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
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
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
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
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
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
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”