“There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:11
In remembrance of Samir Nessim Atiya (November 4 1925 – October 17 2019)
The nonagenarian and his first born son were bound by filial love and separated by almost everything else, especially God and Country. He was a man marked by early losses, those of a father as well as beloved siblings. He remarked to his son, in a moment of transparency brought on by old age that his deepest wish is to finish life’s course well ahead of him. As he grew ever more frail he clung to life with the tenacity and determination he had shown throughout that life. This was a man who did not go gentle into that good night. I have to admit that he was not easy to like, but he was loved because as Philip Roth noted “it is our job to love them”.
On the 5th of February 1938 Samir Nessim Atiya completed grade school in the Egyptian Delta town of Senbelaween, noted for its generous wheat and as the birthplace of Um Kalthoum. Such an event would not be terribly momentous in most lives, but it was so for the young boy. He was orphaned several years earlier. He had the protection of a loving mother but little else. He worked his way through grade school. When it was time for graduation he bought himself a suitable suit, a necktie and a Fez, or Tarbush, for the occasion. It was the first time in his life he had put on a necktie. He carefully protected his Tarbush from the bullies in school who were wont to squish it over his head. His meager savings paid only for the necktie and Fez, and his older sister, Linda, sold some of her gold bangles to pay for his suit. When it was time for the fathers to sign the name of their child on the graduation papers, none could be found for him. He carefully forged what might have been the signature of his dead father. His adoring mother refused to attend the graduation, for fear that her simple peasant ways would embarrass him. Linda stood in for her; and in his recollection her bright dress, and the remaining gold bangles, marked her as a member of the less humble folks. Later in life, when Linda was approaching the century mark he visited her. Her memory was failing and she shyly resisted his embrace. He rounded his thumb and index fingers around her wrist and that seemed to draw a smile of recognition.
Graduation from elementary school did not end his struggles. He had to work his way through junior and secondary school, against the wishes of adults who saw little purpose in educating a sullen orphan. “I lacked a father and had no personal charm”, he later related. With a further push he got himself matriculated into the College of Practical Engineering, a lesser sibling of the Faculty of Engineering at King Fouad I university. He finally graduated in the waning years of the monarchy having done well enough to earn a bonus and a government job. King Farouk came to his graduation and when his name was read out he strolled onto the stage, shook the monarch’s beefy hand and received a check for six pounds and a certificate of “Iltizam”, mandatory government service. In return he had to accept a government posting for two years. He looked forward to working in the exciting field of telecommunication. He sought a job with Egypt’s government-owned telephone monopoly. His interviewer asked him two questions, his class ranking (high enough to warrant a job at a major city) and his religion.
His hopes were dashed by the arrival of the appointment letter. He was posted to a small Nubian village, Qurta, south of the First Cataract, to manage its telephone and electrical systems, and teach secondary school as well. Seeing no immediate alternatives, he made the arduous journey south. First it was the overnight train to Aswan, and then an eight-hour boat trip past the Cataracts. At the village makeshift dock he found an official reception party consisting of the mayor and three slipper-clad dignitaries. He asked the mayor to take him to the telephone company building. The man thought for a moment before responding, “We have no telephones”. The arriving not-yet father shot back, “Why?” The mayor explained “because we have no electricity”. As the reader might guess, there was also no secondary school. At this point the putative government official simply demanded to be taken to the elementary school. The mayor obliged and took him to an empty lot. “We have not gotten around to putting up the walls yet,” he explained.
The position made it necessary to set an example, as the highest ranking government official after the local police sergeant, the sleepy Shaweesh, who contented himself with doing nothing of value. He asked the mayor to press-gang a group of men to quarry the local stones and put up the walls for a one-room school. It took ten weeks to complete, and the mayor was sufficiently impressed to send a daily allotment of a cooked turkey to the working crew. There was now a school for a motley collection of boys of mixed ages. For more than a year the monthly mail boat brought the self-empowered official his paycheck (there were no banks to cash it except in Aswan), and returned with his letters entreating people for a “Wasta” to free him from his contract. Eventually it came, in the form of an intervention by one ‘Abaza Bey (a member of the famous family), who had him transferred back north. The entire episode would be recalled with increasing mirth as the man grew older and experienced the wider world.
Two decades after those events he owned a new growing telephony business and had started a family. He wished for his sons to see the village and the school he built. But the one-room school, the village, the surrounding areas, and half of Egypt’s Nubia had become submerged under Lake Nasser. Still Aswan and Nubia never left him. He kept returning there for all sorts of reasons. He took his honeymoon in Aswan. He brought his sons back to explore the area, including Nubia. He loved the Nubian people and saw in their oppression, primarily due to their skin color, a reflection of his own life. In 1960 he came back to Aswan seeking a contract for his nascent company to supply the telephone system for the firm building the dam, “The Arab Contractors”. Its powerful owner, Othman Ahmed Othman, would employ no Copts and the father left empty handed.
Many times Egypt impressed on him its unique combination of mirth and menace. In the summer of 1952 he found out that the young woman he had been tutoring in order to pass her “Thanawiya” had barely done so. On the morning of July 23 he started out to go downtown in search of a ring. With his typical preoccupation with efficiency, he wanted to complete two tasks at once. He would congratulate her and also persuade her father to turn the limited assignment into a lifelong commitment. The tanks in the streets drew his attention, but not his alarm. A soldier stopped him near ‘Attaba Square and told him that the curfew rules demanded that he be shot. After some negotiations the soldier settled for escorting him to his destination instead.
With the exception of 1973, where he was away in America, he had a front row seat to Egypt’s vicissitudes. He was stationed as a communication engineer when British planes bombed his station during the Suez war. He was on the road to Suez in June 1967. He was posted as an American advisor to the Iranian telecommunication authority and would not leave long after the revolution, at least not until it was clear that as the carrier of an Egyptian and American passports his life was in double jeopardy. He firmly believed that the 2011 revolution would amount to little and attempted to make his way to the Mugamma’a on Tahrir square to register a real estate deal. “The army or the Ikhwangis will win this one”, he predicted.
By all accounts the birth of his first son left him giddy, in the manner of a young boy given a precious toy. He played happily with the baby, noting the smallness of his tiny hands and feet and twitches of his face which he insisted were a smile in response to his father. But soon enough his mother-in-law intervened. A sensible woman with an iron will, she was convinced that the family was shadowed by an evil eye that would take every first born. She had lost his first born daughter decades earlier, and her grief never went away. She insisted that the boy be trusted to the protection of women, who would grow his hair, dress him as a girl and keep a blue bead sewn to the inside of his clothing.
Eventually the father reclaimed his son from the women, cutting his hair and buying him his first boyish outfit, a short overall knock-off from one that Prince Charles had worn years earlier and that had become popular in Egypt. And almost immediately things began to go wrong. While jostling with his son he dropped him and broke his leg. The child would not accept the limitation of a cast and crawled about dragging his leg behind. That caused further cuts and bruises, including a broken finger. When all the fractures were healed, the boy succumbed to an array of fevers and childhood illnesses, some life-threatening. The father recalled the loss of his own father and of his siblings and feared for his son. He sought the intervention of a monk he knew in St Anthony’s monastery, Abouna Moussa.
Decades later he related the details of the trip to St Anthony to his son. No one else in the family seemed to remember the trip, and his son was left to conclude that either the trip was far less important than his father’s recollection, or that it was entirely recreated in the mind of a frail man eager to recast of what is important to him in the mold of present feelings. A newly opened road through the eastern desert cut the trip from days to hours. He sat in the back seat holding his son’s hand while the driver, Salama, chattered and smoked. The boy spoke little, and stared at the scenery passing by.
At the monastery Abouna Moussa, an ancient man who had been a monk since his teens, blessed the boy and asked that in return for God’s favor, he should dedicate his life to doing good deeds and always observing the ways of the Lord and his commandments. The father urged his son to agree but the boy remained silent. In his later retelling he recognized this small incident as a token of things to come. After leaving the monastery he took his son on a short hike through the ragged and rugged hills around the monastery. But soon enough the boy became weak and the father carried him all the way back to the car. He asked strangers to take photographs of both of them with the son on his shoulders. But the film from the trip was ruined by a careless developer. On the trip back he devised a plan to bulk up his son, and the younger brother as well. He enrolled both boys in the club on Al Magd Street and a regular regime of swimming, squash and weight lifting did the job.
The 1960s were a good time for Samir. His company had many contracts that offered a comfortable life. He moved his family to an apartment in Heliopolis, with many graceful touches. Gladiolus flowers where delivered every Wednesday to brighten up the place. Every other Thursday there was a delivery of cakes from Groppi for the Friday visits from family and friends. Once a month a man came to shine the parquet floors to a mirror finish. He was still young, vigorous and handsome. He had his shirts custom-made at Elia Tarzi, a self-proclaimed Copt but a suspected Jew, who made shirts for all the Free Officers, including President Nasser (but notably not Sadat, who hated the American cut and preferred British shirts).
He had come a long way from his village root, but did not forget them, or his surviving siblings. Once a month he drove his entire family to Giza to spend time with his sister Linda and her brood. He made sure his two boys were close to Salwa, Nagwa, Nashwa and Magdi. While Naguib was in between spouses, he invited him for dinner once a week, and after he remarried he remained close to him, his wife and daughter Vivian. Whatever tensions had existed between him and his older half-brother Atiya were now history, and he visited him often. In immigration he became close to Linda’s daughter Salwa, and Atiya’s daughter Enaya.
Then there was Maurice, his youngest brother. While a bachelor, he invited Maurice to spend a week every summer in his Alexandria apartment. Maurice was a party goer and a late riser, who made fun of his older brother with his puritanical habits of early rise and hard work. Maurice would stroll to the beach in the afternoon, after a late morning recovering from a long night carousing among Alexandria’s dwindling Greeks. His uniform was unvaried, a bathing suit small enough to be a scandal, a robe, sun glasses, flip-flops and a cigarette. The women disapproved, but Samir overruled them. After Maurice started a family in Senbelaween, Samir visited him regularly, always taking his first-born son with him. Maurice had come to own a mechanics shop that employed every variant of Egyptians. He was fair to his employees and called all of them with honorific “Ibn Al Kalb”, or Son-of-a-Bitch, which he also extended to himself. The love between the two brothers was genuine, and Samir took Maurice’s needling with good humor. Samir tried to impress on his skeptical son that Senbelaween, with its dust, dirt roads, and uncollected trash, was the real Egypt. But to the boy’s eye the difference between the provincial town and Cairo was only a matter or degrees and neighborhoods.
One sibling was always on Samir’s mind, although he admitted that to on one, except once to his son in a passing remark. His older brother Sami had been a prodigy, finishing first in Mathematics in Thanawiya and winning a scholarship to King Fouad I university. Two weeks before matriculation he died in his sleep. It was likely a congenital heart condition. But Samir, still in elementary school, was devastated. He watched his mother shriek, rend her dress and mourn the young man, and blame herself for not warding the evil eye from him. Every shriek tore into him and he promised his mother that he will live a long life and never let her see him die. He told his son all that in passing, late in life, explaining that sometimes brilliance is a companion to bad fortune. As Samir got older, Sami’s life and fate haunted him even more. Sami was kind to his younger brother and more understanding of his quirks. But that could not explain the outsized importance he came to play in Samir’s memories more than eighty years after his passing.
Samir learned to make a sport of fighting the ferocious Egyptian bureaucracy, and he became a resource to many in his family who needed help in the matter of estates, wills, licenses, taxes, pensions, and all the other critical matters that the bureaucracy controlled and mismanaged. He built a repertoire of amusing tales, which he retold with his sharp-edged humor. Some were merely hilarious, others chilling. Of the former, he explained how he secured for his maternal aunt a pension from her grandfather who had died decades earlier. The accumulated amount allowed her to secure a decent life and pass something onto her children. Of the latter, he related how he accompanied his cousin, and effectively adoptive father, the scholar Aziz Atiya to visit Nasser in the presidential palace in 1961. There was a new American ambassador in Egypt, who had known Aziz from a previous life as the president of the American University in Cairo. Aziz had been bad mouthed in Egypt for his relationship with the World Council of Churches, then claimed by Nasser’s propagandists as a CIA front. Aziz traveled from the US to Egypt for the meeting with Nasser and the ambassador, but feared arrest. He asked Samir to drive him to the Presidential palace, but Samir did not know how to drive. Instead he went as his valet and waited for him outside to raise the alarm in case of arrest. He kept the entire incident confidential while Aziz was alive, and for decades afterwards. Later in life Samir laughed uproariously as he related to his son how he tried to pass as a tough guy among Nasser’s body guards in the ante-chamber. The visit went well enough, and the ambassador affected a rapprochement. Samir managed to get the last laugh.
The good times had other dark shadows as well. He tried to keep his company small enough to escape the attention of the nationalization board, or at least he claimed so perhaps to cover up for his fears of growing too large and needing to delegate to others. He worried about his two sons eventually becoming cannon fodder for Nasser’s wars. Later he recalled that his major worry was his first-born son. He could accept the boy’s obedience, or manage his rebellion. But he knew not how to deal with the boy’s increasing detachment. He neither obeyed, nor rebelled, but lived in an imagined world apart from Egypt. Doubt starts as a hairline crack before it becomes a chasm. And the chasm of doubt left the two of them increasingly further apart. For a time the boy’s religious education consisted of a series of ejections from Sunday School classes, not for doing little, but for asking too much. All attempts to inculcate a sense of national pride in him failed. After the 1967 war, the boy began to construct an imaginary America out of books and road maps and constantly begged his parents to immigrate.
Eventually Samir made the jump as the 1960s were coming to a close. It was a terrifying leap, as he had no job lined up, and could not even put together a passable resume. Leaving the comforts of home for the unknown unsettled him, but he gave no indications of his anxiety. The new country could never match Egypt for the warmth and depth of their friendships. They made friends from the old country, and a few from the new one, but still felt they were isolated, often alone, especially after their sons became enthusiastic Americans.
America dealt fairly with Samir. After an extended period of unemployment he landed an executive position with New York Bell. Within a few years his salary had more than quadrupled, and the stock options offered to him shot up dramatically in value after the breakup of AT&T. He participated in the founding of St George church in Brooklyn. He made trips to all parts of the US and Canada to visit the increasing number of family members who left Egypt. But he still felt uneasy and unhappy. It was clear to his son that the boy from Senbelaween was now standing at his shoulder feeding his fears and anxiety. His response to material comfort was to fear is potential evaporation. He became “careful with money”, a euphemism that friends used to note that he lived several notches below his means. Occasionally he would allow himself some luxury, such as taking an extended African Safari that he had promised his wife more than two decades earlier. But he steadfastly refused to trade up houses or cars or allow himself more than the minimum of material comfort.
One luxury he allowed himself was to obtain a graduate degree in electrical engineering. Having a Master’s degree from an American university meant freedom from the inferiority he felt about not having attended the Faculty of Engineering, even if no one knew or pointed it out. His pride burned deep and mostly quietly. He struggled with the course load and work because, without ever telling his son, he wanted to get the degree before his son got his own Master’s degree in physics. In the end, he beat him by two weeks. The entire family went to a joyful lunch in Brooklyn Heights after Samir turned in his cap and gown. Within a decade of his arrival in America he was comfortable enough to leave his job while in his fifties and live out a peripatetic life, constantly traveling between Egypt and the US.
Immigration further strained the relationship with his first-born son. The boy had quickly grown to a man in the crucible of the 1970s New York college life, with its many temptations and pitfalls. The son lived his life in several bubbles well isolated from each other, and his family and father occupied but one. There were many arguments about religion, Egypt and the proper way to live one’s life. Samir and his son often came close to an unbridgeable rupture, only to walk away just shy of it. His son made the resolution that saying little would give love a room to displace all disagreements. What Samir thought, we will never know. In time it became clear to those who interacted closely with him that he loved his son deeply, even if he had taken a radically different road in life.
As Samir got older he became more visibly religious. He confined his reading list to the Bible and Agbeya. He listened to recorded sermons and watched Coptic satellite TV almost exclusively. He had not been so religious in his younger years, and the change may have reflected his own fears and thoughts about mortality, especially as he faced an array of potentially lethal ailments. In the last decade of his life he was happy to see his son turn his attention to Coptic issues, but they never discussed these issues, or religion in general. The fear remained of opening up old wounds and disagreements.
Samir remained active and working into his late eighties, fearing that any diminution in activity will end his life. But he eventually had to give in to the frailties brought on by many strokes. He became thinner and less vigorous. Both his hearing and eyesight weakened to near uselessness. His mind still burned sharply and he laughed when his son told him that his CPU functioned well but his I/O systems were failing. The occasion for the remark was the delivery on a new laptop that Samir wanted so he can learn new computer programming languages. His sharp mind was an asset to him and a liability to those around him, as he could be ferociously set in his ways and refused all manner of help that was necessary for his daily existence. The determination that lifted him from a poor orphaned provincial boy never left. In fact, his early years came to occupy most of his thoughts.
The last time he saw his son he kept addressing him as Sami. “I am your son Baba”, his son insisted. “Yes. But you love me and Sami loved me too. I mourned Sami. No one will mourn me. No one will remember me”, he was barely able to articulate the words as a result of a recent stroke. “I will remember and mourn you Baba”, his son added. “Yes, you will and so will Sami. We love each other. I wish you had met Sami”, he declared. Within a few minutes his mood lifted and was attempting to make a witty remark, but his tongue was slower than his mind, and he ended up skipping past the words to simply laugh at his own joke. This is how many will remember him, as the man with blunt honesty and a sharp wit. And this is how he would likely have wanted to be remembered.
The end came peacefully while asleep. We will never know his last words or thoughts, but at least his son hopes that he realized that the poor orphaned boy from Senbelaween had made and lived his life on his terms, and that he was loved. None of his family, his wife, children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, were there when liturgies were read for his soul and he was quickly buried, and not in the mausoleum he had built for himself and his family. Still his life was a triumph against the odds of his cruel country, which he always loved still. He would have insisted in the words of Timothy that he fought the good fight and kept the faith. We should grant him that in memoriam.