America – Where the Wild Things Are

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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

 


A New Church For An Ancient Church

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Copts have hundreds of liturgies throughout the year. Few are as moving as the Good Friday liturgies and one of its center pieces is a hymn called “Pek-ethronos” or “Your Throne”. The hymn is a single sentence from Psalm 45 “Your Throne, God, is Forever”. But the hymn typically lasts close to 20 minutes of praise on the darkest day of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is less a song than an audible play of opposites, death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. Strange as it may sound to Western ears (Herodotus’ claim about the strangeness of the Egyptians comes to mind), to most Copts it is a full encapsulation of their history, which is hardly surprising. Except for its early history, and recent times, the Church encoded its theology in hymns and liturgies, rather than commit it to scholarly books. Such thoughts come to mind on hearing liturgies read for the first time in a new Church. This particular one, nearly the 250th Church in 50 years of immigration, is located the East Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the so-called “Silk Stocking District”. The genesis of that single Church is a reflection, writ small, of Christianity as it enters its third millenia.

The Church, a designated landmark, was built in 1886 for the prosperous burghers of German descent in what was rapidly becoming the home of the wealthy of New York, less than 3 square miles dense with museums, schools, cultural centers, Churches and elegant mansions and apartments. As new waves of immigrants came, the Church changed its character, becoming home to Irish and then Italian Catholics, as our “Lady of Peace” Church. Aging population and declining attendance forced the Catholic Church to merge the parish into another and lease the Church to the Copts, while negotiations are ongoing for outright purchase (on occasion involving both Pope Francis I and Tawadros II). All New York stories, as they say, are about real estate. The celebration of the Copts was a stark contrast to the previous image of the Church as a hushed place of worship sometimes sparsely attended by the older faithful. The Copts overflowed the pews with entire families, mostly young, many with children adding what the parish priest, Father Gregory, called the “sound, not of noise, but of growth”.  But the deeper backstory to this small event is a large one, about the destinies of Eastern and Western Christianity, the differing threats they face, their changing relationship, and finally the fortunes of the Copts both in Egypt and outside it.

No Coptic Church event in America these days fails to reference the suffering of Egyptian Copts, especially those events that tell of the dynamism and good fortune of the American Church. The most recent instance was symbolized by seven killings and a funeral. The killings were brutal door-to-door murders that successfully removed all Copts from the North of Sinai. The funeral was that of the “Blind Sheikh”, a man who dedicated his life to hate and mayhem, first of his fellow Egyptians, Muslims but especially Copts, and finally Americans who had given him refuge in their country. He died in prison of old age, but his funeral in Egypt was a raucous celebration and chilling reminder of the hold his angry and murderous vision still has on many Egyptians. Meanwhile in the Church on the East side of Manhattan, the presiding Bishop, Anba David, gave the assembled throng a brief sketch of how this new Church came to be. His friendship with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, was forged two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of 21 Copts in Libya. The idea of obtaining a Catholic Church building for the use of Manhattan Copts germinated at a memorial service for the murdered men. In this case, the blood of the Martyrs was indeed the seed of the Church. Further assistance came from Pope Francis I, who waved aside the usual theological and historical differences between the Catholic and Orthodox rites to claim a unity and “ecumenism of blood”. It is possible to see the actions of Francis as that of a powerful Church lending support to a persecuted one. It is also possible to see it differently, that Francis wishes to revive his Church by reminding its members of the power of faith and hope as demonstrated by the persecuted Eastern Christians, as indeed he did by quoting the Coptic monk and theologian,  Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor) to the Curia on December 22 2016.

The event at the Coptic Church ended with a short speech by an early immigrant, a member of the “Class of 1969”, who reminded those attending it of how, less than fifty years ago when liturgies were usually heard in private homes, this event would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Those not attending it, however, can also use such a reminder. The 21th Century, still young, has already delivered plenty of carnage, hate and reasons to fear that established good orders are at risk from negligence, malice or indolence. As with the message of the Good Friday hymn, hope, however naive in the presence of adversity, remains the most potent force to overcome it.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Of Migrants and Immigrants

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One day, millions of men will leave the Southern Hemisphere to go to the Northern Hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory. Houari Boumediene

Many of the news stories about the tragic capsizing of a boat off the Northern coast of Egypt accurately described the passengers and victims as “migrants”. Increasingly the flow of human souls from the Near East and Africa represents more migration than immigration. The difference is vaster than the subtle phonetic differences. Migrants are pushed by local disturbances to seek work and survival in other lands, regardless of the land, as long as it welcomes them. Immigrants have a fixed destination and while they seek a “better” life, the definition of “better” is often broader than mere survival. For the lands that receive them the differences are also large and important.

Immigration carries with it the hope of integration, assimilation and acculturation. This process is rarely painless but almost always beneficial, for the immigrants and the societies that receive them. Migrants carry the hope of returning to their homelands once the emergencies subside or sufficient material wealth is accumulated. For them assimilation and acculturation are both highly undesirable, as they would render the migrants alien when they return to their homelands. Some changes are bound to occur, but invariably reluctantly and with psychic violence. Often the migrants stay well beyond their expectations. The compromises of the fathers are visited on the sons who remain the sole inhabitants of a cultural gulag, prisoners to their fathers’ dashed hopes of return, and eager to prove themselves to a world they have never inhabited and are wont to romanticize.

The current debate about “immigration” in Europe and America sometimes misses the point. The problem is not immigration but migration. If it can be ascertained that the new arrivals desire a final destination for their travels and a new start for their dreams, then we can be sure that, in time, they will weave themselves into the tapestry of the new land. But such matters are hard to discern and the lines between migrants and immigrants are often blurry. Some migrants are enchanted by their new lands and effectively turn into immigrants. Some immigrants may find the new land harsh and difficult and turn into migrants, or worse, exiles. Matters are made worse by leaders on all sides. Some package easy national solutions indistinguishable from simple bigotry. Others are unable to see that tolerance should not be extended to habits and ideas that burst the old lands into flames. But what to do, given that extremes have the loudest megaphones and with the most simplistic and easy to accept messages?

The answer, as always easier said than done, is to stem migration and encourage immigration. The first is done by stabilizing the lands disgorging themselves of migrants. Such stabilization is rarely easy, and is often thwarted by the usual conundrum of the better being the enemy of good. The dreams of “regime change”, often directed at the weakest regimes, out of necessity, are to be curbed and made subject to rigorous analysis of cost/benefits beyond simple outrage at the outrageous. The second is done by adherence to the bedrock values that have made many countries, especially in the West, a haven to the beleaguered. Chief among those values is tolerance. The root of that very word is Latin for “supporting” and “enduring”. This means that while accepting new immigrants we must assert that the values that opened the doors for them can not be subverted by any beliefs they bring along, and that we will work to see our values endure.

— Maged Atiya


Thanksgiving 1969

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There is a rich history of immigrant tales about the first Thanksgiving in America. It is never too much to add more. This tale dates to 1969 in the picture-perfect snowy Rockies.

The Thanksgiving menu, clipped from a newspaper, was spread on the kitchen table and the family hunched over it like the general staff of a beleaguered army.  If one of the boys had doubts about the upcoming enterprise he did not voice them. There were reasons for skepticism, as Mother’s years of commanding others in the kitchen made her a Field Marshal bereft of troops to man the trenches, and ready to draft the entire family to her aid. The exoticism of the menu meant that she would fight on unfamiliar terrain. Turkey is not unknown in Egypt, but its name (Deek Roumi or Thracian Rooster*) hints at its less than fulsome acceptance by the population. It did not help that a frozen one was obtained late in the game, with its innards hard and solid inside it. The youngest boy was sat on a stool in the kitchen with a hair dryer to defrost it. For hours he pointed the dryer at the bird like a gun, staring at it with the grim determination of a hostage taker. There was a hearty debate as to whether yams, a favorite of the working-class fair goers in Egypt, should be included. In the end they were allowed reluctantly, but as a step-child  largely ignored in the oven till they burned to a crisp. Cranberry sauce was attempted with the skill honed with handling chemistry sets, and occasional cherry bomb making. But in the last minute adults intervened adding more sugar to the tart brew which simply made it boil over in a volcanic eruption that left a Jackson Pollock on the kitchen wall. With things going badly, it was finally decided to fight with known tactics. A large tray of macaroni with Bechamel sauce was brought to the battle. One would like to credit this event as starting the peculiar practice of Egyptian immigrants serving baked macaroni at Thanksgiving. But it is possible that great minds arrive at the same end independently. The recommended desserts, Pumpkin and Pecan pie, were abandoned in favor of native Egyptian versions. The entire battle  necessitated the presence of two large fans to clear the house of smoke.

The last part of the American menu featured a large family gathering, something exceedingly difficult to find at that moment and in that place. Finally a young doctor and his wife were obtained for the requisite role. Father would give detailed street directions on the phone, alerting them to the presence of black ice and snow mounds as it had snowed a couple of days before. He concluded by saying “we are the green house a few meters behind the Bar-Lev line of snow”. The couple arrived on time, their VW Beetle wheezing up the hill.  The young wife took one look at the set table and began to cry. It reminded her of how much she missed her family. She spent the meal fighting back tears and discreetly blowing her nose at opportune moments. But before the meal can start, a long-distance call was placed to Egypt. These calls were arranged in advance then , and timed to last 3 minutes, hardly enough time for the copious Egyptian greetings. At the 2:59 mark the gruff voice of the male operator barged in yelling “kefaya ya effendi“.  That was simply the occasion for Father’s show of power and diplomatic skill to stretch the call to nearly twice its length, enough time for all to yell their greetings and best wishes.

The meal came to an unexpected end. A few American acquaintances stopped in for dessert. They came bearing Pecan and Pumpkin pies, whose color and consistency made the Egyptians suspiciously avoid them, at least until the next day when the first tentative forks started a lifetime of love with the native staples. But the Americans were not bashful. After a quick prayer, including a mention of the Latter Day Saints Church, they took heartily to the Egyptian desserts and polished them off.  Their uninvited, but not unwelcome, arrival set the tone for how the strange new land will be made home.

— Maged Atiya

* Grateful to Hussein Omar for the correction.


“Motherland Lost”

The Egyptian writer and intellectual Salama Moussa wrote toward the end of his life “I returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church with affection, finding in her our tormented and broken history“. It is an odd statement from a man who was a confirmed atheist, a believer in scientific progress, a frequent castigator of superstition in all religions, and one who espoused the “National” project of the intra-war years which sought to downplay religious identity in favor of a larger Egyptian identity. But we need not see this statement as an expression of regret, nor a conversion, nor even a tragic thought, but rather as a succinct definition of the existential realities of Copts in Egypt, of the inevitability of ending up a Copt even if a larger and more universal identity is sought and seemingly achieved.

Nor were such sentiments limited to an intellectual such as Moussa. Rushdi Said (1920-2013), the eminent Egyptian geologist, who took up geology at the recommendation of Salama Moussa, and who did much to map Egypt’s natural resources in the 20th century, also expressed similar feelings.  A thoroughly secular Copt who rose high in government service in the 1960s and 1970s (but never as high as his talents would warrant) wrote in his autobiography “Science and Politics in Egypt” of how he always felt as “the other”, and how in the terrible summer of 1981, at age 61, he was forced to immigrate to the US because Sadat accused him of agitating for a Coptic state. In the last three decades of his life he began to come to grips with his Coptic identity, even as he and his family became ever more estranged from Egypt. In a moving episode that only real life can provide, Rushdi Said’s favorite and close brother was a convert to Islam.

Samuel Tadros’  “Motherland Lost, The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity” is in many ways a restatement of Moussa’s declaration. It is an excellent book, but one that is difficult to classify. It warrants multiple readings on account of its kaleidoscopic nature. It is not a history of the Copts, although it provides a precise and scholarly thumbnail of 2000 years of their unique history. It is not a work of political science, although any scholar of Egypt’s recent turbulent history would benefit enormously from reading it. It is a work of intellectual history of Egypt’s struggle with modernity, and although claiming to focus on the Copts, it in fact provides great many insights into the nature and origin of political Islamism. Its most powerful appeal is more universal than just the “Coptic question”, as it is a meditation on identity from a young scholar who remains in search of an ultimate destination, having made the arc from the political left to the right and yet retained a principled belief in liberalism. He is of that generation of young Egyptians who were born after the last Egyptian-Israeli war when Egypt was exhausted by wars and grandiose projects and ready to settle for long decades of dull authoritarian governance. These Egyptians grew in the monochrome decades when all presidents were Mubarak, all political opposition was frivolous or Islamist and all Popes were named Shenouda. It is heartening that there are young Egyptians such as Tadros, and many others, who look beyond the facade and try an understanding of Egypt’s painful history.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first deals with the rise of Christianity in Egypt and the second of how Copts fared under Islam. In 47 pages the author provides a readable summary of these monumental events which, although it breaks no new grounds, is useful for the general reader who is unfamiliar with the pre-modern history of Egypt. The next four chapters (chapters three through six) deal with Egypt’s modernization project and form the heart of the book. Tadros restates this history in a fresh way, and one that will guarantee years of discussion and attempts at rebuttal. Such rebuttals will have to face the thorough research and solid reasoning of these chapters.

The chapters describe the four features of the modernization project that has condemned it to failure leaving Egypt slipping further behind the advanced West. First, the project was imposed on the mass of Egyptians by the ruler’s fiat, leaving them unconvinced and suspicious of its motives. Second, the propagators of the project were never independent actors but always relied on the ruler’s vision of modernity thus creating an elite class that justified authoritarianism in the service of development. Third, the search for modernity demanded a new “Egyptian” identity that transcended the religious divide between Muslim and Copts. That attempt, while laudable in goal, did in fact back fire, thus allowing the project of political Islam to seize both the initiative and the imagination of many in the country, yet provide no blue print for governance and development. Fourth, that those identified as “liberals” in Egypt lack a commitment to liberal principles and, in fact, are always ready to sacrifice such principles for immediate gains. Tadros attacks the myth of the “liberal age” in Egypt head on, insisting that it was never as liberal as it is often described, and that the ills of military rule and political Islamism were in fact its progeny as well as it enemies. Even for those not inclined to agree with this thesis, the rich details in those chapters represent an enlightening exposition of Egypt’s modern history.

This is a damning and somewhat pessimistic picture. The trouble is that it is difficult to dismiss. Tadros wrote his book well before the removal of President Morsi, so now much of it appears prophetic. He provides an accurate diagnosis of the disease but no ready remedy. The January 2011 revolution was, for him, doomed by its lack of solid ideas and a plan, yet the regime it attempted to overthrow was also doomed by its contradictions and sclerosis. Tadros is not the man to seek for a rosy prognosis. But again, perhaps a rosy prognosis is not what Egypt most needs today.

The last chapter deals with the Coptic modernization movements, especially the Sunday School movement, and how the Copts fared in Egypt as Islamists began to set the social agenda. Egyptians are constantly looking for external models of authentic development. For example, the so-called “Turkish model” was popular for a bit of time before it showed its cracks. Ironically the most relevant modernization effort might exist immediately at hand with the example of the Copts who have managed an imperfect but more or less workable modernization effort. The trouble is that through these efforts the Copts acquired, in a fit of absent-mindedness as it were, a national identity. That identity is so closely linked with the historical ancient Egyptian identity that it remains both a beacon and a threat. Almost every demonstration by Copts today includes the intertwining of the pagan Ankh with the Christian Cross, which makes it easy for Islamist to paint a sinister picture of their demands for religious freedom and respect for their identity as an attempt at “forming their own state”. The increased immigration has created a large number of non-Egyptian Copts who have a strong attachment to both this identity as well as loyalty to their newly adopted countries. The agitation of these immigrant Copts is particularly galling for Islamists, who have singled these “Aqbat Al Mahgar” for special abuse and as the targets of ludicrous conspiracy theories. Egyptians have yet to accept something resembling the always-evolving American settlement of identity issues. The Islamist are especially keen to prevent Egyptians from assuming multiple overlapping identities. It is easy to conclude after reading that the chapter that the problems Copts face in Egypt today are manifestations of a larger national problem, acting, in effect, as “canaries in the mine”. It is easy for “experts” to get Egypt wrong if the country is viewed solely through the lens of strategic relationships and larger Middle Eastern issues.

The conclusion of the book “The Bitterness of leaving, The Peril of staying” provides no easy resolution. It anticipates a day when the center of gravity of the Coptic Church might shift outside Egypt, yet the Copts’ identity remains firmly Egyptian. It is inconceivable that they might replicate the fate of Jews, but immigration always beckons with the pull of opportunity and the push of persecution. The reality of course is that Egypt is not about to become empty of Copts, especially as political Islam does not seek their physical elimination. More painful than contemplating how Copts might fare when shorn of Egypt is the thought of how Egypt might fare when shorn of the Copts.

— Maged Atiya