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

A Note to Coptic-American Voters

The number of Copts in America in 1970 was tiny, and their economic power was meager. Still, some managed to pool their resources and buy buildings to establish native Churches. The process was relatively painless, money aside. Often the building belonged to a previous Protestant or Catholic denomination that saw its numbers dwindle. The permits were easy to come by, and the renovations were limited entirely by the resources of the flock. An early member of the Brooklyn Church in New York City remarked that “we can build more Churches here in America in ten years than in a hundred years in Egypt”. That came to pass. Few have asked how it came to be that Copts were able to come to America in the first place.

The US had placed strict limits on the number of immigrants from “brown countries” until the Celler-Hart act of 1965, which became administrative law in 1968. The Copts of Egypt would have had little chance to be in America if that law had not come to pass. The supporters of the law and the opponents of it are mostly dead or deep in retirement by now. But their literal and ideological descendants live on. When American Copts go to the polls on November 8 2016, one may humbly request that they remember which of the two candidates would have supported or opposed that law. One may further request that the vote be guided by what made their presence in America possible, not by the grievances of the old and damaged country.

— Maged Atiya

Ready, Aim, Make Kofta

There is news that the Egyptian army has started a private school and will also start managing the Cairo University cafeteria. This is exactly the reverse of what the Bush administration did during its Iraq war when many tasks normally assigned to military personnel were outsourced to civilian contractors. Many attacked that decision as a dangerous precedent. Without defending the Haliburton palm-greasing, it is a far less dangerous precedent than the one now set by the Egyptian Army, which harbors three distinct dangers.

First, there is the danger that the Army will further erode its abilities and focus at a time when the country needs such focus to handle the multiple security threats raised by the collapse of the so-called Arab world. Second, there is the danger that the Army staff will now see themselves as the rulers and managers of the country, rather than its faithful servants, and that this self image will further hinder any progress to effective governance. But the last and most profound danger is the further infantilization of Egypt and the Egyptian society. Nasser once remarked that to let Egyptian practice politics is as irresponsible as letting children play in traffic. But the mission creep of the Army presents additional levels of infantilization; those of basic entrepreneurial skills. To lift the fortunes of the country there needs to be a flourishing spirit of initiative and entrepreneurship. If the civilians can’t be trust to cook, then can they be trusted to do anything else, such as starting a business, or heaven-forbid, pulling a Halliburton?

— Maged Atiya


The Old Man and the Immigrants

Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack.” Emanuel Celler

The old man came to Columbia College, his Alma Mater, in 1972. His long and illustrious political career was now on the rocks.. Emanuel Celler had been serving in the US House of Representatives since 1923, and now fifty years later, the young revolutionaries of Columbia saw fit to jeer him and hope for his defeat. The immigrant student had to come to his talk out of curiosity; he had just found out about the so-called Celler-Hart act of 1965. The act eliminated barriers to immigration from “brown countries”, and he was one of the first beneficiaries of that act after it came into effect in 1968. In 1929, as a young man, Celler made an impassioned speech defending the right of dark skinned people to immigrate to America, and remake themselves as Americans. At Columbia of that day the sympathies were with his challenger, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Holtzman, who spoke of the rights of women, and attacked Celler for his unreconstructed maleness. Celler did himself no favor in his talk. A man of German heritage, and mixed Catholic and Jewish religion, he seemed stiff, distant, and even arrogant. The times were changing and Celler, a liberal, was now considered insufficiently advanced. Few remembered his prescient insistence that the US should open its doors to European Jews in the early 1940s. Most noted his gruff rejection of the increasingly fashionable “rainbow” construction of immigration. Celler believed that immigrants should be welcomed and made to assimilate. In the end, Holtzman would win the Democratic primary. Celler could still have kept his seat running under the Liberal party banner, but he was spent. He quit. It is said that he spoke to a small audience in Brooklyn and proclaimed to have no regrets, having achieved his life’s ambition of making immigration equitable across races and religions.

Celler lived to a venerable old age, and passed away 35 years before a major political party would nominate for the office of President a low-rent would-be McCarthy, and immigrant basher to boot.

— Maged Atiya



The Unbearable Ineffectiveness of Coptic Protests

An email went out yesterday from Pope Tawadros II stating:

I oppose any demonstrations that may harm Egypt and cause conflict with higher authorities. These demonstrations do not change our situation and stain the image of Egypt nationally and internationally. We, in Egypt, are capable of dealing with our problems and their consequences. Please, for Christ’s sake, avoid this behavior which is not acceptable in any of our churches in the USA. These demonstrations disfigure our country and fuel evil. Our circumstances are completely different from those of five or ten years ago and we can not afford to deal with new evolving events using old ways. May blessings be bestowed on the obedient son as failure follows those that disobey.

His Holiness Pope Tawadros II “

The noted historian Samuel Tadros tweeted that “Pope Tawadros [sic] is a product of Nasser and believes 100% in the nationalist discourse from national unity to conspiracy against Egypt nonsense”. This author has also noted that Pope Tawadros (and also President Sisi) are both products of the Nasser era and its educational system. A contemporaneous boy, now an adult, can recall with precise details, considerable sympathy and a touch of horror, the civics curriculum that all Egyptian boys learned at that time. Any analogy between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Army would be highly inaccurate, but both are conservative male institutions, which promote the ethics of unquestioned obedience and selfless sacrifice. The men who rise to lead major institutions are usually formed by them as well. It takes considerable physical and cultural distance, and decades of reflection, to alter such world views. Neither of these two men had that luxury. Both perceive themselves as captains in troubled times.

A powerful boyhood memory has Pope Kyrillos VI, an opponent of immigration, addressing a small audience in his ante-chamber. The quiet man, since canonized, who exuded authority and holiness, dressed in a black Gallabyia and socks, and a simple woven cross, reminded his audience that “we [meaning Copts] can not abandon Egypt in its time of trouble, for who else will lift it from its fall”. To buttress his argument, he explained that the captain of a ship in a storm must navigate by three tools, trust in God, his knowledge of the seas, and the strength of his crew. The opinions of the passengers were notably absent in that parable. Most of the men and women in that room were on the verge of immigration. Time would show that his arguments made little difference in their determination. For almost all of them, immigration heightened both their attachments to their immigrant lands and also to Egypt. During the troubled times of the 1970s and early 1980s many favored noisy demonstrations to highlight their cause. Some even pooled their meager resources to buy expensive full page ads in publications such as the New York Times to complain of rising discrimination and harassment of Egyptian Copts. Although those times were troubled, they now seem halcyon in comparison. The best that can be said about these efforts is that they were well-intentioned, naive and ineffectual. Centuries of oppression under Arab and foreign rule inculcated bad habits in all Egyptians, and especially so among Copts. Most damaging was an inability to project themselves into a mindset of power, and preference for pleading outside the walls over compromising for a seat at the table.

It is now decades later and the Copts of North America and Australia have evolved considerably. Second and third generations have less cultural baggage from a life in Egypt. How these men and women will heed the Pope’s call remains unclear. But one hopes that they will draw lessons both from their new native lands and their ancient ancestral land of Egypt. Egypt today is an object lesson in the futility and danger of anger and retribution. It is the land of the unforgiven, where the oppressed and the oppressors, sometimes one and the same, seem unable to chart a future unblemished by the memory of hurt, real or imagined, or guided by the dignity of unsolicited forgiveness. In stark comparison stands America, which has the largest number of Copts outside Egypt. Even in this season of anger, the country remains focused on honoring unfulfilled promises and finding a common constructive path. It is likely that most Copts will prove to be obedient sons and daughters. It will be troubling if those who disobey will favor nonconstructive venting. The real question for Pope Tawadros is not one of obedience, but of direction. If disobedience is the road of failure, then what is the road of success that favors the obedient? It is a question well worth asking of all leaders in Egypt who demand unquestioned loyalty but offer no clear vision or sufficient competence. The passengers, it maybe said, can both trust the captain and ask for a destination. It wise of leaders to warn against the path of ineffectual protest, but wiser still to seek alternative views and build a constructive consensus. Perhaps future emails will do so.

— Maged Atiya