The Step-Mother’s Tongue

Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: ‘As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.’ He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscienceSati’ Al Husri (1882-1968)

The impossibly thin Algerian boy stood out among the hearty well-fed Egyptian school boys. The large head perched atop his reedy frame came with an impressive shock of wavy hair and a prominent mouth full of Houari Boumediene teeth. The cold, cruel logic of the boys dubbed him “Abu Sinan”, or “Toothy”. Toothy’s father was posted to the Algerian embassy, and in the post-independence days political correctness dictated that he must attend an Egyptian institution rather than the more congenial French Lycee. In the Lord-of-the-Flies school, he marked out his days in ticks of humiliation. Ill at ease with spoken Egyptian, he was defenseless against bullying that usually started with verbal assaults but rarely ended there. At home, he spoke French and a language that barely resembled Arabic. If silence is golden, then Toothy and the Egyptian boy who on rare occasions rose to his defense were each a Midas. The civics textbooks, written in Modern Arabic, instructed Toothy that he and his tormentors were one, bound by a common language, tradition, history, and future; all members of the “Arab Nation”. In class, the school boys were required to memorize the poem by Mahmoud Darwish “Identity Card”, which starts with the stirring words “Sajil ! Ana ‘Arabi” (Write! I am an Arab..) before it comes to end in a litany of accusations, complaints and threats. In the school yard, bullies put the poem to good use as well. The chief bully would yell with the hard Cairene “g”, “Sagil, Enta …” and expect the hapless boy from Oran to complete the sentence with a litany of derogatory statements about his own manhood and his mother’s virtue. More than a decade later the Egyptian boy would read the remarkable essay by the polymath Mirrit Boutros Ghali on Egyptian identity and find that, for all its evasions and care not to offend President Sadat, still managed to approximate the situation in the school yard.

In the 1920s, Salama Moussa proposed that colloquial Egyptian be made the official language of the country if only to slash the illiteracy rates with one sweep. It was the simplest solution to end the endemic diglossia that plagued Egypt for nearly a thousand years. He got nowhere with that idea. Even his friends mocked it (Moussa and one-time friend ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad parted company over such issues, and became bitter enemies, hurling painful insults at each other for nearly two decades). Others who followed his suggestions, such as the cartoonist and poet Salah Jaheen, also failed to make headway. The conventional wisdom is that Moussa’s attempt failed because of the resistance of obscurantist religious leaders who felt that devaluation of classical Arabic is tantamount to leading people astray from the language of the Qur’an. They certainly felt, and still feel this way. There is also a persistent rumor that Moussa encouraged various scholars to translate the Qur’an to the colloquial. But that does not explain why many of Moussa’s liberal friends found his efforts misdirected, even quixotic. Nor can we lay the blame entirely on Moussa’s Kemalist tendencies. In fact, the failure is largely that of Egyptian intellectuals of the so-called “liberal age” and tells of why it ended in Nasser’s tyranny. These intellectuals always devolved to populism, of one sort or another. Their populism sprang forth from a recognition of the power of the street rather than a desire to elevate it.  

Language is identity. The Greeks identified themselves by apartness from the foreigners who spoke unintelligible “barbaros”. Americans could not easily dispense with English but enriched it with a patois from dozens of ethnicities, beginning with the Scots-Irish and African slaves, to create a unique identity and become to England a “nation separated by a common language”. Many other examples abound. The rise of the West and of nations within it was occasioned by the refinement of indigenous languages. Had Europe stuck stubbornly to Latin, recalling the by-gone glory days of Rome as reason, it is likely it would not have achieved as much. One wonders what Egypt’s trajectory would have been if Moussa’s suggestion of translating the Qur’an to colloquial Egyptian. A pious Muslim laboring to replicate the eloquence and precision of the original would have done a great deal for Egypt; as much as Tyndale did for England, Luther for Germany or Calvin for France. Such an effort would have rendered Islam, and to some extent Christianity, a strong cornerstone of Egyptian identity and a springboard for progress. The work of building a nation is primarily cultural. Yet there has been few studies of how the struggle with language has endowed Egypt with a propensity for authoritarianism.

The common discourse is to label Egypt’s authoritarian leaders as “Pharaohs”. But its modern authoritarianism is rooted less in Pharaonic tradition than in the drift toward Arabism and Islamism. In fact, other “nations” in the region, who lacked such an identity, seem to have fared far worse, combining brutal dictatorships with state collapse. Al Husri’s formulation “He is an Arab regardless of his wishes” is the theme song of the current collapse. One can easily remove “Arab” and substitute “Muslim” and the formulation explains much of violent Takfiri thought. In fact, almost any other identity can replace “Arab” and lead to the same deadly dead-end. The only way out is to stipulate that identity is a personal choice, and one often arrived at after much soul searching, if at all. Men can not choose their mothers, and rarely their step-mothers. But at least they can choose their identity. Anything less is the road to bloody servitude.

— Maged Atiya


The Road From Suez


As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation.  It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.

Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.

Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife

The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.

— Maged Atiya


The Absent Baba. “Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”

Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.

The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian,  as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.

The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.

The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.

— Maged Atiya


The Copt’s Patrimony


Times are good for most American Copts, and beyond just the material comforts. Half a century after the first trickle of immigration there is now a desire to develop a distinctive culture that transcends Egypt, the motherland to which they remain emotionally attached, and weave that culture into the larger American tapestry. Away from their historic repression in Egypt, they can now develop fully, and do such “Un-Coptic” things as become actors, politicians, athletes, or display assertiveness and independence once denied to them in Egypt.  This moment was exemplified by the recent Television Emmy award for Best Leading Actor to Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek. The media hailed his award as the first of its kind to a “non-white” male in nearly two decades. Others rushed in to claim him as the first “Arab-American” to do so. There was also an immediate and visceral reaction from many American Copts; “he is no Arab, he is a Copt”, most seemed to say publicly.  The private reactions were more pointed and in many cases angry. Once again, the Copts seem to upend the fashionable views of the so-called “Post-Colonial” discourse.  The paradox of one of the largest of ancient Christian groups that was doubly disadvantaged, once under the Arabs, then under the West which disadvantaged the Arabs, now discovering strength and voice as citizens of the West, is poignant. Lord Cromer, the British banker who ruled Egypt for a quarter century is notable for his intense dislike of Copts. We can’t be sure of the reasons behind his feelings. Perhaps it is simply the product of his servitude to the Empire that bred him. It could also be that the Copts’ fervent Christianity challenged his conception that good Christians should come only in the form of High Church Anglicans. The West is now thankfully more accepting of diversity, especially of native non-whites. But that benefit is sometimes withheld from the Copts. Still, such matters are small compared with a larger looming issue; that of their relationship with the Egyptian Church. On the occasion of President Sisi’s visit to the UN General Assembly, the Church sent two senior Bishops to urge American Copts to provide a supportive welcome. There was no need for the Bishops to take the trouble and come to the US; the vast majority of American Copts had no intention of protesting his visit. The trip betrays a historic anxiety among the Egyptian hierarchy about political activism among immigrant Copts.

The Egyptian Church has sometimes been wary of political and cultural activism among immigrant Copts since the late 1970s. The Church’s initial reaction to immigration was less than approving; viewing those that left Egypt as abandoning their post, and fearing decline as the best educated and most adventurous left for other lands. As the first immigrants breathed freedom in America, a few among them felt the need to call attention to the growing sectarianism in Egypt under President Sadat. Sadat did not appreciate either the critics, or even those who supported his policies but saw a need to acknowledge the obvious. As far as the great man of peace was concerned, the only good Copt is a silent one. The Church hierarchy, including Pope Shenouda who was having a strenuous relationship with Sadat, also showed little approval of the activists. There were many reasons. The Church was ascendant in the historic tug of war with lay leaders over communal matters and influence. It feared, correctly, that some among the activists may be motivated by bias as well as concern about the “Coptic problem”. It also wanted a free hand to deal with the rising challenge of Islamists who were using long-standing social bigotry to swell their membership ranks. More than once it challenged such activism as well-intentioned but harmful meddling from a group ensconced safely an ocean away. But perhaps the most ominous reason, when taking the long point of view, was a lack of understanding of how quickly Copts were becoming Americans. A decade after these events, Pope Shenouda commented, pithily but inaccurately, that “the only American feature of US Copts was their passports”. To this observer, and many others, this seemed like a slap in the face for those who are forging a positive new identity, and who struggle with acculturation in a new environment radically different from their conservative roots, but still wanted to remain in conversation with a painful patrimony. The patrimony of the Copt includes many things, glorious early Church history, painful oppression lasting centuries, revival, and perhaps most confusingly Egypt itself. The last part of this patrimony has been adopted as a central feature of the Church’s narrative of the community and itself.  Pope Shenouda repeated Makram Ebeid’s phrase “Egypt is not a country we live in, but a country that lives in us”. This view is harmless enough for Egyptians seeking a national identity beyond religious distinctions. But if adopted as near Church doctrine it will distance the Church from what it frequently calls “our sons and daughters abroad”. Most Copts, one suspects, would accept the moniker “sons and daughters”, but they are not abroad. America is their home, and so is Canada and Australia. The presence of non-Egyptian Copts should not be viewed as a net loss to Egypt, nor to its Christians. The challenge of immigration is increasingly as large as that of Western missionaries more than a century ago, which produced consternation in the Church hierarchy, but ultimately reform as well. Similarly, the challenges of immigration can be turned to advantage, but that will require the Church to view the immigrant churches as more than satellites of the Egyptian Church. Patrimony is not a fixed inheritance, but each generation can add or subtract from it as it sees fit. The central question today is the role of the “Egypt” part of the patrimony. How central is Egypt to the Coptic identity and how freely can Copts outside Egypt alter or even discard that identity without a permanent alienation from the Mother Church. This is not a question merely for non-Egyptian Copts, but for the Church itself and its bishops, including a new generation raised in the West, and is familiar with its ways and the appropriate discourse to acquire supporters and friends.

That said, it would be a serious error to underestimate the strength of the connection between immigrant Copts and Egypt. The focus of that connection is concern for the safety and communal health of Egyptian Copts. Immigrant Copts, regardless of where they place on the ladder of economic success, the spectrum of political affiliation, or the fervency of faith, are committed to see Egyptian Copts escape the ravages of social discrimination, government neglect of their security, and shield Egypt itself from the flames engulfing the region. The expression of that concern, and the actions taken as a consequence, create a definition and narrative of the immigrant Coptic experience. The Egyptian Church is not a bystander in that effort. Through its actions and words, and receptivity to responsible critics, it can shape that narrative. The concern for Egyptian Copts can seem as  either an instance of universal respect for human lives or a narrow sectarian team picking. The former will bear better fruits for the Copts themselves, and earn them the support of stalwart and true friends outside the community. The words and actions from Egypt do matter.

It would be a historic mistake for immigrant Copts to drift away from the Egyptian Church, even if at times its language and actions are at odds with perceptions shaped by freedom in the West. The number of immigrant Copts is still relatively small (probably less than a million), and their cultural contributions to the immigration countries correspondingly more limited. A drift, in either name or action, will render both components weaker than the whole, and less able to cross-pollinate and strengthen each other. It is tempting to think that Egypt, in its current state, has little to offer immigrant Copts. But in fact, the very struggle for improving the lot of Egyptian Copts, is an incentive to improve the social and cultural weight of immigrant Copts.  It would also be a mistake to think that the affairs of immigrant Churches in America, Canada or Australia,  can be managed by command-and-control from the northeast of Africa. The Egyptian Church is subject to the social and political conditions that shaped the country. The rulers often view the Church as the sole representative of the community, and charge it with developing support within that community. Just as critically, the Egyptian leaders of the Church are conditioned by the cultural and political dialogue in the country, and their words and actions can sometimes seem immune to the understanding gained from a distance. The virtue of listening can ensure that these differences create dialogues not disagreements.

If the patrimony is to be kept, enhanced, improved, and left in better shape for future generations, there needs to be a recognition of the obvious, that the Church is no longer merely the Church of Egypt, but an ancient Orthodox Church that emanated from Egypt. This requires many changes in the manner with which the Church hierarchy communicates with the faithful and the larger world beyond. Egyptian nativism plays poorly outside Egypt, and is rarely a benefit to Egypt in any case. In understanding the environment and needs of the Churches abroad, the Egyptian Church can transcend being an imitation of Egyptian governance to becoming an shining example of what a future Egypt could be.  We often invoke Tertullian’s words that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. But it is also the efforts of the living to strengthen and improve the Church and community that prove to be the most powerful tribute to their suffering.

— Maged Atiya


Of Migrants and Immigrants


One day, millions of men will leave the Southern Hemisphere to go to the Northern Hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory. Houari Boumediene

Many of the news stories about the tragic capsizing of a boat off the Northern coast of Egypt accurately described the passengers and victims as “migrants”. Increasingly the flow of human souls from the Near East and Africa represents more migration than immigration. The difference is vaster than the subtle phonetic differences. Migrants are pushed by local disturbances to seek work and survival in other lands, regardless of the land, as long as it welcomes them. Immigrants have a fixed destination and while they seek a “better” life, the definition of “better” is often broader than mere survival. For the lands that receive them the differences are also large and important.

Immigration carries with it the hope of integration, assimilation and acculturation. This process is rarely painless but almost always beneficial, for the immigrants and the societies that receive them. Migrants carry the hope of returning to their homelands once the emergencies subside or sufficient material wealth is accumulated. For them assimilation and acculturation are both highly undesirable, as they would render the migrants alien when they return to their homelands. Some changes are bound to occur, but invariably reluctantly and with psychic violence. Often the migrants stay well beyond their expectations. The compromises of the fathers are visited on the sons who remain the sole inhabitants of a cultural gulag, prisoners to their fathers’ dashed hopes of return, and eager to prove themselves to a world they have never inhabited and are wont to romanticize.

The current debate about “immigration” in Europe and America sometimes misses the point. The problem is not immigration but migration. If it can be ascertained that the new arrivals desire a final destination for their travels and a new start for their dreams, then we can be sure that, in time, they will weave themselves into the tapestry of the new land. But such matters are hard to discern and the lines between migrants and immigrants are often blurry. Some migrants are enchanted by their new lands and effectively turn into immigrants. Some immigrants may find the new land harsh and difficult and turn into migrants, or worse, exiles. Matters are made worse by leaders on all sides. Some package easy national solutions indistinguishable from simple bigotry. Others are unable to see that tolerance should not be extended to habits and ideas that burst the old lands into flames. But what to do, given that extremes have the loudest megaphones and with the most simplistic and easy to accept messages?

The answer, as always easier said than done, is to stem migration and encourage immigration. The first is done by stabilizing the lands disgorging themselves of migrants. Such stabilization is rarely easy, and is often thwarted by the usual conundrum of the better being the enemy of good. The dreams of “regime change”, often directed at the weakest regimes, out of necessity, are to be curbed and made subject to rigorous analysis of cost/benefits beyond simple outrage at the outrageous. The second is done by adherence to the bedrock values that have made many countries, especially in the West, a haven to the beleaguered. Chief among those values is tolerance. The root of that very word is Latin for “supporting” and “enduring”. This means that while accepting new immigrants we must assert that the values that opened the doors for them can not be subverted by any beliefs they bring along, and that we will work to see our values endure.

— Maged Atiya