The Step-Mother’s Tongue

Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: ‘As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.’ He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscienceSati’ Al Husri (1882-1968)

The impossibly thin Algerian boy stood out among the hearty well-fed Egyptian school boys. The large head perched atop his reedy frame came with an impressive shock of wavy hair and a prominent mouth full of Houari Boumediene teeth. The cold, cruel logic of the boys dubbed him “Abu Sinan”, or “Toothy”. Toothy’s father was posted to the Algerian embassy, and in the post-independence days political correctness dictated that he must attend an Egyptian institution rather than the more congenial French Lycee. In the Lord-of-the-Flies school, he marked out his days in ticks of humiliation. Ill at ease with spoken Egyptian, he was defenseless against bullying that usually started with verbal assaults but rarely ended there. At home, he spoke French and a language that barely resembled Arabic. If silence is golden, then Toothy and the Egyptian boy who on rare occasions rose to his defense were each a Midas. The civics textbooks, written in Modern Arabic, instructed Toothy that he and his tormentors were one, bound by a common language, tradition, history, and future; all members of the “Arab Nation”. In class, the school boys were required to memorize the poem by Mahmoud Darwish “Identity Card”, which starts with the stirring words “Sajil ! Ana ‘Arabi” (Write! I am an Arab..) before it comes to end in a litany of accusations, complaints and threats. In the school yard, bullies put the poem to good use as well. The chief bully would yell with the hard Cairene “g”, “Sagil, Enta …” and expect the hapless boy from Oran to complete the sentence with a litany of derogatory statements about his own manhood and his mother’s virtue. More than a decade later the Egyptian boy would read the remarkable essay by the polymath Mirrit Boutros Ghali on Egyptian identity and find that, for all its evasions and care not to offend President Sadat, still managed to approximate the situation in the school yard.

In the 1920s, Salama Moussa proposed that colloquial Egyptian be made the official language of the country if only to slash the illiteracy rates with one sweep. It was the simplest solution to end the endemic diglossia that plagued Egypt for nearly a thousand years. He got nowhere with that idea. Even his friends mocked it (Moussa and one-time friend ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad parted company over such issues, and became bitter enemies, hurling painful insults at each other for nearly two decades). Others who followed his suggestions, such as the cartoonist and poet Salah Jaheen, also failed to make headway. The conventional wisdom is that Moussa’s attempt failed because of the resistance of obscurantist religious leaders who felt that devaluation of classical Arabic is tantamount to leading people astray from the language of the Qur’an. They certainly felt, and still feel this way. There is also a persistent rumor that Moussa encouraged various scholars to translate the Qur’an to the colloquial. But that does not explain why many of Moussa’s liberal friends found his efforts misdirected, even quixotic. Nor can we lay the blame entirely on Moussa’s Kemalist tendencies. In fact, the failure is largely that of Egyptian intellectuals of the so-called “liberal age” and tells of why it ended in Nasser’s tyranny. These intellectuals always devolved to populism, of one sort or another. Their populism sprang forth from a recognition of the power of the street rather than a desire to elevate it.  

Language is identity. The Greeks identified themselves by apartness from the foreigners who spoke unintelligible “barbaros”. Americans could not easily dispense with English but enriched it with a patois from dozens of ethnicities, beginning with the Scots-Irish and African slaves, to create a unique identity and become to England a “nation separated by a common language”. Many other examples abound. The rise of the West and of nations within it was occasioned by the refinement of indigenous languages. Had Europe stuck stubbornly to Latin, recalling the by-gone glory days of Rome as reason, it is likely it would not have achieved as much. One wonders what Egypt’s trajectory would have been if Moussa’s suggestion of translating the Qur’an to colloquial Egyptian. A pious Muslim laboring to replicate the eloquence and precision of the original would have done a great deal for Egypt; as much as Tyndale did for England, Luther for Germany or Calvin for France. Such an effort would have rendered Islam, and to some extent Christianity, a strong cornerstone of Egyptian identity and a springboard for progress. The work of building a nation is primarily cultural. Yet there has been few studies of how the struggle with language has endowed Egypt with a propensity for authoritarianism.

The common discourse is to label Egypt’s authoritarian leaders as “Pharaohs”. But its modern authoritarianism is rooted less in Pharaonic tradition than in the drift toward Arabism and Islamism. In fact, other “nations” in the region, who lacked such an identity, seem to have fared far worse, combining brutal dictatorships with state collapse. Al Husri’s formulation “He is an Arab regardless of his wishes” is the theme song of the current collapse. One can easily remove “Arab” and substitute “Muslim” and the formulation explains much of violent Takfiri thought. In fact, almost any other identity can replace “Arab” and lead to the same deadly dead-end. The only way out is to stipulate that identity is a personal choice, and one often arrived at after much soul searching, if at all. Men can not choose their mothers, and rarely their step-mothers. But at least they can choose their identity. Anything less is the road to bloody servitude.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Man Who Invented Sykes-Picot

Monday, May 16 2016, is the presumed 100th anniversary of the “Sykes-Picot” accord. Many speak confidently of it, fewer have actually read it, fewer still understand its roots and how an obscure letter has become a prominent feature of discourse about the Middle East.

To understand the roots of the letter and its deeper meaning, we need to place ourselves in the minds of European diplomats circa 1914. The “Great War” as far as these men were concerned was the Crimean conflict of the 1850s. It was as present in their minds as World War II is now in ours. It was a war waged by Catholic and Protestant Europe against Orthodox Russia to stave off the state collapse of the largest Muslim political entity, the Ottoman Empire. In return, the Western powers extracted “reforms” from the Ottomans that created the modern Middle East. These included citizenship rights to religious minorities, mostly Christians and Jews, the elimination of Jizya, the last vestige of Muslim dominance, and the attempt to build modern state apparatus. These Ottoman Tanzimat were an imitation of Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and still resonate in the region. Russia attempted to outflank the European and Ottoman powers by direct appeal to Eastern Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt rebuffed the Russian overtures with its customary prickliness and habitual servility to the rulers of Egypt. The Levantine Christians were more receptive, but the Russian defeat in the Crimean war opened the way to reprisals from the Ottomans, exemplified by the 1860s pogroms in the Mountains of Lebanon and later against the Armenians. That conflict still echoes today, with a new Russian despot, Putin, imagining himself a second coming of Nicholas I.

In 1916 the British and French had lost their taste for propping up the Ottomans. For one thing, the “Young Turks” had sided against them and allied themselves with Germany. This was no accident but a telling foretaste of the Middle East new nationalism and its fascination with European Statism and Fascism. The French wanted nothing more than to save face with the Catholics of Lebanon who saw them as protectors. The British were truly confused. A prominent member of the aristocracy (Balfour) was toying with supporting Jewish Nationalism. A screwy romantic (Lawrence) was toying with inventing Arab Nationalism. Balfour and Lawrence were bound to collide (as they figuratively did after the war). In between, sat the sober diplomat Sykes. Catholic, restrained and sensible, he simply wanted order not excitement. Hence the “Sykes-Picot” letter. The letter sought to protect British and French interests in the presumed chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Ottomans. It even included a bone to Russia, in the form of control over Constantinople and partial control of Jerusalem. The Tsar, one year away from revolution, still imagined himself the Eastern Christian Emperor. The letter would have been consigned to the memory hole had it not been for subsequent events. When we speak of “Sykes-Picot” today we speak not of the letter but of the invented drama about the letter and its meaning. But who invented “Sykes-Picot”? It is a question worth pursuing, but with likely frustration as no single father (or mother for that matter) is apparent.

This observer’s favorite is Mohammed Hassenein Heikal, the Egypt journalist who recently passed away. Heikal was Nasser’s voice and the prominent peddler of the mythical Arab nation. Like many of his generation he felt Egypt would be made better with additional discipline, and a larger mission. A man educated by American missionaries could have no truck with the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamism. Instead he hit upon a fashionable idea from the salons of Damascus and Beirut. Yes, Egypt would be the Prussia of the Arabs. Egyptians would be cured of their habitual Fawda and goose-stepped to greatness. But such a vision needed a “stab-in-the-back”. “Sykes-Picot” was there to serve the purpose. Couple that with the “Balfour Declaration” and you have a unifying theme, and one with easy public appeal. Anti-Western and Antisemitic, it was the perfect tool for the propagandist from Dokki and Zamalek. Somewhere in heaven, Ustaz Heikal is smiling, Cigar in hand. He had put one over the Western scholars, or most of them anyway. A man for all political seasons had found an excuse for all political ills. Or so lives the lie.

 

— Maged Atiya


The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Cairo 2009

President Obama occasionally rises to the sublime, a gift rare for professional politicians. His speech in Cairo in June 2009, nearly seven years ago, remains a major flop, an Edsel of foreign policy speeches. Yet, in an entirely different forum (London), speaking about an entirely different topics (US protests), he gave the speech he should have given then. Let us quote a few lines from his speech that Egyptians, rulers and revolutionaries alike, can heed.

Movements are “really effective in bringing attention to problems

Activists  “you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them” [ implicitly rulers must do more than pretend to listen]

And to many so-called leaders of January 25And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position

To all sides in a polarized countryYou then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment

To those loudly urging democracy on Egyptchange is hard and incremental

To all sides in a country in deep trouble “solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions

At the moment, those who applauded the 2009 speech will likely pay little heed to the above words.

— Maged Atiya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


My Heikal

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

 


Terry Gilliam’s Egypt

Let us say you are a Hollywood executive when a writer approaches you with the following script. In a country where the government is both inept and aspirationally oppressive a bureaucratic snafu, due to a mix up of names and birth certificates, has a four-year toddler sentenced to life in prison for a crime committed several years earlier, while still an infant. No one seems to notice the anomaly and “justice” proceeds as normal. If you were that executive you would reject the script, not as improbable, but as too close to the script of the 1985 film “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, one of the brains behind the British comedy troupe “Monty Python”.

Well it seems that Egypt is aspiring to be the next Brazil. Not the actual Brazil, but the Terry Gilliam version.

— Maged Atiya

 


On the Passing of Boutros Boutros Ghali

Much has been written about the “Coptic Problem” in Egypt. But the parable of the life of Boutros Boutros Ghali is more telling. A capable and prickly man, he is remembered as the only UN Secretary General to stand up to the great powers and refuse to play house boy to their designs or indifference, and paying for it by the spectacle of Madeleine Albright vetoing his reappointment with a public display of vengeful glee. His courage seemed to stop at Egypt’s shore.

He was buried with military honors. President Sisi walked in his funeral. Pope Tawadros II read liturgies for his soul in an elegant church built by his family. The flood of obituaries noted that he came from a “prominent Coptic Family”. None have noted how his family traced the rise and fall of modern Egypt, nor of the Copts who punch above their numerical weight in that historical tale. A distant ancestor was strangled by Muhammad Ali for pointing out a budget shortfall in the early 19th century. More than fifty years later his great grandfather would come to great wealth serving Khedive Isma’el. His grandfather would be the first Coptic Prime Minister, and only the second Christian to be so, and next to last one. His uncle was a powerful minister. He could never attain the rank of full minister, contenting himself at times to serve under Amr Moussa. In two centuries the Copts of Egypt rose from wretched misery and ignorance to dreams of being full citizens, or at least demand that Sunday be recognized as a day of rest, but finally watch young boys sent to court for making a video lampooning ISIS, the criminal gang that beheaded 21 of their poor coreligionists in a pornographic display of hate and violence. The Egyptian Council on Human Rights, which he established, seems to have little to say about such judicial proceedings.

Here is the eminent sociologist Sana Hasan describing a conversation with the diplomat.

“I questioned Boutrous Ghali, the grandson of the prime minister by the same name, on the difficulty Coptic candidates had in gaining admission to the Foreign Service, an elite corps. He replied that as one who had sat on the board of examiners of the Foreign Service for eleven years he could testify that there were very few qualified Christians. Besides, he added after a moment’s reflection, the number of Christian ambassadors had been increased to four under Sadat. When I pointed out to him that none of them occupied the weightier posts, in North American or Europe, he tried in all earnestness to argue that an ambassadorial post in Addis Ababa was more important than one in Washington. He also said that Sadat had appointed three Coptic ministers to the cabinet. To my objection that there were merely token Copts, technocrats appointed to posts without any power, he retorted that if they had not been awarded any of the major portfolios, it was simply because they did not have the personalities for them.

“Name me ten Copts with personality!” he burst out, before my silent skepticism.  And he clinched the argument by giving himself as an example of a Copt who had been assigned a significant post. It would have untactful to mention that he was merely “minister of state” for foreign affairs, while the post foreign minister, as such, was reserved for a Muslim. Everyone knew that he had been passed over three times for promotion to that post, despite his brilliance and savvy- not to mention his command of foreign languages- in favor of Muslim foreign ministers of inferior  talents.

When I tried to steer away from this touchy subject to safer grounds and brought the general situation of the Coptic minority, he dismissed their grievances with a disdainful wave of the hand. ‘Believe me. These are nothing but exaggerations. You have been listening to too many frightened, hostile Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!’”

From “Christians vs Muslims in Modern Egypt”

His words came to mind a year before his death, when a Ghanaian and 20 poor Copts, who had left Egypt to work in Libya, silently recited the Lord’s Prayer as the blade fell on their necks. Perhaps Copts are incapable of having balls except on the point of death.

— Maged Atiya

 

 

 


Egypt’s January Revolution

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