In the late 1970s and early 1980s the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” was formed by some extreme Islamists, and even taken up by President Sadat, to describe the emerging Coptic activism in North America and Australia. These Copts were deemed unrepresentative of Copts at large, a bad element indeed. Two broad charges were leveled against them. First, they were anti-Muslim ingrates besmirching Egypt’s name when they should make it clear that the very survival of Copts in Egypt is due to Muslim tolerance. Second, they were cowards speaking words from the safety of afar that they could not utter in Egypt. The two arguments undercut themselves. The idea that existence is a grant, not a right, is repugnant. The second argument merely underlines the social and political oppression in Egypt. In any case, the arguments identify two groups of Copts, good Copts who mind their manners, and loud uppity Copts who risk the lives of Copts in Egypt by their primal screams. It was a useful myth, but myth anyway. In reality there are no neat two groups. Famously disputatious, the Copts may exhibit more groups than individual Copts.
It would be good to consign the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” to the memory hole of the bad old days. Unfortunately some strain of it is making a come back in more serious, refined and genteel circles. A twitter thread by Dr Hisham Hellyer, a scholar of religion and the Middle East revives the myth of two groups. Dr. Hellyer is a thoughtful man without a bone of intolerance in his body (he edited one of my early essays). Yet he unfortunately revived this dichotomy, almost certainly unwittingly. At large, there is general reluctance to address sectarianism in Egypt in raw and honest form, rather than confusing circumlocutions. In response to an earlier post, many of my close Muslim friends expressed the wish for a different Egypt, one where people practice religion privately, but are only Egyptians when they step into the public sphere. It is a great dream, with a touch of the French homogenizing model, and it was of course the cry of the “Liberal Era” between the 1920s and the 1950s. It also failed. The Liberal Era begat military rule and religious conflict. One wishes that Sa’ad Zaghlul and his Coptic notable friends and supporters would have lived long enough to witness the massacres at Maspero and Rab’a Squares, where their dream turned into a nightmare.
The trouble with that dream is that it runs counter to reality and deep seated cultural norms. The public sphere in Egypt is thoroughly Islamic, and Copts can participate as “Egyptians” only if they mute their identity. A Coptic minister can not open a meeting with a prayer true to his or her faith. This is the essence of the problem and the one fact that I have been unable to break through to friends. Egyptian sociologist Sana Hasan, herself a product of the liberal Muslim aristocracy, noted this in her book “Christian vs. Muslim in Modern Egypt”. She claimed it was harder to write about her fellow Egyptians, the Copts, than the Israelis, because she had to learn new “mnemonics”. Coptic memory, cultural terms, and references amount to a national culture, separate and distinct from Muslim Egypt, but not in opposition to it. If there is any hope for Egypt it consists of abandoning the French model for something closer to the American model of cultural coexistence. The increased Muslim presence in the West has shown the wisdom of the American over the French model. A wish for a well governed and free Egypt can be realized by building a liberal state representatives of two nations, or perhaps three to include the Nubians. Surely people can practice, and should practice religion privately. But they need not deny their culture publicly. In the case of the Copts, we must remember that they are not merely a religious group. Many who have lapsed in their faith still identify as Copts. Others exhibit keen interest in the philosophy and theology of other faiths, especially Islam.
The Copts continue to exist as a vestigial culture of a Christian Egypt. They do so in Egypt and increasingly around the word. This is not division, but true riches for Egypt, a country fond of selling pearls for false dreams, and never honoring its best. The Copts come in many varieties, some exceptional and a few truly regrettable. While Copts need to reform their discourse in many places, the world at large can not simply pick the Copts it likes, but must accept the Copts it has.
— Maged Atiya
In a recent interview with the Coptic Canadian History Project, Dr Angie Heo, a scholar of Coptic culture, stated that she sees a special responsibility for diaspora Copts, as
“In light of these [persecution of Copts] horrific realities, however, I believe it is all the more important to ensure the diagnosis for these problems is not reactionary but carefully accurate. Coptic scholars and scholars of Copts can help mitigate Islamophobia by directing attention away from the “essence” of Islam and toward the larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement that impact all minority communities, Christian and Muslim alike.“
In spite of the high-sounding but awkwardly constructed language, it is easy to detect a message that is increasingly common among some scholars of the Copts. Diaspora Copts, especially those in North American and Australia, have to censor their exposure of the increasingly tenuous conditions of Egyptian Copts lest such discourse be used by anti-Muslim bigots in the West. There is also a subtle threat in this warning. Any discussion of how Islam and its cultural content may contribute to systemic persecution of Eastern Christians is verboten. It may further endanger these same Eastern Christians while enabling anti-Muslim bigots. Copts, by virtue of being victims, are charged with a special responsibility to “mitigate” the reactions of the larger culture in which they exist and over which they have little control.
The statement also sets up a false equivalence. While there is a nasty strain of anti-Muslim prejudice among some Western Christians, the experience of Muslims in the West and Christians in the East are not “alike”. Nor are the ‘larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement “ the same. Christian mobs are not sacking mosques in the West on a weekly basis. The rise of ugly white supremacists has yet to result in legal strictures on the practice of any religion.
It is certainly true that there is a residue of anti-Muslim feelings among some recently immigrated Copts. This is an expression less of their religion than of their native culture. In the clash between the christian message of “love thy neighbor” and the knowledge that it was this very same neighbor that drove you out of your homeland, the lesser angels sometimes win. This must be combated on an on-going basis, not only for the good of Muslims but also for the cultural progress of the Copts. But that effort should in no way curtail the reasoned exposure of systemic religious persecution, nor should it dilute such exposure by making it overly general about “all structures of violence and disenfranchisement.” To insist that specific and often horrific violence should be addressed by an effort aimed at a larger reform of humanity is to allow the continuance of this violence by a quixotic, but ultimately insensitive, idealism.
The Coptic experience in Egypt is familiar to many oppressed groups. They are expected to mind their manners, toe the line, walk close to the wall, show deference, or whatever euphemism is available at hand. And indeed for the most part Copts have conformed to these habits of servitude. But in the gloriously noisy and free West, many no longer see any purpose in such displays of caution. They are entitled to their freedom, exuberance, and on occasions, regrettable mistakes. It is bad enough that the Coptic identity must be continuously downplayed in Egypt, to the detriment of every one in the country, be they Muslim or Copt. It need not be so in countries that glorify diversity and expressions of individual and group identity.
More specifically, diaspora Copts have every right to engage in a reasoned discussion of Islamic culture, one devoid of hate or systemic demonization. The conditions in Egypt can not be blamed on a generalized “cultural problems”. Religion plays a large and prominent role in the cultural life and governance of Egypt. We can not engage in any reasoned debate about the flaws in these social and political structures while tip-toeing around both religions in the country. When Christian thinkers, responding to the suffering of Jews and to their own moral imperatives, recognized the role their theology played in antisemitism they opened a pathway for all Christians to become better Christians. Vigorous discourse between Christian and Muslim theologians was the highlight of the ascendance of Islamic culture. The shutting down of such discourse was a hallmark of its decline. There is no greater service a Copt can render a fellow Muslim than a reasoned and respectful critique of his culture and religion. It is thus that we love our neighbor.
— Maged Atiya
On the hot afternoon of June 25 1968 huge crowds were turned away from the ‘Abassiya neighborhood in Cairo. Most were Copts, some poor and humble, some middle class, and even scions of the old aristocracy who felt they had every right to attend the ceremony dedicating the new Coptic Cathedral of St Mark. The relics of the saint were brought back to Egypt from Venice. President Nasser attended, as well as his Vice President and future President Anwar Al Sadat. Emperor Haile Selassie was there, representing the largest Coptic majority country in the world, Ethiopia, whose Christianity emanated from Egypt. Attending was also Catholic Cardinal Duval who said he was “eager to mend a thousand years of suspicion and indifference”. Many Orthodox Patriarchs were also in attendance. There was also Dr Eugene Carson Blake of the World Council of Churches. The night before the dedication Reverend Blake dined in the home of a prominent Copt and described in fascinating details the many times he marched with Dr Martin Luther King, and recalled with sadness his assassination. The age of this blogger did not allow him a seat at the table, and could only observe from a distance. Reverend Blake represented one face of America; religious, seriously committed to equality and intolerant of intolerance. It was ironic that many who attended the reception in his honor were not able to attend the dedication and were pushed away by the police. But that is Egypt. Nasser speeded the process of clearing the legal hurdles to building the new Cathedral and even contributed a modest amount of state money toward its construction. It was rumored that this was done to allay the anger of the Coptic Patriarch, the formidable and now canonized Kyrillous VI, over the sacking of a single church in Aswan. The majority of the money to build it came from Copts; rich and poor , powerful and humble, pious and less so. It was their Cathedral, built with their money and sweat, and named after their saint and Apostle of Christ. It was the “Batrachana”, the home of the Patriarch, but also the focus of their indelible dedication to their faith, regardless of whether they held it firmly or tentatively.
On January 7 2019 another Cathedral was dedicated in Egypt, not in Cairo, but in a spot far off in the desert. An autocratic leader paid for its construction, perhaps in return for the decades of sacking of many Coptic churches, especially in August 2013 which resulted from his removal of a Muslim Brotherhood elected President. Or simply as a show piece for the new capital. There were no spontaneous crowds to hail the dedication, and it was named in a way that no Copt would suggest. An Egyptian-American historian called it “the ultimate symbol of Dhimmitude”. As far as we know, only one prominent American visited it, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He did so after giving a speech at the American University in Cairo, a symbol and a by-product of the best of American Protestantism. Pompeo hailed it as a great improvement and a step forward for religious freedom. Many Copts however would happily trade it in for the repair of many existing churches, tasks as simple as tiling a bathroom, or the building of new ones close to where the faithful live, and like the Cathedral of no-man’s land, cheek by jowl to Mosques.
This is where Egypt is today, half a century after the last Cathedral was dedicated. This is also where America is today.
— Maged Atiya
We arrived in the US on August 29 1969. No plane at the time could fly direct between Egypt and the US, even if the strained relations had allowed such a flight. The trip took nearly 2 days in an august procession of airplanes and airports; Cairo to Beirut in a United Arab Airlines Comet, Beirut to Paris on a Pan American DC8 , Paris to Chicago, also on Pan American but in a Boeing 707-320B and finally Chicago to Salt Lake City on a Boeing 707-220. The Pan American tickets came in a thick long book, slightly larger than a checkbook, with red ink on the back of each sheet. On every leg of the trip my father carefully tore out a page from each of the four tickets in exchange for boarding passes. The manager of the Pan American office near the Nile Hilton made sure every customer was aware of the advanced computerized reservation system, the first of its kind in the region. “Not even Beirut has such a system. And we are in a state of war!”, he insisted to everyone who would listen. I had accompanied my father to the ticket office, perhaps to blunt the manager’s questions. “And why the trip to Amreeka?” he inquired. My father was wary of telling him about our impending immigration. The Cairo of that time was not a place where a man offered unnecessary information, especially since currency controls made it impossible to take any meaningful trips, and altogether likely to seek the assistance of Lebanese money changers. “Just to visit our family there”, was all my father would volunteer. There was no doubt that the manager noticed that the tickets were one-way.
The succession of ticket stubs facilitated a trip that was the antithesis of Conrad’s Marlow’s journey into the heart of the jungle. With every step along the way the world got larger, brighter, more open and more promising. Cairo had quickly become disheveled and dusty after the 1967 war, as if Israel’s rapid attack destroyed not only airplanes and armor but also every mop, dust feather and wash bucket. Color photography became popular in Egypt in the early 1960s, and the transition from black and white to color removed any pretensions to glamour. The monochrome dustiness of Cairo gave way to a brighter and greener Beirut. Although we never left the airport transit area, we could still spy green cedars and lush bushes from the windows. The place gave no hint of the calamity that was to visit it in less than half a dozen years. Paris, where we stayed overnight, was even brighter. It seemed that every street was over-lit, the stores exceptionally cheerful and the people dressed more colorfully. We wanted to take a walk around the city, but a soft evening rain changed that plan. It was the first time in my life I experienced summer rain. My mother took it as a sign of the strangeness of the lands to come. I took a different view. I never lost affection for the soft light that accompanies evening rain. It was in Paris that I lost my fears about making it to America at all. Those fears had begun to gather force as soon as school ended in June. In July I broke my shoulder in a surfing accident in Alexandria. I worried that I would be deemed an unfit invalid at the airport in America and turned back. In August there were rumors of planned hijackings by PLO members and dark rumblings about cancellations of flights to the Middle East. A few days before our departure there was a fire in Al Aqsa mosque, and the Egyptian media, all 3 television channels anyway, were hysterical with intimations about Israel’s involvement in the matter and the necessity to gird for an upcoming conflict. None of these events made the prospect of the trip any more certain or easier. It was not until we landed in Paris that I felt the grip of Egypt loosen around me. Still, I could barely sleep that night, fearing an alarm clock fiasco that would have us late to the airport and permanently locked out of America. I stayed awake for the entire flight, my shoulder throbbing badly, and fell asleep only when the pilot announced that we entered US airspace and the stewardess distributed landing forms. My father filled them out with the meticulous attention of a man signing away his life.
Our departure from Cairo started with Halim, my father’s driver, bounding up the steps to our Heliopolis apartment to take down our luggage. After he stowed them away in the car, he came back up to witness the parting scene. All four of us stood in the foyer with my grandmother, her companion Um Boutros, and Rushdi, our neighbor, on the other side. My grandmother had no wish to go to the airport. Her son immigrated the month before, and now her daughter was on her way as well. For the next two decades she would rattle alone in our apartment, bickering constantly with the asthmatic Um Boutros, far from all her children and grandchildren in America. She stood in black, the color she wore since my grandfather’s passing five years earlier, and with her luxurious gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. A woman accustomed to many calamities in her life, she was now facing a final one with grace and no tears. She started the proceedings by hugging and kissing my mother, then my father and my younger brother. She came over to her eldest, and favorite, grandson, pushed him down so she can kiss the top of his head. She demanded a promise that he will take care of himself and keep her close to him. He neither promised her then nor disappointed her later. She never lost her special affection for the boy who was the chief cheerleader and initial instigator for the idea of immigration. She held on for years until after the birth of her first great grandson. She knitted shawls for the mother of the baby, sending them in carefully wrapped packages to America with any one she could trust to bring them there. She asked her grandson to make sure his wife wards off the winter cold by wrapping herself tightly while nursing the baby. The shawls lacked her earlier skills, for she had grown careless and on occasions missed a few knots. Still, they were appreciated. Two women in her coffee circle of widows went to America to visit their children, and the tales they brought back strengthened her conviction that the land was not for her. Once a month she posted a letter to her grandson, always addressed to his parents’ house, where he mostly did not live. He received the letters in clumps, but read them in the order of their posting. Wars, riots and assassinations were mere background noise to her. She focused mostly on family details, asked for nothing except forgiveness and packages of Cadbury chocolates, and hoped for little except redemption and the occasional visit from America. But on the morning of departure to America no one knew of what was to come. All were glad when she concluded the proceedings by reaching for her vial of Myroon oil and drawing a cross on each of the four foreheads. We were but a few links in a chain that extended back millennia as every Copt started any venture with a spot of oil on the forehead. But these were broken links, for few had ever immigrated before.With that, we were off to the airport.
There was no party of people seeing us off at the departure area. My parents did not advertise our intention to immigrate beyond the most immediate family and a few close friends. No one in their circles of friends from the Cleopatra Church knew about our plans far in advance. It was all announced quickly and in a matter of fact way a week or so before our departure. Pope Kyrillous was known to disapprove of immigration, and the business of dealing with the spiritual needs of those already abroad fell to Bishop Samuel. The local priest issued an unenthusiastic prayer for the family’s safety. My father did not sell our prized 1960 white Ford Falcon, and the driver took us to the airport in it. It all seemed as well planned as a weekend outing. Halim unloaded our luggage at the curb, shook my father’s hand, jumped back in the car and left. I watched the car pull away, its left tail light, a single round red saucer, winking a goodbye. I waited for it to disappear into the shimmering air while everyone went into the terminal. I never saw the car again. My memory of the old terminal was that it was hot and forlorn. Policemen in white uniforms manned the checkpoints. In the early morning light the desert outside glowed hot and unkind. Inside, a few pigeons flew around and cooed in a distant corner of the ceiling. I expected my mother to cry. But she did not. My father, normally undemonstrative, instead let out a blast of criticism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. “We are not leaving Egypt”, he said. “Look around, nothing here says Egypt. We are Arabs, from an Arab republic, waiting to board an Arab airliner, with passports proclaiming we are Arabs”. “Tayeb, Tayeb”, my mother shushed him. The wait was short, the walk across the hot tarmac was brisk, and the door of the airplane closed quickly. With the final turn of the door handle I felt relieved.
Memory refuses to yield any specific details of the few hours spent at the Beirut airport except for a few incidents that stand out but with shaky veracity. I recall a young girl, barely past puberty, either European or American, smoking Virginia Slims in front of her parents, who smoked Kents. Early smoking did not shock me; I had tried my first and last cigarette at age 7 at the urging of a wayward cousin. The girl’s lack of furtiveness seemed downright unenjoyable. She propped her bare feet on one of the chairs, and my mother’s face twisted in disapproval. Somewhere in her mind she feared for what her sons might face, or worse, find attractive in a future country. There was also a Lebanese gentleman sitting next to us in the lounge who leaned over to my father and asked “Masryoon?”. In Lebanon we rediscovered that we were not Arabs, and as Edward Said would intimate in his memoirs, a lesser cousin of the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and perhaps the Iraqis as well. One encounter we did not have, or we would not have understood it had we had it, was with a young woman named Leila Khalid. She was at the airport that day traveling from Beirut to Rome. The next morning, as we flew to America, she commandeered a TWA airliner to Damascus. News of Leila’s adventure were prominent on American Television on our first full day in the country. Huntley and Brinkley both agreed she was a terrorist. I listened closely to their broadcast trying to catch every unfamiliar English word. I did not agree nor differed with their assessment of her. I imagined that had the hijacking been pushed up a few days and the news came in Cairo I would likely have applauded her deeds.
Dinner in Paris was my first meal outside Egypt. We had nothing to eat all day but only my brother seemed to have any appetite. He wondered out loud what elementary school in America will be like. None of us bothered to answer him. My mother appeared emotional, my father distant, and I resorted to my habit of passing time by counting the objects around me. It dawned on me how daunting my prospects were. I was to attend a school in an unfamiliar language, and eventually take college entry exams that I had never prepared for, and try to fulfill my father’s wish of attending either Princeton or Cal Tech, the two US schools he thought were worthy of attention. Our prospects as a family were daunting as well. My father had no job lined up. He had never applied for a job in the years since he started his company. I suspected that my mother could not cook unassisted. This was not the way to immigrate, we were told. The sensible thing is for the man to head out first and get a job and a place to live, then bring in the family. That would have entailed us staying one more school year in Egypt. Neither of my parents liked the prospect of separating from each other, and the prospect that my brother and I would stay in Egypt alone for a few months was simply unthinkable to them. Nasser had insisted that the war to liberate the Sinai was imminent. This was not the time to separate families. I was excited to go to America, and feared that my father’s solitary trip might end up in failure and abandonment of the whole idea of immigration. Burning the ships seemed best, but watching them burn is never easy. Still, I was excited.
The customs agent in Chicago was a ruddy and beefy man who wore a tag with his last name, which seemed to be constructed entirely with the last four letters of the alphabet, with one or two vowels thrown in as gesture of mercy for those foolhardy enough to try to pronounce it. He looked closely at our passports and our green cards, which were actually made of laminated greenish plastic, and asked “Do you speak English?”. All four of us answered “Yes” in unison, better to be safe. He chuckled, “I was only asking your father, but good enough anyway”. He closed our passports and remarked “I have been working this for 20 years since I left the Army, and I liked it more when the passports said ‘Egypt’. Welcome to America”. It all seemed too easy. My father’s first act on leaving the customs area was to buy a copy of the New York Times. There was no news of Egypt or the region, beyond a report about fighting between the Lebanese Army and the PLO. My father remarked with mock amusement that there was also no column from Mohammed Hassanein Heikal. Later I would try to decipher the editorial page on the flight to Salt Lake City, but got no further than the first paragraph of a column by James Reston about the thirtieth anniversary of World War II.
Cousin N. and her husband P. were waiting for us outside customs. Their son A., a toddler, ran around them in circles. N. held the newly born K. My mother fussed over the children and N. seemed overjoyed to see us. P. and I both held back, likely for very different reasons. What struck me about them was their clothing. It was a hot day in Chicago and they were dressed in standard late 1960s academic attire, T-shirts, jeans and sandals. I felt hope that soon I might look like that. The signifiers of assimilation are limited to the senses. I knew I will never speak without an accent, and would soon find out that it will also be impossible to master American idioms. Every time I had mastered some, a new one cropped up. But if I can’t sound like them, I could at least try to look like them. The trouble was that the American tribe of that time was bewilderingly diverse. “Them” dressed in all sorts of manners meant to arouse all sorts of reactions. In the end I was never able to dress “like” Americans for I never found out how Americans dress anyway. There were a few cardinal rules to follow. No male of Middle Eastern extraction should wear slippers in public. Another rule was never to be the most formally dressed man in any party. I cringed when my father attended backyard barbecues in a casual blazer and a tie. It took me the better part of a quarter century to convince him that Polo shirts are not for savages. I once bumped into Edward Said on Morningside Heights on a hot Sunday morning. He was dressed to the nines, except for a tie. His entire manner was very elegant, and very foreign. That was certainly another rule to observe; never try to look like an elegant foreigner. But beyond these and a few other rules, there seemed to be no rules, neither to obey nor to break. In any case, I was soon to discover that men dress to please their superiors, or their women. “You are not going out with me looking like that”, was the only cardinal rule in the end. Eventually you become an American when you can dress down without feeling shabby or out of place. The place of exile is inside the clothing, unless they mysteriously fit.
Salt Lake City on the eve of Labor Day 1969 had a wholesome squareness. America at large was in turmoil, simultaneously landing on the Moon and getting mired in the mud of Woodstock, but Salt Lake stayed a few years back. It was not provincial at all. The American prosperity allowed the LDS (Mormon) Church to send missions abroad after World War II. In that relatively small city one could find many who lived abroad for extended periods, in places as varied as Kenya and Ecuador, Australia and Thailand, Japan and Germany. The seemingly odd thing was that many ventured outside the country, but rarely to the larger cities, such as New York. Those places seemed odd and far away. The headlines from them came by way of the three major networks and the national papers. The New Times noted that on Labor day Flint Michigan was prosperous and distancing itself from liberalism. There was no hint that half a century later it would be as decrepit and shabby as Boulaq or Imbaba. The network news warned of upcoming campus violence and eulogized a famous boxer who died in a plane crash. But it was not the specific news items that impressed me, rather it was the lack of any exhortation on part of the news anchors.
The dry heat of the valley reminded me of Egypt, but the city was lush and clean, scrubbed down to the last gutter. There was an orderliness that left a taste of loneliness in anyone used to the cacophony of Cairo. I could not sleep on the first night. I listened to the outside noises, none of which were made by humans. It was a natural and cacophonous symphony. I was told that the croaking noise was of tree frogs. Trying to sleep in a bed adjacent to the window, and the trees just outside, made me wake up in alarm at the prospect of peeping frogs. I woke up several times, and on one occasion went downstairs to eat a bite. I decided to try Peanut Butter, Skippy was the most cheerful name in the refrigerator. But I did not know how to eat it. I scooped a big spoon into my mouth and suddenly felt as if a cement truck had dumped its load into my throat. I frantically tried to get some water, but realized that I had no idea where the glasses were stored. The faucet was low and I simply scooped the water into my mouth. With my face and chest wet, I cast about for milk. There was only one unopened carton, stubborn and inscrutable. One side had “Open” helpfully printed, but gave no instruction as to how to do it. I gave up on milk. Next I found a jar of Velveeta Cheese, which seemed indistinguishable from Peanut Butter except for the color. I decided to leave well enough alone. As I headed back upstairs I heard a rattle outside. Opening the back door I came face to face with a raccoon outside the screen door. She calmly took my measure and walked away with two little raccoons hurrying behind her. I imagined her mumbling “Welcome to America, idiot”. I slipped back into bed wondering how many firsts still await in this country of wonders, the land where the Wild Things roam.
— Maged Atiya
From “Tales of Immigration”
On the sunny afternoon of December 21 1968 an orange sailed through the open glass windows in a Heliopolis apartment in Cairo. The projectile bounced once on the floor of the boys room before it came to a halt under a photograph of the family. Adults blamed the entire episode on wayward boys in the neighborhood. But the older boy had an unlikely explanation which he kept to himself. He imagined that the orange was tossed his way by Jim Lovell, the second in command of Apollo 8, and a man he came to idolize for no particular reason. The vessel had just been launched in far away Florida, but the boy had kept close track of the entire mission even before launch. Two decades later, after a lecture by Lovell, the grown man wanted to introduce himself and mention the orange, but did not, to his regret.
The race to the moon, and the bets placed on the eventual first arrival, occupied minds throughout the 1960s, and whether one favored the United States or the Soviet Union depended largely on the person’s political orientation. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Egyptian television played a short snippet of one of his sermons, the boy’s favors swung toward the Americans. He watched with some trepidation as a squat and ungainly Soviet tub, dubbed Zond 6, carrying a turtle and a number of smaller critters orbited the moon in an eccentric manner during the latter part of November 1968, before skipping back to earth and crashing in the wilds of Kazakhstan, killing all animals on board, small and smaller. But his excitement soared as the closing act of 1968 belonged to the spectacular vessel called Apollo 8, launched from America and piloted by Americans. The closing weeks of 1968 were notable in Egypt by the fact that the state media gave prominent play to Apollo 8. It was a significant departure from its hereto skewed reporting which hailed every Soviet achievement and downplayed every American one. There were daily reports of the accomplishments of Apollo 8, and on the day after its safe arrival back on earth, December 28 1968, the stations promised a full half hour documentary on Apollo 8. For the passionate follower of the space program the documentary seemed a suitable present on his birthday. He fidgeted all day waiting for it. His birthday fell awkwardly during a fast, making the idea of a cake out of the question; instead it was always celebrated with some variation of fruits or vegetarian delicacy topped with a single candle. On this day he had no wish to linger on a celebration and was eager to rush to the TV and watch the documentary which delivered everything it promised and more.
What the documentary promised were photographs of the earth and the moon and footage of the men inside their capsule and of the heavenly bodies outside it. There were certainly those, in full black and white graininess. The documentary also delivered more than it promised, albeit in an intangible form. There was the awe imprinted on the young viewer of the vastness of the distance between the earth and the moon, and the comparatively insignificant size of the vessel. Apollo 8 traveled more than 100 times farther than Columbus, in a vessel smaller than his and with no possibility of patching up leaks while sailing toward its destination. Jim Lovell’s error of wiping out the computer memory and reorienting the vessel by the stars was a throwback to an earlier era of technology, but also an affirmation of the indispensable place of craft in all journeys of discovery. The boy found the diagrams and illustrations of the earth, moon and the vessel entirely unsatisfying, due to their truncated perspective. Instead, and only to comprehend the scale of the enterprise, he placed the orange which he had kept from days earlier on one end of the long hallway in the apartment, and on the other end he placed a playing marble. He tweaked the distances to approximate that between the earth and the moon. He could not find a satisfying stand-in for Apollo. Even an ant would have been too big, and insufficiently majestic. He imagined Apollo, too tiny to see on his reconstruction, racing toward the moon, carrying within it even smaller creatures. These creatures were his heroes. His sunday school teacher had tried to convince him, mostly in vain, of the existence of God based on the vastness and the unlikeliness of the universe. But in the hallway of his home he came to comprehend the true wonder of human existence, the inexplicable ability of tiny creatures to venture to places utterly inhospitable to their weak forms.
The birthday documentary began to pull America into view. Immigration was a near certainty now, and only a matter of months away. There was the excitement of tunneling out of Egypt, of whose failures he had become tired and ashamed. But America had remained elusive in spite of his diligent research. He memorized the names of all 50 states and their capitals. He collected road maps of the country and many of the bigger cities. He listened to the vinyl discs that came from America by couriers. He had followed the presidential campaign, and the mysterious Electoral College. He imagined that forsaking his tribe would be easy, but what American tribe would he belong to? Apollo 8 mission control offered a tentative answer. The tribe of men who seemed able to do complex things without any seeming effort. They spoke in acronyms with hushed and even tones, whether the matter at hand was routine or catastrophic. Their uniform of short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and half-rimmed glasses signaled a welcome otherness. Neither birth nor kinship guaranteed membership in that tribe; the price of belonging was facility with arcane knowledge. He listened carefully to their clipped chatter. They reduced the terrifying act of leaving earth’s embrace into a comfortable three letter acronym, TLI. Trans Lunar Injection. This was quite a departure from the world he had known so far, where daily acts of stupidity were celebrated with great fanfare. Three men were commanded to escape their home planet into the vastness of space with a single understated sentence, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI. Over”. A reporter’s comment, heard faintly in the background, provided a succinct summary of the event. Leaving low earth orbit. Low Earth Orbit, LEO. That phrase stuck with the boy as a metaphor for all that was about to happen to him. It captured in equal measures the excitement and fear of leaving home. In his hallway construction immigration was but a small move, from one section of the orange to another. But he saw it as something closer to the first ever human departure from earth’s influence. Immigration would happen weeks after Apollo 11, and it would start with a walk down the hallway from the bedroom to the foyer; from the orange to the marble. While a few family members said their goodbyes in the early morning light, he imagined himself leaving low earth orbit. America neither kept the promises of 1969, nor disappointed in a larger sense. In the tumult of the 1970s, many radicals attacked the space program, and even science itself. He took no effort to argue with them, feeling that they are simply bound to the gravitational pull they had never questioned. The country as a whole abandoned the promises of the Apollo program, confining humans to low earth orbit, but spectacular machines made further journeys; the Voyager twins, and the Mars expeditions did not send humans out of earth orbit, only the fruits of their mental labors. While the language of science, and the space program, crept into his daily expressions, he tried to keep LEO private. Once, while castigating one of his graduate students for aiming too low, he demanded “you really needed to leave low earth orbit on this issue”. The student, just a few years younger, was puzzled by the expression but adopted it anyway. Soon enough it was common around his lab. LEO was a synonym for any effort deemed lacking in imagination, poorly executed or simply boring. A better-funded competing group across the country was described as a “a bunch of LEOs”. He regretted the public use of what had been his private phrase. But the idea of leaving low earth orbit remained as a metaphor for any worthwhile venture; leaving the comfortable and combating the unknown before returning to the familiar. He counted himself lucky in a number of ways, but mostly in having the freedom to occasionally leave the familiar and experience the anxiety of the unknown. In escaping low earth orbit he would find delight in not belonging and redemption in transgressing without fanfare. He would never find comfort in the assurances of religion or the musings of philosophers. For him life was too incomprehensible and random. It made sense solely within its context and only by its ever-shifting rules. The trepidation of its inevitable waning made bearable by the thought of it as one exciting preparation for a final departure from low earth orbit.
— Maged Atiya
From “Tales of Immigration”
On April 14 1977, at 1 PM, a commercial airliner touched down at Kennedy Airport in New York City, carrying the Patriarch of all the Copts. Few Coptic patriarchs had ever ventured outside Egypt, and those who did went to places such as Ethiopia. Hours before the touchdown the TWA terminal teemed with Egyptians, so many that the overflow crowd stood outside the terminal and into the parking lot. As soon as the Patriarch stepped off the plane a crowd of dignitaries rushed to greet him with enthusiasm and the usual Egyptian insouciance toward personal space. The greeters included priests and bishops, diplomats and notables, common folks who were lucky enough to make it to the front row, and a single cameraman who recorded the venue for posterity in jittery and grainy details. The aural space was occupied by two dozen deacons, in vestments and with cymbals and triangles, who broke into ancient hymns in Coptic. Outside the terminal the crowd turned the place into a festival of traditional reverence, newfound pride, and customary jostling. A young monk, recently arrived from Egypt, stood in the middle of traffic beaming beatifically. A New York City police officer approached him with gentle deference. “Padre, would you mind stepping onto the sidewalk?”. The monk smiled back insisting that “God wants me here”. Eventually he stepped onto the sidewalk, in perhaps a sign of God’s mercy on New York motorists. A man at the back of the crowd, near the parking lot, took up the unwise, and possibly sacrilegious chant “Shenouda, Shenouda Malik Al Aqbat”. (Shenouda, King of the Copts). No one seemed to follow him and he eventually gave up. A couple of Mukhabarat types hung out on the edges, easily recognizable by their sense of fashion, sunglasses and worn out shoes, representing the inability of Egyptian intelligence to blend in, or possibly its desire not to do so.
The raucous reception left one of the organizers of the visit in an ebullient mood. Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed had been seven years a priest, taking up the cloth in middle age after a long career as an academic historian. During these seven years he had become the senior pastor of St Mark church in Jersey City and a roving troubleshooter for all things Coptic in the United States. A few days after the arrival he exclaimed to some of his flock “God took our hand and guided us. We received our Patriarch like a King!”. Later in the year he edited the cameraman’s footage in a newsreel style file, providing the background commentary in a voice over suitable for historic events. Another organizer of the trip was more reserved in his assessment of the reception. Bishop Samuel had obtained more votes in the papal election six years earlier, only to lose to Shenouda in the altar lottery. For over a quarter century he had been a fixture on the world stage, representing the Coptic church in various ecumenical councils. He wanted the visit to announce the return of Copts to an equal place in world Christianity, and the reception at JFK was too populist for his taste, as he told his close friends. Still, parts of the trip stayed close to Samuel’s plan. The Patriarch visited every major religious group in New York City. Shenouda arrived at the residence of Terence Cardinal Cooke in the company of a dozen Catholic and Coptic bishops and priests and held fairly amiable talks with the representative of a denomination that he clearly regarded as junior to his own. In a sign of brotherly love he gave the Cardinal an icon painted by Ishaak Fanous, considered one of the greatest of iconographers. Those in the know must have smiled at the presentation, for the Coptic Pope had recently prevented several of Fanous’ icons from being mounted in churches on account of their overtly Catholic manner. Fanous made no effort to hide his opinion of the Patriarch’s artistic judgement, and in time the relationship between the two men grew frosty. There were also visits to Greek and Armenian prelates, and a reception for Muslim Imams. There remained the tricky matter of Jewish religious leaders, as Egypt was still technically at war with Israel. Archbishop Iakovos resolved the matter in a characteristically forthright and blunt manner. He invited several Jewish rabbis (including Rabbi Arthur Schneier) to the gathering with the Coptic Pope and thus settled it. Samuel served as the host master for meetings with mainline Protestants, as many of their leaders were his long-time friends, and the meetings went without a hitch, likely to his relief. The visit to the UN was diplomatically correct, although Secretary General Kurt Waldheim did not expect the Pope to expound with vehemence on how to resolve the Middle East crisis. There was also a visit to the White House. Publicly everyone announced that the short meeting was amiable and friendly, but privately many noted that the President and the Pope did not warm to each other. There was the rumor, never confirmed, that Shenouda’s assessment of Carter was rather blunt, “Ragel broustangi ameen tayb wi ghalban” (A Protestant man of faith, kind and hapless). The Egyptian ambassador in DC pulled out all the stops and invited a host of diplomatic and religious leaders to a reception in the Pope’s honor. There was the rumor, again never confirmed, that the diplomat did so on personal instructions from President Sadat himself. These activities were, however, a side show to the real purpose of the Pope’s trip.
Fr. Ghobrial arranged the visit to be a total of 40 days, conscious of the iconic number. For most of these days, the Pope advanced through the American countryside in the manner of a royal claiming a new possession. He visited many churches, and dedicated as many as half a dozen new ones. The flock in every parish competed to show off their new churches. The lack of a church did not dissuade some congregations from availing themselves of a papal visit. The Long Island parish, totaling a 100 families, had no church. A plot of land in Woodbury, meant to build a new house for a local doctor, was hurriedly contributed to the church by its generous owner, and the Pope blessed the first stone to be laid down. At the dedication, Catholic bishop McGann and the county executive, Ralph Caso, sat through the ceremony with commendable patience. New churches were dedicated in several states. The scripts was always the same. The Pope celebrated liturgies before retiring to the basement of the church to break bread with the faithful, answer their questions and offer his guidance. Some stood up to describe the “situation” in Egypt in unvarnished and unflattering terms. But the Pope would not hear of it. It is not that he disagreed with their assessment, but rather he felt that such matters are best not left to his children. Obedience and loyalty were his due, and for the most part his children agreed. It was the rare man or woman who disagreed with the Pope, or felt as one man said “in Egypt Sadat shuts me up, but in America the job falls to the Pope”, We have no record of what the patriarch thought of all of this, beyond the fulsome praise he publicly gave to his American flock. But time would show that it was the beginning of a dramatic change in the lives of the Copts.
Up until that trip the Pope had a distant interest in the American flock. His predecessor, Pope Kyrillous, thought little of immigration. For the previous decade the task of ministering to the new immigrants had fallen to Bishop Samuel. He came to America often, taking personal interest in the new immigrants; on most occasions staying in their homes, praying in their living rooms and sharing meals at their tables. The immigrants developed genuine love for the thoughtful and dynamic man. From the 1960s until his passing he offered practical solutions for their problems and thought deeply about the issues likely to be raised by immigration. He was neither a gifted speaker nor a natural writer and as a result the loyalties and the affection he earned were largely retail and personal. His care and actions should have made him the natural pastor to immigrant Copts. But the trip had changed something in the life of the community. Shenouda, a charismatic leader, secured loyalty with ease, and in the difficult decade to come, these loyalties played a dominant role in the lives of immigrant Copts, and would influence observers in Egypt deeply. The influence of Samuel would fade, and dramatically so four years later after his assassination alongside Sadat. Shenouda shaped the American Coptic church, even while in exile in a monastery. Few now remember that in the early 1980s an American federal court in Houston reaffirmed his role as the sole leader of the church rather than the papal committee. The case was brought on his behalf by American Copts. The community was divided, sure enough, but the force of Shenouda’s personality and Egypt’s history would reside with Shenouda’s partisans. Beginning in the 17th century Coptic lay “notables” assumed larger roles in the community, and in some cases sidelined the church in such matters as appointing bishops and managing church assets. That began to change in the late 19th century, and the century before the trip marked a tug of war between lay and church leaders. The 1952 revolution reordered the power relationships in Egypt, and wealthy lay Copts were on the decline in influence, both in the church and in the country at large. The immigrants that began to come to America in the late 1960s and 1970s were of the middle classes, many had benefited from Nasser’s educational reforms, but were marooned in their country with a degree and no decent job prospects, and increasingly uneasy about the islamization of the public sphere. Shenouda spoke to their needs, and seemed like one of them, while Samuel, for all the affection he garnered, seemed to recall an earlier age. A small incident illustrates the changes afoot at the time. An older women, a daughter of the old Coptic aristocracy, was in the reception line for Shenouda, with Samuel next to him. She bent down to kiss Samuel’s hand, and as expected he pulled his hand away and thrust the cross he carries forward so her lips touched the cross. She repeated the movement with Shenouda, but this time the Patriarch left his hand firmly in place. Afterwards, she was outraged, declaring to her friends that “even my father never asked me to kiss his hand!”. The rest of the people thought nothing of kissing Shenouda’s hand.
Shenouda wanted the immigrant churches to be disciplined outposts of the Egyptian church. His exile to a desert monastery and the growing social and official discrimination towards Egyptian Copts had the effect of binding the immigrant churches closer to Egypt. People close rank when under attack. The majority of Egyptian Copts felt that Shenouda stood up for them, and in his struggles they saw a reflection of their own. Slowly but inexorably he drew them inside the church walls, until the church became the center of their lives, and he, their father in both spiritual and worldly terms. But the immigrant Copts by and large suffered little discrimination, and their lives did not need to center around the church. Shenouda claimed them by presenting the Egyptian struggle as their own, and by a number of edicts and decisions, some theologically dubious such as insisting on rebaptism of the non-Coptic spouse in intermarriage. The tactics favored closing ranks over erecting an open tent. Influencing events in Egypt was, for many immigrant Copts, their due, a small compensation for the psychic pain they endured as a marginalized people in the country before immigration. For many Egyptians, including some Copts, the immigrants’ interest was a mixed blessing. But Shenouda felt that on the whole they represented an asset, and cultivated them through multiple visits, where he baptized their children and consecrated their churches and priests. But his tactics, and the immigrants’ acceptance of them, also delayed the necessary redefinition of a Coptic identity in immigration and away from simply being the Christians of Egypt. The immigrants were more reliable supporters than the old Coptic elite, of which he spoke derisively, “Are the elite just people with a particular philosophy or are they people with actual influence on the Copts in the Church?”, he asked of Abdel Latif El Menawy. The extinction of public intellectuals and civil society brought about by the Nasser revolution fell especially hard on the old Coptic grandees and intellectuals, but for Shenouda it was neither a calamity nor a trend to be resisted. He viewed these men, and the occasional woman, as lacking the fiber necessary to hold the community together during difficult times. He often said that any patriarch would have acted as he did, but this is hardly a statement of modesty; rather it is an attempt to forestall debate over his actions. In seeking to set up the church to make up for the deficits of the Egyptian state, especially towards the Copts, Shenouda fell into the trap predicted by Matta El Meskeen. A church that imitates the state will likely also inherit its corruption. The immigrant churches did nothing to counter such deviations, and in some cases unintentionally furthered them. A people living in economic security and cultural freedom chose to inherit the flaws created by a repressive society. The man who hailed Shenouda as “King of the Copts” in 1977 was wrong at the time, but prescient about the things to come.
Sooner or later new generations outside Egypt were bound to ask the question of what it means to be a Copt and seek their own path and their personal answers. They are beginning to ask for a different deal from the one their parents accepted from Shenouda. Their passions and support for Egyptian Copts still burn, but they are unlikely to accept a shushing in a church basement. Any patriarch succeeding a man who served for four decades, much less one with an outsized personality, is bound to have his hands full. There are entrenched interests with old loyalties, there are habits once novel now ingrained, and many who feel they could do a better job of leading. This is hardly unique to the Coptic church; it is simply human nature. Pope Tawadros’ II task is made more difficult by many circumstances, some outside his control, others of his own making. The tumult in Egypt and his own involvement with its politics are perhaps the lesser of all the issues that will matter on a historic scale. For the first time in 15 centuries, since Chalcedon when the Egyptian church chose its lonely path and when the common folks followed their leaders and withstood much oppression, the “Copts” will need an identity that transcends Egypt. The immigrant community, now more than 10 times larger than what it was 40 years ago, will likely play a major role in the evolution of the church, constructively or otherwise. The question will be as to what end is the value of social freedom and economic prosperity if they are not harnessed to affect a wider cultural improvement? Egypt will always matter, but its ways can be pushed aside, and some of what is learned in the new lands substituted for them. The rude but direct question is, do the Copts need a king or a patriarch? Will they bend down to kiss a hand or a cross?
— Maged Atiya
On the Egyptian Democratic Transition – Review of David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of the Soldiers”Posted: August 9, 2018
Once upon a time a US Democratic administration dedicated itself to a policy of freedom and prosperity around the world. In Egypt it placed its bets on young men who would reform the country’s corrupt social and political order and bring back greatness to the land, always described with the hackneyed phrase of “ancient”. The time was the summer of 1952 and the young men, almost all younger than 40, had thrown out the the young king, just 32, who had ruled for 16 years, growing fat, ridiculous and old beyond his age. A few weeks after the coup the New York Times sent its star reporter and chief London correspondent to Cairo to get a read on where Egypt is going. Clifton Daniel was no stranger to the country, having lived there and reported on the region and the turbulent events in Egypt after World War II. Daniel, an urbane mandarin and future husband to the US President’s daughter, knew everyone of note, and had even dined with King Farouk who criticized his table manners. In the late summer of 1952 he connected with many of his Egyptian friends including the young men of the liberal elite, politicians, diplomats, and a host of other academics and intellectuals. All seem to support the coup and hope that the men in uniform would reform the political system and establish Egyptian democracy on a firmer ground. The Times had reasons to expect Daniel to write a definitive article, or even a book, on the new Egypt. He never did. A quarter century later, recently retired as editor of the Times, he gave an extended talk to journalism students at Columbia University. A older woman in the audience asked him where he would go to report today if he could pick any spot. He did not hesitate; the Middle East and Egypt. Many of the men who supported the coup in 1952 reflected on what it had brought the country decades later and still insisted that their support was no error. “It was either the army or the Brotherhood”, many insisted.
The events of 2011 serve as an antipode to those of 1952. The 1952 coup turned into a revolution, while the revolution of 2011 turned into a coup. Improved communications and a radically changed America meant that an entirely different situation existed in 2011 than in 1952 for US reporters. Communism, the major concern in 1952 was dead in 2011, replaced by terrorism as the major threat. The US had changed radically as well; its President was a black man, the marriage of his parents would have been illegal in most of the US in 1952. The US continues to see itself as a force for freedom and prosperity, but with some hesitation and uncertainty, the result of failed wars and a creeping imperial order. And the New York Times continues to send its star reporters to the region, especially Egypt. The man who happened to start his tenure on the threshold of these events has now written his version of them. David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of Soldiers” is a gripping book, cinematic and fast-paced as befits a first hand account of seismic shifts in a big country. The book is also a hard-boiled bildungsroman of a newly arrived reporter excited at the events he witnesses but ultimately growing jaded about the ways of the (and here is that word again) “ancient” land. Although that alone is worth the price of the book, there is much more to it than the disillusionment of David. Foreign correspondents will sometimes write the first draft of historical events based on eyewitness accounts. On occasions they will also deliver a nuanced understanding of the land they report on. The book is clearly an attempt at both, succeeding in the first task more clearly than in the second. The fearless and dedicated reporter in him will go anywhere and report on any event even at considerable personal risk. But Egypt leaves him at times surprised and perplexed. Any failure in the task of bridging understanding is less the fault of Kirkpatrick than in the rigid constraints imposed on him by his own culture, and more importantly the Egyptians’ culture. Late in the book he notes that his employer banned the use of the word “secular” about any Egyptian. This is a regrettable form of cultural determinism more than matched by the unfortunate habit among Egyptians of regarding any outside reporter not aping their favorite views as either a spy or an idiot. In reporting the events Kirkpatrick had to cut through the fog of tear gas. In reporting the intent behind the events the fog of misunderstandings proves much harder to wave away. The book has to be read and evaluated on the merits of three threads that run through it; the first hand accounts of the events, the representations of the back room maneuvers among many Egyptian and non-Egyptian actors that the reporter had access to by virtue of his position, and finally the broader lesson that these events leave with us. It is a tall order. Comparable to trying to understand plate tectonics using data from a single or a few earthquakes.
In the years of living madly between 2011 and 2014 Egypt seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Kirkpatrick was there in every major news event to report first hand. We come away with sympathy for a man who craved to do his job, however dangerous, while still trying to maintain a semi-orderly normal life with family, friends and colleagues. At dangerous moments his concern is often for his colleagues or interpreters, whom he sees sharing in the dangers but unlikely to share in the glory, and who will be in Egypt to experience the fallout long after he has gone onto other assignments. This concern adds texture to his reporting beyond what was already published in his dispatches. It is impossible not to feel sympathy, admiration, and perhaps a bit of envy, for the experiences he reports with sparse and rapid prose. He is eager to report on the events without becoming part of them or, when the bullets fly, a victim of them. The task is made harder by the Egyptians; some clearly wish to enlist a major Western paper as a witness for their cause, while others are certain that the reporters for these papers are misguided dupes or ill-intentioned meddlers. The degree of venom heaped on such publications, and on individual reporters, is a reflection of the polarized pathology of Egypt at the moment and also of how the events in Egypt became an element in the larger Western discourse about its attitudes and values. Still we have to be grateful for the record Kirkpatrick leaves us, even if at times one is aware of its limitations or of alternate versions. His first hand accounts are vastly superior to many other reporters in Egypt at the time, when some of them were so taken by the thrill of the barricades and the camaraderie with Egyptian actors, some of whom have suspect causes, that their dispatches become indistinguishable from agitprop.
Some things in Egypt never change, like the sun and the sand. Many of the actors in Kirkpatrick’s reporting are back on the stage to reprise roles they had previously played. One of the stars of his reporting is the police, who seem to delight, indeed take pride, in their culture of persistent impunity. In February 1968 a clutch of young boys from a private school in Heliopolis demonstrated against the light verdict for the officers responsible for the 1967 debacle. With voices not yet changed they screeched “Feen Al Qanoun” (Where is the law?). They were arrested and taken to the police station for the customary beating. One by one the boys were led into the captain’s office and made to recite their refrain. A young conscript, barely out of his teens, slapped each one around declaring “Ha Howa Al Qanoun” (This is the law). When done, each boy was asked a question “enta eh?” (what are you?) to which the expected answer is “Ana Masry” (I am an Egyptian). Kirkpatrick describes nearly identical events, only now more brutal. The Egyptian state, decades after Nasser, kept his fist but lost his smile, energy and charm. In his retelling of how Egyptian leaders view their fellow citizens we hear echoes of Nasser’s famous sad refrain “letting Egyptians participate in politics is like letting children play in traffic”. Even the title of the book echoes a phrase first made popular by Aziz Al Masry, head of the Egyptian army in the 1930s and a spiritual father to the Free Officers “The country is held together by the hand of the Army”. A seasoning in Egyptian history would have made the events of these years, however unpalatable, easily predictable. Kirkpatrick seems slightly aware that he too is a participant in the drama, his role having been played by many eminent actors before him. Egyptians crave outsiders to witness their spats and are keen to enlist them to favor one side or another. There is some comfort in that the author has done considerably better in his allotted role than many others before him. Kirkpatrick describes in vivid terms the chasm between different classes of Egyptian, symbolized by his two Arabic tutors. The reality is that every Egyptian contains a bit of each; a flammable combination of pride and a sense of inferiority and lost greatness. The narrative of loss is as old as Egypt; how the great land has declined and fallen. Westerners have sometimes contributed to that narrative, and Kirkpatrick does as well. But the remedies that the Egyptians and the outsiders recommend vary greatly. The Egyptians invariably look for the great man who will lead the country from the current intermediate period of chaos and into a new kingdom of greatness. The outsiders cannot fathom such an attitude and are invariably flummoxed by its manifestation. The disillusionment of David owes a great deal to that seemingly unchanged fact of this, yes again, ancient land.
One of the interesting aspects of the book is the access Kirkpatrick had, as a star reporter for a major Western paper, to the inside players in the Egyptian serial drama of 2011 to 2014. Egyptian officials and powerful players were always eager to reach out and shape the narrative, even while cursing out the reporter as naive, bumbling or worse. US diplomats and government officials did as well, displaying an astounding combination of keen insights, deep understanding, wishful thinking and utter cluelessness. It almost never occurs to American officials that there is little the US can do about or to Egypt. After all, how can that be with a $70 Billion investment in Egypt’s military and the clear and unmistakable indications that its officers listen and heed the advice of the US? A young Obama assistant, Ben Rhodes, gives flesh to these thoughts in carefully worded leaks to Kirkpatrick. But Rhodes knows little of Egypt, and in his constant banging about the clearly dead Egyptian democratic transition appears like the foolish characters in the Monty Python skit about a dead parrot. Older men and women, such as Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Joe Biden and Robert Gates have deeper knowledge and keener instincts. Yet Egypt disappoints them as well. Twenty five centuries ago a Greek warned that everything is backwards in Egypt. But neither he, nor the men and women who followed him took heed of that advice. In fact, even when fully in control of Egypt, well-meaning outsiders found it difficult to impose their will on the Egyptians. As both Augustus Caesar and Lord Cromer noted, the Egyptians often say “Yes” when they mean “No” and at times say “No” when they are sure that “Yes” is the right answer. The Egyptian air is thick with talks of meddling outside hands and conspiracies. Kirkpatrick provides a blow-by-blow of the various outside actors in the Egyptian drama, from top leaders to walk-on extras. From America, Obama is too distant in the narrative, even if his government officials are deeply involved. His ultimate detachment reflects a new reality; the US is a lesser player in Egypt than many other regional actors, such as the Gulf countries. Many will take the account in the book as proof that the US is not serious about democracy in Egypt. But the fact remains that the US can be no more serious about it than the Egyptians. In the first election since 1938 where the government did not tilt the scales, they narrowly elected a fool for president, rigged up an electoral system to give majorities to minorities, hold no one accountable, provide no checks and balances, and write constitutions in the manner of minor litigants at a traffic court. It is unfair to ask the US to support such a ramshackle structure. A solid Egyptian democracy, built on decent laws and ideas, needs no outside support. An Egyptian democracy needing an American ambassador to do shuttle diplomacy between political actors will collapse regardless of the words and actions of the most well meaning outsiders.
Kirkpatrick attempts to understand what the events he witnessed mean for Egypt and its future. This is the weakest part of the book, in part because he was denied access to many major sectors of Egyptian society and their views. The fault is largely with these sections of the society who locked him out as hopelessly biased. Many will read his thoughts as forgiving of, even favoring, the Islamists and their intentions. His sympathies are largely in the right places, such as reporting on the travails of women and the Copts, and in some cases with the right people, such as Mozn Hassan or Hossam Bahgat. In other cases, he fails to discern the motives or the seriousness of his native informants. Some of the throwaway comments in the book will give fodder to his critics. For example, he mentions that there was more freedom of speech during President Morsi’s tenure. It is true, but mostly as a reflection of his ineptitude at suppressing it than his belief in its value. He insists that more Copts were killed during Sisi’s tenure than during Morsi’s. This is also true, but only because they were targeted specifically because of their broad sympathies. Yet such matters are minor compared to a larger point Kirkpatrick makes which Egyptians should engage, however painful it might be. He asks an implicit question, “What about the blood?”. The events of 2011 to 2014 are bloody enough, but are bookended with two horrific massacres when the state turned against some of its people. The deaths at Maspero in 2011 are a precursor to those at Rab’a, although in very different ways. No one seems eager to understand how either event came about. Many Egyptians will insist that Egypt is different, that it lacks the blood letting capacity of a Syria or an Algeria. On a percentage basis, this is clearly true. But it is an observation designed to obscure their failure to engage their history from a moral perspective. Obama quoted Nelson Mandela to urge Morsi to be more inclusive. Morsi’s followers called him their Mandela without even a hint at adopting Mandela’s moral and historic stance. The word “martyr” flows easily from Egyptian tongues, but what are these unfortunate victims standing witness to? Every faction in Egypt celebrates its martyrs as leading the way to a happier future. The Army, the police, the Islamists, the Copts, the revolutionaries and even Kirkpatrick in a moment of weakness, insist that the sacrifices of martyrs will not go in vain. But what if the way forward is not through spectacular sacrifice but a more mundane process of compromise? What if the witnesses that the country needs are not those who die for a cause, but a wider collection of voices who live to see their predictions proven wrong, their favored biases made less certain and their fears remain unrealized? Egyptians would do well to engage accounts such as these in the book, however limited in focus and duration, and regardless of world views and biases they might represent, as corrections to their certainties and realities. At end of reading this book one comes away with the realization that Egypt has not so much slipped back into the hands of soldiers, as the soldiers of Egypt having become again hostages to its sorrows. Perhaps the way out of this moment is for the people to focus less on the actions of their soldiers than on the causes of their sorrows.
— Maged Atiya