Out of The Sudan

A woman died in Cairo in 1966, said to be 102. In the last years of her life she remained an attraction for boys and girls who overcame the young’s normal revulsion for the very old to listen to her tales. Although she regularly confused near events, she had a sharp and unvarying memory for those of her youth. The tale she told repeatedly was of how she traveled north to Egypt from her home in the Sudan. She described herself on a donkey, carrying a newborn baby, with her husband hurrying behind her on foot. The iconography of her tale should make us suspicious of its accuracy, and indeed it is unlikely to be exact. There must have been others in her party, including a younger sister who would give birth to this author’s maternal grandfather. The traveling party must have looked more like a refugee train than a Holy Family.

But the events are partly true. In 1884 a certain Englishman, Charles George (Chinese) Gordon was sent to the Sudan to organize the removal of civilians from the advancing army of the Mahdi’s religious extremists.  Gordon was the kind of man that only Victorian England, or Hollywood, could conjure. In his case, it was both; Charles Heston starred in Gordon’s bio-epic “Khartoum” in 1966, before he stripped to his undies in “Planet of the Apes”. Gordon did indeed fulfill one part of his charge and evacuated most of the civilians likely to be butchered before ignoring the remainder of his brief and remaining in Khartoum to organize a valiant defense. He was killed in 1885, just days before a procrastinating relief expedition was to arrive. We should not delve further into Gordon’s fascinating and fragmented psyche; he was part warrior, part peacemaker, part soldier of fortune, part fervent abolitionist, part mystical fundamentalist, part daring general, part moral busybody and part closeted Homosexual. But the events he participated in are useful to recall today. In 1966 they were considered to belong resolutely to a darker past, impossible to believe they would ever recur in other disguises. A half-century later the bare outline of a last defense against wild religious extremism and the hesitant response of a great Western power to eventual intervention, seem sadly familiar.

The woman who traveled north out of the Sudan was ethnically Egyptian. Her father had gone south to start a farm and prosper south of the Cataracts, near Omdurman. It remains unclear as to why he left his village near Esna. He was either in the initial wave of an ethnic cleansing campaign against Copts by Muhammad Ali’s son Abbas Helmi I, or he simply sought better farmland. The Abbas Helmi campaign, mostly forgotten now, never took off, thanks to Egyptian inefficiency and to the murder of Abbas by his courtiers who were terrified by his mad ways. But the fate of Christianity in Northern Sudan remains instructive. The evacuation of Khartoum did not end Christian presence in the Sudan. The Mehdi’s revolt died and although Egyptian Copts never came back in any significant numbers, there were missions from Egypt as well as Europe to revive the local Christian population. Things remained stable until the 1980s when the Islamist government in the Sudan began a campaign of coercion against local Christians. That was the opening shot in a policy of bad governance that would create humanitarian crises of vast dimensions and ultimately rip the Sudan asunder. Those of us who warned in the early 1980s that the Sudan’s persecution of Christians is a precursor to worse deeds were largely ignored. Although monies were raised and protests were lodged, little could be done to effectively help the local population there. The horrors of Darfur and the Sudanese civil wars could be glimpsed then, but absent stark evidence in human blood, or interest from glamorous celebrities, Western governments were largely as uninterested as Gladstone had been a century before. Intervention can never be wholly separated from imperialism and the White Man’s burden consists of both good intentions and self-interest.

Out of the Sudan come instructive lessons. First, that expectation of outside help for Christians harried by Muslim extremists is likely to end in disappointment.  Once religious zealots seize the reins of power, the best hope for Christians is that they find a home elsewhere, however difficult the journey. But there is an even more important lesson. The costs of cleansing Muslim-majority lands of Christians are also high for the Muslims in the population. Long after the Christians are gone new victims will be sought and the wretched ratchet will keep turning in on itself. The lessons of the Sudan maybe lost on many lands in the Near East, but at least in Egypt they should be heeded. The ugly practice of pushing Copts out of their homes to calm irrational mobs, and allow the police to snooze in peace, will likely prove a disaster in the long term  for everyone, including those who incite or join the mobs. These events should not be seen as merely harmful to Copts, but a prelude to Egypt’s descent into its version of the Sudanese maelstrom.

— Maged Atiya



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