“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”

Simaika

Sometime in late 1872 or early 1873 the 14 year-old Theodore Roosevelt, future President of United States, visited Egypt. Later in life he blurted out in his diary “How I gazed on Egypt. It was the land of my dreams; Egypt, the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Babylon was in its glory, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did” The precocious boy exhibits a certainty of what Egypt is, an attitude shared by outsiders, then as now. Two decades after Roosevelt’s visit outsiders (mostly) brought forth the great age of museums in Egypt, with four of them built in two decades. First to be established was the Egyptian museum, the plaque on top of it lists the great men of Egyptology, all of them European. The items within would whet the appetite of every Teddy, and cuttingly remind Egyptians of how unworthy they have become of their ancestors. Then came the museum of “Arab” (actually Islamic) art. It was also built by Europeans of a different stripe; romantics who saw in Islam the exotic and the “other”. Then came the museum of Greco-Roman art in Alexandria. Again it was built by Europeans, of yet a third kind; eager to cement their claim to the city by attaching it firmly to the southern end of Europe. The last, and the most modest, was unique in that it was started by a native Egyptian, a bulldozer of a man and a Copt. The man was Murqus Pasha Simaika (1864-1944), and the museum was dedicated to “Coptic Archaeology”. It was an odd designation given that the Copts were not dead, and in fact were very much on the rebound at that time. Well into the 1970s Egyptians referred to the museum as “Mat7af Murqus Basha Simaika”, or the museum of Murqus Pasha Simaika. Simaika was not a scholar, but a mover and a shaker, an able administrator and dogged collector. His efforts lit a spark to the field of Coptology, with reverberations that echo to this day. He also fought in the trenches of the communal struggles between the 1870s into the 1940s. He was not a man of letters, and his opinions often changed, but by action set markers for Coptic identity that others continually sought to support or refute. It is not that he settled the question of “What is a Copt?”, but that he raised the question in the first place, without even meaning to do so.

The years after his visit to Egypt were kind to Theodore Roosevelt. He went from honor to greater honor until he reached the pinnacle of power as President of the United States, ending his term in 1909. In his first year away from power he traveled the world and visited Egypt. He gave a memorable speech denouncing the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, a Copt, and advising the Egyptians that “the training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations”. Grateful Copts whisked him away to visit the recently established Coptic museum where Murqus Pasha was his guide. The Simaika and Roosevelt families were equally ancient. In the middle of the 17th century the Simaika family was among the most powerful Coptic notables, at the same time that the Roosevelts traveled to New York to become landed gentry. It must be said that the artifacts in the museum fail to answer with complete certainty the question of “What is a Copt?”, since many predate Christianity and appear decidedly both Coptic and Hellenic, while others are medieval and appear both Coptic and Islamic. In a further swirl of identities and accidents, we know that this was not the last interaction between the Roosevelts and the Simaikas. Farid Simaika, the nephew of Murqus Pasha, and an Olympic diver, was inducted into the US Army air corps under a special program set up by President Franklin Roosevelt. He had recently become an American. He volunteered for a highly dangerous spying mission to the South Pacific where his airplane was shot

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Farid Simaika, Olympic diver and war hero

down. It is surmised with near certainty that he was beheaded by the Japanese forces. He is believed to be the first,and perhaps the only Copt to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. It is a sober reflection on where America was then that Farid was able to marry an American woman only after the local California court ruled that “Egyptians belonged to the Hamitic and Semitic branch of the Caucasian race”. The court expressed certitude about Egyptians, and by implication Copts, that they themselves lack even today.

Murqus Pasha stood astride many divides among the Copts. There was the divide between the laity and the Church as how to reform and modernize the community. There was also the divide between the landed aristocracy and self-made new men. But perhaps most critically there was an identity divide. Should the Copts attach themselves to ancient Egypt, as the “true sons of the Pharaohs”, of hew to a Christian identity? How much of the Copts’ identity is tied to Egypt’s ancient history and how much is a product of their Christianity? Murqus Pasha was a bold and forceful man; he lacked what Stanley Lane-Poole insisted Copts possess, “the vices of servitude”. Yet it is possible to find in his life and actions clear evidence that he was on all sides of those divides. It is perhaps his great contradictions, as well as as his great actions, that make him worthy of study, especially in our current times.

A chronicler and molder of Egyptian and Coptic identity, Mirrit Boutros Ghali, wrote the obituary of Murqus Pasha. It was a fit choice, as Ghali had become a prominent archeologist by that time, and Murqus had been a friend of both his paternal and maternal grandfathers, as well as a grateful recipient of the assistance of Mirrit’s mother. In an entry in the Coptic Encyclopedia written four decades later he quotes from Simaika’s unpublished memoirs, which were kept privately by Murqus’s son Youssef. It was always hoped that full accounting of them be made public. A new account of Murqus Pasha and his times based on these memoirs is now published in English by AUC Press, by the Pasha’s grandson, the eminent gynecologist Samir Mahfouz Simaika, and Nevine Henein. This follows an earlier publication of a similar volume by the Farid Atiya Press. Samir Simaika is also the grandson of Naguib Mahfouz, the famous Coptic Gynecologist, after whom the Nobel Prize novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who is a Muslim, is named, in recognition of the doctor who made his life possible after a difficult birth. Islamists would always hold Mahfouz’s name against him, and late in life attempt to assassinate him for it. We should also note that the editor of the Encyclopedia, Aziz Atiya, who was Farid Atiya’s uncle and this blogger’s adoptive grandfather, was inspired to attempt his monumental work late in life through the example of men such as Simaika. So much of the focus on Egypt today centers on the roles of the military and Islamists, but those who wish to read Egypt beyond the doleful reality of power and prejudice will find rare treasures in this book, even if it is a difficult dig.

The book is divided neatly into four parts that tell of Semaika’s upbringing, his services to his nation, his services to his fellow Copts, and finally his efforts to establish and grow his museum. These correspond roughly to the divides mentioned earlier. A notably curious fact about both books is that they use the Latinized version of Simaika’s name, Marcus, rather than the pronunciation favored by Egyptians, Murqus, thus banishing the harsh Semitic Qoph. It is possible that the Pasha would have approved of this. In official photographs the old Copt seems pleased as his chest proudly displays the multitude of medals and accolades bestowed on him by kings and potentates from various countries. A 1923 photograph of the Simaikas looks remarkably like a European aristocratic family. The memoirs of Marcus display an easy familiarity with the top colonial and Egyptian officials, as well as many eminent scholars of the time, such as Alfred Butler, Somers Clarke, Josef Strzygowski, and Ugo de Villard. But the old Copt within him chafed underneath the charming veneer of a man of the modern world and occasionally it would lash out in resentment. He confronted Sa’ad Zaghlul over the matter of teaching only Muslim religious thoughts in schools, and Zaghlul, who favored the word “uskut”, or “shut up”, in debates, gave in. He was angry with multiple British officials for sowing seeds of dissent and general run-of-the-mill condescension. After all, the Pasha came from a family of Coptic notables accustomed to respect for centuries. Throughout his life, and in quoted passages from his memoirs, he promoted a vision of Egyptian identity that stands beyond religion, only to be faced with ugly realities at all times. He attended the funeral of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali after his assassination, but could recall with precision the “praise” bestowed by Sheikh Al Azhar on Ghali, “this Copt did more for his country than many Muslims”. The sense of anger, coiled beneath a requisite surface of amity, must feel familiar to many Copts. When aroused, the anger can take on unhappy forms. In a speech regarding the dispute with the Ethiopian Church over the ownership of Deir Al Sultan in Jerusalem (still ongoing a century later), he notes that “after each incident … the repenting Ethiopians came back tearfully begging to be allowed to stay, and the Copts taking pity on them and considering them as their brothers in faith always pardoned them ..”. It is expected of ambitious men to stand up for themselves, unless they are Copts. Marcus Pasha is advised by a more traditional Coptic politician, Youssef Wahba, to turn it down a notch, saying “when you want something …you seem to carry a stick in one hand and a knife in the other”. The quotations in the book leave no doubt that Marcus Pasha was shadowed by anger. In the preface his grandson notes that unlike many other Coptic grandees he never turned his back on his people, or ignored their needs, after he achieved wider fame. That is exactly true of Simaika, he remained a passionate Copt and fully engaged in the affairs of the community. His greatest battles were with other Copts, usually the clerical hierarchy. A dynamic man in a time of rapid social change could not possibly avoid that predicament. It is not so much that he was a bridge between generations, but that he was a familiar and oft repeated note in an endless fugue.

The Pasha was not an easy man, and he sometimes clashed with many of his contemporaries, especially the prelates of the Coptic Church. The book bills him as the “Father of Coptic Archaeology”, which is a richly deserved honor. The title of “Founder of Coptology” should be reserved to the intellectual Cladius Labib (1868-1918). He, and his son Pahor (who directed the Coptic museum after Simaika’s death), tried and failed to revive Coptic as a spoken language, something all other Coptologists shied away from, in favor of Arabic, English, French and German as their favored tongues. But Simaika should be counted as one of Coptology’s early founder and a prototype for many of subsequent followers, even if he was more of a man of power than scholarship. His contemporary in that work, Prince Omar Toussoun, also deserves equal honors. The Prince, a descendant of Muhammad Ali on both sides of his parents, was an accomplished scholar who studied the geography and history of Egypt. Although a Muslim, he too is a father of Coptology. The book features a rare photograph of the two of them at the Coptic museum in 1942, a few years before both would pass away. By that time these two men were already passing the baton to a new generation of Coptologists cut from a different cloth, but with equal or greater ambitions. These men shared a curious feature. All would make major contributions to the revival of Coptic culture while denying any thought that there is a “Coptic nation”. Most saw the contradiction between their actions and words (as indeed did Simaika) but perhaps felt it was the price of gaining agency in a world beyond their control.

The book features many anecdotes so familiar that they seem apocryphal. There is the story of the strong-willed Marcus defying his father, who wanted him to be a priest, and learning English and venturing out onto the wider world. He was not the first Copt to do so, as many Boutros, Murqus and Salamas would try to transcend and outgrow their Coptic identity. The older man, made wiser by the buffeting of the world, returns to serve his people in ways far more important than a mere parish priest. This is a familiar story of many “founders”, whether they were secular Zionists who rejected the rabbinical ways of their families, or Brahmin Hindus who adopted the manners and language of the British they loved and resented. There is a hesitant uncertainty about the world made by Western culture. The arms embrace it but the eyes betray a suspicion of it. In the case of Marcus Pasha the ironies and ambiguities loop on each other. He went to a school founded by Pope Kyrillos IV, “Father of Reform”, but open to Muslims and Copts, although Copts could not attend state schools at the time. The English Church Mission Society (CMS) made the Pope’s task easier, but he was a iconoclastic man, both figuratively and literally. Marcus the ambitious young man must have appreciated the “figurative” part, while the older Marcus as an art collector resented the senseless destruction brought on by this Pope. Admiration and censoriousness have a common heart.

The foundation myth, even if true, of the Coptic museum is also a familiar one. Marcus Pasha sees Pope Kyrillos V, the man he battled for years, about to melt ancient and beautiful silver bowls. He snatches them from his hands and with these as the first artifacts builds the museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Copts. Since then the story has been repeated and retouched by many a Coptologist. Ragheb Moftah documented Coptic sacred music with Western musical notation to save it from the mouths of ignorant priests who mumbled it without understanding. Aziz Atiya would not let Pope Shenouda have a final say on the editors of the Coptic Encyclopedia lest it becomes a uselessly hagiographic paean. These stories, all true, share a common theme. The determined scholar eager to use the tools of Western knowledge to serve “his” people must face down the entrenched and sometimes ignorant official Church. The reality also contains additional notes. The majority of Copts at those times likely supported Kyrillos V and Shenouda III, and viewed these men as “fathers” necessary for their survival. Whatever these scholars did to guarantee the cultural survival of the common folks was likely to be under-appreciated by the beneficiaries. There were more than a few shades of gray to all the confrontations. Samir Simaika notes the difficulty of collecting old Coptic sacramental artifacts since any item anointed by chrism must be destroyed once unusable lest it falls to profane hands. There is an echo of this in the tale of the Cairo Geniza records. European, or “advanced” Jews, wrested these documents from their rightful owners, the Egyptian or “backward” Jews, and sent them to Europe and the US for preservation and study. The act is either a perfidious theft or a heroic effort that documents the ways of a people now literally extinct. Individuals often pay a heavy price for communal reform. Conventional morality is a confused waif when it comes to the difficult work of preserving and building a nation’s culture.

Marcus was elected to the newly created Al Majlis Al Mili or “Community Council” at the tender age of 25. And for decades he was one of its most notable voices. As befitting a man of his temperament, his positions and views were unambiguous, until they changed. He favored the primacy of the lay Copts over the clerical hierarchy in the running of the affairs of the community, yet he paid homage to the very same bishops to pry items from their monasteries and churches. He favored exiling Pope Kyrillos V, and also bringing him back with honors. Many a man cut in Marcus’ mold would bend down and kiss the hand of a Bishop or a Pope that he believed to be an uneducated rube.The men in his party found themselves in paradoxical situations. The Church has been the backbone of the Copts for centuries, and the common folks loved Christ and their Church even while occasionally disapproving of the behavior of the men in black. But the Copts must be beaten out of these views if they are to be whipped into shape and made fit for the modern world, so thought many men like Simaika. The century-long battle now seems to have been decided in favor of the Church, perhaps. The Church was reformed from within, by laymen who joined its ranks. The Coptic notables seem to have largely disappeared, victims of the various “isms” that haunt Egypt today. But listening closely one can hear the opening salvo of a renewal of that struggle. The old notables like the Simaika family, born and bred to serve Egypt’s despots, are gone, but new notables made of a different stock are coming on the scene. These are the figurative descendants of Marcus’ Pasha nephew Farid, Copts born outside Egypt and sometimes less than fully acquainted with its realities, but with entirely different sense of entitlements and expectations. They expect the world to respect their individual and personal rights, they expect the state to serve them not the other way around, and they expect the Church to administer to their spiritual needs but not be in control of their views and actions. These new notables are eager to belong and serve, but under a new compact. The shape of the future struggle, or even if there is one, is still unknown. Recently this author found himself in an audience with Pope Tawadros II and a number of young women. They were all Copts, most were not Egyptian, and a few were not even of Egyptian stock. They could just as easily have been in an audience of Oprah as with a Patriarch of an ancient Church. He listened to them with a great deal of fatherly love and some incomprehension. What came to heart were the twin feelings that underpin most religious experiences; hope and dread.

Marcus Simaika spent the last decades of his life collecting Coptic artifacts and building up his museum. The book is rich in telling details. He was not a man to take “No” or even “Yes” for an answer. He insisted on “Yes, Now!” (“Whenever I heard of some object worthy of being added to our collection, I began my attack. I never despaired if refused once … and obtained it when the possessor became tired of my visits”). There is a comic underside to such a man in Egypt, for “now” among the Egyptians often stretched to years or never. There was also a tragic underside. His searches proved beyond doubt that much of Coptic heritage was destroyed in the Mamluk pogroms of the 13th and 14th centuries. As his collection grew the state became interested in it, less because it supported Coptic culture but because it wished to look like it is solicitous of the welfare of the Copts, especially to outsiders. Marcus Pasha did nothing to expose the condescending sneer behind the smiling facades. In this manner he was a model for the men who followed him. Most ignored the painful realities that touched them in favor of a distant vision of a better country. Aziz Atiya, who was hounded out of his university professorship by Islamists, would later write that “Copts enjoy full citizenship rights in Egypt today”. Mirrit Ghali would serve the Free Officers as minister (briefly) and diplomat, even after he was certain they would destroy his vision of a genuinely liberal Egypt. Pope Tawadros II insists that Copts can trust their safety to the state, even as policeman watch idly while mobs ransack Coptic properties in Minya. A sympathetic American asked “Why do Copts do that?”, stopping short of repeating Lane-Poole’s charge. We can only look in vain for an answer among Marcus Simaika’s words. He was a nominal support of Lutfi El-Sayed brand of Egyptian nationalism, which time has shown to be inimical to the interests of the Copts, while also developing an ideological framework for the violent suppression of Islamists. Yet he, and the majority of Coptic public men, remained faithful to it. Simaika, while building up the Christian portion of the Coptic identity, insisted that Copts attach themselves to the ancient Egyptian heritage. This seeming contradiction persists, even within the Church, where Egyptian nationalism has attached itself to its theology, as a barnacle would to a magnificent ship. The Copts are full-fledged members of the fraternity of reviled minorities, yet have struck out differently from others. Unlike the Jews and the Kurds, for example, they never sought out a geographic state fortified behind secure walls. Also, unlike the Christians of the Levant, they never sought out communally based representation, nor attempted to secure special rights. Most even reject the label “minority”, a triumph of aspiration over arithmetic. These stands might be a product of nearly two centuries of sacralization of Egypt and a belief in its exceptionalism, or simply a realistic approach favoring the possible over the desirable. But whatever the reasons these views have become problematic, and might set up new communal struggles, as the percentage of non-Egyptians among Copts grows.

For all its rewards, one can come to the last few pages of a book about a man who collected and preserved Coptic heritage without a satisfactory answer to “What is a Copt?”. For that we must look inward. A simple tribal definition that draws boundaries, defining who is in and who is out seems unsatisfactory. If any attempt at preserving cultural identity is to succeed it must account for change and allow for a constant redefinition of that identity by future generations. No culture can thrive behind high walls, and no wall is high enough to protect and contain a thriving culture. What might work is a series of concentric definitions radiating outward. There are those born into the Coptic identity, then there are those who wish to join it. Others might earn a place of honor by their understanding and support. Still others might look at the trials and triumphs of Copts and respect them as a retelling of the larger human condition. They are all Copts, and Copts would do well to embrace them without fear of dilution or loss of identity.

— Maged Atiya

 


Pointless Fatwa – Useless Tussle

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A man in the religion business issued a Fatwa declaring it permissible to keep antiquities as long as it is done with proper tithing. This has outraged many. As Fatwas go, this is a pointless one; about as useful as urging a diet of meat on a lion. Egyptians have taken to robbing the tombs of their ancestors since time immemorial. As soon as a ruler or a rich man is laid in his grave the treasures within attracted the attention of the next ruler or quick witted and daring thief. As late as the 1970s Hussein Abdel Rasul reigned supreme in his family compound in Gourna. The wiry, sharp-eyed patriarch entertained his guests with grace and charm, ordering coffee, tea and sweets for them without so much as a word or gesture. His minions bustled around eager for his favor or fearful of his wrath, it was never clear. Ali was not given to anger, except when it came to the matter of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whom he faulted for having his grandfather beaten for robbing tombs. Decades after that event he still seethed that his grandfather was undone and humiliated for engaging in the family business. Ali usually neglected to mention that it was his great uncles who betrayed their sibling. The point of this anecdote is that the Fatwa was scarcely needed to assuage the conscience of current tomb robbers. The real purpose was to fire yet another shot in Egypt’s culture war.

Scientist and public official Rushdi Sa’id noted in his memoirs that in 1953 he could not convince a simple farmer that he is “related” to the builders of the monuments that surrounded his field. They were after all pagan and evil, according to the farmer. Sa’id, an educated member of the elite who mentions how an English woman favorably compared his physiognomy to a statue in the British museum, was keen to establish the connection as a way to promote progress and elevate the nation. Like many nationalists of his time Sa’id was a firm Egyptianist, and an uncompromising enemy of Islamism. He notes how, given its history of invasions, Egypt can not be isolated to a single ethnic or cultural thread, but according to the logic of his Egyptianism the conclusion is that Egypt, and its river and soil, sublimates all, making them Egyptian beyond doubt. This mysticism of blood and soil has been a useful weapon against outsiders, and increasingly against proponents of political Islam. But it has done little to provide a vision of a common national project. Its gaze is so firmly fixed on the past that it regularly stumbles among the pitfalls of the present. It has certainly allowed Islamists easy victories through simple pandering. Sa’id’s failure to convince the farmer echoes more than 60 years later in the current controversy. Zahi Hawas, a pseudo-Egyptologist and a reality star, claimed that the Fatwa is illogical, since the state has rights on anything in its lands. To the sin of being tone-deaf, he added a measure of coercive statism. In fact, it is the Fatwa issuer who seems more logical, arguing that he has not encouraged anyone to rob tombs, but to simply take what is in their lands, and use some of its proceeds for charity. This clever refrain should not blind us to his real purpose. Others pointed out that the objects are the heritage of all of Egypt, without checking whether the majority would in fact agree with that statement. What was left unsaid is the real reason why antiquities should be preserved, even going to the length of paying those who find them. These artifacts belong to a common culture, one that transcends Egypt and belongs to all of humanity. To say so would be the first step to build a national identity on a foundation of shared values, rather than past greatness or imagined kinship.

— Maged Atiya

 


How to Disappear Eastern Christians

All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.

What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.

There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.

It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


It Is Not All Religion

An anti-Mursi supporter of Egypt's army walks in front of his shop, with huge posters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with cross and crescent symbol of the unity Egyptians in downtown Cairo

Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife.  These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money.  And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.

The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter.  The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.

No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


A Papal Message of Hope?

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In an interview titled “Papal Message of Hope” Pope Tawadros II spoke on a variety of topics. His words were meant to give hope to both Copts and Egyptians. But to some Copts, specifically those who are not Egyptian, the words may give them reasons for concern. It is difficult to gauge in a statistically meaningful way the attitudes of non-Egyptian Copts. The best one can do is keep a close ear to representatives of various strains of thought and try to guess the views of the majority accordingly. Nearly a week after the interview, most American Copts seem not to view it favorably, and in the view of this observer for the wrong reasons. Historian Samuel Tadros noted that the Pope “seems to think of himself as an Egyptian leading an Egyptian church”, and in spite of his generally favorable view of Papal administrative decisions warned of a “theological crisis”. Tadros, as usual, cuts to the chase and finds Ethnocentric discourse by Copts to be problematic. He is right in an American and perhaps a universal context, but to Egyptian Copts who know that many fellow Egyptians wish to deny them liberty, or even life, the nationalist discourse is the lesser of two evils, the other being the Islamist discourse. Other Copts felt that the Pope did not highlight the suffering of Copts in Egypt and by insisting that terrorists aim to attack Egyptian unity, rather than just the Copts, is echoing the views of a government too inept to protect its citizens. They are right, but perhaps Pope Tawadros finds lessons to learn from the early confrontational years of the papacy of Pope Shenouda. The reality is that the world will not rush to defend persecuted Copts in Egypt beyond words of concern. The safety of Egyptian Copts lies with a difficult and negotiated dialog with a negligent and occasionally complicit state. To paraphrase a Russian peasant, the world opinion is very far away and the Egyptian state is uncomfortably close by. Non-Egyptian Copts have the benefit of personal and political freedom and a considerable megaphone, but these tools do not translate readily to power to persuade the Egyptian state. While it is true that the so-called Islamic State made it clear it targets Copts solely on the basis of their faith, even the most delusional foot soldiers do not believe that they can eradicate Copts one Church bombing at a time. What they seek is a sectarian conflict. In a real sense, Pope Tawadros is correct. The terrorists are targeting the Egyptian nation as a whole, however indirectly.

Two aspects of the interview stand as real concerns for this observer. First is his admiration for Putin. This is really uncalled for.  But more importantly, there is Pope Tawadros’ attitude towards immigration. The Coptic Church has had three Popes since immigration began in earnest in the late 1960s. Pope Kyrillous would not hear of it. Pope Shenouda pretended it is not an issue, and for the first decade of his papacy outsourced the concerns of the immigrants to Bishop Samuel, who understood and even encouraged immigration and a reasoned level of assimilation. Pope Tawadros has yet to articulate a consistent attitude. Administratively, he has shown concern and respect for immigrant Copts. Privately, he expressed agreement with a more universalist message. But in this interview he seems to discourage immigration. Of course the reality is that for Copts who wish to immigrate, the real barrier is not his disapproval but the lack of a visa. Immigration and assimilation are a reality and will continue to be an ever-increasing a feature of what it means to be a Copt. There are difficult questions that the spiritual and cultural head of the Coptic Church must answer. Does being an Agnostic American disqualify one from identifying as a Copt? Can someone who is not ethnically Egyptian, or only partly so, identify as a Copt? Is the Church purely a theological expression of being a Copt, or does it have a cultural role for people long denied a culture of their own? If it is the former, then how can it be distinguished from other theologically similar denominations (such as Armenians for example)? If it is the latter, then what can it do to expand the figurative tent and accept differing social and personal views? The Church needs to look no further than to controversies that wrack the Jews about access to the Western Wall for evidence of the power of such concerns.

There are also questions that immigrant Copts and their descendants must answer. What exactly are Copts if concern for Egypt is not a major part of their patrimony? How are they different from the majority of Christians among whom they live and prosper? Even those who are not ethnically Egyptian but wish to identify as Copts need to have Egypt closer to their hearts, and develop a sensitivity to the difficult conditions under which the Church and the community operate there.

These are difficult questions and must be addressed if hope is beyond the merely aspirational.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: July 9 1967

Doors

The Children of the Promise

Life was getting back to normal, except for the news of fresh fighting at Port Fouad. School was out and the upcoming summer promised to be less cordial than previous ones. Word passed around that the annual vacation in Alexandria is unwise this year. This would mean a long hot summer in Cairo, with the Liddo pool as the only relief. Sunday July 9 was to be like many other Sundays during school holidays. A morning liturgy in the Church followed by an afternoon of Sunday School. But at the last minute there was a change. The favorite Sunday School teacher was not at the Church and a rumor drifted among some of the boys that he could be found at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. Later a few of the boys headed there to find him.

When the boys found their teacher he was volunteering to repair the electrical works in the basement of that Church. Still he decided to hold a impromptu teaching session, which proved to be first of many before the Adventists wised up to his doings and asked him to cease. The chairs were arrayed in a circle as they usually were, and the half dozen boys listened to him explain the meaning of Romans 9:8 “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” He began conventionally enough with a simple assertion, that God’s chosen people were no longer just the physical descendants of the Jews, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Displacing the Jews from a favored status seemed in tune with much of Egypt a month after the war. But he did not stop there. Soon he was encouraging the boys to look beyond what their parents teach them and what their country asks of them. Those who love Christ should love no nation above his message. What you must love above your nation is each other, he insisted. The message must have had a special resonance for him, for within a few months he would reveal his plans to leave for America. He ended the lesson with a wink. “I have a present from America”. On the record player which the Church normally reserved for imported sermons and carols he played a rare and precious commodity, a copy of the “The Doors” recently released album. The boys sat and listened quietly without a sound, as if in prayer. Nearly an hour passed between the first urging to “Break on through to the other side” and the final “This is the End”. For some of them it was a time of precious freedom.

— Maged Atiya

 


America – Where the Wild Things Are

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The immigrant’s first reading of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was aloud to an eager child nearly two decades after arriving in America. It struck him immediately that the book, with a minor but critical tweak, could be made a tale of his immigration. The boy in the wolf suit, feeling constrained by his home rules, travels to a land far away. He runs with the Wild Things, roars like them, is terrified and thrilled by them. But in this tale he never becomes homesick, but grows even fonder of the place and stays.

Sometime in the late 1960s when Egypt was a far different place, a man came back from Canada where he had immigrated some years before to speak of his new home and its advantages. He first started by pointing out its flaws. It was devilishly cold at times. Aside from that, it was a great place; tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, decent and full of promise. But his excitement about Canada rose when he began to compare it to the United States. A visit to New York City convinced him that America is unfit for any Egyptians. The streets were patrolled by rats. A trip to experience the Metropolitan Museum was disrupted by the sight of youth cavorting near naked in the fountains in front of it; and even worse, the park behind it was the scene of sexual licentiousness set to music nearly indistinguishable from noise to his ears. The list of horrors grew until the speaker exhausted himself in describing the ills of America compared to Canada. One boy in the audience listened anxiously. His fear was that the account would persuade his parents to change the destination of their impending immigration from America to Canada. As luck would have it, they kept to the plan. It must be said that America lived up to the man’s account, and more. The “more” is a shorthand for all the freedom that America promises in exchange for its madness.  

Every 4th of July is a time to celebrate American “exceptionalism”. What is exceptional is not always good or even desirable. What is desirable is often not exceptional, as others too wish it for themselves. What remains astounding about America is that is has survived its contradictions, even if at times it paid for them dearly. Sendak’s land of the “Wild Things” was meant to be eternal, a place of chaos and delight that manages to hold together and beckon to others. Most critics have seen the entire story as a psychological allegory. It may very well be. But so is America. It is a state of mind made actual by everyone’s participation in it. Its flaws are advertised in the most visible fashion and yet it continues to attract. Just to the north of it stands Canada as a reprimand to what America could have been if it had not unreasonably revolted against a relatively mild rule by England (by the standards of the time), and if it had not nearly immolated itself in a violent civil war fought for great ideals. But somehow against great odds the country continued to exist and expand its franchise of freedom. Somehow America brought order out of wildness, decency out of the basest feelings of many of its citizens, common prosperity out of individual selfishness, and reason out of madness. This is something to celebrate and feel uneasy about in equal measures.

— Maged Atiya