The Last of Their Kind?



Once upon a time a Copt named Boutros Ghali rose to be Prime Minister. The time was the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The place was Egypt. Boutros was the son of Ghali Nayrouz, who had become an overseer of Khedival lands, just about the best kind of job open to capable Copts since the Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Boutros Pasha begat three sons and a daughter, Naguib, Wassif, Youssef and Galila. The humbler and poorer Copts were proud of him, and many named their children after his (This observer’s paternal uncle and maternal grandmother were accordingly named Naguib and Galila). Naguib Boutros Ghali begat two sons: Gueffrey and Merrit. Wassif had no children. Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Boutros, Wassif and Raouf. Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Youssef, Boutros and Kareem. Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali has edited a new book called,  A Coptic Narrative in Egypt : A Biography of the Boutros Ghali Family.

51lj4my9jxl-_sx384_bo1204203200_It is possible to read this handsome book, with its elegant typography and many photographs and reproductions, in the spirit that the author intended, a praise of famous men lest we should forget them. But there is a certain weariness in the first paragraph of the preface “people who are condemned to repeat history must seek to find truth in it”. It is an implicit urging to find other and more nuanced readings in the book. While the author does not explicitly point in these directions, the possibility is raised by the insertion of one word in the title, “Coptic”. It is an indication, indeed a surrender, to the otherness of the Copts, the Sisyphean nature of their struggles, and to the indelibly sectarian nature of Egypt, regardless of all the grand pronouncements by many great men, including several family members in the book. This is, after all, a remarkably accomplished family (there has been at least one member in the upper echelon of Egyptian governance since the 1850s. The family has outlasted several empires). The title could have included any number of descriptions, but “Copt” is the one to have leapt to the head of the line. Also the “a” is an indication that there are other narratives, equally compelling, and indeed also threading through the book. Yet in spite of the title much of the book is really about Egyptian history, an indication of the truism that Egyptian Copts are frequently a stand-in for the country at large, whatever their predicament. These are matters to come to in due course, but first about the book.

It is clear that the author consciously wishes us to see parallels between himself and his great-grandfather, noting that both were made Finance Ministers 111 years apart. Both men attempted, and nearly succeeded, in setting Egypt’s finances on a more favorable course. Both were ultimately undone by compromises with the powerful, which they saw as attempts to lessen oppression, but were easily portrayed as a collaboration with oppressors. And there are more parallels. As his great grandfather was assassinated by a proto-Islamist, Youssef was chased out of Egypt by the assassin’s ideological successors. The death of Boutros Ghali prompted a conclave of Copts in 1911 to demand equal rights. The reaction to that conference figured prominently in the rise of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Their demise would come shortly after Youssef’s exile, prompted by their final grab at power. Between the author and his great-grandfather, there were many prominent men in the family. The book has eight chapters on four public men (Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Boutros Ghali , Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali, and the author), four private men (Youssef Boutros Ghali, Gueffrey Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Youssef Boutros Ghali and Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali), and one towering intellectual, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The public men, who served the State, get longer and more detailed treatments that the private men, who served their families and often the Nation as well. As always with Egypt, the projects of State building and Nation building did not work in tandem. The secret to understanding Egypt’s history is to view it as an overbearing State in search of a nascent Nation. Indeed, it was Youssef’s uncle, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali who diagnosed the Egyptian identity crisis in a remarkable essay in 1978. The final chapter in the book is not about a famous man, but a famous Church, the Boutrossiya Church, built to honor Boutros Ghali after his assassination. Within a few months of the book’s publication, the Church would be attacked by the so-called Islamic State terrorists, in what may prove to be a seminal moment in Egypt’s long history, and the Copts’ relationship to the difficult land that they believe God anointed them as its guardians.

The family has a recessive gene for state service, which expressed itself across four generations of men who served in entirely different periods of modern Egyptian history, the British tutelage, the “liberal age”, the Nasser revolution, and finally the Mubarak stagnation. Yet, each politician’s career and life were remarkably similar. There is a rise to prominence powered by personal merit and occasioned by a desire for both personal and national prestige. As the author summarizes in the preface : “they were concerned for the fate of the country as if they were personally responsible for it”. There is also inevitably a fall, as Egypt undergoes an upheaval, and the fall is made more severe by that very same Coptic identity, and perhaps some of its unattractive aspects. Each man performs a difficult high wire act while buffeted by social forces, and tyrannical bosses, that constantly strive to affect a fall. In the case of Boutros Ghali it was the combination of the resentful Khedive Abbas Hilmi and the racist Lord Cromer. His killer, Ibrahim Nassif Al Wardani, accused him of treason to a “nation” whose nature many disagreed about. It is said with some authority that crowds chanted “Al Wardani Qatal Al Nustrani” (Al Waradani killed the Nazarene). Men of the time recognized Boutros Ghali’s contributions to Egypt, and Lord Cromer took a leave from his customary dislike of Copts to note that Ghali was a capable man and true patriot. But he was the last Copt to occupy that position*.The British Foreign Office noted that had it not been for the victim’s religion, the assassin would not have fired the fatal bullets. Boutros’ son Naguib Boutros Ghali served the rulers of Egypt well from before the death of his father until 1921, but the new nationalist regime that took over in 1923 had little use for a man cut in the mold of the past. He spent the last decade of his life in charitable work and away from public life. His brother Wassif Boutros Ghali was more nimble. He rose to prominence as Foreign Minister in various Wafd governments from 1923 onward. In that position, Wassif worked diligently to reduce British influence in Egypt. The crowning achievement of his career was the 1936 treaty with Britain. It also effectively ended his public life. The 1938 election was an ugly spectacle of anti-Copt and anti-Semitic hate, and was rigged to boot. The Wafd party began to trim its sails to match the stronger winds of bigotry embodied in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and would have less use for such men as Wassif, who gradually withdrew from politics for the last two decades of his life. He was the last Copt to occupy the office of Foreign Minister. Wassif’s nephew Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali was equally nimble and a man capable of adjusting to the new Egypt, formed by the rise of Islamism and eventually by Army rule. From the 1950s into the 1990s he served Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak as an able diplomat, but would never rise to his uncle’s station, even if he matched him in talent. He was a self-possessed and proud man. He was neither awed by Henry Kissinger, nor alarmed by the cast of loud and blustering Israeli politicians, generals and diplomats, nor made uneasy by the casual condescension of his bosses (Sadat addressed him as Peter, Boutros or Ghali depending on his degree of irritation with him.). His career culminated in becoming Secretary General of the UN. The new role freed him from the customary deference he showed to Egypt’s rulers and he felt free to talk back to the main financial backer of the UN, the United States. He ran afoul of First Lady Hillary Clinton, and her appointed surrogate, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. The latter showed visible glee and scorn when she vetoed his reappointment as Secretary General. His nephew Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali followed him into international service, in the IMF, as a talented economist. On his return to Egypt he rose in various government jobs until he became the Minister of Finance in 2004. And as with his kin, his fall from grace was a result of a historic lurch. A few months after the 2011 revolution, he was awarded a 30 year sentence in a six minute trial. Additional trials added yet another 35 years to his jail time. The charges amounted to little more than hearsay about misuse of government cars.  The entire cadre of Egyptian revolutionaries sprang into ecstasy when one of their own assaulted him on a London street. Nearly six years after the revolution many think Egypt needs the skills of Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali, but none are willing to invite him back or guarantee his safety.

These stories of rise and fall find echoes in the lives of many other great Coptic men too numerous to list, whether it is the wily politician Makram Ebeid or the eminent scientist Rushdi Sa’id. All lived at the mercy of their Coptic identity, the futility of downplaying it, and the capriciousness of rulers. All of them would have nodded in agreement with the author’s claim that “like my great-grandfather, my great uncles and my uncle, I worked for an autocrat who, with time, grew to trust me and let me implement reforms that I believe served Egypt best and brought progress even if late and never enough“. Indeed, even an earlier distant relative would have agreed. In the 1840s Muhammad Ali had his faithful Coptic accountant, another Ghali, strangled for honestly reporting a budget shortfall. The accountant’s son kissed the killer’s hand. Such is the pathology of the Coptic condition in Egypt. These events occur with a regularity that belittles their grotesqueness. Two generations after that event, when the 1911 conference was called in the aftermath of the Ghali assassination. Boutros Pasha’s son, Wassif, refused to attend, insisting that “I would rather side with the those who killed my father than those who wish to kill my country”. Wassif’s nephew Boutros, the UN Secretary General, chaired a Human Rights panel in Egypt that did little to point out regular violations against Copts. The sociologist Sana Hasan, a rebellious daughter of Egypt’s Muslim aristocracy, called him to account on such matters. She pressed Boutros about the absurd claim that there is no discrimination against Copts in the foreign service. He, clearly irritated, responded “You have been listening to too many frightened Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!”. In response, Hasan lumps Boutros with another famous Copt, Makram Ebeid, as “more finely attuned to the call of the minaret than to their own people’s cry of distress”. These two positions are also a template for the general, and generally futile, discussion of modern Egyptian governance. Is the State a reflection of the people’s supine attitude, or are the rulers to blame for ignoring the people’s needs? The answer is likely that it is both in uncertain and varying measures. The author lends his voice on this matter at the outset of the preface “the passive resistance of those who know they cannot throw their yoke but seek to lighten its burden. The courage to face challenges often gets misinterpreted as weakness and capitulation”. This brings us back to a fundamental question; is Egypt doomed to authoritarianism and the best that can be done is to make it light and enlightened, or is there a different path? A hint of an answer is also within the book in the life of Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali.

For more than half a century, from the 1930s until his passing in 1992, Merrit Ghali, by word and action, outlined a different vision for Egypt and its Copts. Although technically half Armenian (his mother was the granddaughter of Nubar Pasha), he embraced his Coptic identity naturally, while advocating for a country that respected diversity as the cornerstone for proper governance. Although nominally a member of Egypt’s diplomatic corp, he served where his interests led him (generally Ethiopia) rather than the whims of his bosses. He neither endorsed nor revolted against the various manifestations of the State, but sought to build a better alternative in its shadow. His recipe for success, advocated in a variety of writing including his book “Traditions for the Future”, is simple. Egypt must recognize the diversity of its religious, cultural and ethnic heritage, and refuse to identify itself as only one thing or another, as its frequent and disrespected Constitutions insist. Although a leader in the revival of Coptic studies, he never engaged in the injured and injurious Coptic discourse of “we are the only true Egyptians”. He, and many members of his wide circle of friends and collaborators, also sought to keep scholarship apart from the Church’s hagiography. There is a rare photograph in the book showing him behind his desk receiving the usually indomitable Pope Shenouda almost as a supplicant. There is a hint of a deeper desire to see culture and religion on equal footing, with neither appropriating the other for its purposes. His wide interest in African Orthodox Christianity, and his involvement in Coptic studies in the West, point to a future, now almost within reach, when Copts might outgrow the narrowness of the Egyptian identity. In contrast to many of his men folk, he seemed to be a man of the future, and if hope persists, the first rather than the last of his kind. For it will take many like him for Egypt to escape its current predicament, where power, not politics, mediates social differences.

There are those who study Egypt hoping to understand its storied history, and then there are those who see in its history repeated couplets of an encompassing and all too human threnody. This elegiac book is a work of the latter, especially as its author remains marooned outside his country, and the Church of his family subjected to a horrific attack. Much of the current discourse about Egypt, and indeed the wider region, consists of laments about golden days, and tears for the “last of their kind”. This is understandable, and whatever sympathy that may elicit must be balanced by a desire to develop new kinds, anchored in traditions but not weighed by them.

— Maged Atiya

*  There was another Coptic Prime Minister, Youssef Wahba, who served for a few months during the 1919-1920 revolutionary disturbances, at the behest of the Sultan. His legitimacy was never widely accepted. I am grateful to Samuel Tadros for the correction.

The Children of Job


Little can be added to the considerable corpus of writings on the Book of Job. It remains the most unique and problematic of all Biblical texts, perhaps the only one where God pays tribute to Man. Still, the book calls to us to consider its ambiguous lessons in this season when the celebrations of major religions crowd each other and contend for our attention with daily calamities.

We must consider the impossibility of discerning divine intentions in actions subject to human agency. God undertook a wager with Satan (the accuser) in direct contradiction to human understanding of his omniscient nature. This inscrutable action should dissuade us from seeing his hand in such events as the election of a leader, as the Rev Franklin Graham does. Whether we are free or subject to God’s whims, or Satan’s designs, is unknowable, and therefore we should act as if we are free, focusing on the consequences of our actions.

We should also see mystery in the death of the innocent. The disasters that befall Job are either focused on his person (boils) or are impersonal, such as the theft of his property. Except, of course, for the death of his children who die when “a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.” The book makes no mention of any guilt on their part. Nor were they the last of the innocent to die. We live with the children of Job every day now; on a street in Aleppo, a Church in Cairo, a square in Europe or a school in Connecticut.

Nor can we be comfortable in our judgements. All too often we drift from disapproval of an act to condemnation of the actor. The book cautions against harsh judgements in the persons of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Unable to understand the heavenly plans, they unjustly condemn Job, judging his misery to be evidence of guilt they can not uncover.

Any attempt to construct a human order identified as “God’s plan” is bound to end up with a monstrosity, simply out of a lack of understanding. God waves away Job’s attempt to understand his reasons with a simple and mocking admonition, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

The only avenue left open to humans is to honor whatever divine spark is within us by actions, both small and grand, that tilt the balance not so much toward “justice”, which is ultimately unknowable, but to smaller and more tangible ends, such as mercy, kindness and affection. “History”, if it is indeed an actor at all, tilts in no particular way. We must jerk it along.

— Maged Atiya


The Idiot’s Guide to Becoming a Lovable Tyrant

ty·rant \ˈtī-rənt\. One who obtains absolute executive power by appeals to factions of the people. Originally made with no reference to character

Tyrants, like viruses, come in many kinds. As with viruses that attack the immune system, the most dangerous tyrants disable the human bullshit detection system. Such tyrants remain beloved by their people long after the stick has been repeatedly applied. The hobby of studying lovable tyrants, born of some necessity, produces a manual for how to become one.

First, you must have a grand goal, a destination so far away, and so enticing, that followers will want to endure the brutal journey to the paradise at the end. A lovable tyrant should not seek a 4% GDP growth, but the total elimination of poverty and suffering. In such a fashion, after all ills are tallied, people can still say “he meant well”. The long harangues and repeated beatings are made bearable, even justifiable, by warnings and promises of devils and angels.  It is not works, but the inscrutable grace of the people that redeems lovable tyrants.

Second, you must acquire powerful enemies. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that the people you beat will feel uplifted in watching you get battered by the powerful. This is an evident truth in one of the most profound intellectual works about oppression and resistance, the 1967 movie “ Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman. Never ever let on that you are coming at ‘em with nothin’.

Third, and this is also a lesson from that film, look sharp while at it. Politics is theater, and tyranny is the grandest of theater. But you must look sharp in a new and original way, one that reveals in an off-handed fashion how little you care for convention. Once you break one convention, you can break them all. Lovable tyranny is a bit like a drunken party, it never ends with breaking just one glass. The people you oppress invariably come in two genders. One must swoon and the other must turn green with envy at that swoon. You are now lodged in their brain, they can no more eject you than they can perform a self-lobotomy.

Fourth, get yourself a Boswell, a scrivener, a Heikal or a Marquez, who will sing great epics in exchange for crumbs of approval. This will guarantee that some tweedy academics in far and free lands will mine your shit for pearls, because contrary theses generate the requisite publicity. Again seek ye guidance in “Cool Hand Luke”. The loser and small time con man, Paul Newman, became the celebrated leader of the downtrodden prisoners only after George Kennedy sang of him.

Above all, be on the lookout for Andersen’s little boy. He comes in many varieties, including the one who, when assigned an art class project to draw you in all your glory, did so featuring you, factually, in a tank top with a cigarette.

— Maged Atiya


The Step-Mother’s Tongue

Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: ‘As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.’ He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscienceSati’ Al Husri (1882-1968)

The impossibly thin Algerian boy stood out among the hearty well-fed Egyptian school boys. The large head perched atop his reedy frame came with an impressive shock of wavy hair and a prominent mouth full of Houari Boumediene teeth. The cold, cruel logic of the boys dubbed him “Abu Sinan”, or “Toothy”. Toothy’s father was posted to the Algerian embassy, and in the post-independence days political correctness dictated that he must attend an Egyptian institution rather than the more congenial French Lycee. In the Lord-of-the-Flies school, he marked out his days in ticks of humiliation. Ill at ease with spoken Egyptian, he was defenseless against bullying that usually started with verbal assaults but rarely ended there. At home, he spoke French and a language that barely resembled Arabic. If silence is golden, then Toothy and the Egyptian boy who on rare occasions rose to his defense were each a Midas. The civics textbooks, written in Modern Arabic, instructed Toothy that he and his tormentors were one, bound by a common language, tradition, history, and future; all members of the “Arab Nation”. In class, the school boys were required to memorize the poem by Mahmoud Darwish “Identity Card”, which starts with the stirring words “Sajil ! Ana ‘Arabi” (Write! I am an Arab..) before it comes to end in a litany of accusations, complaints and threats. In the school yard, bullies put the poem to good use as well. The chief bully would yell with the hard Cairene “g”, “Sagil, Enta …” and expect the hapless boy from Oran to complete the sentence with a litany of derogatory statements about his own manhood and his mother’s virtue. More than a decade later the Egyptian boy would read the remarkable essay by the polymath Mirrit Boutros Ghali on Egyptian identity and find that, for all its evasions and care not to offend President Sadat, still managed to approximate the situation in the school yard.

In the 1920s, Salama Moussa proposed that colloquial Egyptian be made the official language of the country if only to slash the illiteracy rates with one sweep. It was the simplest solution to end the endemic diglossia that plagued Egypt for nearly a thousand years. He got nowhere with that idea. Even his friends mocked it (Moussa and one-time friend ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad parted company over such issues, and became bitter enemies, hurling painful insults at each other for nearly two decades). Others who followed his suggestions, such as the cartoonist and poet Salah Jaheen, also failed to make headway. The conventional wisdom is that Moussa’s attempt failed because of the resistance of obscurantist religious leaders who felt that devaluation of classical Arabic is tantamount to leading people astray from the language of the Qur’an. They certainly felt, and still feel this way. There is also a persistent rumor that Moussa encouraged various scholars to translate the Qur’an to the colloquial. But that does not explain why many of Moussa’s liberal friends found his efforts misdirected, even quixotic. Nor can we lay the blame entirely on Moussa’s Kemalist tendencies. In fact, the failure is largely that of Egyptian intellectuals of the so-called “liberal age” and tells of why it ended in Nasser’s tyranny. These intellectuals always devolved to populism, of one sort or another. Their populism sprang forth from a recognition of the power of the street rather than a desire to elevate it.  

Language is identity. The Greeks identified themselves by apartness from the foreigners who spoke unintelligible “barbaros”. Americans could not easily dispense with English but enriched it with a patois from dozens of ethnicities, beginning with the Scots-Irish and African slaves, to create a unique identity and become to England a “nation separated by a common language”. Many other examples abound. The rise of the West and of nations within it was occasioned by the refinement of indigenous languages. Had Europe stuck stubbornly to Latin, recalling the by-gone glory days of Rome as reason, it is likely it would not have achieved as much. One wonders what Egypt’s trajectory would have been if Moussa’s suggestion of translating the Qur’an to colloquial Egyptian. A pious Muslim laboring to replicate the eloquence and precision of the original would have done a great deal for Egypt; as much as Tyndale did for England, Luther for Germany or Calvin for France. Such an effort would have rendered Islam, and to some extent Christianity, a strong cornerstone of Egyptian identity and a springboard for progress. The work of building a nation is primarily cultural. Yet there has been few studies of how the struggle with language has endowed Egypt with a propensity for authoritarianism.

The common discourse is to label Egypt’s authoritarian leaders as “Pharaohs”. But its modern authoritarianism is rooted less in Pharaonic tradition than in the drift toward Arabism and Islamism. In fact, other “nations” in the region, who lacked such an identity, seem to have fared far worse, combining brutal dictatorships with state collapse. Al Husri’s formulation “He is an Arab regardless of his wishes” is the theme song of the current collapse. One can easily remove “Arab” and substitute “Muslim” and the formulation explains much of violent Takfiri thought. In fact, almost any other identity can replace “Arab” and lead to the same deadly dead-end. The only way out is to stipulate that identity is a personal choice, and one often arrived at after much soul searching, if at all. Men can not choose their mothers, and rarely their step-mothers. But at least they can choose their identity. Anything less is the road to bloody servitude.

— Maged Atiya


The Road From Suez


As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation.  It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.

Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.

Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife

The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.

— Maged Atiya


The Absent Baba. “Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”

Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.

The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian,  as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.

The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.

The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.

— Maged Atiya


The Old Man and the Immigrants

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya