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|A Tall Story|
At 2.31 metres, Hussein Bissad is the tallest man in Britain, and second tallest in the world. He talks about his big problems - and opportunities - with Adam Lusher.
London, May 26, 2003 (Telegraph) - As greetings go, it is something of a one-sided affair. Hussein Bissad, the tallest man in Britain, peers down and affords me the honor he often grants curious adults. He smiles, ruffles my hair and pats me on the head. "Ahh, short man," he says in a deep, deep voice.
It seems unwise to protest. Hussein stands 2.31 meters in his socks, and today, in a pair of well-polished size-22 shoes, his 171-kilogram frame stands even taller. He also has a point. At a modest 1.75 meters, I come somewhere between his chest and his stomach. I crane my neck, look him straight in the eye, and reach upwards. My hand is enveloped in an expanse of palm far too vast to grasp. So much for the handshake.
As well as being the tallest man in Britain, and the second tallest in the world, Hussein also has the largest hands in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, they are 27.15 centimeters from the wrist to the tip of his middle finger. "Like the hands of a Greek god," he tells me.
Hussein suffers from pituitary giantism, the condition that has caused his abnormal height. Since February 2002, he has had monthly injections to destroy a tumor in his pituitary gland, which has made his body unable to stop growing. His doctors believe the tumor has disappeared, and his growth can be contained.
Later, in an African cafe in Wembley, north London, Hussein, 27, lowers himself (slightly) and settles into his chair - or rather, perches on it. His legs press awkwardly against the table and his knees bulge alarmingly as they loom high above the cutlery.
Hussein, a refugee who was granted asylum in Britain last year after fleeing civil war in his native Somalia, is accompanied by his cousin and translator, Abdi Mohamoud, who outlines the other records Hussein intends to break.
First, there is the matter of his tongue. "Some scientists from Cambridge University came to visit me when I was in hospital in London. They measured me and photographed me. They think my tongue is so wide it may be the biggest in the world." After some cajoling, he pokes it out. It is, indeed, very, very wide.
Apparently, though, the greatest prize awaits. In two months time, doctors may be able to straighten his right leg, which has buckled as his body has grown too big for his bones. It will mean he will be taller, closing in on Radhouane Charbib, his Tunisian rival and penpal, who at 2.35 meters is currently the tallest man in the world. (The tallest man ever, at 2.71 metres, was the American Robert Wadlow, who died in 1940.)
"Inshallah (God willing), I will become the tallest," says Hussein. "I will thank god that I have realized my ambition and then I will help charity: kids in the Third World, and kids suffering in Britain."
He dismisses newspaper reports of a 2.43 meter man in the United States ("There's nobody taller than seven feet, eight inches"), and the tactics of shorter pretenders to the title. "They have these big Afro haircuts to make them look taller, but when you press down...I never have my hair bigger than this." He points to his own admirably close-cropped hair.
For the most part, Hussein's coffee cup seems to occupy him more than our conversation. My questions are tolerated with what can charitably be described as benign disinterest. Perhaps the ennui is understandable. He has been the subject of intense scrutiny nearly all his life.
"It started when I was about six years old in Somalia," he says. "I went away for the summer holiday a normal height and came back double the size of the other kids. I looked like a 14-year-old. The teachers kept on saying: `No, you are not Hussein Bissad, you are a different boy, an older boy.' They ended up phoning my parents to see who I was. All the other kids were laughing."
Hussein arrived in Britain in 2001, occupying two aeroplane seats. He traveled part of the way in the back of a lorry. "That's a long story," explains Abdi. "They weren't trying to hide him in the lorry. They just couldn't fit him in the front."
Supported by his extended family (46 of his Somalian relatives live in Britain), Hussein has now settled into a maisonette in Neasden, complete with a custom-made 2.74-metre bed. He is unemployed but regularly visits primary schools to raise money for an African children's charity.
In Britain he feels most at ease and less likely to be treated as a freak. Which raises a lot of questions about behavior elsewhere, if our short walk down Wembley High Road is anything to go by.
Children rush to be photographed with the "giant". Adults are more restrained, but hardly a car goes by without the driver's head turning. A teenager, jaw slackening, shouts from a phone box, "Oi mate, how tall are you?" This, Hussein insists, is a "quiet" walk.
"They just want to say hello. I don't mind, but I do worry about bus drivers turning round to see me and crashing.
"Fortunately, most people around here know me now, but there have been two crashes since I arrived. One time, a man saw me and was so shocked he did an emergency stop. The car behind crashed into him. I felt a bit guilty.
"Another time, a woman was so busy looking at me she forgot where she was going." He grins. "Girls...tall man...always a lot of attention."
As Hussein poses with yet another group of children, Abdi says it took five months before his cousin could get on a bus in Britain. "People would bother him. Children at the bus stop would pinch him to see if he was real. He would go home, call a taxi and the driver would complain he was too big for the car. We slowly built up his confidence."
After a long period of adjustment to life in London, Hussein is now happy to socialize with friends at the Tall Persons Club of Great Britain.
He also visits the Arab cafes on Edgware Road, but only late at night. "It's not because he wants to avoid the attention," says Abdi. "It's the traffic. He doesn't want to be stuck in a car for long, even if it is a Citroen C5."
Hussein will travel to Utrecht, Holland, in two months for a brain scan on the only machine that can cope with his size. It is designed for treating horses.
Doctors hope his tumor will have disappeared, which will improve Hussein's long-term health prospects, although his height means he will always have a greater risk of developing heart problems and diabetes.
Improved health for Hussein, Abdi tells me, will leave him with only one pressing worry - where he can obtain a new pair of shoes.
"He was getting them from a company that handmade them in return for advertising, but that deal might have to end. Another manufacturer has said they can do them, but it will take nine months, they will have to dismantle and reassemble their machine to do it, and we will have to order at least five pairs, at £900 ($2248) each."
As we prepare to leave, another reason emerges for optimism, one that may explain the need for new shoes. Hussein and his family are in the process of arranging his marriage - to the tallest girl in Somalia.
"We're from the same area of northern Somalia. Her neighbors knew my family, and they said she might be a suitable girl for me. She is probably about seven feet (2.13 meters) tall, but very shy because of her height. I want to encourage her to go out, not to feel shy, but please don't mention her name. It's not finalized yet."
He smiles, offers his hand, and this time allows me to get away with trying to shake just his fingers. He is getting a lift home with Abdi. "Mazda 626, big saloon, plenty of leg room. No problem."