The Killing of Brigadier General Yusuf, a Writer


On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.

Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.

It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.

In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel.  He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.

Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.

— Maged Atiya


Can We Survive Toleration?

Comments made at the second Coptic Canadian History Project, slightly corrected and amended for clarity.
Unlike everyone here, I am not a scholar, or at least not a scholar in the areas represented by this conference. So I am way out on a limb and thus tempted to ask you to join me on that limb by listening to some uncomfortable questions. Nothing I say here is scholarly, but simply notes from the field. I will start with an anecdote, move to a thumbnail history and finish with questions. The anecdote is that of a child observing adults, and the questions are those of an adult still observing adults.
One of my early childhood memories was being in a room at the old Batrakhana to see Pope Kyrillous. The room was sparse, with no luxury except for nice rugs everywhere. The adults waited on one side and the children on the other. The children were to told to behave and be silent or else, the “else” delivered with a menacing stare. After what seemed to be an eternity standing there, but was probably only just a few minutes, the door flung open and what seemed to be a giant of a man stepped in. In fact, later in life I learned that he was of average height and build. Perhaps it was the beard or the attitude of the people that made him seem larger. He wore a black galabiyya, nothing special, and no shoes, just heavy socks. The adults rushed toward him but a monk waved them away. He made a beeline toward the children, and as with a politician working the rope line systematically greeted them, gave each one a gentle pat on the head and a sign of the Cross on the forehead. He smelled of incense, which is fitting for he is now officially a saint. After he was done with the children he moved toward the adults who rushed in, kissed his hand and spoke into his ear. One man, an acquaintance of our family, said something to him and the Patriarch’s face became stern and his body language issued disapproval. A few months later we found out that our friend left for Canada. I never found out what the man said to the Pope, but it left me with a sense to this day of immigration as a rebellion. Some months ago, Pope Tawadros made some comments to a newspaper also disapproving of immigration. All of us here are, in some sense, rebels, collaborators in this rebellion. But who are we, exactly? In the end what makes a “people” is a combination of real shared experiences and just as importantly, imagined shared experiences. So I move to the thumbnail history, what did the first rebels make of their experience, and then of what we need to make of this rebellion now. I need not remind you that rebellion is central to the Christian experience, which started with Adam’s rebellion. But we Copts were traditionally raised to be accountants not rebels, and that maybe why immigration is forcing a reinvention of the Coptic identity here, perhaps.
The earliest cultural activity among immigrants, who were numerically a tiny group, was to translate the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of Hours, into English. It is curious indeed for people to translate their prayers into a language they had yet to fully master. But that was an act of rebellion, declaring for all to see their un-Arabness. Building Churches was also an act of both belonging and rebellion, something hereto difficult in Egypt. Agitating for the Copts of Egypt in Canada and America took on an air of rebellion. Few tried to negotiate anything; it was mostly demonstrations and words of anger. There was delight, as with many teenagers, when these symbolic acts of rebellion set the leader of Egypt aflame with rage at what Sadat called “his children”. The Church worried incessantly about its “sons and daughters abroad”. It feared their rebellion, and it still does. Pope Shenouda confided in Sadat that some of his children in America might have emotional problems but they could be managed and brought back to love him. But the acts of rebellion were not always negative. Cultural activism was sometimes positive, an assertion of a newly formed self. In the interest of time I will focus only on two acts of cultural activism that stand out. Both started out in the Spring of 1980, but their roots are deeper in Egypt. Dr Rodolph Yanney began to publish the Coptic Church Review in March 1980. Almost at the same moment, in early April 1980, Aziz Atiya convened the editorial board of the Coptic Encyclopedia. Both efforts reflect a desire to define a Coptic cultural narrative; one broader than Egypt. But beyond a common goal, they could not be more different. Yanney’s quarterly publication cost a few dollars and focused almost entirely on devotional subjects. It never had more than a few contributors, with some from the West (John Watson, Tim Vivian, Otto Meinardus,etc). Atiya’s effort was broader, eventually having more than 250 contributors. It was held at the Rockefeller foundation center at Lake Como. The attendees were a “who is who” of the old Coptic intellectual elite (Mirrit Ghali, Fouad Megally, etc). The final set of volumes, 8 in total, leather bound, cost $1100. Yanney was a devout and intensely religious man. Atiya, was far more secular. Yanney finished college in 1952, and became heavily involved in the day-to-day Sunday school work of specific churches; he was literally and figuratively the man in the church basement. Atiya completed college in 1919, and then embarked on graduate studies and a long career as a historian in prestigious universities, and rarely attended church, but was usually found in the company of bishops and popes. The two men approached their solution to the Coptic identity from different angles. Yanney wanted to render the West more acceptable to the Copts, utilizing Western authors to show their interest in the Copts, and convince his fellow immigrants that this place could be home. Atiya wanted to render the Copts more acceptable to the West, securing a place for them as major creators of Christianity through the efforts of their church Fathers. In their own very different ways, both projects were broadly patristic. I do not want to overplay the duality, but they were different efforts by two men, a generation apart, physically outside of Egypt yet still psychically anchored in it. While both efforts generated a great deal of scholarly output, they did not make considerable inroads among immigrants. I suspect that the reason neither effort found ready inheritors was the bitter communal divisions of the 1980s that accompanied Shenouda’s exile at the hands of Sadat, and the return of Shenouda to full command and mastery over his “children” abroad. I was dismayed to visit a church in the late 1990s where the basement reading room once held copies of many interesting books, and several issues of the Coptic Church Review, to find only “Al Keraza” magazine. But things are changing now, evidenced by many gatherings and efforts such as this (CCHP), and of the new churches and groups, some taking on frankly foundational and pioneering attitudes, such as dedicating a Princeton, New Jersey church to St Anianus. Others are aiming to reconcile Western cultural attitudes, such as feminism, with entrenched patterns. There is a chance to change the misconception, only partially false, that the Copts have no culture beyond prayer.
So I finish with my questions, which I will limit to three, and for which I have no answers.

Can we survive toleration? This may seem to be an odd question when everyone is worried about Eastern Christians surviving terrible persecutions these days. But for the Copts of Egypt the question of whether they can survive persecution is a settled one; Yes. The entire social and psychic apparatus of the Copts was built to resist persecution, and we have not until recently existed in a place that fully welcomed us. Can the Copts of immigration survive the magnificent freedom and tolerance we see here with York University giving space and support for our cultural efforts? We stand between two risks. First of failure to retain any cultural distinctiveness as we melt into the larger Christian culture around us. That would not be a disaster for individuals, but a loss of a unique culture nonetheless. The second, and perhaps larger risk, is that we develop a culture of exile. To make the point I will quote from an article from by Magdi Khalil of Coptic Solidarity. He quotes Aziz Atiya about the keys to Babylon given to the Arabs on Good Friday, April 6 641. Magdi, in effect, ties the Crucification of Jesus to the Arab occupation of Egypt. Egypt is the literal and sacred place, at once Eden and Golgotha, a singular reference point. He is attempting a reinvention of the Coptic identity, in this case a Judaization of that identity. There is nothing wrong with the Jewish narrative, except that it is not ours to adopt. Few Copts gather to say “Next year in Egypt”. Unlike the Jews we have not experienced the killing ferocity of the West at its most bigoted manifestation. We can not borrow this outfit, as we will look silly in it. Besides, the comparison invites an expectation of resurrection, thus anchoring immigrants to an Egypt they can little affect. Magdi’s destinations are a dead end. We need to fashion our own cultural outfit in immigration. So the question remains without an answer.

Can we de-conflate religious and ethnic identity? Endogamy was a critical tool in the Egyptian Copts’ arsenal of survival. It is partly responsible for the narrative of the “Copts as the true Egyptians”, which is quaint and reassuring for immigrants, but of little practical value. Endogamy is not sustainable in the immigrant countries with the inevitable phenomenon of intermarriage (itself a rebellion within a rebellion). It is further complicated by the church’s theologically incoherent position on cross-denominational baptisms, and its preference for a sexual morality rooted in specific cultural contexts. The net result will be a drain of potential members who are culturally not Egyptian, and ethnically only partially Egyptian, as well as inability to retain new converts. The contradictions go beyond the personal and into the institutional. The Egyptian church will have to contend with a paradox it is ill-suited to resolve. “Copt”, which once meant Egyptian, is now declared on the name of new churches which strive to be explicitly not so. Yet another question without an easy answer.

What about the Church? The Egyptian church has been the backbone of the Copts, and the tent that sheltered them from all manners of storms. But it has not yet understood the subtleties of immigration, and may never be able to fully do so. At a time when many Western churches are suffering from the indifference of their flock, the passion of immigrant laity should be seen as a net positive to the church. But the Egyptian church has a huge burden dealing with the flock in Egypt and it is unfair to expect it to tailor itself to the wishes of the non-Egyptian Copts. On the other hand, immigrant churches cannot realistically be mere outposts or reception centers for new immigrants. I don’t have the exact numbers, but the second generation and beyond of immigrants now likely exceed the number of new arrivals and first generation immigrants. Absent a catastrophe in Egypt that will cause a larger flood of immigration, the demographic trend will remain the same. We know it is not impossible to be a universal church with multiple cultural influences, but we also know that the Egyptian church, since the fifth century, has chosen a different road. The arc of communal history for the past 50 years has seen a steady consolidation for church control over the laity. Although this is a function of the demise of civil society in Egypt, it has also affected immigrant churches. How will the church handle the inevitable diversity of views in an environment where lack of persecution does not provide a ready means of social cohesion. Yet another question to ponder.
I want to thank you for indulging me and allowing me to make my reflections on what is an epochal change within an ancient people, who just happen to be us. In 33 years, the life of one generation, it will be 2051. Perhaps then we might look back on immigration as a providential event that ended 1600 years of solitude.

— Maged Atiya

Additional Links

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Notes From The Id

The Copt’s Patrimony

“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”

Among the Primitives – On the “History of Eastern Christianity” at 50.

The Last of Their Kind?

The Empty Mausoleum

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Notes From The Id


A previous post dealt with the rise of Coptic political activism early in immigrant communities, especially in the US. The early activism was marked by the success of Pope Shenouda in winning over its leaders and subsequently enlisting it as a component of his project of placing the clerical hierarchy as the central leadership of the Copts. The passing of Shenouda and the changing conditions in Egypt signal a change of circumstances. The failure of activism to affect the official policies of the Egyptian state is part and parcel of a larger failure of all outside forces to influence the ponderous state. As with all political movements, failure will result in either disappearing into irrelevance or an internal struggle to assess the means, methods and goals of the movement. This was amply demonstrated by one of the largest groups, Coptic Solidarity, around its recent conference in June 2017. The conference title “Egypt: Combating Terrorism Without Sacrificing Civil Rights” is laudable and sensible enough. The organization attempted to reach out beyond immigrant Copts, inviting various US political figures, academics, intellectuals and even a Shi’a Imam. Yet somehow, the entire proceeding was hijacked by the now notorious “Zogby affair”. James Zogby, a leader of the Arab American community and a political operative within the Democratic party, ostentatiously rescinded his acceptance to chair a panel over what he called individuals spreading …hurtful anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda”. A spokesman for Coptic Solidarity further inflamed the issue by leveling a charge of “Dhimmitude” against Zogby. Although the author of the charge was unnamed, many in the know felt that it bore the mark of Magdi Khalil, one of Coptic Solidarity’s founder and a leading thinker and writer. This charge would be unknown to most Christians in the world, and indeed to many in the East, but is a uniquely familiar one to Egyptians*. This was the Coptic id lashing out at what it perceives to be collaborators in its oppression. Here was an American organization reverting to its Egyptian core when it views itself under attack. Any temptation to ignore the meaning of the Zogby affair would later be undercut by a little noted article. Tectonic shifts are seldom noticed until they break out in spectacular forms, while the attention is invariably focused on surface ripples.

Nine months after the 2017 conference, Magdi Khalil, published an article titled “The Copts as Lord Cromer saw them”. The article is in Arabic making it clear that its intended audience is in Egypt, even if its tone and lineage is American. The few in Egypt who do not choose to ignore it will read it as a plea, or a threat, or more ominously as a pink slip. To gaze upon the Copts from Cromer’s imperial eyes is by itself an unsettling statementCromer, the man who effectively ruled Egypt for a quarter century, was known for his dislike of the Copts. He denounced “their habits of servitude”, and resented their resistance to his administrative modernization, which lessened the Copts’ traditional control of the state’s administrative apparatus. Khalil uses Cromer as a pretext to level 17 questions to the Coptic church and community. None of these questions are really new, as most have been around for a while, but they were never considered suitable to be asked aloud in polite company. All the questions are backward looking and Egypt focused, but Khalil contends that answering them is essential for the future progress of the Copts, especially outside Egypt. In effect, Khalil expands the charge of “Dhimmitude” to include many Copts and the clerical hierarchy. It is strong and uncomfortable stuff, but it should not be ignored or dismissed lightly. Those who are not tapped into the Egyptian and Coptic history and psyche may find the entire set of questions odd, but that does not render them irrelevant. If others follow suit and ask the same questions then they may have the weight of theses nailed to a door.

Khalil’s first question relates to what he perceives to be the Copts’s original sin. “How could we have allowed a few thousand Bedouins to occupy and rule our country [in 641 C.E.]?”. From that question the remaining sixteen cascade along similar lines. “Why did we not connect with Nubia and Ethiopia?”, in effect asking why there was no project of Reconquista similar to Spain. Why has the church resisted Byzantium far more vigorously than the Muslim rulers, Khalil asks. He also takes the clerical hierarchy to task for becoming willing collaborators in the oppression of the Copts under Muslim rule for centuries. The clerics are weak, he asserts, because they lent no support to the rebels of the Pashmuric revolts of the 9th century C.E. or the current activists in immigration. He widens his scope to accuse the community at large of being slavish to priests, subservient to Muslims in general, while ferocious toward each other in their internecine fights. Finally he indicts the entire community for becoming “prisoners” of the church walls and the monks who man them, and refusing to have fruitful interactions with Western Christianity. He strikes at the core of the old Coptic identity by accusing the Church of developing a theology of submission, humiliation and martyrdom, rather than of liberation, justice and revolution. Khalil’s hammer spares no pillar of traditional Coptic thought. It is tempting to think that Khalil’s arguments will have few listeners, but it would be wrong. It is also tempting to think that the historic longevity, as well as the institutional strength of the church and its leaders will render them immune to his criticism. But the leaders of the church should make no such assumption,at least not without a careful listening to many outside Egypt. On a personal level, this blogger can attest to the resonance of Khalil’s questions among many young Copts born and bred in the US, and who grew up without acculturation to the “habits of servitude”. The new Copt does not look like the old Copt. It remains to be seen whether that new Copt will look on the old with understanding, or cast a gimlet eye on the deficiencies. That said, we can  level a modest charge of historic inexactitude, even revisionism, against Khalil. As with many nationalist retelling, history is sanctified by a division of its actors to patriots and traitors. But the reality is less neat. Khalil is a smart observer and has demonstrated a keen grasp of Egyptian and Coptic history. His questions can only arise from a polemical plan rather than simple historic ignorance. They fit neatly, although far more discordantly, in a line of thought that threads through recent Egyptian and Coptic history. Why are the people such willing slaves to their rulers? Many an Egyptian intellectual has asked in despair about the persistence of authoritarianism and clientism in the country’s governance. Passionate young men of the Society of Coptic Nationalists would kidnap a Pope in 1954 in equal despair over the communal inability to rid itself of a weak and unqualified man at the top of the clerical hierarchy. One of these men would thunder to this author, a quarter century after the events, that the Copts are “weak, weak, and therefore undeserving of respect”, while pounding his fist on the table in a dingy basement restaurant near Dupont circle in Washington DC, to the point where he was nearly ejected. Magdi Khalil’s words tap into an existing but largely hidden vein, but to what end?

Many nationalist narratives have a familiar arc. First there is a statement of the “fall”, the once proud people who have fallen into a disgraceful state, unable to unite or improve their lot. The fall must be followed by redemption, where proper leadership and individual sacrifices will lead to a greater collective good. This is the narrative of Egyptian nationalism, and also the narrative of the Copts. Once they were able to meld their story and that of Egypt into a single thread, but that is becoming increasingly more difficult. Too many Copts are not Egyptian, and too much of Egypt has drifted into Islamism. While the Egyptian church and the few lay Coptic leaders in Egypt extol the benefits of a unified nation, many Copts outside Egypt see the entire narrative as a farce. In some ways, the current situation among immigrant Copts bears a striking resemblance to that of European Armenians at the end of the 19th century who increasingly saw the promise of citizenship within the Ottoman Empire as unrealistic, if only because others, including Turks, had also come to the same conclusion. Khalil challenges the notion that what made Copts survive for 1400 years will enable them to do so in the future, and more radically, he challenges the notion that a similar survival is even worth the effort. The Egyptian church, and also the lay community, are busy with the difficulties and travails of life in Egypt and have little time to engage in such thoughts. They would likely see Khalil’s ideas as disruptive, even dangerous. They simply want their old Egypt back. But whether today, or at some future date, a reckoning is bound to happen between these two divergent lines of thought. Once again, as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s, the numerically smaller Copts in immigration are leveraging their more fortunate position for a louder voice within the community. In immigration their christian identity is not sufficient to distinguish them from the larger community around them. Neither their orthodoxy, nor their non-Chalcedonian theology which few truly understand, are sufficient for a distinctive identity. Agitating for the good of Egyptian Copts is however their unique burden and identity. The real question is whether newer generations will take up the burden with equal vigor or abandon it as quixotic. Either way, the Egyptian church can not long remain Janus faced, able to satisfy two very divergent groups of faithful follower. There are passionate arguments that insist that the only future for the Copts is out of Egypt, while other, equally passionate arguments, insist that the only hope for Egypt is to be a country where the Copts can remain an integral part of its fabric. Nothing at the moment seems to favor either view.

When Bishop Bishoy, a senior conservative leader of the Egyptian church, remarked in 2010 that Islam is a “guest in Egypt”, he created a firestorm. By his very same reasoning Christianity is also a “guest in Egypt’, having arrived a mere 600 years earlier. Such views are bound to seem odd to Copts born in places such as the US or Canada or Australia, where any one can become a full-fledged citizen within a few years. These countries have no “guests”, or more accurately, have nothing but guests. From that vantage, Magdi Khalil’s questions are paradoxes; on one hand they imply that Copts have a special responsibility toward Egypt, while insisting that they need to consider their communal health first and foremost. But these are the paradoxes of an identity in formation. For what it is worth, the church in Egypt, and indeed the wider world, needs to listen carefully to the discourse of immigrant Copts. As Buffalo Springfield would have it; something is happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

— Maged Atiya

* The notion of “Dhimmitude” was introduced into common Western lexicon by Gisele Littman, writing under the name of Bat Ye’or. She was born in Egypt and left it at age 23 under the difficult circumstances of 1956.

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