Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

This is the half-century mark of the large scale immigration of the Copts from Egypt, which began to gather steam in 1968. It is a good time to reflect on this historic phenomenon and its implication for the ancient people, even if it is still ongoing and its impact remains fluid. As always with the Copts, their predicament is a microcosm, a test case, of the larger Egyptian problem. Their evolution in immigration, although interesting for its own sake, contains clues about Egypt at large. We can begin to understand how Egypt might fare if its political and social systems were freer by understanding what happened when Egyptians were suddenly placed in a freer society.

Immigration involves a departure and an arrival, or a “push” and a “pull”. In the case of the Copts, conditions in Egypt provided the push, where both the successes and failures of the Nasserist project were problematic for them. America, Canada and Australia provided the pull through social changes that made these places more hospitable to non-Westerners and changed their laws to allow more immigrants from outside Europe. For example, the Civil Rights revolution in America overturned the emergency quotas of 1921 through the Hart-Celler act of 1965. Canada and Australia underwent similar changes. Immigrants usually undergo a transformation that leaves them with a hyphenated identity to serve their new needs and the circumstances of their new countries. These identities are marked by various levels and types of activism; social, cultural and political. In the case of the Copts these forms of activism took different paths and were marked by differences in acceptance and success. Social and charitable activism proved most successful, in part because it built on pre-existing norms and practices in Egypt. Cultural activism proved weakest reflecting the tragic history of the Copts since the schisms of the 5th century, and more so in the aftermath of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. To keep their faith, the Copts have surrendered every facet of their native culture, language, music, literature, and all arts except icon painting and liturgical music. But it was political activism which proved most flammable and discordant, and in the end was to deeply mark their interaction with their ancestral home, and their evolution in their new homes. This post will attempt a summary of its earliest evolutions and its current uncertain role.

Political activism is usually grounded in some past, at times mythic, and is forged by the present and articulates a vision for a desirable future. For the immigrant-led activism that rose in the early 1970s, the past was a history of loss and dispossession, while the present was a crucible of conflict, and future was an imagined Egypt where the Copts were finally equal citizens. Fifty years later, its vision for Egypt remains unrealized, and perhaps further undermined. Political activism is still the province of a few leaders and with minimal participation from the larger community. It would not be harsh to declare it a failure by its measure of success, and yet influential in unanticipated ways. There are many causes for this outcome, none more vital that the decade-long conflict, from 1971 to 1981, between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda. Many books and articles have described and examined that conflict reliably and credibly. In almost all of them “immigrant Copts” play a role, often portrayed as secondary to the conflict. In fact, they were essential to the conflict, and in many ways served to aggravate it and drive its course. Immigrant Cops played the role of children in a bitter divorce, where the two parents play to the audience of their children for acceptance, support, approval and on occasions even emotional vengeance. This conclusion is not radical when the facts are looked at afresh. A question that can never be answered, but important to ask, is whether the Sadat-Shenouda conflict would have played out in the same manner, or to have occured at all, had there been no vocal immigrant community. “Aqbat Al Mahgar” (Immigrant Copts) is the term coined by many Islamists, and government officials, as a derogatory shorthand for the critics from afar. This is the clearest sign that immigrant political activism represented more than a passing nuisance, and that its message, and perhaps more importantly its methods, struck a nerve.

Sadat arrived to the President’s office a year before Shenouda rose to be Patriarch of all the Copts. By 1972, and certainly after the 1973 war, both men were comfortable and secure in their new offices and engaged in a punishing match of wills. The two men possessed similar temperaments but occupied different vantage points; indeed different planets. Yet the conflict between them was ahistorical by Egypt’s modern standards. Since the waning of Ottoman power in the 17th century, the rulers of Egypt largely avoided open conflicts with the Copts, regardless of how they felt about them or their degree of tolerance for religious differences. On the other side, Popes never saw fit to adopt a policy of open defiance toward the ruler. These two men, however, were different and came to conflict with unequal powers. Sadat possessed a strong grip on the instruments of the Egyptian state, including the army, police, civil service and propaganda channels, and after 1977, the appreciation of the West and most of the world at large. Against that Shenouda had only a grip on his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his office. Those who knew Egypt intimately felt that the two men were headed for serious trouble, with more in store for Sadat. The Egyptian papacy is the oldest continuous institution in the country’s history, nearly 2000 years old. It has been headed by 117 men as successors of St Mark the Apostle. They possessed the full range of human characteristics, including saints and thieves, wise men and simpletons, reformers and dolts, and every shade in-between. Yet the office endowed them with power and a form of innate historical wisdom, so none could be touched or easily removed even by the most tyrannical of rulers. Byzantine emperors, Abbasid Caliphs, marauding soldiers of fortunes, European colonialists, and especially powerful lay Copts, found that going up against the Pope, even when their cause is right or just, to be a daunting prospect. At the height of the conflict between the two men in 1980, a man who disapproved of Shenouda’s handling of the relationship with Sadat summarized the grim prospects for the President. “Sadat can ignore Shenouda and appear weak, imprison him and thus become his prisoner, or kill him and be hounded on earth and in the afterlife”. Shenouda’s unyielding stand was perhaps understandable, but Sadat’s escalation of the conflict seemed to be a foolish gambit from a man who displayed a survivor’s wit, keen political instincts and on many occasions a daring ability to change course. Indeed there were many times when the relationship seemed to be taking a better course, only to have outside events inflame it again. For Sadat, it was always the fixation on “immigrant Copts”, a tiny group of little influence that raised his ire beyond reason. Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who once headed the News division of the Egyptian Radio and Television Organization, catalogues the times Sadat blew his top over small provocations from New Jersey or Washington DC. “Why do these Copts want to turn the Christians of the World against me and Egypt”, Sadat complained over and over again. Of course, the immigrants could no such thing; their tiny newspaper ads were little noticed, and the police kept their small demonstrations politely but firmly out of Sadat’s earshot or line of sight. El-Menawy, who knew Shenouda well and interviewed him often, relates a remarkable 1977 exchange between the two men. “How could our children abroad speak against us … they are complaining about me to Carter”, ranted Sadat. Shenouda cuts him off, rising to say “The first thing I want to say is that some Copts might have emotional problems.” He continues on to insist that these emotional problems are the results of discrimination in their past lives in Egypt. He then pivots to deliver a counter punch.”Our children abroad have done a great deal for Egypt. They served us during the war of October 1973 and God knows how much effort they exerted … they are worried about the [new] laws, … should we comfort them it will be over and you won’t be so upset with them”. Shenouda seems to simultaneously disavow immigrant activists while using them to accomplish his desired goals. That encounter encapsulates the trouble with political activism among immigrant Copts. They can irritate the Egyptian state but not alter its behavior. They can provide stout support to the Church in Egypt, and at the same time find themselves in trouble with it. For half a century the activist leaders looked obsessively in the rear view mirror, or fixed their gaze on a very distant horizon, often missing what is directly in front of them. Like generations of Egyptian political activists, they excelled at stating the problems but rarely made an effort at compromise toward a solution. They found a home in the margins and could scarcely imagine themselves wielding any power. Today, with all the concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, new activist leaders are unable to formulate a workable set of realistic goals or “asks”. They remain the children of Shawky Karas, the man who kick started Coptic political activism in 1972 and became its prototypical leader, and warning example.

From thousands of miles away, Shawky Karas, an academic mathmatician, could raise Sadat’s blood pressure with a tiny ad or a letter to a Congressman or Senator. He reproduced many of these ads and letters in his self-published 1986 book “The Copts Since The Arab Invasion : Strangers in Their Land”. The book, with type written pages, poor editing and plain blue cover, feels like notes from the fringe. It is a remarkable combination, however, of keen insights placed side by side with wild accusations and barely believable conspiracies. The most powerful part of the book is a 20 page response to Sadat’s May 14 1980 speech in which he declared himself “The Islamic President of an Islamic State”. Karas’ counter arguments anticipate the suffering Egypt would eventually undergo as different men and factions tried to provide concrete realization of that claim. Yet Karas makes no mention of his role in raising Sadat’s ire, nor in precipitating the “Easter rebellion” of 1980. For nearly a decade Karas was propagating a redefinition of the Copts, not only as non-Arabs which the majority accepts, but as living victims of Arab imperialism. It is a flammable message, precisely because it contains sufficient truth to give it credibility, with just enough mythology to make it a powerful cudgel. His retelling of Egypt’s history in the first third of the book explains why he never made an outreach to immigrant Muslims, whose voice might have added weight to his message and demands, and just as importantly why they were unlikely to add their voice, even if he asked. He attempted to recruit other prominent Copts to his side, succeeding with some and failing with many others, who found him too combustible for comfort. His major success came in 1977 when he agitated to convince a church conclave to include the following in its January 17 1977 message “ .. the total sincerity [ of the Copts] for the beloved nation, of which the Copts are the oldest strain, so much so that no people of the world had been tied to its land and nationality like the Copts of Egypt”. While the statement may well be true, it also serves to “other” the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslims. In a meeting at the Jersey City church in February 1977 to plan an upcoming trip by Shenouda to the US, Karas claimed credit for the statement and unveiled what would become his signature message and program for two decades to come. He warned about the “Creeping adoption of Shari’a” in Egyptian law. He centered his message on a single verse from the Bible, Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”, and he read from handwritten notes what he deemed to be a suitable template for every speech about Egypt’s predicament at that moment, “will it be unified by nationalism or divided by religion?”. He also advocated for the cancellation of religious celebrations as a form of passive resistance. Such measures were not unknown in Coptic history, but most in the church hierarchy considered them too extreme for the current situation. In time he began to gather support, most notably from men such as Dr Rodolph Yanney, a doctor and publisher of a cultural newsletter, and two “radical” priests from the US West, Fr. Ibrahim Aziz and Fr. Antonious Heinen, as well as the more mainstream Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed of Jersey City. Others proved cold to his message. Bishops Gregorious and Samuel found him too radical for their tastes, and his entreaties to Aziz Atiya went unanswered. Things seemed to change in early 1980 after the Christmas eve attacks on several churches in Egypt. Shenouda intimated to others that he was considering a cancellation of the Easter celebrations on April 6. The news travelled quickly to America and spread both delight and consternation. Karas praised the step and booked space in several newspapers to coincide with Sadat’s visit in early April and his state dinner at the White House. Others worried about the impact of such a step. Bishop Gregorious records in his memoirs a meeting on March 14 1980 with Aziz Atiya, his wife, and Ishaq Fanous, the noted artist and Icon painter. He states the purpose as “discussion of the Encyclopedia”. Curiously he neglects to mention the presence of another man, Mirrit Boutros Ghali. Nor does he mention that at the end of the meeting both Mirrit and Aziz asked him to intervene with Shenouda and warn against cancelling celebrations. In the end, Shenouda did not heed their advice. Both of these men, and Gregorious himself, represented a rare moment in Egypt’s history that was rapidly vanishing from view. On March 26 1980 the Pope gave a sermon that seemed to borrow heavily from Karas’ 1977 notes. He asked the same question of Sadat and demanded an answer. Sadat was too busy preparing for his trip to Washington DC, and provided his flammable reply during the May 14 1980 speech. El-Menawy in his book “The Copts”, tries to discern the influence of immigrant Copts on Shenouda’s sermon and finds him evasive on the subject. Karas tried to stage a demonstration in front of the White House during Sadat’s state dinner but was rebuffed by the DC police. A rally called by Karas on April 6, Easter Sunday, in New York City fizzled because of a transit strike. The New York Times showed Carter and Sadat talking amiably under a magnolia tree in the Rose Garden, with no hint of Sadat’s rising temper. But the mere attempts at rallies were enough to send Sadat into a frenzy, exactly as Karas predicted in February 1977. “He wants to be loved and obeyed”, Karas said of Sadat then, before issuing his version of the “3 Nos”. “We will not be silent, and we will not obey, and we will not love him”.

The 18 months between Sadat’s April 1980 visit to DC and the end of his life were marked by further strife and nasty sectarian attacks. Karas and his merry band of immigrant Copts were not silent, and did not cease from writing to Congressmen, Senators, Governors and anyone who would listen. They did not seem to realize that few Americans cared about the “Coptic issue”. Peace had broken out between Egypt and Israel, and war between Iran and Iraq, and between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. There was enough strife, and even diplomatic hostages, to divert the spot light. The death of Sadat, the exile of Shenouda and the appointment of a papal committee changed the conflict from one between immigrant Copts and the Egyptian state, to an internecine fight between different groups of Copts. What started out as a noble movement to enlarge the rights of Copts turned in on itself. A movement that started out narrowly Coptic, became ever narrower; indeed sub-Coptic. The entire focus of the activists from 1981 until 1985 was on the release of Shenouda from his desert exile. It can be said that the heat and noise from America did little to accomplish that. In the end it was insider negotiations, and Egypt’s usual reversion to the mean, that released Shenouda. But Karas became a Shenouda partisan, both agitating for his release from internal exile, and passionately ferreting out “enemies of Shenouda”. By 1985 all of Karas’ requests regarding the rights of Copts to politicians were regularly and politely rebuffed. On the other hand, he had won at least one internal battle. Those who opposed his methods, and had doubts about Shenouda’s, were now in retreat. Some walked away from their churches, others fell into silence. The “enemies” included many who might have formed a broader coalition for a broader good in Egypt. Karas’ group, the American Coptic Association, became unintentionally true to its name, having produced a larger impact on American rather than Egyptian Copts.The effect of the movement’s fading in the late 1980s was not to alter the nature of Coptic political activism, but to preserve it in the amber memory of those glory days when a single 2 inch newspaper ad could shake the walls of the presidential palace in Cairo. Soon enough, Shenouda asked the activists to pipe down, as Mubarak had a serious insurgency to deal with. The demonstrations were far and in-between, the demands as grandiose and vague as ever, and new organizations specialized in inside politics in DC, holding conferences and commissioning panels that would regularly identify the problems and not much else. The Copts’ demands became further subsumed within the general worry about terrorism and the demand for democratic reforms in the region. Few bothered to analyze or learn the lessons of the 1970s. The vast majority of immigrants got on with their lives, built their churches, prospered and lived contented lives without much involvement in Karas’ style of political activism, even if they were formed in some degree by it.

When Karas passed away in October 2003, age 75, condolences came by the hundreds from across the US, Canada and Australia. Many mentioned his activism, and more specifically his loyalty to Pope Shenouda. None called attention to his attacks on the Papal committee, or his involvement in the communal fights of the 1980s. While his activism failed to alter conditions for the Copts in Egypt, it did cement the loyalty of the vast majority of the immigrant community to Pope Shenouda. Many of the early immigrants were “children of Samuel”, the bishop who tended to their needs, helped them establish churches, and brought thoughtful discourse to the problems of immigration. In time that influence waned as a well, but not without considerable pain for many. Political activism originally meant to erect a barrier between state and religion in Egypt, brought forth a new immigrant identity that saw the church as a actor in every facet of the Copts’ life, both in Egypt and outside it. Immigrant Copts continued to embrace a cherished Egyptian identity, but one that rarely reached out for the other 90% of Egypt. New churches in the New World were being built at the rate of a handful a year, and all of them were becoming more than houses of worship; instead disciplined outposts for a nation without geography, as Sana Hasan aptly put it.

A generation later things are very different in America and Egypt, but Coptic political activism remains largely true to its older self. It has become vestigial. This is to be expected from a movement whose evolution is subject less to conditions in the new country than in the old one. Egypt has thrown a curve ball to these movements. Yes, sectarian attacks are more frequent, but bishops are not tossed in jail by the dozen, as in 1981. The rights of Copts in Egypt are further eroded, but so are the rights of many others as well. The Islamists who were once on the rise in Egypt in 1970s are now on the outside, themselves in America agitating for change in Egypt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Copts’ agitation then, and equally likely to become vestigial as well. Protests in America against political oppression and sectarianism in Egypt are rarely cross-confessional, and sometimes even illiberal in character. If there are rays of hope they are usually among the young, those shaped by America, and not deformed by Egypt’s struggle with identity. The irony is that any possible emergence of a genuine “Egyptian-American” hyphenated identity might happen only among those who have far less to do with Egypt than their parents or grandparents.

— Maged Atiya

The Empty Mausoleum


The Sourial Atiya family around the time of the 1919 revolution in Egypt. Sourial, his wife Damiana holding baby Adele, Aziz Standing to the left with his brother Wahba and sister Galila

In early 1968 Samir Nessim Atiya, an Engineer, met with his cousin Aziz Sourial Atiya, a historian, to plan and build a new family mausoleum. The current one was getting pretty full, and the time seemed right for the project. Samir’s company was prospering, while Aziz’s latest book had just gone to print. Their favored architect was finishing his main project, working on the new cathedral due to open that summer. The Engineer and historian planed for something different from the usual, a daring slab of granite more than 12 feet high in a modernist shape of a pyramid over the underground crypt. By their calculation the new mausoleum would be full by 2018. Others would then take up the task of building the next one. At the beginning of 2018 the mausoleum stands nearly empty. Its occupants are the builders’ two sisters, Linda Nessim Atiya and Galila Sourial Atiya, two strong willed women who feuded with each other for most of their lives before resting peaceably next to each other, alone with no one else.

The builders’ fathers, Nessim Atiya and Sourial Atiya had gone into business together 50 years earlier. The older brother, Sourial, was severe, kindly, deliberate and conservative, while Nessim, more than 15 years younger, was expansive, mercurial, daring and imaginative. Several times they made money together, only to lose it all, before trying again. Eventually, in the late 1920s, they went their separate ways. Sourial invested in land, the only thing he thought to be secure. Nessim started a bottling company producing soft drinks in unmarked bottles which the locals around the Delta town of Senbelaween called “Nessim’s Kazouza”. Nessim seemed to be a marketing wizard. Every week a horse drawn cart pulled into a different village loaded with his bottles. A robust body builder got out and gulped an entire bottle in one go, belched loudly, and then went on to do impressive deeds of strength. The message was not lost on the men in the village. They bought and bought into the promise of virility. But misfortune stalked both men. Sourial was shot by his body guard to rob him of his lands’ rent. Nessim died suddenly and painfully of either kidney failure or prostate cancer when Samir was 8 and his younger brother Maurice was a mere toddler. But the families held together. Aziz supported his brothers education with money from abroad while a student in England. He also became a mentor, and effectively an adopted father to Samir. The brothers Sourial and Nessim had ten children between them who survived to adulthood, seven boys and three girls. All of the ten children were to have relatively successful lives, against all odds. They produced 24 children among them. In 1968 only two of that generation lived abroad. Today more than three quarters of them live outside Egypt. On the occasion of burying his older sister Linda, who passed away at the age of 100, Samir noted that the locks on the underground crypt were hopelessly rusted from lack of use. “Our dead have left Egypt”, he remarked to his son.

— Maged Atiya

From the upcoming "Tales of Immigration"