"

You stared while your heart was torn. All disoriented and refracted, it was heavily pounding.

Twenty years passed before your eyes fast like lightning. And in a moment, your world came down crumbling.

When the time to say goodbye arrived, he answered the call smiling.

He took your soul with him. He left in your chest a lifeless heart beating.

Life is an untrustworthy sea, with high tide receding and low tide hiding.

Whereas death is a truthful honest promise. It will stop by your door knocking.

All souls will return home one day. This is where eternity starts. This is where you start resting.


See more of Samer Takriti's poems, in their original classical Arabic.