Eulogy for a Father

“There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:11

In remembrance of Samir Nessim Atiya (November 4 1925 – October 17 2019)

The nonagenarian and his first born son were bound by filial love and separated by almost everything else, especially God and Country. He was a man marked by early losses, those of a father as well as beloved siblings. He remarked to his son, in a moment of transparency brought on by old age that his deepest wish is to finish life’s course well ahead of him. As he grew ever more frail he clung to life with the tenacity and determination he had shown throughout that life. This was a man who did not go gentle into that good night. I have to admit that he was not easy to like, but he was loved because as Philip Roth noted “it is our job to love them”.

On the 5th of February 1938 Samir Nessim Atiya completed grade school in the Egyptian Delta town of Senbelaween, noted for its generous wheat and as the birthplace of Um Kalthoum. Such an event would not be terribly momentous in most lives, but it was so for the young boy. He was orphaned several years earlier. He had the protection of a loving mother but little else. He worked his way through grade school. When it was time for graduation he bought himself a suitable suit, a necktie and a Fez, or Tarbush, for the occasion. It was the first time in his life he had put on a necktie. He carefully protected his Tarbush from the bullies in school who were wont to squish it over his head. His meager savings paid only for the necktie and Fez, and his older sister, Linda, sold some of her gold bangles to pay for his suit. When it was time for the fathers to sign the name of their child on the graduation papers, none could be found for him. He carefully forged what might have been the signature of his dead father. His adoring mother refused to attend the graduation, for fear that her simple peasant ways would embarrass him. Linda stood in for her; and in his recollection her bright dress, and the remaining gold bangles, marked her as a member of the less humble folks. Later in life, when Linda was approaching the century mark he visited her. Her memory was failing and she shyly resisted his embrace. He rounded his thumb and index fingers around her wrist and that seemed to draw a smile of recognition.

Graduation from elementary school did not end his struggles. He had to work his way through junior and secondary school, against the wishes of adults who saw little purpose in educating a sullen orphan. “I lacked a father and had no personal charm”, he later related. With a further push he got himself matriculated into the College of Practical Engineering, a lesser sibling of the Faculty of Engineering at King Fouad I university. He finally graduated in the waning years of the monarchy having done well enough to earn a bonus and a government job. King Farouk came to his graduation and when his name was read out he strolled onto the stage, shook the monarch’s beefy hand and received a check for six pounds and a certificate of “Iltizam”, mandatory government service. In return he had to accept a government posting for two years. He looked forward to working in the exciting field of telecommunication. He sought a job with Egypt’s government-owned telephone monopoly. His interviewer asked him two questions, his class ranking (high enough to warrant a job at a major city) and his religion.

His hopes were dashed by the arrival of the appointment letter. He was posted to a small Nubian village, Qurta, south of the First Cataract, to manage its telephone and electrical systems, and teach secondary school as well. Seeing no immediate alternatives, he made the arduous journey south.  First it was the overnight train to Aswan, and then an eight-hour boat trip past the Cataracts. At the village makeshift dock he found an official reception party consisting of the mayor and three slipper-clad dignitaries. He asked the mayor to take him to the telephone company building. The man thought for a moment before responding, “We have no telephones”. The arriving not-yet father shot back, “Why?” The mayor explained “because we have no electricity”. As the reader might guess, there was also no secondary school. At this point the putative government official simply demanded to be taken to the elementary school. The mayor obliged and took him to an empty lot. “We have not gotten around to putting up the walls yet,” he explained.

The position made it necessary to set an example, as the highest ranking government official after the local police sergeant, the sleepy Shaweesh, who contented himself with doing nothing of value. He asked the mayor to press-gang a group of men to quarry the local stones and put up the walls for a one-room school.  It took ten weeks to complete, and the mayor was sufficiently impressed to send a daily allotment of a cooked turkey to the working crew. There was now a school for a motley collection of boys of mixed ages. For more than a year the monthly mail boat brought the self-empowered official his paycheck (there were no banks to cash it except in Aswan), and returned with his letters entreating people for a “Wasta” to free him from his contract. Eventually it came, in the form of an intervention by one ‘Abaza Bey (a member of the famous family), who had him transferred back north. The entire episode would be recalled with increasing mirth as the man grew older and experienced the wider world.

Two decades after those events he owned a new growing telephony business and had started a family. He wished for his sons to see the village and the school he built. But the one-room school, the village, the surrounding areas, and half of Egypt’s Nubia had become submerged under Lake Nasser. Still Aswan and Nubia never left him. He kept returning there for all sorts of reasons. He took his honeymoon in Aswan. He brought his sons back to explore the area, including Nubia. He loved the Nubian people and saw in their oppression, primarily due to their skin color, a reflection of his own life. In 1960 he came back to Aswan seeking a contract for his nascent company to supply the telephone system for the firm building the dam, “The Arab Contractors”. Its powerful owner, Othman Ahmed Othman, would employ no Copts and the father left empty handed.

Many times Egypt impressed on him its unique combination of mirth and menace. In the summer of 1952 he found out that the young woman he had been tutoring in order to pass her “Thanawiya” had barely done so. On the morning of July 23 he started out to go downtown in search of a ring. With his typical preoccupation with efficiency, he wanted to complete two tasks at once. He would congratulate her and also persuade her father to turn the limited assignment into a lifelong commitment. The tanks in the streets drew his attention, but not his alarm. A soldier stopped him near ‘Attaba Square and told him that the curfew rules demanded that he be shot. After some negotiations the soldier settled for escorting him to his destination instead.

With the exception of 1973, where he was away in America, he had a front row seat to Egypt’s vicissitudes. He was stationed as a communication engineer when British planes bombed his station during the Suez war. He was on the road to Suez in June 1967. He was posted as an American advisor to the Iranian telecommunication authority and would not leave long after the revolution, at least not until it was clear that as the carrier of an Egyptian and American passports his life was in double jeopardy. He firmly believed that the 2011 revolution would amount to little and attempted to make his way to the Mugamma’a on Tahrir square to register a real estate deal. “The army or the Ikhwangis will win this one”, he predicted.

By all accounts the birth of his first son left him giddy, in the manner of a young boy given a precious toy. He played happily with the baby, noting the smallness of his tiny hands and feet and twitches of his face which he insisted were a smile in response to his father. But soon enough his mother-in-law intervened. A sensible woman with an iron will, she was convinced that the family was shadowed by an evil eye that would take every first born. She had lost his first born daughter decades earlier, and her grief never went away. She insisted that the boy be trusted to the protection of women, who would grow his hair, dress him as a girl and keep a blue bead sewn to the inside of his clothing.

Eventually the father reclaimed his son from the women, cutting his hair and buying him his first boyish outfit, a short overall knock-off from one that Prince Charles had worn years earlier and that had become popular in Egypt. And almost immediately things began to go wrong. While jostling with his son he dropped him and broke his leg. The child would not accept the limitation of a cast and crawled about dragging his leg behind. That caused further cuts and bruises, including a broken finger. When all the fractures were healed, the boy succumbed to an array of fevers and childhood illnesses, some life-threatening. The father recalled the loss of his own father and of his siblings and feared for his son. He sought the intervention of a monk he knew in St Anthony’s monastery, Abouna Moussa.

Decades later he related the details of the trip to St Anthony to his son. No one else in the family seemed to remember the trip, and his son was left to conclude that either the trip was far less important than his father’s recollection, or that it was entirely recreated in the mind of a frail man eager to recast of what is important to him in the mold of present feelings. A newly opened road through the eastern desert cut the trip from days to hours. He sat in the back seat holding his son’s hand while the driver, Salama, chattered and smoked. The boy spoke little, and stared at the scenery passing by.

At the monastery Abouna Moussa, an ancient man who had been a monk since his teens, blessed the boy and asked that in return for God’s favor, he should dedicate his life to doing good deeds and always observing the ways of the Lord and his commandments. The father urged his son to agree but the boy remained silent. In his later retelling he recognized this small incident as a token of things to come. After leaving the monastery he took his son on a short hike through the ragged and rugged hills around the monastery. But soon enough the boy became weak and the father carried him all the way back to the car. He asked strangers to take photographs of both of them with the son on his shoulders. But the film from the trip was ruined by a careless developer. On the trip back he devised a plan to bulk up his son, and the younger brother as well. He enrolled both boys in the club on Al Magd Street and a regular regime of swimming, squash and weight lifting did the job.

The 1960s were a good time for Samir. His company had many contracts that offered a comfortable life. He moved his family to an apartment in Heliopolis, with many graceful touches. Gladiolus flowers where delivered every Wednesday to brighten up the place. Every other Thursday there was a delivery of cakes from Groppi for the Friday visits from family and friends. Once a month a man came to shine the parquet floors to a mirror finish. He was still young, vigorous and handsome. He had his shirts custom-made at Elia Tarzi, a self-proclaimed Copt but a suspected Jew, who made shirts for all the Free Officers, including President Nasser (but notably not Sadat, who hated the American cut and preferred British shirts).

He had come a long way from his village root, but did not forget them, or his surviving siblings. Once a month he drove his entire family to Giza to spend time with his sister Linda and her brood. He made sure his two boys were close to Salwa, Nagwa, Nashwa and Magdi. While Naguib was in between spouses, he invited him for dinner once a week, and after he remarried he remained close to him, his wife and daughter Vivian. Whatever tensions had existed between him and his older half-brother Atiya were now history, and he visited him often. In immigration he became close to Linda’s daughter Salwa, and Atiya’s daughter Enaya.

Then there was Maurice, his youngest brother. While a bachelor, he invited Maurice to spend a week every summer in his Alexandria apartment. Maurice was a party goer and a late riser, who made fun of his older brother with his puritanical habits of early rise and hard work. Maurice would stroll to the beach in the afternoon, after a late morning recovering from a long night carousing among Alexandria’s dwindling Greeks. His uniform was unvaried, a bathing suit small enough to be a scandal, a robe, sun glasses, flip-flops and a cigarette. The women disapproved, but Samir overruled them. After Maurice started a family in Senbelaween, Samir visited him regularly, always taking his first-born son with him. Maurice had come to own a mechanics shop that employed every variant of Egyptians. He was fair to his employees and called all of them with honorific “Ibn Al Kalb”, or Son-of-a-Bitch, which he also extended to himself. The love between the two brothers was genuine, and Samir took Maurice’s needling with good humor. Samir tried to impress on his skeptical son that Senbelaween, with its dust, dirt roads, and uncollected trash, was the real Egypt. But to the boy’s eye the difference between the provincial town and Cairo was only a matter or degrees and neighborhoods.

One sibling was always on Samir’s mind, although he admitted that to on one, except once to his son in a passing remark. His older brother Sami had been a prodigy, finishing first in Mathematics in Thanawiya and winning a scholarship to King Fouad I university. Two weeks before matriculation he died in his sleep. It was likely a congenital heart condition. But Samir, still in elementary school, was devastated. He watched his mother shriek, rend her dress and mourn the young man, and blame herself for not warding the evil eye from him. Every shriek tore into him and he promised his mother that he will live a long life and never let her see him die. He told his son all that in passing, late in life, explaining that sometimes brilliance is a companion to bad fortune.  As Samir got older, Sami’s life and fate haunted him even more. Sami was kind to his younger brother and more understanding of his quirks. But that could not explain the outsized importance he came to play in Samir’s memories more than eighty years after his passing.

Samir learned to make a sport of fighting the ferocious Egyptian bureaucracy, and he became a resource to many in his family who needed help in the matter of estates, wills, licenses, taxes,  pensions, and all the other critical matters that the bureaucracy controlled and mismanaged. He built a repertoire of amusing tales, which he retold with his sharp-edged humor. Some were merely hilarious, others chilling. Of the former, he explained how he secured for his maternal aunt a pension from her grandfather who had died decades earlier. The accumulated amount allowed her to secure a decent life and pass something onto her children. Of the latter, he related how he accompanied his cousin, and effectively adoptive father, the scholar Aziz Atiya to visit Nasser in the presidential palace in 1961. There was a new American ambassador in Egypt, who had known Aziz from a previous life as the president of the American University in Cairo. Aziz had been bad mouthed in Egypt for his relationship with the World Council of Churches, then claimed by Nasser’s propagandists as a CIA front. Aziz traveled from the US to Egypt for the meeting with Nasser and the ambassador, but feared arrest. He asked Samir to drive him to the Presidential palace, but Samir did not know how to drive. Instead he went as his valet and waited for him outside to raise the alarm in case of arrest. He kept the entire incident confidential while Aziz was alive, and for decades afterwards. Later in life Samir laughed uproariously as he related to his son how he tried to pass as a tough guy among Nasser’s body guards in the ante-chamber. The visit went well enough, and the ambassador affected a rapprochement. Samir managed to get the last laugh.

The good times had other dark shadows as well. He tried to keep his company small enough to escape the attention of the nationalization board, or at least he claimed so perhaps to cover up for his fears of growing too large and needing to delegate to others. He worried about his two sons eventually becoming cannon fodder for Nasser’s wars. Later he recalled that his major worry was his first-born son. He could accept the boy’s obedience, or manage his rebellion. But he knew not how to deal with the boy’s increasing detachment. He neither obeyed, nor rebelled, but lived in an imagined world apart from Egypt. Doubt starts as a hairline crack before it becomes a chasm. And the chasm of doubt left the two of them increasingly further apart. For a time the boy’s religious education consisted of a series of ejections from Sunday School classes, not for doing little, but for asking too much. All attempts to inculcate a sense of national pride in him failed. After the 1967 war, the boy began to construct an imaginary America out of books and road maps and constantly begged his parents to immigrate.

Eventually Samir made the jump as the 1960s were coming to a close. It was a terrifying leap, as he had no job lined up, and could not even put together a passable resume. Leaving the comforts of home for the unknown unsettled him, but he gave no indications of his anxiety. The new country could never match Egypt for the warmth and depth of their friendships. They made friends from the old country, and a few from the new one, but still felt they were isolated, often alone, especially after their sons became enthusiastic Americans.

America dealt fairly with Samir. After an extended period of unemployment he landed an executive position with New York Bell. Within a few years his salary had more than quadrupled, and the stock options offered to him shot up dramatically in value after the breakup of AT&T. He participated in the founding of St George church in Brooklyn. He made trips to all parts of the US and Canada to visit the increasing number of family members who left Egypt. But he still felt uneasy and unhappy. It was clear to his son that the boy from Senbelaween was now standing at his shoulder feeding his fears and anxiety. His response to material comfort was to fear is potential evaporation. He became “careful with money”, a euphemism that friends used to note that he lived several notches below his means. Occasionally he would allow himself some luxury, such as taking an extended African Safari that he had promised his wife more than two decades earlier. But he steadfastly refused to trade up houses or cars or allow himself more than the minimum of material comfort.

One luxury he allowed himself was to obtain a graduate degree in electrical engineering. Having a Master’s degree from an American university meant freedom from the inferiority he felt about not having attended the Faculty of Engineering, even if no one knew or pointed it out. His pride burned deep and mostly quietly. He struggled with the course load and work because, without ever telling his son, he wanted to get the degree before his son got his own Master’s degree in physics. In the end, he beat him by two weeks. The entire family went to a joyful lunch in Brooklyn Heights after Samir turned in his cap and gown. Within a decade of his arrival in America he was comfortable enough to leave his job while in his fifties and live out a peripatetic life, constantly traveling between Egypt and the US.

Immigration further strained the relationship with his first-born son. The boy had quickly grown to a man in the crucible of the 1970s New York college life, with its many temptations and pitfalls. The son lived his life in several bubbles well isolated from each other, and his family and father occupied but one. There were many arguments about religion, Egypt and the proper way to live one’s life. Samir and his son often came close to an unbridgeable rupture, only to walk away just shy of it. His son made the resolution that saying little would give love a room to displace all disagreements. What Samir thought, we will never know. In time it became clear to those who interacted closely with him that he loved his son deeply, even if he had taken a radically different road in life.

As Samir got older he became more visibly religious. He confined his reading list to the Bible and Agbeya. He listened to recorded sermons and watched Coptic satellite TV almost exclusively. He had not been so religious in his younger years, and the change may have reflected his own fears and thoughts about mortality, especially as he faced an array of potentially lethal ailments. In the last decade of his life he was happy to see his son turn his attention to Coptic issues, but they never discussed these issues, or religion in general. The fear remained of opening up old wounds and disagreements.

Samir remained active and working into his late eighties, fearing that any diminution in activity will end his life. But he eventually had to give in to the frailties brought on by many strokes. He became thinner and less vigorous. Both his hearing and eyesight weakened to near uselessness. His mind still burned sharply and he laughed when his son told him that his CPU functioned well but his I/O systems were failing. The occasion for the remark was the delivery on a new laptop that Samir wanted so he can learn new computer programming languages. His sharp mind was an asset to him and a liability to those around him, as he could be ferociously set in his ways and refused all manner of help that was necessary for his daily existence. The determination that lifted him from a poor orphaned provincial boy never left. In fact, his early years came to occupy most of his thoughts.

The last time he saw his son he kept addressing him as Sami. “I am your son Baba”, his son insisted. “Yes. But you love me and Sami loved me too. I mourned Sami. No one will mourn me. No one will remember me”, he was barely able to articulate the words as a result of a recent stroke. “I will remember and mourn you Baba”, his son added. “Yes, you will and so will Sami. We love each other. I wish you had met Sami”, he declared. Within a few minutes his mood lifted and was attempting to make a witty remark, but his tongue was slower than his mind, and he ended up skipping past the words to simply laugh at his own joke. This is how many will remember him, as the man with blunt honesty and a sharp wit. And this is how he would likely have wanted to be remembered.

The end came peacefully while asleep. We will never know his last words or thoughts, but at least his son hopes that he realized that the poor orphaned boy from Senbelaween had made and lived his life on his terms, and that he was loved. None of his family, his wife, children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, were there when liturgies were read for his soul and he was quickly buried, and not in the mausoleum he had built for himself and his family. Still his life was a triumph against the odds of his cruel country, which he always loved still. He would have insisted in the words of Timothy that he fought the good fight and kept the faith. We should grant him that in memoriam.

Maged Atiya


Criticizing with Charity

The growth of social media platforms, especially Twitter, has allowed single individuals much greater ability to broadcast views to a wide audience. It was also bound to increase venomous and disagreeable discourse. Such is human nature. But before we condemn these platforms as a step backward, it might be better to figure out how to use them properly.

There can only be two purposes to broadcasting views; one to advance ideas and thoughts, and another to criticize bad or dangerous ideas advanced by others. On the latter we need to remember to criticize with charity. I am using charity in the limited definition of applying kindness, moderation and genuine concern when disapproving or criticizing an idea or an utterance. The rules for doing so are remarkably simple:

  • Criticize the idea, or the manner of its expression, not the person who advanced it. All of us are capable of putting out bad ideas but that does not make us idiots. In fact, there is no point in criticizing anyone who is incapable of producing good ideas. Criticism, applied with charity, is a form of respect, even intimacy.
  • Never impeach the person, especially those not personally known to us. It is difficult enough to judge the character of those closest to us and with whom we deal on a daily basis. To extend judgement to those we do not know is nearly impossible.
  • An idea is worth criticizing only if the criticism has a chance to enlighten anyone, or extend the discussion to better ideas or a higher realm. This is a difficult criteria to apply, so we should err on the side of caution.
  • Always admit mistakes, quickly and cheerfully.

— Maged atiya


Of Two Americas

Two men stood and spoke at the Lincoln Memorial nearly 56 years apart. One asked for justice. One boasted of power. One was flanked by the poor and humble. One was flanked by tanks and armor. One entreated the sky above for justice. One looked up at roaring killing machines. One was seared by the heat of the day. One was enclosed in protective glass to shield from the rain. One never counted the countless who came to hear him. One boasted of imaginary numbers. One strove to serve. One strained to rule.

— Maged Atiya


Aqbat Al Mahgar – Copts of Immigration

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” was formed by some extreme Islamists, and even taken up by President Sadat, to describe the emerging Coptic activism in North America and Australia. These Copts were deemed unrepresentative of Copts at large, a bad element indeed. Two broad charges were leveled against them. First, they were anti-Muslim ingrates besmirching Egypt’s name when they should make it clear that the very survival of Copts in Egypt is due to Muslim tolerance. Second, they were cowards speaking words from the safety of afar that they could not utter in Egypt. The two arguments undercut themselves. The idea that existence is a grant, not a right, is repugnant. The second argument merely underlines the social and political oppression in Egypt. In any case, the arguments identify two groups of Copts, good Copts who mind their manners, and loud uppity Copts who risk the lives of Copts in Egypt by their primal screams. It was a useful myth, but myth anyway. In reality there are no neat two groups. Famously disputatious, the Copts may exhibit more groups than individual Copts.

It would be good to consign the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” to the memory hole of the bad old days. Unfortunately some strain of it is making a come back in more serious, refined and genteel circles. A twitter thread by Dr Hisham Hellyer, a scholar of religion and the Middle East revives the myth of two groups. Dr. Hellyer is a thoughtful man without a bone of intolerance in his body (he edited one of my early essays). Yet he unfortunately revived this dichotomy, almost certainly unwittingly. At large, there is general reluctance to address sectarianism in Egypt in raw and honest form, rather than confusing circumlocutions. In response to an earlier post, many of my close Muslim friends expressed the wish for a different Egypt, one where people practice religion privately, but are only Egyptians when they step into the public sphere. It is a great dream, with a touch of the French homogenizing model, and it was of course the cry of the “Liberal Era” between the 1920s and the 1950s. It also failed. The Liberal Era begat military rule and religious conflict. One wishes that Sa’ad Zaghlul and his Coptic notable friends and supporters would have lived long enough to witness the massacres at Maspero and Rab’a Squares, where their dream turned into a nightmare.

The trouble with that dream is that it runs counter to reality and deep seated cultural norms. The public sphere in Egypt is thoroughly Islamic, and Copts can participate as “Egyptians” only if they mute their identity. A Coptic minister can not open a meeting with a prayer true to his or her faith. This is the essence of the problem and the one fact that I have been unable to break through to friends. Egyptian sociologist Sana Hasan, herself a product of the liberal Muslim aristocracy, noted this in her book “Christian vs. Muslim in Modern Egypt”. She claimed it was harder to write about her fellow Egyptians, the Copts, than the Israelis, because she had to learn new “mnemonics”. Coptic memory, cultural terms, and references amount to a national culture, separate and distinct from Muslim Egypt, but not in opposition to it. If there is any hope for Egypt it consists of abandoning the French model for something closer to the American model of cultural coexistence. The increased Muslim presence in the West has shown the wisdom of the American over the French model. A wish for a well governed and free Egypt can be realized by building a liberal state representatives of two nations, or perhaps three to include the Nubians. Surely people can practice, and should practice religion privately. But they need not deny their culture publicly. In the case of the Copts, we must remember that they are not merely a religious group. Many who have lapsed in their faith still identify as Copts. Others exhibit keen interest in the philosophy and theology of other faiths, especially Islam.

The Copts continue to exist as a vestigial culture of a Christian Egypt. They do so in Egypt and increasingly around the word. This is not division, but true riches for Egypt, a country fond of selling pearls for false dreams, and never honoring its best. The Copts come in many varieties, some exceptional and a few truly regrettable. While Copts need to reform their discourse in many places, the world at large can not simply pick the Copts it likes, but must accept the Copts it has.

— Maged Atiya


Of Copts and Islamophobia

In a recent interview with the Coptic Canadian History Project, Dr Angie Heo, a scholar of Coptic culture, stated that she sees a special responsibility for diaspora Copts, as 
“In light of these [persecution of Copts] horrific realities, however, I believe it is all the more important to ensure the diagnosis for these problems is not reactionary but carefully accurate. Coptic scholars and scholars of Copts can help mitigate Islamophobia by directing attention away from the “essence” of Islam and toward the larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement that impact all minority communities, Christian and Muslim alike.

In spite of the high-sounding but awkwardly constructed language, it is easy to detect a message that is increasingly common among some scholars of the Copts. Diaspora Copts, especially those in North American and Australia, have to censor their exposure of the increasingly tenuous conditions of Egyptian Copts lest such discourse be used by anti-Muslim bigots in the West. There is also a subtle threat in this warning. Any discussion of how Islam and its cultural content may contribute to systemic persecution of Eastern Christians is verboten. It may further endanger these same Eastern Christians while enabling anti-Muslim bigots. Copts, by  virtue of being victims, are charged with a special responsibility to “mitigate” the reactions of the larger culture in which they exist and over which they have little control. 

The statement also sets up a false equivalence. While there is a nasty strain of anti-Muslim prejudice among some Western Christians, the experience of Muslims in the West and Christians in the East are not “alike”. Nor are the ‘larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement “ the same. Christian mobs are not sacking mosques in the West on a weekly basis. The rise of ugly white supremacists has yet to result in legal strictures on the practice of any religion. 

It is certainly true that there is a residue of anti-Muslim feelings among some recently immigrated Copts. This is an expression less of their religion than of their native culture. In the clash between the christian message of “love thy neighbor” and the knowledge that it was this very same neighbor that drove you out of your homeland, the lesser angels sometimes win. This must be combated on an on-going basis, not only for the good of Muslims but also for the cultural progress of the Copts. But that effort should in no way curtail the reasoned exposure of systemic religious persecution, nor should it dilute such exposure by making it overly general about “all structures of violence and disenfranchisement.” To insist  that specific and often horrific violence should be addressed by an effort aimed at a larger reform of humanity is to allow the continuance of this violence by a quixotic, but ultimately insensitive, idealism. 

The Coptic experience in Egypt is familiar to many oppressed groups. They are expected to mind their manners, toe the line, walk close to the wall, show deference, or whatever euphemism is available at hand. And indeed for the most part Copts have conformed to these habits of servitude. But in the gloriously noisy and free West, many no longer see any purpose in such displays of caution. They are entitled to their freedom, exuberance, and on occasions, regrettable mistakes. It is bad enough that the Coptic identity must be continuously downplayed in Egypt, to the detriment of every one in the country, be they Muslim or Copt. It need not be so in countries that glorify diversity and expressions of individual and group identity. 

More specifically, diaspora Copts have every right to engage in a reasoned discussion of Islamic culture, one devoid of hate or systemic demonization. The conditions in Egypt can not be blamed on a generalized “cultural problems”. Religion plays a large and prominent role in the cultural life and governance of Egypt. We can not engage in any reasoned debate about the flaws in these social and political structures while tip-toeing around both religions in the country. When Christian thinkers, responding to the suffering of Jews and to their own moral imperatives, recognized the role their theology played in antisemitism they opened a pathway for all Christians to become better Christians. Vigorous discourse between Christian and Muslim theologians was the highlight of the ascendance of Islamic culture. The shutting down of such discourse was a hallmark of its decline. There is no greater service a Copt can render a fellow Muslim than a reasoned and respectful critique of his culture and religion. It is thus that we love our neighbor.

— Maged Atiya


Of Copts and Their Language

It was an unexpected sight. During the African games in Cairo this week a stadium crowd displayed a banner, nearly 30 feet wide, in the red, white and black tricolors of the Egyptian flag. On each color band was the same message “We Love Egypt”. The messages were in Arabic, Coptic and English. Someone, or some group, had gone to a great deal of trouble to create such a large custom banner, so we can only assume it was no accident or a spur of the moment decision. The creators, most likely Copts, were expressing themselves in the languages that mattered to them. Arabic is of course Egypt’s official language and the one spoken by nearly all its citizens. English is the lingua franca for international communication in what is an international event. Coptic was added for good measure, not because it is widely spoken (it is not), but most likely as an expression of identity. What is remarkable about the banner is the similarity it has to video displays of liturgies in Coptic churches in the lands of immigration. In most of these churches there is a large screen display of the liturgies for people to follow along, and mostly in 3 languages, Arabic, Coptic and the local language, which is predominantly English.

The vicissitudes of the Coptic language are notorious. It was both the spoken and liturgical language of Egypt for centuries. It was the Coptic church that first translated its liturgies into Arabic, perhaps to keep the loyalty of the Copts who ran Egypt for its Muslim rulers and were increasingly Arabophone. There were reports of entire villages speaking Coptic as late as the 1500s. But then Coptic died out as a spoken tongue and remained solely a liturgical language. Attempts to bring back Coptic as a spoken language in the late 19th and 20th centuries faltered. Many Copts acquired great facility in Arabic, but since Arabic was often tied to the teachings of Islam, these Copts were still perceived as visitors in what was really their native tongue. Coptic remained alluring as a badge of identity, or faith, but never practical enough to become a demotic tongue again. Two events supported a certain limited revival of Coptic. Since the middle of the 20th century the Sunday School movement has encouraged many Copts to learn and speak Coptic, although most of the material is liturgical as there is hardly any secular Coptic products. The second factor is surprisingly immigration.

Recently I watched a baptism where some of the deacons, drawn from members of the congregation, had better command of Coptic than of Arabic. The mother tongue of these young men is English, but their second language, while in church, was actually Coptic, rather than the Arabic of their parents. Occasionally one hears complaints about the valuable space on the screen displays of the liturgies taken up by Arabic. “It is only for these folks right off the boat, and really they should learn English quickly,” was how one young congregate expressed his views on the multilingual display. These anecdotes are by no means an indication of a massive revival of Coptic among immigrants. There are too many practical obstacles facing such an outcome. But it is an indication that the developing identity in immigration may take unexpected forms.

In Egypt there is more than a small discomfort with public expressions of Coptic identity. Churches can not ring their bells. Houses of prayer are sometimes sacked for putting up a cross. Those Copts who achieve public prominence are expected to play down their identity. Pope Tawadros II has said that “it is better to pray in a nation without churches than in churches without a nation”. It is not clear why there has to be a choice between preserving Egypt and its churches. Surely both can be done at the same time. This moment is a precarious one for Copts in Egypt, and perhaps especially so as the immigrant Copts forcefully assert their identity. The analogy can be made to the Armenians of the late 19th century. Some scholars have argued (perhaps incorrectly) that the assertive Armenian nationalism and identity emerging in Europe and North America at that time gave license to the Ottoman butchers who oversaw the Armenian genocide. What placed the Armenians in the cross hairs of their executioners was ultimately the assertion of a single Turkish identity for the severely truncated Ottoman empire that had recently lost even its Balkan provinces.

But comparing today’s Egypt to the Ottoman empire of the early 1900s would be taking things too far. The Egyptian identity emerged earlier and took a distinctly different path largely in response to the discovery of the glories of its ancient history. It should give us some hope that Egypt still has an opportunity to salvage something from its decades of identity crisis, by accepting the notion of a diverse country with multiple, but equally native identities. Should it do so it will likely find the key to the good governance that has evaded it for decades, even centuries.

— Maged Atiya


A Tale of Two Cathedrals

On the hot afternoon of June 25 1968 huge crowds were turned away from the ‘Abassiya neighborhood in Cairo. Most were Copts, some poor and humble, some middle class, and even scions of the old aristocracy who felt they had every right to attend the ceremony dedicating the new Coptic Cathedral of St Mark. The relics of the saint were brought back to Egypt from Venice. President Nasser attended, as well as his Vice President and future President Anwar Al Sadat. Emperor Haile Selassie was there, representing the largest Coptic majority country in the world, Ethiopia, whose Christianity emanated from Egypt. Attending was also Catholic Cardinal Duval who said he was “eager to mend a thousand years of suspicion and indifference”. Many Orthodox Patriarchs were also in attendance. There was also Dr Eugene Carson Blake of the World Council of Churches. The night before the dedication Reverend Blake dined in the home of a prominent Copt and described in fascinating details the many times he marched with Dr Martin Luther King, and recalled with sadness his assassination. The age of this blogger did not allow him a seat at the table, and could only observe from a distance. Reverend Blake represented one face of America; religious, seriously committed to equality and intolerant of intolerance. It was ironic that many who attended the reception in his honor were not able to attend the dedication and were pushed away by the police. But that is Egypt. Nasser speeded the process of clearing the legal hurdles to building the new Cathedral and even contributed a modest amount of state money toward its construction. It was rumored that this was done to allay the anger of the Coptic Patriarch, the formidable and now canonized Kyrillous VI, over the sacking of a single church in Aswan. The majority of the money to build it came from Copts; rich and poor , powerful and humble, pious and less so. It was their Cathedral, built with their money and sweat, and named after their saint and Apostle of Christ. It was the “Batrachana”, the home of the Patriarch, but also the focus of their indelible dedication to their faith, regardless of whether they held it firmly or tentatively.  

On January 7 2019 another Cathedral was dedicated in Egypt, not in Cairo, but in a spot far off in the desert. An autocratic leader paid for its construction, perhaps in return for the decades of sacking of many Coptic churches, especially in August 2013 which resulted from his removal of a Muslim Brotherhood elected President. Or simply as a show piece for the new capital. There were no spontaneous crowds to hail the dedication, and it was named in a way that no Copt would suggest. An Egyptian-American historian called it “the ultimate symbol of Dhimmitude”. As far as we know, only one prominent American visited it, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He did so after giving a speech at the American University in Cairo, a symbol and a by-product of the best of American Protestantism. Pompeo hailed it as a great improvement and a step forward for religious freedom. Many Copts however would happily trade it in for the repair of many existing churches, tasks as simple as tiling a bathroom, or the building of new ones close to where the faithful live, and like the Cathedral of no-man’s land, cheek by jowl to Mosques.

This is where Egypt is today, half a century after the last Cathedral was dedicated. This is also where America is today.

— Maged Atiya


Arrivals and Departures

We arrived in the US on August 29 1969. No plane at the time could fly direct between Egypt and the US, even if the strained relations had allowed such a flight. The trip took nearly 2 days in an august procession of airplanes and airports; Cairo to Beirut in a United Arab Airlines Comet, Beirut to Paris on a Pan American DC8 , Paris to Chicago, also on Pan American but in a Boeing 707-320B and finally Chicago to Salt Lake City on a Boeing 707-220. The Pan American tickets came in a thick long book, slightly larger than a checkbook, with red ink on the back of each sheet. On every leg of the trip my father carefully tore out a page from each of the four tickets in exchange for boarding passes. The manager of the Pan American office near the Nile Hilton made sure every customer was aware of the advanced computerized reservation system, the first of its kind in the region. “Not even Beirut has such a system. And we are in a state of war!”, he insisted to everyone who would listen. I had accompanied my father to the ticket office, perhaps to blunt the manager’s questions. “And why the trip to Amreeka?” he inquired. My father was wary of telling him about our impending immigration. The Cairo of that time was not a place where a man offered unnecessary information, especially since currency controls made it impossible to take any meaningful trips, and altogether likely to seek the assistance of Lebanese money changers. “Just to visit our family there”, was all my father would volunteer. There was no doubt that the manager noticed that the tickets were one-way.

The succession of ticket stubs facilitated a trip that was the antithesis of Conrad’s Marlow’s journey into the heart of the jungle. With every step along the way the world got larger, brighter, more open and more promising. Cairo had quickly become disheveled and dusty after the 1967 war, as if Israel’s rapid attack destroyed not only airplanes and armor but also every mop, dust feather and wash bucket. Color photography became popular in Egypt in the early 1960s, and the transition from black and white to color removed any pretensions to glamour. The monochrome dustiness of Cairo gave way to a brighter and greener Beirut. Although we never left the airport transit area, we could still spy green cedars and lush bushes from the windows. The place gave no hint of the calamity that was to visit it in less than half a dozen years. Paris, where we stayed overnight, was even brighter. It seemed that every street was over-lit, the stores exceptionally cheerful and the people dressed more colorfully. We wanted to take a walk around the city, but a soft evening rain changed that plan. It was the first time in my life I experienced summer rain. My mother took it as a sign of the strangeness of the lands to come. I took a different view. I never lost affection for the soft light that accompanies evening rain. It was in Paris that I lost my fears about making it to America at all. Those fears had begun to gather force as soon as school ended in June. In July I broke my shoulder in a surfing accident in Alexandria. I worried that I would be deemed an unfit invalid at the airport in America and turned back. In August there were rumors of planned hijackings by PLO members and dark rumblings about cancellations of flights to the Middle East. A few days before our departure there was a fire in Al Aqsa mosque, and the Egyptian media, all 3 television channels anyway, were hysterical with intimations about Israel’s involvement in the matter and the necessity to gird for an upcoming conflict. None of these events made the prospect of the trip any more certain or easier. It was not until we landed in Paris that I felt the grip of Egypt loosen around me. Still, I could barely sleep that night, fearing an alarm clock fiasco that would have us late to the airport and permanently locked out of America. I stayed awake for the entire flight, my shoulder throbbing badly, and fell asleep only when the pilot announced that we entered US airspace and the stewardess distributed landing forms. My father filled them out with the meticulous attention of a man signing away his life.

Our departure from Cairo started with Halim, my father’s driver, bounding up the steps to our Heliopolis apartment to take down our luggage. After he stowed them away in the car, he came back up to witness the parting scene. All four of us stood in the foyer with my grandmother, her companion Um Boutros, and Rushdi, our neighbor, on the other side. My grandmother had no wish to go to the airport. Her son immigrated the month before, and now her daughter was on her way as well. For the next two decades she would rattle alone in our apartment, bickering constantly with the asthmatic Um Boutros, far from all her children and grandchildren in America. She stood in black, the color she wore since my grandfather’s passing five years earlier, and with her luxurious gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. A woman accustomed to many calamities in her life, she was now facing a final one with grace and no tears. She started the proceedings by hugging and kissing my mother, then my father and my younger brother. She came over to her eldest, and favorite, grandson, pushed him down so she can kiss the top of his head. She demanded a promise that he will take care of himself and keep her close to him. He neither promised her then nor disappointed her later. She never lost her special affection for the boy who was the chief cheerleader and initial instigator for the idea of immigration. She held on for years until after the birth of her first great grandson. She knitted shawls for the mother of the baby, sending them in carefully wrapped packages to America with any one she could trust to bring them there. She asked her grandson to make sure his wife wards off the winter cold by wrapping herself tightly while nursing the baby. The shawls lacked her earlier skills, for she had grown careless and on occasions missed a few knots. Still, they were appreciated. Two women in her coffee circle of widows went to America to visit their children, and the tales they brought back strengthened her conviction that the land was not for her. Once a month she posted a letter to her grandson, always addressed to his parents’ house, where he mostly did not live. He received the letters in clumps, but read them in the order of their posting. Wars, riots and assassinations were mere background noise to her. She focused mostly on family details, asked for nothing except forgiveness and packages of Cadbury chocolates, and hoped for little except redemption and the occasional visit from America. But on the morning of departure to America no one knew of what was to come. All were glad when she concluded the proceedings by reaching for her vial of Myroon oil and drawing a cross on each of the four foreheads. We were but a few links in a chain that extended back millennia as every Copt started any venture with a spot of oil on the forehead. But these were broken links, for few had ever immigrated before.With that, we were off to the airport.

There was no party of people seeing us off at the departure area. My parents did not advertise our intention to immigrate beyond the most immediate family and a few close friends. No one in their circles of friends from the Cleopatra Church knew about our plans far in advance. It was all announced quickly and in a matter of fact way a week or so before our departure. Pope Kyrillous was known to disapprove of immigration, and the business of dealing with the spiritual needs of those already abroad fell to Bishop Samuel. The local priest issued an unenthusiastic prayer for the family’s safety. My father did not sell our prized 1960 white Ford Falcon, and the driver took us to the airport in it. It all seemed as well planned as a weekend outing. Halim unloaded our luggage at the curb, shook my father’s hand, jumped back in the car and left. I watched the car pull away, its left tail light, a single round red saucer, winking a goodbye. I waited for it to disappear into the shimmering air while everyone went into the terminal. I never saw the car again. My memory of the old terminal was that it was hot and forlorn. Policemen in white uniforms manned the checkpoints. In the early morning light the desert outside glowed hot and unkind. Inside, a few pigeons flew around and cooed in a distant corner of the ceiling. I expected my mother to cry. But she did not. My father, normally undemonstrative, instead let out a blast of criticism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. “We are not leaving Egypt”, he said. “Look around, nothing here says Egypt. We are Arabs, from an Arab republic, waiting to board an Arab airliner, with passports proclaiming we are Arabs”. “Tayeb, Tayeb”, my mother shushed him. The wait was short, the walk across the hot tarmac was brisk, and the door of the airplane closed quickly. With the final turn of the door handle I felt relieved.

Memory refuses to yield any specific details of the few hours spent at the Beirut airport except for a few incidents that stand out but with shaky veracity. I recall a young girl, barely past puberty, either European or American, smoking Virginia Slims in front of her parents, who smoked Kents. Early smoking did not shock me; I had tried my first and last cigarette at age 7 at the urging of a wayward cousin. The girl’s lack of furtiveness seemed downright unenjoyable. She propped her bare feet on one of the chairs, and my mother’s face twisted in disapproval. Somewhere in her mind she feared for what her sons might face, or worse, find attractive in a future country. There was also a Lebanese gentleman sitting next to us in the lounge who leaned over to my father and asked “Masryoon?”. In Lebanon we rediscovered that we were not Arabs, and as Edward Said would intimate in his memoirs, a lesser cousin of the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and perhaps the Iraqis as well. One encounter we did not have, or we would not have understood it had we had it, was with a young woman named Leila Khalid.  She was at the airport that day traveling from Beirut to Rome. The next morning, as we flew to America, she commandeered a TWA airliner to Damascus. News of Leila’s adventure were prominent on American Television on our first full day in the country. Huntley and Brinkley both agreed she was a terrorist. I listened closely to their broadcast trying to catch every unfamiliar English word. I did not agree nor differed with their assessment of her. I imagined that had the hijacking been pushed up a few days and the news came in Cairo I would likely have applauded her deeds.

Dinner in Paris was my first meal outside Egypt. We had nothing to eat all day but only my brother seemed to have any appetite. He wondered out loud what elementary school in America will be like. None of us bothered to answer him. My mother appeared emotional, my father distant, and I resorted to my habit of passing time by counting the objects around me. It dawned on me how daunting my prospects were. I was to attend a school in an unfamiliar language, and eventually take college entry exams that I had never prepared for, and try to fulfill my father’s wish of attending either Princeton or Cal Tech, the two US schools he thought were worthy of attention. Our prospects as a family were daunting as well. My father had no job lined up. He had never applied for a job in the years since he started his company. I suspected that my mother could not cook unassisted. This was not the way to immigrate, we were told. The sensible thing is for the man to head out first and get a job and a place to live, then bring in the family. That would have entailed us staying one more school year in Egypt. Neither of my parents liked the prospect of separating from each other, and the prospect that my brother and I would stay in Egypt alone for a few months was simply unthinkable to them. Nasser had insisted that the war to liberate the Sinai was imminent. This was not the time to separate families. I was excited to go to America, and feared that my father’s solitary trip might end up in failure and abandonment of the whole idea of immigration. Burning the ships seemed best, but watching them burn is never easy. Still, I was excited.

The customs agent in Chicago was a ruddy and beefy man who wore a tag with his last name, which seemed to be constructed entirely with the last four letters of the alphabet, with one or two vowels thrown in as gesture of mercy for those foolhardy enough to try to pronounce it. He looked closely at our passports and our green cards, which were actually made of laminated greenish plastic, and asked “Do you speak English?”. All four of us answered “Yes” in unison, better to be safe. He chuckled, “I was only asking your father, but good enough anyway”. He closed our passports and remarked “I have been working this for 20 years since I left the Army, and I liked it more when the passports said ‘Egypt’. Welcome to America”. It all seemed too easy. My father’s first act on leaving the customs area was to buy a copy of the New York Times. There was no news of Egypt or the region, beyond a report about fighting between the Lebanese Army and the PLO. My father remarked with mock amusement that there was also no column from Mohammed Hassanein Heikal. Later I would try to decipher the editorial page on the flight to Salt Lake City, but got no further than the first paragraph of a column by James Reston about the thirtieth anniversary of World War II.

Cousin N. and her husband P. were waiting for us outside customs. Their son A., a toddler, ran around them in circles. N. held the newly born K. My mother fussed over the children and N. seemed overjoyed to see us. P. and I both held back, likely for very different reasons. What struck me about them was their clothing. It was a hot day in Chicago and they were dressed in standard late 1960s academic attire, T-shirts, jeans and sandals. I felt hope that soon I might look like that. The signifiers of assimilation are limited to the senses. I knew I will never speak without an accent, and would soon find out that it will also be impossible to master American idioms. Every time I had mastered some, a new one cropped up. But if I can’t sound like them, I could at least try to look like them. The trouble was that the American tribe of that time was bewilderingly diverse. “Them” dressed in all sorts of manners meant to arouse all sorts of reactions. In the end I was never able to dress “like” Americans for I never found out how Americans dress anyway. There were a few cardinal rules to follow. No male of Middle Eastern extraction should wear slippers in public. Another rule was never to be the most formally dressed man in any party. I cringed when my father attended backyard barbecues in a casual blazer and a tie. It took me the better part of a quarter century to convince him that Polo shirts are not for savages. I once bumped into Edward Said on Morningside Heights on a hot Sunday morning. He was dressed to the nines, except for a tie. His entire manner was very elegant, and very foreign. That was certainly another rule to observe; never try to look like an elegant foreigner. But beyond these and a few other rules, there seemed to be no rules, neither to obey nor to break. In any case, I was soon to discover that men dress to please their superiors, or their women. “You are not going out with me looking like that”, was the only cardinal rule in the end. Eventually you become an American when you can dress down without feeling shabby or out of place. The place of exile is inside the clothing, unless they mysteriously fit.

Salt Lake City on the eve of Labor Day 1969 had a wholesome squareness. America at large was in turmoil, simultaneously landing on the Moon and getting mired in the mud of Woodstock, but Salt Lake stayed a few years back. It was not provincial at all. The American prosperity allowed the LDS (Mormon) Church to send missions abroad after World War II. In that relatively small city one could find many who lived abroad for extended periods, in places as varied as Kenya and Ecuador, Australia and Thailand, Japan and Germany. The seemingly odd thing was that many ventured outside the country, but rarely to the larger cities, such as New York. Those places seemed odd and far away. The headlines from them came by way of the three major networks and the national papers. The New Times noted that on Labor day Flint Michigan was prosperous and distancing itself from liberalism. There was no hint that half a century later it would be as decrepit and shabby as Boulaq or Imbaba. The network news warned of upcoming campus violence and eulogized a famous boxer who died in a plane crash. But it was not the specific news items that impressed me, rather it was the lack of any exhortation on part of the news anchors.

The dry heat of the valley reminded me of Egypt, but the city was lush and clean, scrubbed down to the last gutter. There was an orderliness that left a taste of loneliness in anyone used to the cacophony of Cairo. I could not sleep on the first night. I listened to the outside noises, none of which were made by humans. It was a natural and cacophonous symphony. I was told that the croaking noise was of tree frogs. Trying to sleep in a bed adjacent to the window, and the trees just outside, made me wake up in alarm at the prospect of peeping frogs. I woke up several times, and on one occasion went downstairs to eat a bite. I decided to try Peanut Butter, Skippy was the most cheerful name in the refrigerator. But I did not know how to eat it. I scooped a big spoon into my mouth and suddenly felt as if a cement truck had dumped its load into my throat. I frantically tried to get some water, but realized that I had no idea where the glasses were stored. The faucet was low and I simply scooped the water into my mouth. With my face and chest wet, I cast about for milk. There was only one unopened carton, stubborn and inscrutable. One side had “Open” helpfully printed, but gave no instruction as to how to do it. I gave up on milk. Next I found a jar of Velveeta Cheese, which seemed indistinguishable from Peanut Butter except for the color. I decided to leave well enough alone. As I headed back upstairs I heard a rattle outside. Opening the back door I came face to face with a raccoon outside the screen door. She calmly took my measure and walked away with two little raccoons hurrying behind her. I imagined her mumbling “Welcome to America, idiot”. I slipped back into bed wondering how many firsts still await in this country of wonders, the land where the Wild Things roam.

— Maged Atiya

From “Tales of Immigration”


Leaving Low Earth Orbit

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On the sunny afternoon of December 21 1968 an orange sailed through the open glass windows in a Heliopolis apartment in Cairo. The projectile bounced once on the floor of the boys room before it came to a halt under a photograph of the family. Adults blamed the entire episode on wayward boys in the neighborhood. But the older boy had an unlikely explanation which he kept to himself. He imagined that the orange was tossed his way by Jim Lovell, the second in command of Apollo 8, and a man he came to idolize for no particular reason. The vessel had just been launched in far away Florida, but the boy had kept close track of the entire mission even before launch. Two decades later, after a lecture by Lovell, the grown man wanted to introduce himself and mention the orange, but did not, to his regret.

The race to the moon, and the bets placed on the eventual first arrival, occupied minds throughout the 1960s, and whether one favored the United States or the Soviet Union depended largely on the person’s political orientation. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Egyptian television played a short snippet of one of his sermons, the boy’s favors swung toward the Americans. He watched with some trepidation as a squat and ungainly Soviet tub, dubbed Zond 6, carrying a turtle and a number of smaller critters orbited the moon in an eccentric manner during the latter part of November 1968, before skipping back to earth and crashing in the wilds of Kazakhstan, killing all animals on board, small and smaller. But his excitement soared as the closing act of 1968 belonged to the spectacular vessel called Apollo 8, launched from America and piloted by Americans. The closing weeks of 1968 were notable in Egypt by the fact that the state media gave prominent play to Apollo 8. It was a significant departure from its hereto skewed reporting which hailed every Soviet achievement and downplayed every American one. There were daily reports of the accomplishments of Apollo 8, and on the day after its safe arrival back on earth, December 28 1968, the stations promised a full half hour documentary on Apollo 8. For the passionate follower of the space program the documentary seemed a suitable present on his birthday. He fidgeted all day waiting for it. His birthday fell awkwardly during a fast, making the idea of a cake out of the question; instead it was always celebrated with some variation of fruits or vegetarian delicacy topped with a single candle. On this day he had no wish to linger on a celebration and was eager to rush to the TV and watch the documentary which delivered everything it promised and more.

What the documentary promised were photographs of the earth and the moon and footage of the men inside their capsule and of the heavenly bodies outside it. There were certainly those, in full black and white graininess. The documentary also delivered more than it promised, albeit in an intangible form. There was the awe imprinted on the young viewer of the vastness of the distance between the earth and the moon, and the comparatively insignificant size of the vessel. Apollo 8 traveled more than 100 times farther than Columbus, in a vessel smaller than his and with no possibility of patching up leaks while sailing toward its destination. Jim Lovell’s error of wiping out the computer memory and reorienting the vessel by the stars was a throwback to an earlier era of technology, but also an affirmation of the indispensable place of craft in all journeys of discovery. The boy found the diagrams and illustrations of the earth, moon and the vessel entirely unsatisfying, due to their truncated perspective. Instead, and only to comprehend the scale of the enterprise, he placed the orange which he had kept from days earlier on one end of the long hallway in the apartment, and on the other end he placed a playing marble. He tweaked the distances to approximate that between the earth and the moon. He could not find a satisfying stand-in for Apollo. Even an ant would have been too big, and insufficiently majestic. He imagined Apollo, too tiny to see on his reconstruction, racing toward the moon, carrying within it even smaller creatures. These creatures were his heroes. His sunday school teacher had tried to convince him, mostly in vain, of the existence of God based on the vastness and the unlikeliness of the universe. But in the hallway of his home he came to comprehend the true wonder of human existence, the inexplicable ability of tiny creatures to venture to places utterly inhospitable to their weak forms.

The birthday documentary began to pull America into view. Immigration was a near certainty now, and only a matter of months away. There was the excitement of tunneling out of Egypt, of whose failures he had become tired and ashamed. But America had remained elusive in spite of his diligent research. He memorized the names of all 50 states and their capitals. He collected road maps of the country and many of the bigger cities. He listened to the vinyl discs that came from America by couriers. He had followed the presidential campaign, and the mysterious Electoral College. He imagined that forsaking his tribe would be easy, but what American tribe would he belong to? Apollo 8 mission control offered a tentative answer. The tribe of men who seemed able to do complex things without any seeming effort. They spoke in acronyms with hushed and even tones, whether the matter at hand was routine or catastrophic. Their uniform of short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and half-rimmed glasses signaled a welcome otherness. Neither birth nor kinship guaranteed membership in that tribe; the price of belonging was facility with arcane knowledge. He listened carefully to their clipped chatter. They reduced the terrifying act of leaving earth’s embrace into a comfortable three letter acronym, TLI. Trans Lunar Injection. This was quite a departure from the world he had known so far, where daily acts of stupidity were celebrated with great fanfare. Three men were commanded to escape their home planet into the vastness of space with a single understated sentence, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI. Over”.  A reporter’s comment, heard faintly in the background, provided a succinct summary of the event. Leaving low earth orbit. Low Earth Orbit, LEO. That phrase stuck with the boy as a metaphor for all that was about to happen to him. It captured in equal measures the excitement and fear of leaving home. In his hallway construction immigration was but a small move, from one section of the orange to another. But he saw it as something closer to the first ever human departure from earth’s influence. Immigration would happen weeks after Apollo 11, and it would start with a walk down the hallway from the bedroom to the foyer; from the orange to the marble. While a few family members said their goodbyes in the early morning light, he imagined himself leaving low earth orbit. America neither kept the promises of 1969, nor disappointed in a larger sense. In the tumult of the 1970s, many radicals attacked the space program, and even science itself. He took no effort to argue with them, feeling that they are simply bound to the gravitational pull they had never questioned. The country as a whole abandoned the promises of the Apollo program, confining humans to low earth orbit, but spectacular machines made further journeys; the Voyager twins, and the Mars expeditions did not send humans out of earth orbit, only the fruits of their mental labors. While the language of science, and the space program, crept into his daily expressions, he tried to keep LEO private. Once, while castigating one of his graduate students for aiming too low, he demanded “you really needed to leave low earth orbit on this issue”. The student, just a few years younger, was puzzled by the expression but adopted it anyway. Soon enough it was common around his lab. LEO was a synonym for any effort deemed lacking in imagination, poorly executed or simply boring. A better-funded competing group across the country was described as a “a bunch of LEOs”. He regretted the public use of what had been his private phrase. But the idea of leaving low earth orbit remained as a metaphor for any worthwhile venture; leaving the comfortable and combating the unknown before returning to the familiar. He counted himself lucky in a number of ways, but mostly in having the freedom to occasionally leave the familiar and experience the anxiety of the unknown. In escaping low earth orbit he would find delight in not belonging and redemption in transgressing without fanfare. He would never find comfort in the assurances of religion or the musings of philosophers. For him life was too incomprehensible and random. It made sense solely within its context and only by its ever-shifting rules. The trepidation of its inevitable waning made bearable by the thought of it as one exciting preparation for a final departure from low earth orbit.

— Maged Atiya

From “Tales of Immigration”


September 11 and the “Eastern Question”

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In 1957 an Egyptian historian was appointed to the prestigious Patten lectureship at Indiana University. He used the occasion to give a series of lectures on a subject that had occupied him for more than 30 years. In 1961 the lectures were assembled into a slim book, just 280 pages including the indexes. The book would have been much larger, but the historiography and bibliography were assembled into a separate volume, nearly 200 pages long. This blogger is the current custodian of the author’s own first copy of both volumes and can attest that the historiography is far more thumbed than the main volume.The author had a life-long habit of stating his ambitious, even radical intellectual plans, in an understated preface. Perhaps it was his village upbringing that left him with the conviction that modesty and humility are life’s best insurance against the caprice of fortune or the disapproval of God. Of the subject matter knowledge he accumulated over the course of three decades on three continents he says “I never had the courage to attempt a general treatise on this vast and variegated sphere of historical knowledge … until the time of the invitation to the Patten Lectures. Since a major condition was the delivery of the text of the lectures for publication … I had no choice but to succumb to the temptation which I had been able to resist for many years”. This was the preface of Aziz Atiya’s “Crusade, Commerce and Culture”, a remarkable and now prescient book. Of the subject he notes “I have attempted a distinction between the Crusade, a movement with roots deep in the Greco-Persian-Arabic past, and the Crusades as a series of military ventures limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. With that sweeping and radical statement, it comes as no surprise that the author describes the Crusades as one attempted solution for a historical problem that continues to our day, the “Eastern Question”. The Crusades were merely a phase, a “Frankish Solution” to that question, and neither the first nor the last. The author explicitly states that the “Eastern Question” is narrowly understood to be the definition of the European powers’ concern over what would become of the lands governed by the declining Ottoman Empire, but he notes that the concern is yet another episode of a larger cultural struggle between two worlds, and one that finds it nexus in the Levant.

The book opens with a summary of the various attempted solutions to the Eastern Question, from Alexander the Great, to the Roman occupation of the East, to the Byzantine dominance, the rise of the Arabs and Islam, the Carolingian solution and finally to the Crusades themselves. He gives one of the most concise and brief definition of a then not-yet fashionable term in the West, “Jihad”, before dropping it altogether in favor of a more neutral term, “Counter Crusades”. The author is rather comfortable with many concepts that we now try to avoid in Western intellectual discourse. There is the essential cultural difference between “East” and “West”, on which he finds no side to favor. The author started his intellectual life as an Easterner with a Western education and completed it as a Westerner with Eastern roots. That arc left him with appreciation for both and no fear of delineating differences while noting the larger human commonalities, which materialized in the exchange of goods and ideas; commerce and culture, in that order. He notes that both the Crusades and Counter-Crusades (Jihad) were holy wars indeed, which makes them not the opposite of peace, but the opposite of secular wars. He experienced several such wars in his lifetime, and all of them were crueler and more destructive than the skirmishes he chronicles. He gives in a single page a radical and alternative history of the Islamic conquests, not as a result of Islam, but as a continuation of earlier infiltration of Arab irregulars into the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. This view of early Islam (later expanded and endorsed by such scholars as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Glen Bowersock) was likely the result of his copious research in early non Islamic sources in the crucial seventh century C.E. He notes that the continuous competition between West and East co-existed with a great of mutual attraction between the two worlds. Of Alexander the Great he says “Curiously, Alexander who Hellenized wide areas in Asia and who married his soldiers to the daughters of Iran in order to create a uniform Greco-Iranian nation, became himself in the end an Oriental potentate”.  The author’s take on the Jewish revolt of 117 C.E. is also a radical one, defining it as “first instance on record of what might justly be described as wars of religion”. A single and jealous God left no room for the compromises of multiple deities, and would endow those who had faith in him with resolve, a sense of divine law and justice, and on occasions wanton cruelty in defense of uncompromising belief. The Jewish wars, the growth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam mark a fateful junction in human history. “Hitherto, the Eastern Question had been one of race and culture. At this juncture, it became a religious problem”. The impressive research and  rich historical details in the book, especially in the discussion of commerce and culture, make it difficult to take sides in what amounts to a “clash of civilization”. The author remains a detached referee, handing out yellow cards to one side or the other without fear or favor. It is clear that he views the differences in world views as nearly insurmountable, but wishes them to return to an earlier form, that of culture rather than religion. The book had a valedictory air to it, as he never went back to a similar systematic study. The remaining 30 years of his life were spent in the collection of books and the study of Eastern Christianity. He was also fascinated by the burgeoning phenomena of Western Islam, transmitted to him by many Muslim friends who took up residence in the West.

Almost exactly 32 years after the publication of the book, Samuel Huntington took up the same thesis, but with less historical sweep, in the “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington accepted the alignment of Western values with Christianity, and formulated the regrettable notion of “Islam’s bloody borders”. The borders had been bloody before Islam, and although we can never prove it, would have likely remained bloody absent the rise of Islam. The identification of Christianity with Western values left the Eastern Christians behind front lines they did not intend to create, nor were willing to cross. Atiya, a Copt by baptism, was keenly aware of the rapid Islamization of Egypt and the Levant after the Crusades. The alignment of Western and Christian values was the choice of the West, not the Christians. The West set about purging its perceived domain of Islam, and any domain that was not amenable to such a purge was declared non-Western.

In the author’s view the fundamental dichotomy between West and East was not alleviated by religious commonality. He blames Byzantium’s suppression of Eastern Christians for the ease with which the Arab armies seized the Levant and Egypt, and notes that “The growth of peace, justice and security in the countries of the Levant was accompanied by the steady development of a new superior Arab civilization to which the Eastern Christians contributed no mean share”. The subsequent 300 years of mutual diplomacy and peace between West and East, the Carolingian solution, ended with the age of the Crusades. The author notes “Strictly speaking, Muslim terrorism as the order of the day in the Near East must be identified with the predominance of the Turks, who were new to Islam and had no comprehension of the language of the Qur’an”. This view, which must seem odd today, was in fact a not uncommon discourse among nationalist Egyptian intellectuals during that time, who prefered to champion racial cohesion over religious differences. The author demonstrates how during the “Carolingian solution” the West accepted the essentially Eastern nature of their Christian faith as demonstrated by the great effort and expense that went into promoting pilgrimages and visits to the East. The notion of Christianity as a “Western religion”, was not a cause of the Crusades but a result of them. The Crusades were raised by a French Pope, and represented the “Frankish solution” of the Eastern question. Although in territorial terms they failed to secure any foothold for the West in the Levant, they were to launch the rise of the warlike West, fatally injure Eastern Christianity, and initiate a long term decline of Arab and Muslim culture.

On every September 11 since 2001, the themes of that book come to mind. For a moment after the attack President George Bush slipped and described the response as a “crusade” before quickly walking back his comment. The terrorists had no compunction about describing their crimes in religious terms. The question that comes to mind, 17 years after that event, is whether we must continue to relive the “Eastern Question”, or whether a fundamentally different outlook must prevail, for the sake of every newborn on all sides of the divide.

— Maged Atiya