Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.
The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian, as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.
The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.
The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.
— Maged Atiya
“Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack.” Emanuel Celler
The old man came to Columbia College, his Alma Mater, in 1972. His long and illustrious political career was now on the rocks.. Emanuel Celler had been serving in the US House of Representatives since 1923, and now fifty years later, the young revolutionaries of Columbia saw fit to jeer him and hope for his defeat. The immigrant student had to come to his talk out of curiosity; he had just found out about the so-called Celler-Hart act of 1965. The act eliminated barriers to immigration from “brown countries”, and he was one of the first beneficiaries of that act after it came into effect in 1968. In 1929, as a young man, Celler made an impassioned speech defending the right of dark skinned people to immigrate to America, and remake themselves as Americans. At Columbia of that day the sympathies were with his challenger, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Holtzman, who spoke of the rights of women, and attacked Celler for his unreconstructed maleness. Celler did himself no favor in his talk. A man of German heritage, and mixed Catholic and Jewish religion, he seemed stiff, distant, and even arrogant. The times were changing and Celler, a liberal, was now considered insufficiently advanced. Few remembered his prescient insistence that the US should open its doors to European Jews in the early 1940s. Most noted his gruff rejection of the increasingly fashionable “rainbow” construction of immigration. Celler believed that immigrants should be welcomed and made to assimilate. In the end, Holtzman would win the Democratic primary. Celler could still have kept his seat running under the Liberal party banner, but he was spent. He quit. It is said that he spoke to a small audience in Brooklyn and proclaimed to have no regrets, having achieved his life’s ambition of making immigration equitable across races and religions.
Celler lived to a venerable old age, and passed away 35 years before a major political party would nominate for the office of President a low-rent would-be McCarthy, and immigrant basher to boot.
— Maged Atiya
What if Israel held back in June of 1967 and the tensions tied down?
That war started a cascade of events that still shape the current Middle East. It is impossible to sort out all the various threads and counterfactual alternatives had the war not happened. The best we can do is focus on a few of the broader issues.
It is not fanciful to say that the war killed Nasser. Stress from dealing with the defeat, and its after effects, such as the 1970 “Black September” Jordanian civil war, shortened the life of the man. He passed away at 52, a very young age by the current standard of Middle Eastern autocrats. Where would Egypt, and the broader region, be if he lived to ripe old age, or even into his 60s. One possibility is that Nasser would have finally given in to Soviet pressure to move Egypt so close to its orbit as to be another Cuba. Nasser would be an aging Castro, and Cairo would sport traffic jams with 1950s American cars. Equally likely Nasser would have not given in, as his entire political and emotional persona was tied up with keeping “foreign” bases out of Egypt. An opening to the US would have been in the offing for a couple of reasons. First, the 1968 election in the US brought in Nixon; Henry Kissinger’s sponsor. The two men would have itched to deliver a strategic blow to the Soviet Union. Second, Nasser did not replace Zakaria Mohieddin (America’s man among the Free Officers) as Vice President until after the 1968 student riots. He brought in Sadat to appease the Islamists. Had Zakaria remained close to Nasser he would have likely pushed for better relations with America, and perhaps economic liberalization to offset the stagnation of the mid 1960s. There were also other forces at work. By 1967 Arabism was failing Nasser and tiring him. The Yemen conflict with Saudi Arabia was economically debilitating. The relations with Algeria, Iraq and Syria all had deteriorated. He had already made enemies of most of the other Arab countries. He was also fearful of any penetration of the Army by the Muslim Brotherhood. Without Arabism or Islamism to provide the outline of policy, Nasser was likely to fall back on the Egyptianism of the 1920s, with its deeply Anti-Arab sentiments. The closest actual historical parallel would be South Korea of the 1960s. Would authoritarian Egyptianism have been tamed into something resembling a liberal order? Perhaps, especially if an opening to the West occasioned liberalization of the economy.
What would have happened to Palestine had the West Bank remained in Jordanian hands? It is possible that King Hussein, ever the wily operator, would have moved to create a confederation that would ultimately result in a friendly Palestinian state, especially as Nasser’s Arabism cooled and the need to use the refugee issue against Israel lessened. It is also possible that the rising Palestinian population within Jordan would have de-stabilized the Hashemite Kingdom. In both cases, the Palestinian national aspirations would have found a better outcome.
Beyond Egypt and Palestine, the 1967 war helped the rise to power of a wily General by the name of Hafez Al Assad. If he remained an army man from a small Latakia clan, Syria would have evolved in a very different direction. The messy politics post union with Egypt would likely have taken a very Lebanese direction. Lebanon, in turn, could also have averted its civil war, which was the outcome of the increased Palestinian population in the country, and meddling by the Syrian regime.
And what of Israel? Where would the country be had it not won a major victory that boosted its pride, enlarged its borders and altered its politics. Would it have emerged as an economic powerhouse in the region anyway, or would the Labor party have kept it a narrowly socialist economy? Would the country have retained the left-of-center ethos of the early Zionists, or in time moved rightward anyway? What would be the evolution of an Israel; smaller, within less secure borders, less cocky and in the shadow of a less hostile Egypt?
But of course the 1967 war did happen. The last half century brought momentous changes to the region. Will the next half century be spent in reversing those changes, or ameliorating their effects? We may never know the answer, until June 4 2067.
— Maged Atiya
No two men could be more different than President Obama and GOP candidate Donald Trump. “Superego” and “Id” seem to have been invented to describe the two men. One is given to cerebral reflections and restrained behavior, the other to verbal emissions and tantrums. Yet remarkably when it comes to the Middle East, they seem to converge. The reader who doubts this should answer the following questions. Which of the two men complained about erstwhile Gulf allies as “free riders” or “they don’t pay their share”? Which of the two men called the Libyan engagement a “shit show” or “a disaster”? Which of the two men felt that Putin’s Russian adventure is Syria will “exhaust them” or “let them do the fighting”? Which of the two men confesses support for Israel but would like “to consider the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians” or “be even handed”?
As far as Middle East policy, the current US field of aspiring Presidents divides neatly into two camps. Those who echo the conventional wisdom of the “foreign policy establishment” and those who view its recommendations with deep suspicion and unease. Obama and Trump belong to the latter camp. To the mind of this observer this is an overdue correction. As a matter of empirical evidence, the US attempted a variety of policies in the region, and all came to bitter ends. It supported authoritarian leaders and revolutions and is left with the theoretical argument as which of these two groups are responsible for state collapse. It placed a massive army in Iraq to remove a hated dictator and democratize it. It did no such thing in Syria. It split the difference in Libya. It let allies handle the situation in Yemen. None of the above are examples of success. What is a super power to do with region that abhors both its involvement and indifference?
There is fatigue in the land with the intractable problems of the Middle East, and perhaps a desire to forget or ignore such problems. The Republic has been intimately involved with the region since its very founding. The involvement was always dual-natured and at times contradictory. The elite force of the US military, the Marines, was created in part to deal with the North African piracy. American missionaries, armed with the Protestant zeal and affection for the “Holy Land”, came to the region in the 1850s and built schools and universities that educated generations of intellectuals, journalists, and political leaders. Most exhibited a baffling combination of admiration, attraction, resentment, anger and hostility to America. The theorists of both Arabism and post-colonialism are closer to their American object of derision than to their own people. American soldiers and spies have been even less successful than teachers and preachers in building anything of lasting value. Most Americans are not well versed in the details of Middle East history and policy, but they do recognize a bad deal when they see one. Few are as upset by Obama’s distant shrug and are unlikely to be moved by arguments from the usual Middle East experts. Trump’s policy of a slammed door is harsh, yet more than a few are willing to give it a try. Middle East governments spend handsomely to affect American policy, and are likely to have a return as impressive as that of Jeb Bush’s donors. Whether good or bad, fair or unfair does not matter. While Obama and Trump advise these governments to take up the mantle and clean up the mess in their backyards, one suspects that they are unable and unwilling to do so.
There is no resolution or cure for this fatigue. Maybe it will pass, or maybe it will not. If the next President is from the “ignore them” camp then he will not pay a steep political price for that view. If the next President is from the “engaged and involved” camp, she will likely find no political rewards in that path. In that sense, Obama and Trump, in their very different ways, point to the future.
— Maged Atiya
The immigrant boy filled out the school enrollment forms in block letters. The form labeled “ESL” had a space for declaration of the native language. He left it vacant. It is tempting to paint a dramatic scene of a profession of faith where the boy declares English to be his true mother tongue and thrice insists “I do not know this language” about Arabic. But the reality was that he was simply eager to move on quietly. Many hands participated in this linguistic matricide, but chief among them was Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, who passed away a few days ago. Many have tried to locate Heikal as a journalist, or an opinion maker or a government official. He was all three, but mostly he was a writer of fiction made believable by his own fervid faith in it.
For a boy coming to grips with literacy in 1960s Egypt Al Ahram was required reading, and its editor, the aforementioned Heikal, held court several times a week with an opinion column. A memory, in a Proustian knock-off way, is of the smell of freshly baked cookies with date filling wafting from the neighbor’s apartment. The generous patriarch took a liking to the boy and often invited him to share. On the invariably sunny days of Egypt the man sat in the balcony reading Al Ahram and commenting on Heikal’s column with a red pencil. But that was Egypt then, and one could not be sure that a discarded newspaper will not be picked up by a Zabal who moonlighted for the secret police. So uncle Thabet made his comments in his own secret code; daggers, double crosses, circles with arrows and triangles with bars. Every edition was a palimpsest of Quotidian Egypt with the red cuneiforms of honestly felt views laid over the black print of the newspaper. And so it went as Arabic was inseparably linked to the lie called Arabism. Arabic became a language reflexively understood, reluctantly spoken and on occasions even harshly denounced.
A decade later the young college student trying to navigate the treacherous and alien currents of America’s 1970s experiment in all manners of freedom, both laudable and dangerous, still found time to obtain a copy of Al Ahram to jeer at Heikal’s column, only to leave unsatisfied. His opinions came out less frequently, and the new boss was a one-man theatrical troupe who needed no bard. It is embarrassing to say that when news of Heikal’s arrest came in the fall of 1981 one strove to think of him as an Edmond Dantes deprived of pen and paper and furtively writing on the cell walls with whatever implements or excretions on hand. In fact he was released quickly and continued to ply his trade with great energy and to great fame.
Obituaries for Heikal describe him, in one way or another, as Poet Laureate of Nasser world. But Heikal, who was a few years younger than Nasser, lived nearly twice as long. He had an entire lifetime to show otherwise, and failed to do so. We must then judge Nasser as the smiling enforcer of Heikal world. This author professes no attraction to eulogies, nor faith in the afterlife. But if there is an afterlife we must hope that Heikal is consigned to heaven, for there he will be condemned to the eternal company of those that the presumed creator has deemed to be truth tellers.
— Maged Atiya
“Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic, in Africa and in Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of the Jews, who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny, which even so has never been able to destroy your name of your existence as a nation ……
Rightful heirs of Palestine!
My great nation, which does not trade in human beings or in countries, as did those who sold your fathers into slavery in other nations, herewith calls upon you, not to conquer your inheritance, but to receive only that which has already been conquered, so that you can remain there as ruler, under our guarantee, and will defend it against all foreigners”(1)
Or so went the declaration by the Corsican General, not yet 30 years of age, allegedly made in Jerusalem on Passover day 1799. Historians have never been able to confirm the authenticity of this claim. The original declaration in French was never found, and Napoleon was never in Jerusalem. On the other hand, many other substantiating documents exist, including discussions in the Directory. There is, most famously, a German translation smuggled to England just prior to WWII, as the Viennese rabbinical family that owned it was set to escape Hitler. That has been alleged to be a forgery. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rumor in Egypt that a Jewish family owned a Hebrew copy signed by Napoleon himself. But the source of the rumor could have been many of the Nazi fugitives who lived in Egypt then. Yet a number of historians have concluded that something like this document could have easily been in Napoleon’s mind as he marched from Egypt to punish the ruler of Acre, Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar (The Butcher). The bloody and cantankerous man had smuggled an Ottoman firman to Egypt a few months prior which caused the Cairo riots of October 1798. Ahmed Pasha was known to be partial to sectarian killings, having started his reign in the Levant by sealing Christians into the walls of Beirut. When the French approached his walls he rounded up all the Christians of Acre, killed them and tossed their bodies over the wall. His reasons were not entirely murderous. The Christians, Jews, Druze and Shi’a of the Levant were collaborating with Napoleon in his effort to topple the Ottoman Empire. There is plenty of documented evidence that the French General promised small independent Cantons to all the diverse religious groups of the region. Napoleon landed in Egypt with a clear dream. He would build a new oriental empire on the ashes of the Ottoman shambles. Egypt would be its vanguard, Islam its ideology, and the Levant pacified by subdivision into vassal states. “Little Europe” was too small for him. A century before the Ottoman demise, the Frenchman had in mind a “post-Ottoman” order. Napoleon’s vision was a less democratic version of the nascent United States. A constellation of states which would emerge independently from a French culture, but still owe more than a passing resemblance to it. His dreams of an oriental empire faded before the walls of Acre, and as his army swept back to Egypt, a multitude of Levantine Christian refugees joined it to escape the revenge of the Butcher. The scene of the “Shawam” escaping the chaos of their homeland to Egypt would be repeated many times in the next two centuries. By a cruel irony, the French army entered Egypt on June 5 1799, and upon this occasion and on this date the great General declared his loss a victory.
There was another vision for the region, one rarely taken up by recent historians. It starts with an equally talented and remarkable, but lesser known, General Louis Desaix, Almost the same age as Napoleon, and possibly more original and daring. Desaix had all of Napoleon’s skill and energy, but little of his near mystical ambition and self-regard. He accompanied Napoleon on the expedition to Egypt, before dying in Italy in 1800. In late 1798 he set out from Cairo to chase one of the previous rulers of Egypt, Murad Bey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Imbaba. Desaix was to travel as far south as the first cataract, at the head of the first European army to do so since the Romans. The Mamlukes outnumbered and outgunned Desaix, and knew the country better. Yet he won every encounter with brilliant military tactics and the unswerving dedication and love of his troops. His feats of generalship remain little noted. It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of another remarkable man, Mu’allam Ya’qub. Ya’qub was Murad’s deputy and tax collector; not an unusual profession for a Copt at the time. Murad was “Sheik Al Hajj”, but it was Ya’qub who managed the complex task of organizing the caravans to Mecca, some from as far away as West Africa. It was Desaix who persuaded Ya’qub to switch sides, and he proved a great asset. He ran an intelligence network on the movements and location of the Mamluke armies. He sealed the Red Sea ports against the influx of warriors from Arabia, who flocked to the promise of killing infidels, but stayed to pillage Egyptians of all religions. Sometime between 1799 and 1801 Ya’qub cooked up a daring and wholly new idea; creating a nation-state out of Egypt, totally unconnected to any empire and lacking any affiliation to a larger Muslim or Arab identity. He formed a “Coptic Legion”, boarded a ship for Europe in 1801 to argue for an independant Egypt in the courts of Europe, but died soon after. His legion would distinguish itself in the Napoleonic wars and its descendants would continue to live in France to this day.
Ya’qub’s friend Desaix made three seminal contributions to Egypt, a country he seemed to like well-enough but without the hysterical passions of Napoleon. First he thinned the ranks of the Mamluke warlords and their militias, making it possible for Muhammad Ali to eradicate them a little more than a decade later. The credit for ridding Egypt of the vicious military caste that ruled over it for over 500 years and nearly brought total destruction on it, goes to both the French soldier and the Albanian Wali. Second, he brought forth a vision of governance unknown to Egyptians at the time. Napoleon enjoyed the title of “Al Sultan Al Kebir” (the Great Ruler), while the peasants of the countryside gave Desaix the title “Al Sultan Al ‘Adil” (The Just Ruler). Desaix’ vision of capable government and justice administered without regard to wealth or religion remains an elusive but inviting reality in today’s Egypt. Finally Desaix gave protection and support to many Savants, especially the artist Vivant Denon, who made the first reliable and extensive sketches of Egyptian antiquities. When he arrived back in Cairo in the heat of July 1799, the Savant could do little but speak of the greatness of what he saw and the fact that it preceded European civilization by centuries. In Denon and Ya’qub we detect the first stirrings of an Egyptian nationalism that held the nation to be an exceptional phenomenon, and the visible and indelible markings of religion and language as merely superficial aspects of a deeper essential self (2). That vision holds some promise but also a dark underbelly, and to this date it remains neither able to fulfill the promise nor capable of totally riding itself of its sense of injury and anger.
As the region remakes itself it is worth considering the lessons of more than two centuries ago, although we should gird ourselves for a likely disappointment.
— Maged Atiya
1- As collated by Paul Strathern in “Napoleon in Egypt”
2- Louis ‘Awad did much to revive Ya’qub’s reputation. Islamists are fond of pointing out his defense of the Coptic quarter of Cairo against the mob as evidence of his “sectarian agenda”.
No, not that one of 2011. The January revolution that comes to mind is that of 17-19 of January 1977. Thousands poured into the streets to protest the rise of subsidized bread prices. The police fled, and the panicked President asked the Army for help in quelling the chaos in Alexandria and parts of Cairo. If revolutions are to be measured by their results, then this was a profound and often forgotten event. Let us enumerate a few of its after effects.
Sadat in a panic over a lack of dividend for the impressive showing in the October 1973 war, and fearful of a US sponsored talk fest on peace in the Middle East, took matters into his own hand and eventually initiated direct talks with Israel. The result was an upending of the “Arab order” that still resonates to this day, in the hopelessness of building a Palestinian national state, the disintegration of the Levant and the rise of Saudi Arabia as the paranoid hegemon of the region.
The riots firmed Sadat’s desire to find allies among the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a fateful decision for him, and for the battered country he ruled. In the last days of his life he would realize the error of believing that the Brotherhood, and its allies, would seek anything less than the entire pie. That lesson seems to have been forgotten 34 years later, and with bloody consequences for the country.
The riots convinced the Egyptian political elites that subsidies for the poor were an evil necessity and can not be touched; the third rail of Egyptian politics, as it were. This conviction condemned the country to further three decades of authoritarian economic stagnation. Ironically, the attempt to reverse this in the decade before 2011 which was bearing some fruits in economic growth, came to an effective end in 2011.
Shortly after the events of 1977 Tahseen Bashir remarked that “Egypt is the only country in the Arab world, the rest are tribes with flags”. The son of Egyptian aristocracy was paraphrasing a widespread feeling among those of his class during the early 20th century. They believed there were only two civilizations in the region, Egyptian and Persian. The irony of today is that both countries continue to struggle with the demons of their nationalism and religion sapping their potential greatness, while the “tribes” have fragmented even further.
It is not quaint historicism to recall the January 1977 revolution, for the next revolution in Egypt is likely to resemble the 1977 events rather than the 2011.
— Maged Atiya