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.
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”.
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.
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
A man in the religion business issued a Fatwa declaring it permissible to keep antiquities as long as it is done with proper tithing. This has outraged many. As Fatwas go, this is a pointless one; about as useful as urging a diet of meat on a lion. Egyptians have taken to robbing the tombs of their ancestors since time immemorial. As soon as a ruler or a rich man is laid in his grave the treasures within attracted the attention of the next ruler or quick witted and daring thief. As late as the 1970s Hussein Abdel Rasul reigned supreme in his family compound in Gourna. The wiry, sharp-eyed patriarch entertained his guests with grace and charm, ordering coffee, tea and sweets for them without so much as a word or gesture. His minions bustled around eager for his favor or fearful of his wrath, it was never clear. Ali was not given to anger, except when it came to the matter of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whom he faulted for having his grandfather beaten for robbing tombs. Decades after that event he still seethed that his grandfather was undone and humiliated for engaging in the family business. Ali usually neglected to mention that it was his great uncles who betrayed their sibling. The point of this anecdote is that the Fatwa was scarcely needed to assuage the conscience of current tomb robbers. The real purpose was to fire yet another shot in Egypt’s culture war.
Scientist and public official Rushdi Sa’id noted in his memoirs that in 1953 he could not convince a simple farmer that he is “related” to the builders of the monuments that surrounded his field. They were after all pagan and evil, according to the farmer. Sa’id, an educated member of the elite who mentions how an English woman favorably compared his physiognomy to a statue in the British museum, was keen to establish the connection as a way to promote progress and elevate the nation. Like many nationalists of his time Sa’id was a firm Egyptianist, and an uncompromising enemy of Islamism. He notes how, given its history of invasions, Egypt can not be isolated to a single ethnic or cultural thread, but according to the logic of his Egyptianism the conclusion is that Egypt, and its river and soil, sublimates all, making them Egyptian beyond doubt. This mysticism of blood and soil has been a useful weapon against outsiders, and increasingly against proponents of political Islam. But it has done little to provide a vision of a common national project. Its gaze is so firmly fixed on the past that it regularly stumbles among the pitfalls of the present. It has certainly allowed Islamists easy victories through simple pandering. Sa’id’s failure to convince the farmer echoes more than 60 years later in the current controversy. Zahi Hawas, a pseudo-Egyptologist and a reality star, claimed that the Fatwa is illogical, since the state has rights on anything in its lands. To the sin of being tone-deaf, he added a measure of coercive statism. In fact, it is the Fatwa issuer who seems more logical, arguing that he has not encouraged anyone to rob tombs, but to simply take what is in their lands, and use some of its proceeds for charity. This clever refrain should not blind us to his real purpose. Others pointed out that the objects are the heritage of all of Egypt, without checking whether the majority would in fact agree with that statement. What was left unsaid is the real reason why antiquities should be preserved, even going to the length of paying those who find them. These artifacts belong to a common culture, one that transcends Egypt and belongs to all of humanity. To say so would be the first step to build a national identity on a foundation of shared values, rather than past greatness or imagined kinship.
— Maged Atiya
All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.
What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.
There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.
It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.
— Maged Atiya
Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife. These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money. And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.
The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter. The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.
No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.
— Maged Atiya
The Children of the Promise
Life was getting back to normal, except for the news of fresh fighting at Port Fouad. School was out and the upcoming summer promised to be less cordial than previous ones. Word passed around that the annual vacation in Alexandria is unwise this year. This would mean a long hot summer in Cairo, with the Liddo pool as the only relief. Sunday July 9 was to be like many other Sundays during school holidays. A morning liturgy in the Church followed by an afternoon of Sunday School. But at the last minute there was a change. The favorite Sunday School teacher was not at the Church and a rumor drifted among some of the boys that he could be found at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. Later a few of the boys headed there to find him.
When the boys found their teacher he was volunteering to repair the electrical works in the basement of that Church. Still he decided to hold a impromptu teaching session, which proved to be first of many before the Adventists wised up to his doings and asked him to cease. The chairs were arrayed in a circle as they usually were, and the half dozen boys listened to him explain the meaning of Romans 9:8 “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” He began conventionally enough with a simple assertion, that God’s chosen people were no longer just the physical descendants of the Jews, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Displacing the Jews from a favored status seemed in tune with much of Egypt a month after the war. But he did not stop there. Soon he was encouraging the boys to look beyond what their parents teach them and what their country asks of them. Those who love Christ should love no nation above his message. What you must love above your nation is each other, he insisted. The message must have had a special resonance for him, for within a few months he would reveal his plans to leave for America. He ended the lesson with a wink. “I have a present from America”. On the record player which the Church normally reserved for imported sermons and carols he played a rare and precious commodity, a copy of the “The Doors” recently released album. The boys sat and listened quietly without a sound, as if in prayer. Nearly an hour passed between the first urging to “Break on through to the other side” and the final “This is the End”. For some of them it was a time of precious freedom.
— Maged Atiya
The immigrant’s first reading of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was aloud to an eager child nearly two decades after arriving in America. It struck him immediately that the book, with a minor but critical tweak, could be made a tale of his immigration. The boy in the wolf suit, feeling constrained by his home rules, travels to a land far away. He runs with the Wild Things, roars like them, is terrified and thrilled by them. But in this tale he never becomes homesick, but grows even fonder of the place and stays.
Sometime in the late 1960s when Egypt was a far different place, a man came back from Canada where he had immigrated some years before to speak of his new home and its advantages. He first started by pointing out its flaws. It was devilishly cold at times. Aside from that, it was a great place; tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, decent and full of promise. But his excitement about Canada rose when he began to compare it to the United States. A visit to New York City convinced him that America is unfit for any Egyptians. The streets were patrolled by rats. A trip to experience the Metropolitan Museum was disrupted by the sight of youth cavorting near naked in the fountains in front of it; and even worse, the park behind it was the scene of sexual licentiousness set to music nearly indistinguishable from noise to his ears. The list of horrors grew until the speaker exhausted himself in describing the ills of America compared to Canada. One boy in the audience listened anxiously. His fear was that the account would persuade his parents to change the destination of their impending immigration from America to Canada. As luck would have it, they kept to the plan. It must be said that America lived up to the man’s account, and more. The “more” is a shorthand for all the freedom that America promises in exchange for its madness.
Every 4th of July is a time to celebrate American “exceptionalism”. What is exceptional is not always good or even desirable. What is desirable is often not exceptional, as others too wish it for themselves. What remains astounding about America is that is has survived its contradictions, even if at times it paid for them dearly. Sendak’s land of the “Wild Things” was meant to be eternal, a place of chaos and delight that manages to hold together and beckon to others. Most critics have seen the entire story as a psychological allegory. It may very well be. But so is America. It is a state of mind made actual by everyone’s participation in it. Its flaws are advertised in the most visible fashion and yet it continues to attract. Just to the north of it stands Canada as a reprimand to what America could have been if it had not unreasonably revolted against a relatively mild rule by England (by the standards of the time), and if it had not nearly immolated itself in a violent civil war fought for great ideals. But somehow against great odds the country continued to exist and expand its franchise of freedom. Somehow America brought order out of wildness, decency out of the basest feelings of many of its citizens, common prosperity out of individual selfishness, and reason out of madness. This is something to celebrate and feel uneasy about in equal measures.
— Maged Atiya
The year 1954 saw the establishment of a new state model in Egypt, and one that ran into trouble almost in its infancy. It was a remarkable year. Nasser assumed sole power as President and began a pattern of concentration of decision making at the very top that still holds today. He rose to his position by a combination of public appeals and negotiations among the top leaders of the Army; a template that every leader that followed found to be the necessary means of holding, or in the case of Morsi of losing power. It was the year the Muslim Brotherhood took a lurch toward grabbing power and failed miserably. Nasser started an economic movement based on native production and centralized government planning and system of ever larger public sector and creeping subsidies. Development was to be made with gigantic projects of prestige, such as the High Dam. It was also the year that the government began a massive reprogramming of education, ironically with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood that cashiered the elite of Egyptian university professors from their positions and pensioned off their leader Taha Hussein. It was also the year Nasser started to project Egyptian power onto the local and international scene. The last British soldiers evacuated from the Canal. Egypt was to be a leader of both the Arabs and the “third” and “non-aligned” world.
The failures of the 1954 state were many. Governance in Egypt remains problematic with centralization and repression as its most obvious flaws. Education is in shambles, risking future generations and economic prosperity. The public sector grew larger and more ineffective after the 1961 and 1964 waves of nationalizations. It remains a drag on economic development. Subsidies have created dependence but no prosperity. Egypt still relies unhealthily on foreign aid. It is nearly a rentier state which relies on its “strategic” value to extract support without economic production. Egypt’s bid to lead the Arabs ended in a series of failures: the demise of the union with Syria in 1961, the Yemen war with Saudi Arabia from 1961 to 1967, and finally the shattering defeat in 1967. Its prestige in the wider world is nominal more than real, like an old dowager that everyone respects in spite of her bizarre manner and tatty clothing. Many agreed with this observer’s rather obvious conclusion that President Sisi must pivot away from the 1954 or risk failure. The surprise, if it can be called that, is how the wider Egyptian public seems reluctant to let go of that failing model.
The late Mubarak years were an attempt to shift away from that model, albeit in a clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful manner. While the events of 2011 are always cast as a revolt against authoritarian governance, the reality is that it brought back the two most repressive forces in the Egyptian society, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, setting the stage for an even nastier clash between them than in 1954. The Army was called to power twice by the street in January 2011 and again on June 30 2013. The demand for “social justice” was a thinly veiled reprimand for any sensible effort to free the economy from the shackles of the public sector and ruinous subsidies. Attempts to wean the country from poor economic models are inevitably painful, but are often attacked not based on their merits but as a “cave-in” to the evil foreign bankers at the IMF. Prestige and projection of Egyptian power abroad remain popular no matter how ruinous. The left still tweaks Israel without any visible gain, following the model set by the DMNL since it became a patsy of Nasser in 1952. The “sacredness” of Egyptian land is proclaimed with scant attention to history or fact, most notably in the Tiran and Sanafir islands affair. Little effort is dedicated to cultural and economic progress that can lift the majority from misery and set the stage for civilian government based on civilian politics. Faced with the failures of the 1954 state, many Egyptians seem to yearn for its proclaimed promises without attention to its demonstrated failures.
— Maged Atiya