Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

This is the half-century mark of the large scale immigration of the Copts from Egypt, which began to gather steam in 1968. It is a good time to reflect on this historic phenomenon and its implication for the ancient people, even if it is still ongoing and its impact remains fluid. As always with the Copts, their predicament is a microcosm, a test case, of the larger Egyptian problem. Their evolution in immigration, although interesting for its own sake, contains clues about Egypt at large. We can begin to understand how Egypt might fare if its political and social systems were freer by understanding what happened when Egyptians were suddenly placed in a freer society.
Immigration involves a departure and an arrival, or a “push” and a “pull”. In the case of the Copts, conditions in Egypt provided the push, where both the successes and failures of the Nasserist project were problematic for them. America, Canada and Australia provided the pull through social changes that made these places more hospitable to non-Westerners and changed their laws to allow more immigrants from outside Europe. For example, the Civil Rights revolution in America overturned the emergency quotas of 1921 through the Hart-Celler act of 1965. Canada and Australia underwent similar changes. Immigrants usually undergo a transformation that leaves them with a hyphenated identity to serve their new needs and the circumstances of their new countries. These identities are marked by various levels and types of activism; social, cultural and political. In the case of the Copts these forms of activism took different paths and were marked by differences in acceptance and success. Social and charitable activism proved most successful, in part because it built on pre-existing norms and practices in Egypt. Cultural activism proved weakest reflecting the tragic history of the Copts since the schisms of the 5th century, and more so in the aftermath of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. To keep their faith, the Copts have surrendered every facet of their native culture, language, music, literature, and all arts except icon painting and liturgical music. But it was political activism which proved most flammable and discordant, and in the end was to deeply mark their interaction with their ancestral home, and their evolution in their new homes. This post will attempt a summary of its earliest evolutions and its current uncertain role.
Political activism is usually grounded in some past, at times mythic, and is forged by the present and articulates a vision for a desirable future. For the immigrant-led activism that rose in the early 1970s, the past was a history of loss and dispossession, while the present was a crucible of conflict, and future was an imagined Egypt where the Copts were finally equal citizens. Fifty years later, its vision for Egypt remains unrealized, and perhaps further undermined. Political activism is still the province of a few leaders and with minimal participation from the larger community. It would not be harsh to declare it a failure by its measure of success, and yet influential in unanticipated ways. There are many causes for this outcome, none more vital that the decade-long conflict, from 1971 to 1981, between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda. Many books and articles have described and examined that conflict reliably and credibly. In almost all of them “immigrant Copts” play a role, often portrayed as secondary to the conflict. In fact, they were essential to the conflict, and in many ways served to aggravate it and drive its course. Immigrant Cops played the role of children in a bitter divorce, where the two parents play to the audience of their children for acceptance, support, approval and on occasions even emotional vengeance. This conclusion is not radical when the facts are looked at afresh. A question that can never be answered, but important to ask, is whether the Sadat-Shenouda conflict would have played out in the same manner, or to have occured at all, had there been no vocal immigrant community. “Aqbat Al Mahgar” (Immigrant Copts) is the term coined by many Islamists, and government officials, as a derogatory shorthand for the critics from afar. This is the clearest sign that immigrant political activism represented more than a passing nuisance, and that its message, and perhaps more importantly its methods, struck a nerve.
Sadat arrived to the President’s office a year before Shenouda rose to be Patriarch of all the Copts. By 1972, and certainly after the 1973 war, both men were comfortable and secure in their new offices and engaged in a punishing match of wills. The two men possessed similar temperaments but occupied different vantage points; indeed different planets. Yet the conflict between them was ahistorical by Egypt’s modern standards. Since the waning of Ottoman power in the 17th century, the rulers of Egypt largely avoided open conflicts with the Copts, regardless of how they felt about them or their degree of tolerance for religious differences. On the other side, Popes never saw fit to adopt a policy of open defiance toward the ruler. These two men, however, were different and came to conflict with unequal powers. Sadat possessed a strong grip on the instruments of the Egyptian state, including the army, police, civil service and propaganda channels, and after 1977, the appreciation of the West and most of the world at large. Against that Shenouda had only a grip on his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his office. Those who knew Egypt intimately felt that the two men were headed for serious trouble, with more in store for Sadat. The Egyptian papacy is the oldest continuous institution in the country’s history, nearly 2000 years old. It has been headed by 117 men as successors of St Mark the Apostle. They possessed the full range of human characteristics, including saints and thieves, wise men and simpletons, reformers and dolts, and every shade in-between. Yet the office endowed them with power and a form of innate historical wisdom, so none could be touched or easily removed even by the most tyrannical of rulers. Byzantine emperors, Abbasid Caliphs, marauding soldiers of fortunes, European colonialists, and especially powerful lay Copts, found that going up against the Pope, even when their cause is right or just, to be a daunting prospect. At the height of the conflict between the two men in 1980, a man who disapproved of Shenouda’s handling of the relationship with Sadat summarized the grim prospects for the President. “Sadat can ignore Shenouda and appear weak, imprison him and thus become his prisoner, or kill him and be hounded on earth and in the afterlife”. Shenouda’s unyielding stand was perhaps understandable, but Sadat’s escalation of the conflict seemed to be a foolish gambit from a man who displayed a survivor’s wit, keen political instincts and on many occasions a daring ability to change course. Indeed there were many times when the relationship seemed to be taking a better course, only to have outside events inflame it again. For Sadat, it was always the fixation on “immigrant Copts”, a tiny group of little influence that raised his ire beyond reason. Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who once headed the News division of the Egyptian Radio and Television Organization, catalogues the times Sadat blew his top over small provocations from New Jersey or Washington DC. “Why do these Copts want to turn the Christians of the World against me and Egypt”, Sadat complained over and over again. Of course, the immigrants could no such thing; their tiny newspaper ads were little noticed, and the police kept their small demonstrations politely but firmly out of Sadat’s earshot or line of sight. El-Menawy, who knew Shenouda well and interviewed him often, relates a remarkable 1977 exchange between the two men. “How could our children abroad speak against us … they are complaining about me to Carter”, ranted Sadat. Shenouda cuts him off, rising to say “The first thing I want to say is that some Copts might have emotional problems.” He continues on to insist that these emotional problems are the results of discrimination in their past lives in Egypt. He then pivots to deliver a counter punch.”Our children abroad have done a great deal for Egypt. They served us during the war of October 1973 and God knows how much effort they exerted … they are worried about the [new] laws, … should we comfort them it will be over and you won’t be so upset with them”. Shenouda seems to simultaneously disavow immigrant activists while using them to accomplish his desired goals. That encounter encapsulates the trouble with political activism among immigrant Copts. They can irritate the Egyptian state but not alter its behavior. They can provide stout support to the Church in Egypt, and at the same time find themselves in trouble with it. For half a century the activist leaders looked obsessively in the rear view mirror, or fixed their gaze on a very distant horizon, often missing what is directly in front of them. Like generations of Egyptian political activists, they excelled at stating the problems but rarely made an effort at compromise toward a solution. They found a home in the margins and could scarcely imagine themselves wielding any power. Today, with all the concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, new activist leaders are unable to formulate a workable set of realistic goals or “asks”. They remain the children of Shawky Karas, the man who kick started Coptic political activism in 1972 and became its prototypical leader, and warning example.
From thousands of miles away, Shawky Karas, an academic mathmatician, could raise Sadat’s blood pressure with a tiny ad or a letter to a Congressman or Senator. He reproduced many of these ads and letters in his self-published 1986 book “The Copts Since The Arab Invasion : Strangers in Their Land”. The book, with type written pages, poor editing and plain blue cover, feels like notes from the fringe. It is a remarkable combination, however, of keen insights placed side by side with wild accusations and barely believable conspiracies. The most powerful part of the book is a 20 page response to Sadat’s May 14 1980 speech in which he declared himself “The Islamic President of an Islamic State”. Karas’ counter arguments anticipate the suffering Egypt would eventually undergo as different men and factions tried to provide concrete realization of that claim. Yet Karas makes no mention of his role in raising Sadat’s ire, nor in precipitating the “Easter rebellion” of 1980. For nearly a decade Karas was propagating a redefinition of the Copts, not only as non-Arabs which the majority accepts, but as living victims of Arab imperialism. It is a flammable message, precisely because it contains sufficient truth to give it credibility, with just enough mythology to make it a powerful cudgel. His retelling of Egypt’s history in the first third of the book explains why he never made an outreach to immigrant Muslims, whose voice might have added weight to his message and demands, and just as importantly why they were unlikely to add their voice, even if he asked. He attempted to recruit other prominent Copts to his side, succeeding with some and failing with many others, who found him too combustible for comfort. His major success came in 1977 when he agitated to convince a church conclave to include the following in its January 17 1977 message “ .. the total sincerity [ of the Copts] for the beloved nation, of which the Copts are the oldest strain, so much so that no people of the world had been tied to its land and nationality like the Copts of Egypt”. While the statement may well be true, it also serves to “other” the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslims. In a meeting at the Jersey City church in February 1977 to plan an upcoming trip by Shenouda to the US, Karas claimed credit for the statement and unveiled what would become his signature message and program for two decades to come. He warned about the “Creeping adoption of Shari’a” in Egyptian law. He centered his message on a single verse from the Bible, Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”, and he read from handwritten notes what he deemed to be a suitable template for every speech about Egypt’s predicament at that moment, “will it be unified by nationalism or divided by religion?”. He also advocated for the cancellation of religious celebrations as a form of passive resistance. Such measures were not unknown in Coptic history, but most in the church hierarchy considered them too extreme for the current situation. In time he began to gather support, most notably from men such as Dr Rodolph Yanney, a doctor and publisher of a cultural newsletter, and two “radical” priests from the US West, Fr. Ibrahim Aziz and Fr. Antonious Heinen, as well as the more mainstream Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed of Jersey City. Others proved cold to his message. Bishops Gregorious and Samuel found him too radical for their tastes, and his entreaties to Aziz Atiya went unanswered. Things seemed to change in early 1980 after the Christmas eve attacks on several churches in Egypt. Shenouda intimated to others that he was considering a cancellation of the Easter celebrations on April 6. The news travelled quickly to America and spread both delight and consternation. Karas praised the step and booked space in several newspapers to coincide with Sadat’s visit in early April and his state dinner at the White House. Others worried about the impact of such a step. Bishop Gregorious records in his memoirs a meeting on March 14 1980 with Aziz Atiya, his wife, and Ishaq Fanous, the noted artist and Icon painter. He states the purpose as “discussion of the Encyclopedia”. Curiously he neglects to mention the presence of another man, Mirrit Boutros Ghali. Nor does he mention that at the end of the meeting both Mirrit and Aziz asked him to intervene with Shenouda and warn against cancelling celebrations. In the end, Shenouda did not heed their advice. Both of these men, and Gregorious himself, represented a rare moment in Egypt’s history that was rapidly vanishing from view. On March 26 1980 the Pope gave a sermon that seemed to borrow heavily from Karas’ 1977 notes. He asked the same question of Sadat and demanded an answer. Sadat was too busy preparing for his trip to Washington DC, and provided his flammable reply during the May 14 1980 speech. El-Menawy in his book “The Copts”, tries to discern the influence of immigrant Copts on Shenouda’s sermon and finds him evasive on the subject. Karas tried to stage a demonstration in front of the White House during Sadat’s state dinner but was rebuffed by the DC police. A rally called by Karas on April 6, Easter Sunday, in New York City fizzled because of a transit strike. The New York Times showed Carter and Sadat talking amiably under a magnolia tree in the Rose Garden, with no hint of Sadat’s rising temper. But the mere attempts at rallies were enough to send Sadat into a frenzy, exactly as Karas predicted in February 1977. “He wants to be loved and obeyed”, Karas said of Sadat then, before issuing his version of the “3 Nos”. “We will not be silent, and we will not obey, and we will not love him”.
The 18 months between Sadat’s April 1980 visit to DC and the end of his life were marked by further strife and nasty sectarian attacks. Karas and his merry band of immigrant Copts were not silent, and did not cease from writing to Congressmen, Senators, Governors and anyone who would listen. They did not seem to realize that few Americans cared about the “Coptic issue”. Peace had broken out between Egypt and Israel, and war between Iran and Iraq, and between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. There was enough strife, and even diplomatic hostages, to divert the spot light. The death of Sadat, the exile of Shenouda and the appointment of a papal committee changed the conflict from one between immigrant Copts and the Egyptian state, to an internecine fight between different groups of Copts. What started out as a noble movement to enlarge the rights of Copts turned in on itself. A movement that started out narrowly Coptic, became ever narrower; indeed sub-Coptic. The entire focus of the activists from 1981 until 1985 was on the release of Shenouda from his desert exile. It can be said that the heat and noise from America did little to accomplish that. In the end it was insider negotiations, and Egypt’s usual reversion to the mean, that released Shenouda. But Karas became a Shenouda partisan, both agitating for his release from internal exile, and passionately ferreting out “enemies of Shenouda”. By 1985 all of Karas’ requests regarding the rights of Copts to politicians were regularly and politely rebuffed. On the other hand, he had won at least one internal battle. Those who opposed his methods, and had doubts about Shenouda’s, were now in retreat. Some walked away from their churches, others fell into silence. The “enemies” included many who might have formed a broader coalition for a broader good in Egypt. Karas’ group, the American Coptic Association, became unintentionally true to its name, having produced a larger impact on American rather than Egyptian Copts.The effect of the movement’s fading in the late 1980s was not to alter the nature of Coptic political activism, but to preserve it in the amber memory of those glory days when a single 2 inch newspaper ad could shake the walls of the presidential palace in Cairo. Soon enough, Shenouda asked the activists to pipe down, as Mubarak had a serious insurgency to deal with. The demonstrations were far and in-between, the demands as grandiose and vague as ever, and new organizations specialized in inside politics in DC, holding conferences and commissioning panels that would regularly identify the problems and not much else. The Copts’ demands became further subsumed within the general worry about terrorism and the demand for democratic reforms in the region. Few bothered to analyze or learn the lessons of the 1970s. The vast majority of immigrants got on with their lives, built their churches, prospered and lived contented lives without much involvement in Karas’ style of political activism, even if they were formed in some degree by it.
When Karas passed away in October 2003, age 75, condolences came by the hundreds from across the US, Canada and Australia. Many mentioned his activism, and more specifically his loyalty to Pope Shenouda. None called attention to his attacks on the Papal committee, or his involvement in the communal fights of the 1980s. While his activism failed to alter conditions for the Copts in Egypt, it did cement the loyalty of the vast majority of the immigrant community to Pope Shenouda. Many of the early immigrants were “children of Samuel”, the bishop who tended to their needs, helped them establish churches, and brought thoughtful discourse to the problems of immigration. In time that influence waned as a well, but not without considerable pain for many. Political activism originally meant to erect a barrier between state and religion in Egypt, brought forth a new immigrant identity that saw the church as a actor in every facet of the Copts’ life, both in Egypt and outside it. Immigrant Copts continued to embrace a cherished Egyptian identity, but one that rarely reached out for the other 90% of Egypt. New churches in the New World were being built at the rate of a handful a year, and all of them were becoming more than houses of worship; instead disciplined outposts for a nation without geography, as Sana Hasan aptly put it.
A generation later things are very different in America and Egypt, but Coptic political activism remains largely true to its older self. It has become vestigial. This is to be expected from a movement whose evolution is subject less to conditions in the new country than in the old one. Egypt has thrown a curve ball to these movements. Yes, sectarian attacks are more frequent, but bishops are not tossed in jail by the dozen, as in 1981. The rights of Copts in Egypt are further eroded, but so are the rights of many others as well. The Islamists who were once on the rise in Egypt in 1970s are now on the outside, themselves in America agitating for change in Egypt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Copts’ agitation then, and equally likely to become vestigial as well. Protests in America against political oppression and sectarianism in Egypt are rarely cross-confessional, and sometimes even illiberal in character. If there are rays of hope they are usually among the young, those shaped by America, and not deformed by Egypt’s struggle with identity. The irony is that any possible emergence of a genuine “Egyptian-American” hyphenated identity might happen only among those who have far less to do with Egypt than their parents or grandparents.

— Maged Atiya

Nasser at 100


If Nasser were alive today he would be 100 years old. Although dead for nearly half a century, he is very much alive in the country he remade before he reached the age of 40. He is a true revolutionary, in the technical sense of the word, as a man who rearranged the power relations between the elites of the country. The arrangement he created remains very much in place today. Some have rebelled against it, others have tried to tinker with it, but the broad features remain intact and the majority seems willing to live in its confines or unable to escape them. This blogger has noted before that Nasser should not be viewed as a great thinker, nor as a capable administrator, nor as a wily politician, but as a masterful actor that strove to embody every major role the country was compelled to put forth. In a future and happier Egypt a Nasser-like man will be a great actor in plays authored by Pirandello or Tawfik Al Hakim, or their successors. Still, any anniversary with a sufficient number of zeros on the right is a good occasion to take stock and examine the balance of the ledger. What has the man born a century ago given his country and what has he taken from it?

For sixty five years, nearly two generations, Egypt has lived in his shadow. He had always insisted, theatrically enough, that every Egyptian is Nasser and that his own mortality is irrelevant as he will live through his people. But we can also insist that every Egyptian was represented in Nasser, and that both his vitality and decline affected his people deeply. He became a hero at a young age; he was 30 at the time of the 1948 war with Israel. The status of one junior officer was such that Um Kalthoum, the woman who became the voice of Egypt, offered to host a concert for him, before the 1952 coup which he turned into a revolution. Nasser went on to become a sponsor and a promoter of the popular arts. Arguably he was also a participant in them. His rallies and extended speeches were a performance art of the highest caliber. Whenever he spoke the people listened and all felt a close connection with each other through him. If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.

Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.

— Maged Atiya


The Empty Mausoleum


The Sourial Atiya family around the time of the 1919 revolution in Egypt. Sourial, his wife Damiana holding baby Adele, Aziz Standing to the left with his brother Wahba and sister Galila

In early 1968 Samir Nessim Atiya, an Engineer, met with his cousin Aziz Sourial Atiya, a historian, to plan and build a new family mausoleum. The current one was getting pretty full, and the time seemed right for the project. Samir’s company was prospering, while Aziz’s latest book had just gone to print. Their favored architect was finishing his main project, working on the new cathedral due to open that summer. The Engineer and historian planed for something different from the usual, a daring slab of granite more than 12 feet high in a modernist shape of a pyramid over the underground crypt. By their calculation the new mausoleum would be full by 2018. Others would then take up the task of building the next one. At the beginning of 2018 the mausoleum stands nearly empty. Its occupants are the builders’ two sisters, Linda Nessim Atiya and Galila Sourial Atiya, two strong willed women who feuded with each other for most of their lives before resting peaceably next to each other, alone with no one else.

The builders’ fathers, Nessim Atiya and Sourial Atiya had gone into business together 50 years earlier. The older brother, Sourial, was severe, kindly, deliberate and conservative, while Nessim, more than 15 years younger, was expansive, mercurial, daring and imaginative. Several times they made money together, only to lose it all, before trying again. Eventually, in the late 1920s, they went their separate ways. Sourial invested in land, the only thing he thought to be secure. Nessim started a bottling company producing soft drinks in unmarked bottles which the locals around the Delta town of Senbelaween called “Nessim’s Kazouza”. Nessim seemed to be a marketing wizard. Every week a horse drawn cart pulled into a different village loaded with his bottles. A robust body builder got out and gulped an entire bottle in one go, belched loudly, and then went on to do impressive deeds of strength. The message was not lost on the men in the village. They bought and bought into the promise of virility. But misfortune stalked both men. Sourial was shot by his body guard to rob him of his lands’ rent. Nessim died suddenly and painfully of either kidney failure or prostate cancer when Samir was 8 and his younger brother Maurice was a mere toddler. But the families held together. Aziz supported his brothers education with money from abroad while a student in England. He also became a mentor, and effectively an adopted father to Samir. The brothers Sourial and Nessim had ten children between them who survived to adulthood, seven boys and three girls. All of the ten children were to have relatively successful lives, against all odds. They produced 24 children among them. In 1968 only two of that generation lived abroad. Today more than three quarters of them live outside Egypt. On the occasion of burying his older sister Linda, who passed away at the age of 100, Samir noted that the locks on the underground crypt were hopelessly rusted from lack of use. “Our dead have left Egypt”, he remarked to his son.

— Maged Atiya

From the upcoming "Tales of Immigration"

Indiana Jones and the Coptologist


Wendell and Shirley Phillips in a Christmas card in the Aziz and Lola Atiya collection, likely December 1967

The young American archaeologist and oilman, Wendell Phillips, was in Cairo to deliver a lecture to the Egyptian Geographic Society on Saturday June 27 1953 on his excavations in Southern Arabia trying to locate the historical roots of the Queen of Sheba. While waiting in town he ran another errand. He visited President Mohammad Naguib to hand him a pistol, a gift from President Dwight Eisenhower, with the name of the former Supreme Allied Commander engraved on its handle. The event was widely reported in the Egyptian press. One newspaper, Al Masry of June 26 1953, shows a photograph of President Naguib carefully inspecting the pistol, with the barrel wisely pointing downward. Wendell Phillips stands to his right. Between the two men is another figure, a silver-haired Egyptian academic, a founder of King Farouk University (later Alexandria), named Aziz Suryal Atiya. Atiya, with his signature enigmatic smile, seems to have wandered in from another event. In fact, “Aziz” and “Wendell” had been friends for some time, and within weeks Aziz would make a fateful decision partly on account of his friend. Atiya’s presence was perfectly explainable, as noted by two memos in his hand writing about the event, dated June 25 and June 27 1953 and titled “For forwarding to his Excellency President Mohammad Naguib”. In one of the memos Atiya suggests that Naguib award a medal to the US Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans. In the other, Atiya makes a recommendation to award an oil concession to Phillips and have the revenue flow directly to build Egypt’s power and army outside the regular budget.  We do not know if Naguib read the memos, but by the end of 1953 Phillips had given up on getting a concession in the Western desert and looked at possibilities in the Sinai. This was not the first time the two had dealings with Egyptian rulers. In a letter dated July 20 1952, Phillips writes to Atiya informing him that he has sent a handsome leather bound and gold-edged volume about St Catherine monastery to his Highness King Farouk I. The volume was indeed delivered to Farouk on July 26 1952, a somewhat inopportune day in the life of the Egyptian monarch. The story of the friendship between Wendell Phillips (1921-1975) and Aziz Atiya (1898-1988) is a sidebar to the history of Egypt and America, their close and fraught relationship as lived through two men who remained friends long after their necessary initial collaboration, and after life placed them on unexpected paths.


Wendell Phillips, Aziz Atiya and Egyptian President Mohammad Naguib. Al Masry June 24 1953.

Max Kutner in a recent article in the Smithsonian magazine calls Phillips a real life Indiana Jones for his work in excavating ancient southern Arabia; the man who “uncovered millennia-old treasures beneath Arabian sands, got rich from oil and died relatively unknown”. The last part was not exactly correct, as Aziz had secured an honorary doctorate for Wendell from the University of Utah shortly before Phillips’ death. In a 1954 review of one of his books the New York Times described him as a “swashbuckling adventurer with the coolness of a gambler and the cunning of a backwoodsman”. Atiya, nearly a generation older, was a historian of Islam, before he turned later in life to the study of Eastern Christianity and becoming one of the founders of “Coptology”, or the study of Egypt’s Christians. The two men came together in an expedition to microfilm the manuscript collection of the St Catherine monastery in Egypt’s Sinai in the late 1940s, which amounted to close to 700,000 documents. Atiya’s interest in the monastery dated back nearly a decade. In 1938 he was a professor at the University of Bonn before having to leave Germany on account of the proclivities of its then rulers. Back in Egypt he followed up a rumor first heard in Germany about the fabled “Firman rolls” in the monastery of St Catherine. The story of these rolls can serve as the script for a Spielberg sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Ottoman Firmans”. It involves two Germans, Karl Schmidt and Bernhard Moritz, who were chased out of  the Sinai at outbreak of World War I, a lost cache of photographs, an Egyptian in Germany trying to track them down on the eve of World War II, an American adventurer, a reluctant Abbot looking for money to fix his monastery, American officials, Egyptian civil servants, a harrowing transport of electrical generators and photographic equipment up a difficult mountain, and finally the revelation of a cache of over 500 documents in dated and uninterrupted sequence. In this script, Phillips earned the role of the American swashbuckler when at the age of 26 he founded the grandly named “American Foundation for the Study of Man” and offered to assist with photographing the entire collection of the monastery and not just these specific rolls. This was his second venture in Africa, at least if we broadly define the location of the Sinai. His first was a trip from Cairo to Cape Town, shortly after WWII, called “The Africa Expedition”, made possible only because he persuaded Jan Smuts, South Africa’s Prime Minister, to support it. At that time he had no money or degrees, or any discernible qualifications.  The same confidence allowed him to take a leadership role in a project he had not previously been associated with and to ask the Library of Congress to fund it. While trying to achieve some fame in archaeology he dabbled in oil leases and eventually became a major oilman with a fortune rumored to be in the hundreds of millions. The Library of Congress agreed to fund the photography effort, after some badgering by Atiya. The Acting Librarian, an icy man named Verner W. Clapps, wrote a precise contract to prevent any filching of monies from the US taxpayers to any purpose beyond the photographing of the monastery texts. Still, the pair found a way to stuff $10,000 into the Abbot’s habit for the repair of the monastery. It was money well-spent. Scholars had long wanted to document the library of the monastery but were rebuffed by the reclusive monks who had survived for 1400 years in a forbidding and often hostile territory. Aziz had earlier secured the friendship of Abbot Porphyrios which made the expedition possible. The exchanges between the two men, and with Egyptian and American officials are fascinating. All the grand events of the time are seen entirely through the narrow focus of the scholarly project. In one letter dated June 21 1949, the rector of King Farouk University, Sadek Gohar, apologizes for delays since conditions in the Sinai were turbulent on account of “recent conditions”. In a letter from August 22 1952 Phillips hopes that Atiya “is in no way endangered by the current trend of events in Egypt” before launching on the specifics of the project and informing him that he received an award from the prince of Comores for his work in Arabia, and expressing disappointment that Egypt has not seen it fit to make a similar award to him at this moment. On July 30 1952 Atiya wrote to Phillips that “events have been moving too fast in Egypt during the last few days“. He was optimistic that “We expect from our American friends to support our action in attempting to turn Egypt really into a democratic country. However, I firmly believe that the present condition of things will be even more favorable to our cultural collaboration with America“. A little more than a year later, on January 8 1954, Atiya sounded a note of alarm in telling Phillips’ mother that he can not send her a collection of stamps on account of “censorship“. In fact his disappointment came to pass earlier. During a wedding on January 25 1953 a relative asked him when he thinks the Army will relinquish power. Atiya flipped over the wedding invitation, pulled a pen from his breast pocket and wrote “July 23 2052”.


Aziz Atiya shortly after leaving Germany in 1938 and before his first Sinai expedition in 1940 – Private collection

One of the letters to Phillips adds confusion to the history of Atiya’s purge from Egyptian academia. On July 15 1953 he writes to Phillips that he “resigned without regret” from his position in protest over the lack of recognition given to both of them by the University with regard to the St Catherine expedition. In reality, according to both Atiya and others familiar with the events, his position was getting increasingly tenuous since the Free Officers adopted the educational reforms recommended by Sayyd Qutb, and especially since his mentor Taha Hussein was eased out of running higher education in the country. It is possible that Atiya in sensing the upcoming purge simply beat his tormentors to the door, and while at it took a firm stand for his friend. Either way, in a letter to Wendell dated January 8 1954 declared himself “a free man“. It was a watershed year for both men. Aziz, at 55, was headed for America and greater recognition in the next 35 years of his life. Wendell was meanwhile accumulating wealth rapidly from his oil leases, and spending more time in harsh climates pursuing mythical kingdoms and occasionally uncovering fabulous objects.

The St Catherine microfilming project was largely completed by 1951. On March 19 1951 Atiya delivered a lecture on the “Arabic Treasures” of the monastery at the Library of Congress. He later acknowledged that the effort was critical to his turn to the study of Eastern Christianity, as well as its close interactions with Islam. The documents paint a nuanced and complex picture of the early co-existence between Islam and Christianity, and on the relationship between the Eastern and Western branches of the religion. In a classic work “The History Eastern Christianity” published in 1967, he proposes that “the general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts [and Eastern Christians]“. For his part, Wendell went on to excavate in present day Yemen and Oman.  With an eye toward value, and having gained the respect of the local rulers, he obtained valuable concessions for oil explorations. Phillips seemed to lack a gene for fatigue. He talked his way out of many troubles and drove himself relentlessly, Later in life Atiya credited Phillips with the kind of restless energy that made practical plans out of scholarly pursuits, such as sending electrical generators up a mountain to be followed by a host of American scholars, including some who were refugees from Nazi Germany. 


Wendell Phillips. Photograph date and location in dispute, but likely Oman during the insurgency of the 1960s.

The letters between the two men paint a growing friendship and affection, even if neither man was emotionally demonstrative and both had reasons to be circumspect about what to put on paper. The letters are a window on their times and souls. Both men made their home bases in the American West, specifically Utah and Hawaii for Atiya and Phillips, but traveled incessantly. Their correspondences were sometimes delayed or made haphazard by their peripatetic nature. The last and most touching exchange was dated April 8 1974 and written by Aziz in Salt Lake City. He begins by saying “Last night I saw you in a dream. You seem to have lost weight but gained enormous funds”, before asking him to fund a faculty position in his name in Arabic studies. That same night, thousands of miles away in Honolulu, Phillips was struck by a heart attack and a stroke, one of a series that left him wasting and eventually dead within 18 months. Wendell had a way of sharing important events with Atiya in an off-handed manner that nevertheless seemed to demand attention, even affection. In a letter dated May 20 1969 (the same month Aziz was in Egypt tending to his dying Mother-in-Law) Wendell writes of his growing friendship with President Suharto of Indonesia (he was eventually awarded huge concessions there). The note is on the letterhead of the Kingdom of Oman, and its Sultan Said bin Taimur, where Wendell is listed as a “economic advisor and representative”. Toward the end of the letter Wendell confesses to what  troubles him. “I believe I told you that Shirley [his wife] became quite ill and it was decided by the doctors that it was better to dissolve our marriage”. There was more bad news. Wendell was close to the Sultan’s son (and current Sultan), Qaboos, and perhaps more than a witness to the insurgency, especially since he did excavations in Dhofar, the heartland of the fight. That made him “unable to come to Cairo as I am not sure how popular I am with certain individuals in that part of the world”. He had previously informed Aziz of his marriage in a letter on November 24 1968 in a casual way “The second day after my marriage, I was hit in an auto accident and had my back broken in three places”. He continued to travel and followed up on July 2 1969 to inform Aziz that he had become close friends with Sheikh Zaid of Abu Dhabi, in addition to his relationship with Oman.  Phillips’ association with Oman started in the 1950s, and culminated in a book “The Unknown Oman” in 1966. That was the year he began to use the Sultan’s letterhead as his own, and the practice ended only after his friend Qaboos deposed his father on July 23 1970. A letter dated August 31 1970 to Aziz by his assistant is uncharacteristically evasive about Phillips’ general direction, except that he was heading to Korea, where he obtained a concession in September 1970. What is notable about the letterhead is that it is titled “Wendell Phillips Oil Company”, but oddly enough still using the logo of the Kingdom of Oman. Perhaps there was too little time to design new stationary. Later that year, Phillips told the Guardian “I am not a businessman, although I employ many of these. I am an archaeologist”. At that point he owned some of the largest oil field concessions in the world, on three continents. Yet he seemed envious of Atiya’s increased prominence, asking him for copies of the “The History of Eastern Christianity” and for help on an upcoming book “Adventurer meets Jesus and the Koran”. Aziz took an almost parental delight in the adventures of Wendell, at times praising his friend in correspondence with Sunshine Phillips, Wendell’s mother. Aziz had the tact not to ask Wendell about his mysterious absences or the reasons for zigzag trips. The letters were direct and familiar and more than a few times he mentions views and even emotions that he generally kept for those closest to him. In a letter dated August 11 1970 he asks Wendell whether he is still on friendly terms with Qaboos who had recently deposed his father, and what the change might mean to his concessions. In the same letter he lets slip that he now has “three American Grandchildren”, a subtle hint about how Aziz viewed himself, immigration and the assimilation of his own immediate family. Taken as a whole the letters seem to be a conspiracy of two against the wider world. If the two men contrasted sharply they also shared at least one similar trait. Each man outgrew early provincial roots with a passionate desire to see the wider world and transcend any narrow identity. Both men seemed to regard the entire world as their home, with every culture as fair game for study, absorption and even appropriation. Yet both remained at heart paradigms of their roots;  the fast talking American and the bookish Copt; Indiana Jones and the Coptologist.

We must also note a tragic coda to this tale. Almost at the moment this post was written news came of a horrific attack on a mosque in the Sinai by terrorists. The various places where these two men once studied now seem to be the heartland of this brand of senseless violence. Both men knew Islam well, and their knowledge brought them to respect it as a religion and value its cultural heritage. Atiya’s lectures on Islam in Utah attracted a decent following, including many Muslims who later confessed to the value of these lectures. Phillips adventures in Arabia may have been motivated in some part by his oil business, but he was also a genuine student of the Islamic and pre-Islamic culture there. It is tempting, but wrong, to see the descent to violence in these places as a rebuke to legacy of such men. It is better to remind ourselves that the progress of culture and the love of knowledge are the most potent antidotes to the nihilism that powers ignorant men.

— Maged Atiya


Pointless Fatwa – Useless Tussle


A man in the religion business issued a Fatwa declaring it permissible to keep antiquities as long as it is done with proper tithing. This has outraged many. As Fatwas go, this is a pointless one; about as useful as urging a diet of meat on a lion. Egyptians have taken to robbing the tombs of their ancestors since time immemorial. As soon as a ruler or a rich man is laid in his grave the treasures within attracted the attention of the next ruler or quick witted and daring thief. As late as the 1970s Hussein Abdel Rasul reigned supreme in his family compound in Gourna. The wiry, sharp-eyed patriarch entertained his guests with grace and charm, ordering coffee, tea and sweets for them without so much as a word or gesture. His minions bustled around eager for his favor or fearful of his wrath, it was never clear. Ali was not given to anger, except when it came to the matter of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whom he faulted for having his grandfather beaten for robbing tombs. Decades after that event he still seethed that his grandfather was undone and humiliated for engaging in the family business. Ali usually neglected to mention that it was his great uncles who betrayed their sibling. The point of this anecdote is that the Fatwa was scarcely needed to assuage the conscience of current tomb robbers. The real purpose was to fire yet another shot in Egypt’s culture war.

Scientist and public official Rushdi Sa’id noted in his memoirs that in 1953 he could not convince a simple farmer that he is “related” to the builders of the monuments that surrounded his field. They were after all pagan and evil, according to the farmer. Sa’id, an educated member of the elite who mentions how an English woman favorably compared his physiognomy to a statue in the British museum, was keen to establish the connection as a way to promote progress and elevate the nation. Like many nationalists of his time Sa’id was a firm Egyptianist, and an uncompromising enemy of Islamism. He notes how, given its history of invasions, Egypt can not be isolated to a single ethnic or cultural thread, but according to the logic of his Egyptianism the conclusion is that Egypt, and its river and soil, sublimates all, making them Egyptian beyond doubt. This mysticism of blood and soil has been a useful weapon against outsiders, and increasingly against proponents of political Islam. But it has done little to provide a vision of a common national project. Its gaze is so firmly fixed on the past that it regularly stumbles among the pitfalls of the present. It has certainly allowed Islamists easy victories through simple pandering. Sa’id’s failure to convince the farmer echoes more than 60 years later in the current controversy. Zahi Hawas, a pseudo-Egyptologist and a reality star, claimed that the Fatwa is illogical, since the state has rights on anything in its lands. To the sin of being tone-deaf, he added a measure of coercive statism. In fact, it is the Fatwa issuer who seems more logical, arguing that he has not encouraged anyone to rob tombs, but to simply take what is in their lands, and use some of its proceeds for charity. This clever refrain should not blind us to his real purpose. Others pointed out that the objects are the heritage of all of Egypt, without checking whether the majority would in fact agree with that statement. What was left unsaid is the real reason why antiquities should be preserved, even going to the length of paying those who find them. These artifacts belong to a common culture, one that transcends Egypt and belongs to all of humanity. To say so would be the first step to build a national identity on a foundation of shared values, rather than past greatness or imagined kinship.

— Maged Atiya


How to Disappear Eastern Christians

All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.

What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.

There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.

It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.

— Maged Atiya



It Is Not All Religion

An anti-Mursi supporter of Egypt's army walks in front of his shop, with huge posters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with cross and crescent symbol of the unity Egyptians in downtown Cairo

Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife.  These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money.  And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.

The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter.  The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.

No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.

— Maged Atiya