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 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

 


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 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

 

 


Egypt’s non-Coptic Coptic Problem

The video posted online looked like a selfie on the road to hell. A young girl, clearly well-taken care of, remarks “Mama, I am afraid”. The mother reassures her. The next frame shows a mob below pelting their upper floor apartment with stones. The video maker alternately closes and opens the shutter; the desire for self-protection is clearly struggling with the wish to witness. It has been confirmed that on Friday July 22 2016 a mob of Muslim men, fresh from prayer, were angry at Copts for also praying, or perhaps merely existing. The police chose not to intervene. One imagines a certain calculation in the head of their bosses. The Copts will always support the regime as the best of bad alternatives. Suppressing the crowds may create another group with scores to settle with the police. Best to let it go. This is the symptom of an idiotic state, too stupid for self-protection. While this can be viewed as a “sectarian attack”, it is fundamentally an attack on the legitimacy of the state and its ability to protect its citizens. If the Copts were to instantly disappear, the mob would certainly find other victims. This is not a conjecture. Egypt has gotten more violent even as Copts immigrated, and the worst violence has been between contending visions of society, not religions. If anything, the Copts, including those who immigrated, have been remarkably faithful to a country that constantly kicks them in the teeth. The state’s refusal to intervene in such events, and its attempts to “reconcile” the victims to attackers, will not buy it the loyalty of the mob, but disrespect and derision, which it richly deserves. Due process and justice are the external garments of a powerful state. What appears to be a “Coptic problem” is not exclusively that. It is the problem of a weak state that needs to muster up to face the numerous problems the country faces. Maspero should have taught everyone that the Copts are the canary in the mine; what befalls them today will befall everyone else ten-fold shortly. As I have written elsewhere, Egypt needs the Copts more than they need it. Their condition is the fever that alerts us to the infection in the overall body.

It was difficult to see individual faces of the mob in the video. But that merely evoked Dante’s image of lost souls milling about in the antechamber to hell. They were not virtuous enough to earn paradise, but not evil enough to deserve hell. The mob appears hapless in pursuit of both good and ill. That is an apt metaphor for Egypt today, suspended between heaven and hell. Without concerted effort, that suspension will not be stable for long.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Trial of Ali Abdel Raziq

The year 1966 witnessed the death of two men in Egypt; Sayed Qutb and Ali Abdel Raziq. One is now famous, the other largely forgotten, except by scholars. Of the two, Qutb influenced Egypt and the world more, albeit negatively, while Abdel Raziq had the potential to transform his country, and perhaps others as well. The most critical events of Abdel Raziq’s life occurred 40 years before his death.

In August 1925 a committee of Azhari learned men convened to place one of their own on trial. The seven charges leveled against the man, Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), were vague and amounted to nothing more specific than “insulting” Islam and the early Caliphs. The most serious was turning the Shari’a into a spiritual rather than a legal concept.  As expected, he was found guilty. The penalty was to strip him of the honorific title of ‘Alim (learned), potentially leading to his loss of a government stipend to serve as Qadi, or Islamic judge. In today’s Egypt he would have faced prison. Yes, Egypt has gone backwards in the last century.

What prompted the trial of Ali Abdel Raziq was the publication of a short monograph titled “Islam wa Usul Al Hokum” (“Islam and the Foundation of Governance”).The scholar made a simple assertion; that nowhere in the Qu’ran or the Hadith was the Caliphate mandated or even recommended. He further stipulated that it is a human creation used mostly to bolster tyrannical rule and is of no particular use in the current world. Abdel Raziq was no secular radical. A pious and observant man, he strongly urged his fellow Muslims to follow the tenets of the faith and lead life according to its laws and strictures. Today, we accept the Azharis’ reaction as expected, an indication of how the discourse about religion and governance in Egypt and surrounding region has come to be set and dominated by Islamists.  Although the trial has faded from the popular imagination, it remains a watershed mark in the history of Egypt and beyond, and a warning sign of subsequent problems.

Abdel Raziq stepped into a firestorm less because his book “attacked” Islam, but because it upset the Egyptian King Fu’ad and his supporters. After Mustapha Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1923, Fu’ad thought to acquire added legitimacy by becoming a Caliph. He sat on a thorny throne (he was seen as a stooge of the British and attacked for his inability to speak Arabic) and he needed to stand up to the nascent nationalist Wafd party. He imagined the Caliphate as his ticket to a more comfortable reign. The dominant political ideology at that time was Egyptianism, which asserted a territorial definition of the nation and one that superseded religion, and also celebrated the uniqueness of the Egyptian stock and the need for national rulers. Fu’ad was in its ideological cross hairs. He gave tacit support for the push for a “Caliphate Conference” during which his supporters imagined he would be declared Caliph. Al Azhar, then as now, was always supine to the ruler. Most of the Muslim scholars outside Egypt did not wish to be entangled in what they saw as a purely Egyptian boondoggle. When the conference was finally held in 1926, it was a shabby affair, dominated by Egyptian sycophants of the monarch, and poorly organized to boot. The failure of the conference was a also a symptom of a new change in the region, the rise of the House of Ibn Saud and the resulting hostility between it and Egyptian rulers (Fu’ad would never fully recognize Saudi Arabia). Still, it marked a change, which continues till today, where a variety of men ranging from opportunistic political leaders to jail birds would seek to unify the Muslims and bring back greatness by subjecting them to their rule. The idea of the classical “Caliphate” died with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. The modern version rose on the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (July 21 1774) between the Ottoman Empire and Russia was humiliating in a variety of ways. Not only did the Ottomans relinquish territory in the Crimea, populated mostly by Muslims, but it also allowed the Russians to intervene on behalf of the Eastern Christians in Ottoman provinces. The decent but hapless Sultan Abdel Hamid I came upon the idea that the Crimean Tartars ought to pledge allegiance to him because he was their “Khalifa”, thus doing an end-run around the Russians. Furthermore, other Ottoman provinces, such as Egypt, were restive and this notion gave him legitimacy against the local usurpers. For the next 150 years, the weaker the Ottomans got the stronger the claim to the Caliphate became. The Caliphate does not beat in every Muslim heart as some Western scholars claim, it was a cudgel used to coerce them, as Abdel Raziq insisted.

The reaction to Abdel Raziq’s trial was dispiriting. Some at the time defended Abdel Raziq, but on purely procedural grounds. No one advanced credible scholarly arguments based on the Qur’an and Hadith to debunk his claim. No prominent religious scholar undertook a systematic defense or refutation of his thesis. The civilian politicians were not much braver. Sa’ad Zaghloul, the lion of Egyptian nationalism and leader of the Wafd party, was ailing in the last few months of his life, and more or less acquiesced to the Azharis. Some of Abdel Raziq’s relatives were prominent in the Liberal party; yet the party was keen on keeping good relations with Fu’ad and offered hardly any defense.

None of the secular political leaders in Egypt, and no prominent religious leader, rose to his defense on principle. Few intellectuals took up his cause. More interestingly, no credible scholarly arguments based purely on the Qur’an and Hadith were ever advanced to debunk his claim. It is tempting then to argue that Abdel Raziq lacked popular appeal and therefore was “inauthentic”. This is certainly the charge brought against him by many Islamists today. But it is difficult to sort out cause and effect in his lack of popular appeal. The rise of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood was prompted in some part by his ideas and environment that gave rise to him. Their appeal was often populist, even demagogic, and socially reactionary. But the success of men such as Hasan Al Banna, who came to prominence only a few years after the trial, was due less to his ideas (he had few original ones) than to his political acumen and ability to elicit support from the rulers, even while simultaneously conspiring against them. Today’s Islamism is difficult to attack because it has retreated into a posture of group identification, viewing itself not merely as a current within Islam, but as the very essence of it.

A variety of Western scholars seem entranced by the idea that “Islam” is unique and special and Muslims require a different set of rules from the rest of humanity. These range from the immensely learned to the utterly romantic to the opportunistically careerist. But sensible people, especially decision makers, need not attune too closely to this stuff. As one of Sayed Qutb’s former bosses called his later work, this is mostly “Kalam Fadi”. Empty talk.

— Maged Atiya

 


June 19 1926

The procession started from a Red Sea port toward Mecca as it had done for nearly a century. The carrier (Mahmal) contained the covering for the Holy Ka’aba (Kiswa) . It had been a tradition since the rise of modern Egypt in the 1820s to provide this annual change of covering. Some say the tradition dated back to the twelfth century. But in 1926 things had changed in Arabia. Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud and his band of Wahabis were now uniting much of the peninsula under his rule. Some of these Wahabis objected to the music and celebration accompanying the procession. The Egyptian police escort responded with a customary delicate touch. They opened fire and killed upwards of two dozen men. Then continued on their merry way. Back in Egypt, grumpy King Fu’ad was furious at the temerity of the victims. He asked the British, who held sway in Arabia and to a lesser extent in Egypt, to allow him to become King of the Arabs (he spoke a bit of Arabic). A conference was being organized in Egypt at that time to make him Caliph of all Muslims, a prospect that was met with no appetite among most Muslims, save Fu’ad’s sycophants. The British demurred and then offered a flat out No. Fu’ad would not recognize Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life. In fact, he sent a mission to Yemen to see if he can stir up trouble for the new “Saudi” Kingdom there. His son Farouk would recognize Saudi Arabia in a flourish of Islamism that characterized his rule. A rising young community organizer, Hasan Al Banna, would be photographed kissing the hand of the Saudi King, A noted intellectual at the time, Salama Moussa, predicted that all this nonsense would come to a very bad end. A year into his reign,  Farouk pulled an interesting stunt. He was visiting Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. The noted Egyptologist Howard Carter was ready to receive his Majesty and guide him. He prepared explanations of such Pharaonic symbols as the “Key of Life” and “Key of Happiness”. Farouk would not listen, He pulled out a copy of the Qur’an and kissed it, “This is the key of life; this is the key of happiness”, he chortled as he hastily went back to his car.
The rest is, as they say, history. A very bad history indeed, at least for Egypt.

— Maged Atiya