Salama Moussa – Forgotten Man

At age 50, just before the outbreak of World War II, Salama Moussa  (1887?-1958) was a man past his prime. He kept his prodigious energies for the next two decades of his life, but his influence would no longer be what it once was. Egypt had moved on and was determined, to its detriment, to ignore the odd man who tried to hector it to modernity.  It is difficult to classify a man who took up and discarded ideas with great regularity. He did have a child-like love and faith in science and all that is modern, a faith that would sometimes lead him into blind alleys before he back tracked out.  For example, his naïve Pharaonism and misunderstanding of evolution led him to Eugenics and was even a devotee of Flinders Petrie and Grafton Elliot Smith. Yet he was one of the few Egyptian men of his generation to love women, not as idealized romantic or social constructs, but as genuine flesh-and-blood beings standing in exact equality to men. The one constant in his life was his self-identification as a Fabian. In that regard, and in his general affection for Anglo-Saxon culture, he was a minority in Egypt.

The Fabian society was established in England 3 years before in Moussa’s birth in Egypt. It is identified as a “socialist” group. In reality it was something far more complex; for it was the child of a uneasy marriage between English Noblisse Oblige and prosperous capitalism. Fabians, named after the Roman general Fabius Maximus Cunctator who wore down Hannibal by delay, were anti-revolutionaries, focusing on slow patient reform over precipitate action. Moussa was introduced to it through the friendship and affection of a Fabian feminist. Later in life he would blurt that “English women are the most beautiful in the world”, an embarrassing admission that might be forgiven as an expression of loyalty rather than wide experience with that gender. Fabians were a colorful lot who favored social reform over politics, and many among them devoted themselves to studies of Sexuality and Eugenics, most notably the oddly eccentric and very English Havelock Ellis. Such views were to influence Moussa for the remainder of his life. He remained the faintly aristocratic and avuncular man who spoke openly about sex to an embarrassed and prudish nation. His refusal to adopt anti-western or anti-British views was colored by his intimate knowledge of the people rather than acceptance of imperialism. He stands in great contrast to Sayyd Qutb, who professed constrained and closeted views of sex that fueled his antagonism to the West. It is always difficult for a man to hate a place if he loves its women.

Moussa was not the only colonial to be charmed by Fabianism, or Fabian women. Others in his fellowship include Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Jinah and Lee Kuan Yew. There is no doubt that Fabianism played a great part in their lives as public men and their success in governing. One is often tempted to think that the early death of Jinah led Pakistan away from a democratic path similar to India, and to its current Islamist agony. Moussa shared with these men a prickly hauteur and a very Burkean suspicion of democracy unless and until the masses, and the intellectual elite, are brought up to a cultural level sufficient for its implementation. Unlike Nehru, Jinah or Yew, Moussa would never rise to public office, and not for lack of desire. He was hampered by the most salient, and often ignored, factor in Egyptian politics; religion. As a Copt, even one who professed atheism, the best he could do would be to join established parties as a second fiddle, something contrary to his nature. Islamists would savage him as a Western collaborator comfortable in the knowledge that his birth faith would only confirm their allegations. In 1950 Sayyd Qutb, completing his conversion from a sensitive esthete to an Islamist firebrand, would rail against the “Brown Englishman” (“Al Inglisi Al Asmar”), a sneak attack against a man he knew and probably disliked. In time post-colonial studies in the West would come to implicitly side with such an assessment, to the great harm of Western policy toward a clear-eyed understanding of political Islam. In such current views political Islam is “authentic”, and those who argue for adoption of Western values, simply because they work, are doomed to failure and unworthy of broad and sustained support.

In May 2012, an Egyptian liberal, Amr Bargisi, wrote that until a liberal discourse develops in Egypt the country is doomed to a choice between “Islamist Repression or Repression of Islamism”.  Such discourse must be grounded in current reality, yet it has to start by understanding many of the forgotten men, and of why they lost the opening battle of the war for their people’s soul.


AIDS Cure As Metaphor

The AIDS cure claim by an Egyptian doctor is not easily dismissed as the product of a known wacko. How he peddled it and why many defend him makes the episode a metaphor rather than a farce. Egypt probably has no more charlatans any other country, and an American can never be smug about snake oil salesmen. But the nature of a con reveals much about the mark. While Americans are an easy mark for those peddling dreams of personal progress, Egyptians typically fall for those promising national glory. The dirty little secret of Egypt is that individual self-worth is often tied closely to how the world perceives the country. As a result, the country has fallen victim to an increasingly more brazen set of false prophets. The refusal to allow scrutiny into the “cure” should make us suspicious of it. When it fails, there will be a rush to find the perfidious foreign powers behind the derailing of the Egyptian dream. It has been thus and will always be so, until the habit is broken. The white-hot Egyptian hyper-nationalism needs a dousing of cold water, not so much to cool it, but to shatter its illusions.

Egypt did not lack for people ready with a bucket of cold water. But the last century has seen a marginalization of such voices. In 1921 a misguided collection of prominent thinkers established the “Eastern League”. They included Rashid Reda, an early peddler of political Islamism and role model for Hassan Al Banna, and Al Ahmadi Al Zawahiri, whose grandson would take anti-Western anger to lethal heights. The elixir in their bottle was a belief that rejection of “Western values” would bring glory back to Eastern nations. Salama Moussa would spend the entire decade of the 1920s debunking such thinking with brazen assertions, both correct and provocative. His famous statement “ ana kafir bil sharaq wa mu’men bil gharb ” (“I am a disbeliever in the East and a believer in the West”) was a typically over-stated appeal for universality as cure for backwardness. Taha Hussein, a more measured man and a more elegant thinker, also made the case for the universality of civilization. Ahmed Zaki Abu-Shady established the “Apollo Group” to disseminate a literary version of unapologetic modernity. In a twist of fate the group included Sayyd Qutb, whose later apostasy from universalism would make him a major bottler and distributor of the most noxious of false hopes.

It is the tragedy of Egypt that the snake oil salesmen often proved themselves the more able promoters. Sensible voices were silenced or marginalized. Salama Moussa would spend the last two decades of his life in fruitless pursuits and score-settling. Taha Hussein was relieved of his command of Egyptian education by Nasser in 1954, and spent the next two decades little affecting national life while receiving plenty of honors. Abu Shady took the easy route out in 1947 and immigrated to America. He never came back. In the meantime, men such as Qutb and Ahmad Hussein, leader of the Egyptian fascists, would visit the West and come back with fantastical tales of its decadence and immorality, and advocate authentic cures for Egyptian ills. That the patient got progressively sicker was no reflection on those cures, but on the perfidious West which conspired ceaselessly against the country.

A story is told, reliably but with no proof, that shortly before Taha Hussein’s death he was visited by a group of his old friends. There was a mention of Abu Shady in connection with an attempt to house his collected papers in an American university. The ancient men began to weep. One suspects it was as much for the country that left them as it was for the departed friend who left it.

– Maged Atiya


Curing AIDS In Egypt

February 24 2014 is the day Egypt found a cure for AIDS, and its cabinet resigned en-masse, most likely as a procedural step so that Egyptians can go to the polls again and democratically elect as President the leader of the Army that tossed out the last democratically elected President, who in turn got to his office by the good will of the very same Army that also tossed out a previous President. On this day of cumin-infused Kabuki theater let us recall an Egyptian intellectual unlike any of his generation, Salama Moussa (1887?-1958).

Moussa was a maddening man. His intellectual output was prodigious, took many twists and turns, and was often in-artful and even wrong. But like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog he got one thing right. He cared not a whit for the national struggle against the British; not that he had much sympathy or liking for the British Empire. During the first half of the twentieth century most Egyptian intellectuals were keen on liberating Egypt from the domination of the British. Moussa, on the other hand, was keen on liberating Egyptians from the domination of their native culture. Although proud of his Egyptian heritage, he saw the native religiosity and social and sexual oppression as the root of the country’s ills and their removal as the road to its resurgence and prosperity. His passions were stirred less by “Egypt for the Egyptians” than “Civilization for the Egyptians”.

Time would prove him sadly right, even if the last decade of his life left him demoralized and unsure of his legacy. The man advocating universal values has been largely ignored by his countrymen, who preferred authentic decline to foreign improvement.

Experts are fond of pointing out that the Arab cultural output is far below that of comparable populations elsewhere. Egypt, nominally Arab, leads in that decline. Not only is Egypt today behind many similar countries in cultural output, Egypt today is behind yesterday’s Egypt as well. Those who place the blame on a “deficit of freedom” are only partly right. Three years of revolutionary freedom have not markedly improved the output. The cause of this calamity is deeper than the lack of freedom. It is a cultural decline that coincided with the rise of belief in the superiority of native culture and withdrawal from the universal and global cultural influences. Egyptians today rightly complain about how outsiders mock them. At the same time an Army doctor claims to have cured AIDS with a cartoonish gadget.

It is unlikely that Salama Moussa is glowering in anger from the heavens. He didn’t believe in the afterlife. Had he been alive, however,  he would have pointed out that the holy men, the men in uniform, the modestly attired women and the poorly-read youth are the links of a chain binding Egypt to a cycle of decline and anger. It is a measure of that decline that if the social critic of the 1920s and 1930s were to repeat his warnings today he would be met not with social disapproval, but most likely with a term in jail or worse.

There was a time when Egyptian intellectuals debated the merits of a modernizing strongman vs. the retrograde populists. Egypt’s nightmare is that this choice may no longer exist.

– Maged Atiya


The Republic Of Civil Servants

In the mid 1960s, as Nasser was elegantly proclaiming on television a new Social Democratic Republic (“Gomhurya Ishtrakia wa Democratia” ) a young man rose up with a stream of obscenities directed at the screen. One in particular remains itched in memory.  “You sonofabitch, it is a republic of civil servants !” (“Ya Ibn Al Kalb Di Gomhuryat Al Muwazafeen“). The young man’s intemperance can be easily excused, for months before he had been given a number, a ceiling on the size of his burgeoning business beyond which it would risk nationalization. Months later he was still angry at the scratch of a pen that aborted his dreams. Nasser’s nationalization policies created a large public sector that remains an economic albatross. But blame does not rest solely on his broad shoulders. Large government in Egypt has many fathers, and Nasser shares this dubious distinction with many others, notably Muhammad Ali and Lord Cromer. All three men, founders of modern Egyptian regimes, wanted a large and pliant bureaucracy for increasingly abstract reasons. Muhammad Ali needed it for his imperial vanity project, Lord Cromer for the health of the British Empire which he served faithfully, and Nasser for “social justice”. Many who demonstrated in January 2011 held photographs of Nasser while demanding “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. That is understandable given that Nasser worked tirelessly for “Bread” and “Social Justice”. While two out of three ain’t bad; if a choice is given one should opt for “Freedom”, for it can beget the other two more readily than they can beget freedom. The clearest danger to the cultural, political and economic health of Egypt is a large government. This is a difficult argument to make for a country craving security, but it must be made. The Muslim Brotherhood dream of fixing Egypt through a more moral government is a mirage, as a large government armed with morality is likely to be more intrusive and coercive. Neither should large government be blamed on stereotypes of Egyptians loving a “nanny state”. A country where half the economic activity is outside official channels can not be said to lack for entrepreneurship.

The trouble is not even the economic orientation of government. Both Sadat and Mubarak tried to shift the economic philosophy away from Nasser’s socialism and nationalization, but with government remaining large. the country created a class of capitalists fearful of government meddling that can ruin their business, and even worse, many who are dependent on it for largess. The ills of a large and ponderous government in Egypt go beyond the economic sphere. They affect the cultural and political fabric of society. The government ownership of a good portion of the media, and its regulation of the rest, means that no censorship is needed to control the press. Media, like any business,  will toe the line for those that butter its bread. The customer is always right. Culture is not immune to government meddling as many of the leading lights are essentially civil servants. The size of the government is no help in provisioning human services, such as education and healthcare. In fact, its failures have created misery for Egyptians and opportunity for those who wish to create an alternative society rather than participate in a shared one. Such failures are the largest impediments for the desired end of a pluralistic and democratic government.

There is a feverish search for a new US policy toward Egypt, one that does not “reward’ violations of freedoms nor weaken the country at a time when it faces a Jihadist insurgency born of the usual nihilism common to the region. As always, a sensible policy is an active and positive one with unambiguous recommendations rather than meek condemnations. The best that can be done for Egypt is to recommend and assist in ways to trim its government and increase the size of the private sector. In the American context advocacy for small government is seen as a “right wing” cause. But in the Egyptian context, advocacy for a smaller government is neither left nor right, just a sensible way out of a historic dead-end.

– Maged Atiya


Lord Cromer’s Disdain

On December 19 1908, on the occasion of an address by Lord Cromer, recently retired as effective ruler of Egypt, the Spectator newspaper noted :

” Frankly, we regard the future fitness of the Egyptians for Constitutional government as an open question. There is no analogy between one country and any other ; the Young Turks have acted with singular coolness and wisdom, the Egyptian Nationalists never have; and similarly we might go on and demonstrate that there is no possible comparison between Persia (whatever one may think of the prospects of Constitutionalism there) and Egypt, or between India and Egypt, because of their fundamental differences in personal character and the difference in their obligations to other Powers. Englishmen have that habit of mind which postulates Parliamentary government. We say honestly that we would rather live under a bad democracy in Britain with the continual hope of improvement than under a good autocracy. But then Britain is peopled by men of Western race, and men who believe in and desire free institutions. Nothing we have said can be taken as a symptom of a wavering democratic faith. But we refuse to bow the knee in the temple of any universal formula, or to admit that because Constitutionalism agrees with white men, it must therefore agree with those of a totally different race.

A dozen years after Lord Cromer’s departure from Egypt the country would have surprised him, had he lived, by rising up and demanding a constitutional government. Barely two decades after this review Egypt had an imperfect but functioning parliamentary system. Since then the path has been uneven, in no small part due to the flaws inherited from the man who could rightly be called a founder of the modern Egyptian state. Cromer worked hard to improve Egypt’s finances and administration but his disdain for the Egyptians left a major gap in three distinct areas : education, where he saw the need to train but not educate the Egyptians; business, where insisted on a heavy government hand to keep Egypt a market for British goods; and constitutional government, where he felt the people have as much need for it as fish for a bicycle.

The Egyptian elite hated, respected and feared Cromer in equal measures. In time they absorbed many of his flaws, especially disdain for the masses. That disdain has proven to be a heavy legacy dragging down Egypt’s prospects for economic and political development. It can be seen in Nasser’s comment that “letting Egyptians practice politics is like leaving children to play in traffic”. It can also be seen in Sadat’s imperious behavior toward critics, student activists and his own staff. In his final moments he rose to face his assassins perhaps in disbelief that his “children” could commit such an act. The same disdain can be seen in Mubarak’s final speeches in power, where he harangued and pleaded with the revolting masses as their “father”. Even nominally populist movements suffer from this disdain. The Muslim Brotherhood heavy-handed hierarchical structure is disdain built into an organizational chart. Their downfall was due in part to their imperious behavior and a sense that “Murshid knows best”. Like Sadat, they could not believe that the people they claimed to guide and represent could rise with such ferocity against them.

The best democracies distrust the passion of the masses but do not disdain the collective good sense of the people. Until Lord Cromer’s sad legacy is purged from the Egyptian soul, the country will continue to look for strong men to follow and revolt against.

– Maged Atiya


The Eagle And The Ankh

Egypt has frequently changed its flag, no less than 4 times in the last century; a symptom of its identity crisis. The flag of 1922 was green with a crescent and three stars for Egypt, Nubia and the Sudan. This was a reflection of the regional and provincial organization of the Ottoman empire which had just expired. In 1953 the current 3 color flag was adopted, with its band of red, white and black, with the imagined eagle of Salahedin as emblem. 1958 was the high point of the attempt to shoehorn the Arab identity into the turbulent Egyptian soul, and the union with Syria saw the eagle abandoned in favor of two stars, an unconscious attempt to emulate the American model. The stars stayed long after Syria left the union. Sadat, in 1971, was attempting a new tack, and the hawk of Qureish, the tribe of the Prophet, replaced the stars.  Mubarak brought back the eagle of Salahedin, in a stouter, less heroic, and more bureaucratic incarnation. And so it has stayed. Few noticed that the flags waved in Tahrir Square in January 2011 were the flags of Mubarak. No further comment is needed.

The proposal is simple. Ditch the eagle, and by implication Salahedin, and get back to a rational definition of Egypt, one that places high priority on its progress and internal development and abandons the dictators’ empires of dreams. In place of the eagle, use the ancient Egyptian Ankh; the key of life.

– Maged Atiya


Gamal Abd El Nasser – Method Actor

nasser

Marlon Brando, who saw his acting talent as an undesired gift, explained his method as inhabiting the character so thoroughly that all his actions were produced by its logic rather than his thinking. The intimate link between politics and theater has always been with us, Shakespeare wrote of it, the Greek dramatists never missed it, and even the ancient rulers dressed for maximum effect. We speak regularly of politics on the “public stage”. Few men in modern Egyptian history have embodied that link better than President Nasser. A protean man and a motherless child, he left a giant imprint on his nation and beyond, not because of belief in any specific philosophy or ideology, but because he lacked any and was able to inhabit the character of the hero so thoroughly that it defined his rule and his policies, leading to his rise and ultimate fall, in an arc that any dramatist would instantly recognize. Egyptians, and others beyond the Nile, were his audience, his fans, the people who loved him because of what they projected onto him, and what he reflected back on them, rather than for his political legacy, most of which was ultimately disastrous. It is not hard to imagine Nasser in a different setting, as a matinee idol in 1950s Egyptian movies, always the dashing man who solves all problems, projects masculine kindness, leaving younger women swooning and older ones grinning in maternal delight. All the meantime, men would hold back envy and imitate every move.

The camera is said to recognize and love a great actor. A day after the 1952 coup the Free Officers posed for a photograph. It was a stiff and public pose, with the senior officer, General Naguib sitting behind a desk surrounded by his subordinate men. He should have been the center and focus of the camera, instead, inexplicably, the camera drifted to focus squarely on Nasser, making him the center of the photograph. No one knew his future role, save the the prescient camera. Nasser’s fate was sealed. He would act out every nuance of his role regardless of his better instincts, including those of survival. In Manshiya Square October 24 1954, on a cool night, shots rang and bullets flew toward him. He did not do the sensible thing and duck, instead he stood erect and declared that “I live for you and die for you. Nasser will not die because every man is Nasser”. This is history imitating drama. Almost exactly two years later, in the darkness of a Cairo night, his closest comrades urged him to surrender to the invading British forces and be the conscience of the nation from prison, like so many colonial leaders of the time. But that could never have been in any script that any producer would approve. He stood erect, and the improbable happened, as it would in any melodrama; the American President, Eisenhower, abandoned his erstwhile friends and allies to side with Nasser. The hero was born, again.

There was a darker side too. When Syrian wily villains approached him for a union with Egypt in early 1958 his sound judgement was to say “No”. But that was not the logic of the character, the great Arab leader. So he overruled his own good judgement and plunged in, going even as far as erasing Egypt’s eternal name, a move that sealed his political fate with many. Even worse, he authorized “limited” interference in the affairs of Arab countries as part and parcel of his role. They all rebounded badly on him, as Egyptian intelligence in those days was more farcical than most with its Clouseau-like ineptitude. Once the union with Syria failed in 1961, Nasser found himself needing to prove greatness within Egypt. He embarked on a series of economic reforms, all along socialist-realist lines, that made panoramas worthy of Diego Rivera, but crippled Egyptian growth to this very day. The great Arab leader also had to support an inept Yemeni general to the tune of 20,000 Egyptian lives.  Such was the constraints of the character written for him. Nor could he back away from brinkmanship in 1967 that was to lead to a great military disaster. The most powerful argument he gave for his actions in May 1967 was a single line, Beckett-like, “I am not Anthony Eden”. The hero lives on. In the darkest hour love brings salvation. It was the genuine love of the people, as well as their bafflement, that buoyed him on June 9 1967.

Death comes once to men, but is enacted over and over again by great actors. His almost fatal heart attack in 1968 did not slow him down, but moved him to action. His greatest and most peripatetic two years were ahead of him. The great Arab hero did not die until his role dictated it. Nasser would pass away only when his Arab world would burst into the violence of “Black September”. Arab “brothers” battled each other in Jordan within earshot of their common enemy. Within hours the curtain fell on Nasser the man, but the role lives on, waiting for a new actor to take up the mantle.

– Maged Atiya


The 6 Hour War

It is too early for history to pass judgement on the horrifying events of August 14 2013 at Rab’a El Adawya square. While some have compared it to Muhammad Ali’s 1811 massacre of Mameluke notables which ended their 500 years of power forever and set Egypt on the road to modern statehood, the mind drifts to a different analogy; that of June 1967.

Just as Nasser massed Egyptian troops in the Sinai for purely political reasons and with no comprehensive plan for an all out war with Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood packed its followers in the square with no clearly planned end point. Nasser saw the closing of the straits of Tiran as a leverage to extract some concessions from Israel and enhance his domestic standing, eroded by economic sluggishness and the war in Yemen. Similarly the Brotherhood also saw the rally as a forum to extract political concessions and to voice its opposition to the removal of President Morsi. Both events followed serious and strenuous negotiations between the two sides. In 1967 UN Secretary General U Thant did the bulk of the work, while in 2013 there were various international actors, including a free wheeling effort by US senators McCain and Graham. In 1967 Nasser did not grasp that Israel had little interest in negotiations and was eager to deliver a serious blow to the Arab armies to bring the states to a more concessionary mood. The Brotherhood made the mistake of assuming that while negotiations were ongoing they can continue to demand concessions and avoid bloodshed. Both were wrong. As Israel struck suddenly in 1967, the military gave the order to the police to clear the square with minimal warning. The deaths of Egyptian troops in 1967 and the protesters in 2013 owe as much to the bumbling of their leaders as to the firepower of their attackers. In less than 6 hours on a summer morning Egyptians woke to a new reality, with all that followed being brutally inevitable. 

We do not know if the military in 2013 was as surprised by the scale of destruction as Israel was in 1967. What we do know is that, just as in 1967 with the Arab states, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed a posture of resistance in face of a massive loss. The weekly demonstrations and attacks at various universities are the Brotherhood’s version of the famous “3 Nos” of Khartoum. As the Arab states refused negotiations with Israel until all land captured in 1967 is returned, the Muslim Brotherhood insists on no public negotiations with the military until Morsi is restored to power.  If these similarities are accurate, do they tell us anything about the shape of events in Egypt in the upcoming years? Some will argue that the comparison is specious, since the 1967 war was between recognized states, while the 2013 events are between political actors. This is true enough, except in the minds of many Egyptians who came to accuse the Brotherhood of begin an alien body to the nation, and who saw in the Brotherhood’s clumsy and failing attempt to capture the instruments of the state as the equivalent of an invasion by an outside force. The Brotherhood was helped little by its international supporters in places such as Turkey and Qatar. Their noisy but ineffectual support simply firmed up the worst in Egyptian minds. Just as importantly, what lessons will members of the Brotherhood draw from these events? Almost all pundits insist that cadres will be radicalized and resort to violence. Some undoubtedly will. But will a significant segment of the Brotherhood see the errors of the leaders and seek a revamping of their tactics? Time will answer these questions, but it is important to view this struggle correctly, not as merely over prerogatives and power, but also over identity.

After 1967 and its echo in 1973, Israel grew powerful and prosperous and increasingly had little to fear from the Arab armies. It did not however grow more peaceful, nor has it resolved the contradictions between being a Jewish and democratic state and an occupying power.  It may turn out that Egypt will no longer have to contend with the Brotherhood post 2013. It may even manage to improve its economic situation and perhaps join the ranks of rapidly growing developing nations. But whether the killings at Rab’a will resolve its identity crisis remains an open question.

– Maged Atiya


The Years Of Hope And Despair

Rushdi Said labeled the years 1968-1981 as “years of hope and despair”. The well-known geologist and occasional government minister described the following:

After the 1967 defeat the political leadership ended its dependency on the army and the intelligence apparatus because of their failure to defend the regime, and instead reached out for the support of the people. This shift was reflected in the measures that the leadership took to help modernize and democratize government administration. It streamlined the work of the government and made it accountable. It made sure that the government and public sector appointments were made in accordance with the merit system. These reforms of the government administration were strictly adhered to until the war of October 1973, a war that would have had no chance of success without these reforms. The reforms were abandoned after the 1973 war. (Science & Politics in Egypt, P 171)

The post-1967 years are often described as years of defeat and breakdown. There was that. The daily bread was often corrupted with saw dust. Staples were hard to come by. Oranges, for example, once plentiful, were in short supply, as they were used to pay the Soviet Union for weapons. The country suffered the effects of Israeli raids and occasional forays. But the years had a certain luminosity, as Said noted. Something felt very different in Egypt. There was an air of anticipation and possibilities. Economic growth, for the first time in several years, picked up. Students, some as young as 8 or 9, could demonstrate and even criticize the government openly. Al Azhar admitted women to its schools for the first time, and many came wearing short skirts. There was attention to merit; the commander of a major army was a Copt, for example. Government contracts were bid out fairly. Even the notorious Cairo traffic flowed smoothly, aided by newly constructed tunnels and bridges. How do we square these undeniable feelings and observations with the reality of defeat and the ever-present anxiety of  failure?

Egypt between the wars, 1967 to 1973, was free of two influences that haunted it for nearly two decades prior to 1967. Nasser smashed the Muslim Brotherhood to bits. Israel smashed the army. Free from both the Brotherhood and the army, Egyptians glimpsed a vision of Egypt unchained by these two authoritarian and hectoring groups.  After 1973 things changed rapidly, and not for the better. Sadat empowered the Brotherhood, initially on university campuses to counter the liberals and the left, but ultimately throughout society, and the army had its honor restored, although the best and most successful of its generals were booted out. Six days of war were followed by six years of hope and forty years of despair.

The fading year of 2013 has been one of despair in Egypt. Every week brought fresh horrors and searing images of pain. Who can forget the Port Said deaths, the lynching of Shi’a citizens, the attack on St Mark’s Cathedral, the horror of death at Rab’a, and the daily demonstrations  often accompanied by injuries and deaths. The polarized country is left feeling that it must choose between one of two tormentors. That would be a false feeling. There is luminosity in Egypt, which only a third way will uncover, and chart a path forward unchained by the forces that gave the land forty years of despair.

– Maged Atiya


Thanksgiving 1969

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.


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