There is a rich history of immigrant tales about the first Thanksgiving in America. It is never too much to add more. This tale dates to 1969 in the picture-perfect snowy Rockies.
The Thanksgiving menu, clipped from a newspaper, was spread on the kitchen table and the family hunched over it like the general staff of a beleaguered army. If one of the boys had doubts about the upcoming enterprise he did not voice them. There were reasons for skepticism, as Mother’s years of commanding others in the kitchen made her a Field Marshal bereft of troops to man the trenches, and ready to draft the entire family to her aid. The exoticism of the menu meant that she would fight on unfamiliar terrain. Turkey is not unknown in Egypt, but its name (Deek Roumi or Thracian Rooster*) hints at its less than fulsome acceptance by the population. It did not help that a frozen one was obtained late in the game, with its innards hard and solid inside it. The youngest boy was sat on a stool in the kitchen with a hair dryer to defrost it. For hours he pointed the dryer at the bird like a gun, staring at it with the grim determination of a hostage taker. There was a hearty debate as to whether yams, a favorite of the working-class fair goers in Egypt, should be included. In the end they were allowed reluctantly, but as a step-child largely ignored in the oven till they burned to a crisp. Cranberry sauce was attempted with the skill honed with handling chemistry sets, and occasional cherry bomb making. But in the last minute adults intervened adding more sugar to the tart brew which simply made it boil over in a volcanic eruption that left a Jackson Pollock on the kitchen wall. With things going badly, it was finally decided to fight with known tactics. A large tray of macaroni with Bechamel sauce was brought to the battle. One would like to credit this event as starting the peculiar practice of Egyptian immigrants serving baked macaroni at Thanksgiving. But it is possible that great minds arrive at the same end independently. The recommended desserts, Pumpkin and Pecan pie, were abandoned in favor of native Egyptian versions. The entire battle necessitated the presence of two large fans to clear the house of smoke.
The last part of the American menu featured a large family gathering, something exceedingly difficult to find at that moment and in that place. Finally a young doctor and his wife were obtained for the requisite role. Father would give detailed street directions on the phone, alerting them to the presence of black ice and snow mounds as it had snowed a couple of days before. He concluded by saying “we are the green house a few meters behind the Bar-Lev line of snow”. The couple arrived on time, their VW Beetle wheezing up the hill. The young wife took one look at the set table and began to cry. It reminded her of how much she missed her family. She spent the meal fighting back tears and discreetly blowing her nose at opportune moments. But before the meal can start, a long-distance call was placed to Egypt. These calls were arranged in advance then , and timed to last 3 minutes, hardly enough time for the copious Egyptian greetings. At the 2:59 mark the gruff voice of the male operator barged in yelling “kefaya ya effendi“. That was simply the occasion for Father’s show of power and diplomatic skill to stretch the call to nearly twice its length, enough time for all to yell their greetings and best wishes.
The meal came to an unexpected end. A few American acquaintances stopped in for dessert. They came bearing Pecan and Pumpkin pies, whose color and consistency made the Egyptians discreetly avoid them, at least until the next day when the first tentative forks started a lifetime of love with the native staples. But the Americans were not bashful. After a quick prayer, including a mention of the Latter Day Saints Church, they took heartily to the Egyptian desserts and polished them off. Their uninvited, but not unwelcome, arrival set the tone for how the strange new land will be made home.
– Maged Atiya
* Grateful to Hussein Omar for the correction.
To study the history of the 1952 coup in Egypt is to know what a near thing it was. But for the flutter of a few wings Nasser and the Free Officers would have earned a stint in jail followed by life as disgraced ex-officers, instead of ruling Egypt for decades. But the success of the coup created a template for power transition in the region and beyond. The recipe is easier than oven-baked popovers. An ambitious officer, some followers, tanks in the streets, and the ruler ushered out politely, or killed brutally, depending on the local customs. Nasser was for Middle East governance what Madonna is for pop music. He established new rules by brazenly breaking the old ones, even if he wholly lacked the requisite craftsmanship. A paranoid man to his very core, he set about establishing a new rule by coup-proofing his regime. And it worked. Sadat followed him in a constitutional manner and no backroom maneuvering by the military old guard would dislodge him, even with his knack for skydiving minus a parachute. Mubarak would take it even further by virtually eliminating the ability of the military to take exceptional steps in politics, and in so doing he would sleep walk through his last decade in power.
But a new coloring book for the transition of power in Egypt emerged, written not by officers or rulers, but by the Egyptian people themselves. A lovable lot who run their lives by the twin faiths in the benevolence of God and the healing power of chaos, they invented a “revolution”. In the waning days of January 2011 it was possible to see this emerging, and those who took pause were a minority, up against the bully pulpit of the media, US presidency, and academics who dubbed it “Arab Spring”. The pages of that book are easily numbered. Massive crowds in the streets, waving signs and flags, followed by tanks rolling, the military bowing to the will of the people by turning off the cell phone of the ruler and forcing him to sleep on the office couch. What follows is given high sounding names, such as “transition” and “road map”. Someone once remarked that God broke the mold after making the Egyptians. More likely it was the Egyptians who trampled it in their haste to show gratitude to their maker. What worked well in January 2011 would work equally well in June 2013, especially given that Morsi is far more hapless than Mubarak.
Is this the new “normal”? Perhaps. But it would be well for the doubters to voice their belief loudly now. To point out that democracy is not the objective, but the natural result of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism before democracy, or Egypt is condemned to an ugly cycle of chaos and repression.
It takes no great clairvoyance to predict the shape and outcome of President Morsi’s upcoming trial. The charges will be a variant of treason, a violation of the Egyptian state, and Dr. Morsi may wholeheartedly agree, for he sees that state as a monstrous violation of God’s law. The indication is that he will be his own lawyer, and the common witticism about the man who defends himself in court having a fool for a lawyer may not apply here. Dr. Morsi is likely to offer powerful words, which can be used equally to indict and defend him. The trial is invariably compared to the trial of former President Mubarak. But where Mubarak offered sneering silence, Morsi will offer a torrent of passionate words, probably at top decibel.
Anyone who hoped that Mubarak’s trial would be a moment of “truth and reconciliation” was disappointed. Egypt at the moment can’t handle the truth and is in no mood for reconciliation. Mubarak’s crimes were vague, for in truth he was no monstrous dictator, but a wily operator of the knobs offered to him by the state he inherited. He was, in the words of Fouad Ajami, a civil servant with the rank of “President”. If the only crimes Mubarak was guilty of were petty under the existing law, Morsi’s crimes maybe major only because of the lack of law. In reality, the one entity that should be on trial is Egypt, and the leaders who remade it in the last decades. Both Mubarak and Morsi are quotidian products of the system, and placing them in the dock clarifies little. A trial can be a excellent idea if used in the literal sense, as a forum to try out different ideas and views to enlighten and explain. But Morsi’s trial will be as muddled as Mubarak’s.
Lest we fall into despair, we should note something positive about the last three years. The possible emergence of a “third way” maybe seen in the millions of arguments conducted because of and in response to the “revolution”, usually in small forums. For decades Egypt has “covered up”, physically, morally and intellectually. We can only hope that it is finally ready for its Ham’s moment, this time in reverse, where Canaan’s curse is lifted by a recognition of the nakedness within.
– Maged Atiya
The relationship between the United States and Egypt has been on autopilot for three or four decades. It is a measure of its confusion that the present turbulence is not forcing the controls back into sensible human hands. Egypt can be safely ignored in Washington, or used for cheap partisan shots; meanwhile in Cairo anti-Americanism is available in a variety of lurid forms, both tragic and comic. it seems no one is willing to either bury or praise the long cherished strategic alliance between the two countries. The fraying relationship is a victim of American inattention and Egyptian misconstruction.
Egypt’s geopolitical location has generated a variety of suitors, occupiers and near-occupiers among world powers. None have been as helpful to Egypt as the United States. It is true that the US has gotten its money’s worth for the aid provided, but it is also irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with a friend who is prudent in pursuit of self-interest. Twice in 25 years the United States has assisted in restoring Egyptian territorial integrity; in 1956 by opposing the tripartite incursion and in 1978 by dogged negotiations at Camp David. That much of the Egyptian ruling elite found the agreement “humiliating” is a reflection of deluded nationalism and insouciance about the economic fate of poorer countrymen. They failed to capitalize on the 1982 withdrawal and achieve stability and prosperity for the Sinai, as they have failed to use the loan forgiveness in 1991 to launch a project of liberalization and economic advancement for Egypt.
But to focus only on the last half-century is to ignore the older and deeper roots of the Egyptian-American relations. In the 1870s the fight against slavery in the Sudan was assisted by ex-confederate officers, ironically left jobless by their failure to defend slavery in the American South. American research and education has benefited Egypt for over a century. American missionaries arrived in middle of the 19th century causing panic among the Copts. But their presence, and example, accelerated a nascent movement to reform the Church and community. A century later the US (along with Canada) would open its doors to waves of Coptic immigrants large enough to make North American second only to Egypt in the number of Copts. Neither has the US welcome been sectarian. Today the average Egyptian-American Muslim is less disadvantaged in the US than in Egypt, especially if he or she belongs to an Islamist current.
Yet the fault does not rest entirely with the distorted Egyptian view of the West. After the accomplishments of Kissinger and Carter, American policy toward Egypt became part-and-parcel of the “Middle East” policy. Thus the complex tapestry of a diverse Egypt was reduced to a single thread of a policy toward a region, whose very name is a fiction invented by a 19th century American Admiral. In the ugly decade following the 2001 terrorist attack, the US policy makers broke into two camps, those who waged war without reason and those who sought reconciliation without sense. The American policy toward Egypt oscillated between passive inattention, romantic enchantment with “moderate Islamism” and fervid “Democracy promotion”. It failed to see that what Egypt needs is liberalism with a heavy dose of anti-democratic measures to counter-balance toxic populism. Rarely did the US hold up its example where a strict separation between state and religion allowed a liberal polity with a vigorous and diverse religious society, and where the system retards rather than responds to popular passions. When the revolution of 2011 broke, the US was left with a handful of platitudes, labels and slogans. Instead of supporting an “Egyptian solution”, it could have plainly recommended that the Army get out of government and government get out of the economy. Twice it was given golden opportunities to exert its influence as a moderating friend and break the fever of the revolution, and twice it failed to act on it. The US could have supported a negotiated and systemic transition in February 2011 and instead opted for adoption of street revolutionary slogans. And again in November 2012 the US could have spoken against an ugly constitution that violated American values and a clumsy grab at power by a novice President. Instead it passively stood by , enamored by some other “Middle East” success in Gaza, and sealed the fate of both President Morsi and many of his followers. Missed opportunities beget lost options. The events of July 3 and August 14 2013 left the US confused of language and bereft of action.
Is a divorce now in order? Perhaps, but it is one that will not benefit either country. The righting of the relationship demands rebuilding on entirely different basis, one focused more on the needs of the average Egyptians than their ruling elite. When a marriage fails, the second best can be a respectful friendship.
– Maged Atiya
The commemorations of the second anniversary of Maspero will likely be few and muted. The change in political atmosphere in Egypt is but one factor. The events of October 9 2011, shocking when fresh and sad to recall on the first anniversary, have been overtaken by new horrors. For the Copts, the April 7 attack on the Papal seat and the burning of some 40 Churches and other properties on August 14 seem to portend different and more ominous dangers. Let us not also forget those who died since the July 3 removal of President Morsi. Regardless of what we make of their motives and methods, we can’t deny their humanity or their suffering. Death unites every one; the innocent and the guilty, the foolish and the cunning as well as those who died to uplift and those who died to oppress. I wrote two years ago that the saddest aspect of these events was not that the Army killed Copts, but that it killed its own citizens. The title of the post “Canaries in the Mine” held less prescience than foreboding. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, then recently freed from persecution, failed to stand up for justice and in that failure hardened many hearts, most critically their own. There is a lesson to be heeded; that we can only honor those who died in Maspero by extending the same condolences to those who died at Rab’a, and many other places, whether their cause was honorable or oppressive, and whether their methods were peaceful or violent.
Two pillars of the Orthodox faith are the knowledge of sin and the hope for salvation. One need not be a Christian or even a believer to see the wisdom in embracing these values. The first serves as a bracing antidote to certainty and hubris, forcing us to consider our actions, the burdens of our history, as well as our biases and fears. The second prods us to find a path illuminated by universal values that couple mercy with justice and empathy with reason. Tales of salvation often feature the removal of blindness and lifting of despair, denoting that its pillars include understanding and hope. Salvation in Egypt will begin by understanding the futility of death. The Maspero marchers meant to protest the burning of a Church, but since then dozens more have been torched. Those who camped and died at Rab’a wanted the return of Morsi, a goal more elusive today. In revolutionary Egypt death is offered in place of a plan. Hope is nurtured by plans and positive leadership, both absent. What remains for the average man is to simply reject death, its promoters and those who see it as a political tactic. While longing for a plan, the average man could at least reject false prophets.
It would be foolish to predict that Egypt will quickly pull back from the current course of violence. But if it does it will be because the majority of people will have decided to reject death. Short of a wholesale rejection of violence as a tool Egypt will continue to accumulate deadly anniversaries faster than it can commemorate them.
Fouad Serageddin (1911-2000) , the cigar-chomping Egyptian aristocrat and wily machine politician, known to one and all as Fouad Basha, was reputed to have described Nasser and Sadat a few days after the July 1952 coup as “Al Zabit wa al Suffragi”, or “The Officer and the Butler”. This cruel remark was characteristic of the pain Sadat endured at the hands of his fellow Egyptians for most of his long career in public life. In return, Sadat sought to woe, rule, serve and occasionally terrify the country that bore him but never unconditionally loved him. A consummate actor given to the grand gesture, he was easy to anger and easy to appease. He thought of Egyptians as “his children”, and especially so of the political Islamists, of whom he was once a member and occasionally a sympathizer. In his last moments he stood up in surprise, resplendent in an operatic uniform, to see his children commit an act of oedipal rage.
Leaders of the world walked behind Sadat’s casket, but few Egyptians bothered to look up. Many writers attuned to Egypt’s peculiarities, such as Naguib Mahfouz and Foud Ajami, have struggled to understand Sadat. All have found it difficult to come to anything more than ambiguous conclusions about the man. Sadat passed through life playing ever larger roles, and strove to deliver what the audience demanded. The sonorous voice, the fine Arabic diction, the well-cut suits, the thoughtful puffing on a pipe, the days in the countryside clad in a Galabyia were all tools of the trade. What outraged him was that the frequent applause of the Egyptians was never heartfelt. He would always languish in the shadow of Nasser, who could effortlessly woe the Egyptians even as he oppressed them. He probably understood the reasons behind that, but would never own up to them, for he too was complicit in them. In 1958 he wrote, in a rare moment of transparency, that “In Egypt, personalities have always been more important than political programs“. He lived his life by those words. He had become a master improviser, and with protean talent he could produce master performances, as well as occasional duds.
In late August 1981, a short visit to Egypt found a twitchy country on edge. The master performer had run out of tricks. Peace produced no prosperity. The Americans, once thrilled with his act, had found their own actor as President and moved on. The Israelis showed no appreciation, but were their usual prickly and bumptious selves. His own people were at each other’s throats, in part because of his own incitement. The air was thick with impending rumors of arrests and “purges”. Everyone waited to see what the denouement of a decade of magic would be. They did not wait long.
Egypt has yet to come to grips with Sadat’s assassins. Neither giving them a place of honor on a dais, as we done last year, nor gunning them down in the streets, will work in favor of the country. If there is any hope it would be in upending Sadat’s words and finally putting political programs ahead of personalities.
The removal of President Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has invited comparisons with 1954, a year that convulsed Egypt with violence and conspiracies. I argued last July that the comparison maybe deeply flawed. Events subsequent to that post may render this judgement inaccurate, although in unexpected ways. The progress of events in Egypt since last August invites a different comparison; to 1952.
The July 23 1952 coup was a transformative moment in Egyptian history. Yet for a variety of reasons the history of that event remains both examined and elusive. Nasser was determined to control the narrative of that time and present the “revolution” in the hoary language of heroic propaganda. Most of the Free Officers, all young men except for their leader General Muhammad Naguib, remained largely silent about the events for the subsequent half century. Naguib was silenced through house arrest, Nasser and Sadat died suddenly in office with no chance to write reflective or honest memoirs, even if they wished. Other prominent figures fared badly as well. Abdel Hakim Amer committed suicide after the 1967 debacle. The man who created the “intelligence state”, Zakaria Mohy el Din, kept his silence till his recent death. His surviving cousin, Khalid, wrote a sensational memoir of suspect accuracy.
There are a number of excellent histories of 1952 by both Egyptian and non-Egyptian historians. They all have to fight the headwind of accumulated propaganda. In the Nasser-inspired hagiography, Egypt woke up on that summer day to realize that it has been made free and was now entering a brand new era. In fact, that was not the case. To listen to those who experienced those events as average citizens, the true significance of 1952 dawned slowly on them. The progress of events was rapid enough to be sure, but it was a few more years before most Egyptians saw that day as a rupture in their history.
The regime that the 1952 coup put in place resembled nothing that Egypt experienced before, yet it became a template for much of the Arab speaking world, and beyond. After the demise of the Egyptian monarchy, the oldest and most venerable in the region, a few more fell, but eventually the fever broke and no other monarchies have fallen to date. The 1952 coup was both the natural child and inevitable assassin of the age that produced it, the century between the 1850s and 1950s when the Ottoman empire, already in decline, slowly gave up authority over its provinces to the West.
As one watches the events in Egypt in the past few weeks there is a sense that these events may well augur an entirely different age. Some have argued that the July 3 events were a counter-revolution, but it is hard to believe that the decaying state that ended with Mubarak’s departure will be recreated in whole. Others see the inevitable return of the Muslim Brotherhood to relevance and power, but there is nothing convincing in their actions as future political actors. Then there is the sense that Egyptians have a lower level of discomfort over public violence which will lead to wide ramifications, including a demand for return of law and order. And we can’t be sure if the new age will be better or worse.
The post-1952 Egypt was remade by two forces. First was the failure of the political elite to stand up to the Free Officers, and specifically Nasser, as well as the collusion of some in the subsequent course of events. Second was the fact that the outside world, already weary from World War II, radically altered its expectations and policies toward a newly emerging Egypt. The Suez crisis marked the moment when the British lion, once feared in Egypt, tried to muster one last roar only to let out a squeal. There is something akin to that at the moment, both with regards to the failure of the political class and the incoherence of the outside actors.
The Egypt emerging from July 2013 is an odd and disconcerting place. It is hard to shake the feeling that the familiar names from just a few years ago, Mubarak, Morsi, and others, will all seem quaintly irrelevant in a country that will be less recognizable to those who knew it for the past few decades.
– Maged Atiya
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is how the prolific Dickens chose to remember the time of revolution in Europe. The same can be said about the age of Nasser in Egypt, where now there is a great yearning for at least a partial and selective return. It is not impossible to point out Nasser’s failures to Egyptians, merely useless. Their Nasser is not a man in their history, rather their history in a man. And who can blame them. Looking around the regions it is easy to get nostalgic. Nasser promised dignity where now there is failure and humiliation. He promised one unified “Arab Nation”, where now the Sudan has split into two, Iraq and Libya on the verge of splitting into three, and Syria into four. Never mind pointing Nasser’s failures to the Egyptians. It will not work, at least not now. Like all great conjurers Nasser demanded both absolute faith and suspension of disbelief. And also like all great con men, he sold the Egyptians their repackaged hopes in stirring language and vivid visions.
The trouble with Nasser is the trouble with Egypt. A country steeped in history retains a problematic approach to it. History is not a social science subjected to the rigor of facts, but a collection of myths constantly reworked on the lathe of current vanities. It is common for outsiders to make the contrast between current Egypt and the greatness of its past. An American touring two years ago will echo the sentiment of a French general invading two centuries ago, who in turn echoes a Greek historian visiting two millenniums before. Ever conscious of how outsiders perceive them, Egyptians have responded to these claims. They have seen their future as the process of uncovering and recreating the glorious past. Many have sold them this vision. The Islamists have promised glory by return to a proud empire that once stood aggressively against the West. The proponents of “Egyptianism” promised a place among the advanced West by a return to ancient Egyptian glories. These promises are both new and ancient. Pharaoh Ahmose I, 3500 years ago, premised his new kingdom on a refurbishing of pyramids already ancient in his time.
The trouble is that anything resembling a factual study of Egyptian history will reveal an ambiguous picture of ever shifting national identity, and even religions. Yet it is the accepted myth in Egypt that there is a single unchanging identity, something akin to a rare metal which may tarnish but never adulterate, or a great temple, which can be covered in sand but never dissolve into it. Inevitably there will be an argument over which identity is the “true one”. Nasser played those strings masterfully. His propagandists made the expansive, and frankly silly, claim that he is the first “true Egyptian” to govern the country since the Pharaohs. The matinee idol looks made him every Egyptian’s brother, son, and more importantly father, whose protection is occasionally invoked.
The “father card” is played by all politicians in Egypt. A country that values the filial over the truthful is invariably prone to such talk. A culture that sees honor in extolling the hidden virtues of ancestors while covering their obvious nakedness will respond readily to such claims. Nasser was a master practitioner. Mubarak tried to play the same tune, with the added overtones of self-pity, in his last speeches as President. Even the hectoring Morsi made a clumsy and fat-fingered stab at it. The current phase of hyper-nationalism is but another manifestation.
It is doubtful that Egyptians will unshackle themselves from their history. The best we can hope for is that,with some sense, history will be merely an anchor rather than a millstone, and that they can honor their fathers while seeing the flaws with each father, Nasser included.
– Maged Atiya
It is now 43 years since the death of Egyptian President Nasser, and there is a revival underway. Nasser’s continuing popularity is proof that in Egyptian eyes a failed project is better than none. Many see him as the embodiment of a “proud” Egypt that stood for “resistance” and “social justice”. It was that, and much more, and it is the “more” that has a sour taste in the mouth. A brief boyhood under Nasser leaves many impressions beyond the stirring speeches, massive rallies and official mendacity.
Nasser frequently visited everyday places, elementary schools included. The memory stands of his handlers arriving a couple of hours before him and instructing every student to address him as “Baba”. It was an overt and expensive act of defiance for a boy to use the more traditional “Siadat El Rais” as a greeting, even if beaming while shaking the nicotine-stained fingers. This small incidence looms large because it encapsulates the many qualities that made Nasser a tyrant beloved by his people. There is the sense of ownership of Egypt’s direction, the all-enveloping and oppressive patriarchy of a country boy who made good, and the persistent dissembling, usually meant to save face, but ultimately becoming state policy. More than anything else, the age of Nasser was the age of lying. To live in his over-extended shadow was to live inside the lie, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel.
A boyhood under Nasser was invariably a fractured self. The official history taught in school was a lie, and one learned to keep several versions of history concurrently while passing exams by putting down as answers the properly approved lies of the day. Everything was contingent. Today’s approved lies can quickly change and the public is asked to believe the new lies with equal fervor, and frequently it did. There was insouciance about official lying that betrayed a certain psychopathy. The first days of the June 1967 war were ones of great success for the Arab armies who were valiantly marching toward Tel Aviv. God may have rested on the seventh day, but Nasser stopped lying on the fourth and resigned on the seventh. It was on the fourth day of the war that the infamous “Voice of the Arabs” nonchalantly pointed out that there had been “reversals” and the Israelis were now near the Canal. It remained a theoretical exercise for the listeners to figure out how the Egyptian army made a several hundred mile retreat from the gates of Tel Aviv to the banks of the Canal in the blink of an eye. Yet when Nasser tendered his resignation, massive crowds rushed to the streets to demand his return. By then the accumulated acts of incompetence, dissembling and dereliction of duty were no longer cause for dismissal. Few could imagine Egypt not led by Nasser, nor of the great man paying for his errors in any way. His errors had become synonymous with the nation’s hopes. Nasser was back at the helm after a couple of hours. Three years later the nation would be offered his final departure without the possibility of further negotiations. And again, the masses rushed to the streets. By now, thousands of miles away, it was possible to see the disheveled crowds filling a neglected city with less anger, as the product of a pained history.
In any revival of Nasser we need to see a face-saving device to hide Egypt’s troubles. His photograph is held aloft, and occasionally kissed, in the manner of a saint. But only a damaged nation will see fit to canonize a con man.
– Maged Atiya
Next week will be the tenth anniversary of the passing of Edward Said, the American-Palestinian intellectual most noted for his book “Orientalism” published 35 years ago. Few books regarding the troubled history of Western-Arab interaction have had as many worshipers and detractors. There is little that can be added to the controversy at this point, except perhaps a look at it from a rarely considered point of view; that of those who look at the Arabs not as victims of Western imperialism, but as imperialists themselves.
I was familiar with Edward Said’s work long before I read “Orientalism”, due to an interest in Joseph Conrad, on which he wrote an elegant and penetrating study. Conrad is a beguiling figure to those who speak English as a second or third language, and who can no longer write with facility in their mother tongue. His work transcends what he continually felt to be his limitations with English, if only because it offered insights of a sympathetic outsider.
I read “Orientalism” at the recommendation of a friend who jokingly noted that Said wouldn’t approve of my reading of Flaubert’s “Salammbo”, an entertaining, high calorie, low nutrition work. It is difficult not to admire the erudition and passion of Said, yet I could never muster enough interest to either like or dislike the work, and certainly not with any passion. Several things seemed troubling about the work, and I attributed these to Said’s sad predicament as a dislocated Palestinian.
First there was the thesis that scholarship is the handmaiden of imperialism. Certainly imperialists, or at least serious ones with claim to a moral purpose, will consult scholarship on the conquered regions. But scholarship can also use imperial power to further such studies, both in terms of access to location and resources, and in securing support as a relevant and not merely esoteric pursuit. Western support for academic studies is often most generous for regions deemed dangerous or critical to Western interests.
Second was the idea that studying such regions involves reducing them to the infantile status of the “other”. Just as easily these scholars become captive to their passion and end up as partisans of the worst impulses of the “natives”. Said never gave these “natives” enough credit for agency in exploiting and using Western interest in them. He displayed a peculiarly Western attitude in seeing them as lacking in evils of the West.
But these two points are minor compared to a third angle which strips the work of much of its value, regardless of accuracy. When it comes to Arabs, many native Christians, especially Egyptians, view them not as a conquered people, but as conquerors. Said’s point of view is entirely upended. From the lens of increasingly culturally aware Copts, for example, Arab imperialism has tended to view them as weak, cowardly and not possessing of virtues common to great cultures and empires. Western views of the region as the sexualized and infantile “other” are wholly irrelevant. In fact, in the view of many proponents of “Egyptianism” connection should be made to Western culture directly by bypassing the Arab experience entirely. They see Egypt as the “source” of Western civilization, primarily through a Hellenic connection. Why Said did not consider this point of view is still unknown. This is, after all, a man who grew up in Egypt. Perhaps his sense of grievance towards the horrors visited on Palestinians blinkered his view. It could also be that he grew up as a wealthy and Westernized Levantine Protestant, which isolated him from much of Egypt. His lambasting of Renan, for example, will generally fall on deaf ears among Copts, who regard Maspero, a student of Renan, as a cultural hero. What he regards as Western appropriation of native cultural artifacts, is regarded by many Copts, who fashioned an ancient Egyptian identity in the last century, as worthy preservation.
In the end “Orientalism”, seen from an Egyptian point of view, remains oddly flat. It fails to either inspire or outrage. This is not merely an academic issue, but of practical interest in the current turmoil in Egypt. Egypt is stymied by political and economic stagnation, often lumped together as “crisis of modernity”. The stagnation manifests itself in hostility toward the West masking a desire to emulate and join it. “Orientalism” is the voices in this schizophrenic head. The search goes on for a model or pattern of development in Egypt while the one closest at hand, that of Copts, remains ignored. In a deeply polarized country the narrative of the Copts on both sides is that of a “problem”. On one side is the “problem” of discrimination and sectarian attacks. On the other side is the “problem” of the Copts’ constant desire to thwart political Islam. Even with truth on both sides it is important to raise the narrative from that of a minority problem to exploration of the Copts’ tale as quintessentially Egyptian one. The Coptic Orthodox faith is as conservative as many of the Islamist currents. But the errors and successes of the Copts differ significantly from those of the Islamists. On the negative side, they have withdrawn from the public sphere, especially politics, and have shown marked wariness of the ballot box. On the positive side they have managed an uneasy truce between their ancient authenticity and modern sentiments, and faced down the challenge of the West without resort to either violence or exceptional hostility. In the 1850s the Orthodox Church faced an existential challenge from Protestant missionaries, who attracted its flock threatening to turn it into a marginal force in Egyptian Christianity. After an initial short period of bewilderment and outrage some in the community appropriated the very symbol of Protestantism, the Sunday School, to face its challenges in a clever tactic of cultural jujitsu. A century later the Church felt secure enough to join other world Churches in a dialog of equals, making connections with Protestant and even Catholic churches in the West.
“Orientalism” is apparently a canon of thought at many elite Egyptian universities. It is probably pointless to either study it obsessively or attack it passionately. The best view is that of a cultural artifice or a curiosity wholly irrelevant to the Egyptian problems of the day.
– Maged Atiya