Eulogy for a Father

“There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:11

In remembrance of Samir Nessim Atiya (November 4 1925 – October 17 2019)

The nonagenarian and his first born son were bound by filial love and separated by almost everything else, especially God and Country. He was a man marked by early losses, those of a father as well as beloved siblings. He remarked to his son, in a moment of transparency brought on by old age that his deepest wish is to finish life’s course well ahead of him. As he grew ever more frail he clung to life with the tenacity and determination he had shown throughout that life. This was a man who did not go gentle into that good night. I have to admit that he was not easy to like, but he was loved because as Philip Roth noted “it is our job to love them”.

On the 5th of February 1938 Samir Nessim Atiya completed grade school in the Egyptian Delta town of Senbelaween, noted for its generous wheat and as the birthplace of Um Kalthoum. Such an event would not be terribly momentous in most lives, but it was so for the young boy. He was orphaned several years earlier. He had the protection of a loving mother but little else. He worked his way through grade school. When it was time for graduation he bought himself a suitable suit, a necktie and a Fez, or Tarbush, for the occasion. It was the first time in his life he had put on a necktie. He carefully protected his Tarbush from the bullies in school who were wont to squish it over his head. His meager savings paid only for the necktie and Fez, and his older sister, Linda, sold some of her gold bangles to pay for his suit. When it was time for the fathers to sign the name of their child on the graduation papers, none could be found for him. He carefully forged what might have been the signature of his dead father. His adoring mother refused to attend the graduation, for fear that her simple peasant ways would embarrass him. Linda stood in for her; and in his recollection her bright dress, and the remaining gold bangles, marked her as a member of the less humble folks. Later in life, when Linda was approaching the century mark he visited her. Her memory was failing and she shyly resisted his embrace. He rounded his thumb and index fingers around her wrist and that seemed to draw a smile of recognition.

Graduation from elementary school did not end his struggles. He had to work his way through junior and secondary school, against the wishes of adults who saw little purpose in educating a sullen orphan. “I lacked a father and had no personal charm”, he later related. With a further push he got himself matriculated into the College of Practical Engineering, a lesser sibling of the Faculty of Engineering at King Fouad I university. He finally graduated in the waning years of the monarchy having done well enough to earn a bonus and a government job. King Farouk came to his graduation and when his name was read out he strolled onto the stage, shook the monarch’s beefy hand and received a check for six pounds and a certificate of “Iltizam”, mandatory government service. In return he had to accept a government posting for two years. He looked forward to working in the exciting field of telecommunication. He sought a job with Egypt’s government-owned telephone monopoly. His interviewer asked him two questions, his class ranking (high enough to warrant a job at a major city) and his religion.

His hopes were dashed by the arrival of the appointment letter. He was posted to a small Nubian village, Qurta, south of the First Cataract, to manage its telephone and electrical systems, and teach secondary school as well. Seeing no immediate alternatives, he made the arduous journey south.  First it was the overnight train to Aswan, and then an eight-hour boat trip past the Cataracts. At the village makeshift dock he found an official reception party consisting of the mayor and three slipper-clad dignitaries. He asked the mayor to take him to the telephone company building. The man thought for a moment before responding, “We have no telephones”. The arriving not-yet father shot back, “Why?” The mayor explained “because we have no electricity”. As the reader might guess, there was also no secondary school. At this point the putative government official simply demanded to be taken to the elementary school. The mayor obliged and took him to an empty lot. “We have not gotten around to putting up the walls yet,” he explained.

The position made it necessary to set an example, as the highest ranking government official after the local police sergeant, the sleepy Shaweesh, who contented himself with doing nothing of value. He asked the mayor to press-gang a group of men to quarry the local stones and put up the walls for a one-room school.  It took ten weeks to complete, and the mayor was sufficiently impressed to send a daily allotment of a cooked turkey to the working crew. There was now a school for a motley collection of boys of mixed ages. For more than a year the monthly mail boat brought the self-empowered official his paycheck (there were no banks to cash it except in Aswan), and returned with his letters entreating people for a “Wasta” to free him from his contract. Eventually it came, in the form of an intervention by one ‘Abaza Bey (a member of the famous family), who had him transferred back north. The entire episode would be recalled with increasing mirth as the man grew older and experienced the wider world.

Two decades after those events he owned a new growing telephony business and had started a family. He wished for his sons to see the village and the school he built. But the one-room school, the village, the surrounding areas, and half of Egypt’s Nubia had become submerged under Lake Nasser. Still Aswan and Nubia never left him. He kept returning there for all sorts of reasons. He took his honeymoon in Aswan. He brought his sons back to explore the area, including Nubia. He loved the Nubian people and saw in their oppression, primarily due to their skin color, a reflection of his own life. In 1960 he came back to Aswan seeking a contract for his nascent company to supply the telephone system for the firm building the dam, “The Arab Contractors”. Its powerful owner, Othman Ahmed Othman, would employ no Copts and the father left empty handed.

Many times Egypt impressed on him its unique combination of mirth and menace. In the summer of 1952 he found out that the young woman he had been tutoring in order to pass her “Thanawiya” had barely done so. On the morning of July 23 he started out to go downtown in search of a ring. With his typical preoccupation with efficiency, he wanted to complete two tasks at once. He would congratulate her and also persuade her father to turn the limited assignment into a lifelong commitment. The tanks in the streets drew his attention, but not his alarm. A soldier stopped him near ‘Attaba Square and told him that the curfew rules demanded that he be shot. After some negotiations the soldier settled for escorting him to his destination instead.

With the exception of 1973, where he was away in America, he had a front row seat to Egypt’s vicissitudes. He was stationed as a communication engineer when British planes bombed his station during the Suez war. He was on the road to Suez in June 1967. He was posted as an American advisor to the Iranian telecommunication authority and would not leave long after the revolution, at least not until it was clear that as the carrier of an Egyptian and American passports his life was in double jeopardy. He firmly believed that the 2011 revolution would amount to little and attempted to make his way to the Mugamma’a on Tahrir square to register a real estate deal. “The army or the Ikhwangis will win this one”, he predicted.

By all accounts the birth of his first son left him giddy, in the manner of a young boy given a precious toy. He played happily with the baby, noting the smallness of his tiny hands and feet and twitches of his face which he insisted were a smile in response to his father. But soon enough his mother-in-law intervened. A sensible woman with an iron will, she was convinced that the family was shadowed by an evil eye that would take every first born. She had lost his first born daughter decades earlier, and her grief never went away. She insisted that the boy be trusted to the protection of women, who would grow his hair, dress him as a girl and keep a blue bead sewn to the inside of his clothing.

Eventually the father reclaimed his son from the women, cutting his hair and buying him his first boyish outfit, a short overall knock-off from one that Prince Charles had worn years earlier and that had become popular in Egypt. And almost immediately things began to go wrong. While jostling with his son he dropped him and broke his leg. The child would not accept the limitation of a cast and crawled about dragging his leg behind. That caused further cuts and bruises, including a broken finger. When all the fractures were healed, the boy succumbed to an array of fevers and childhood illnesses, some life-threatening. The father recalled the loss of his own father and of his siblings and feared for his son. He sought the intervention of a monk he knew in St Anthony’s monastery, Abouna Moussa.

Decades later he related the details of the trip to St Anthony to his son. No one else in the family seemed to remember the trip, and his son was left to conclude that either the trip was far less important than his father’s recollection, or that it was entirely recreated in the mind of a frail man eager to recast of what is important to him in the mold of present feelings. A newly opened road through the eastern desert cut the trip from days to hours. He sat in the back seat holding his son’s hand while the driver, Salama, chattered and smoked. The boy spoke little, and stared at the scenery passing by.

At the monastery Abouna Moussa, an ancient man who had been a monk since his teens, blessed the boy and asked that in return for God’s favor, he should dedicate his life to doing good deeds and always observing the ways of the Lord and his commandments. The father urged his son to agree but the boy remained silent. In his later retelling he recognized this small incident as a token of things to come. After leaving the monastery he took his son on a short hike through the ragged and rugged hills around the monastery. But soon enough the boy became weak and the father carried him all the way back to the car. He asked strangers to take photographs of both of them with the son on his shoulders. But the film from the trip was ruined by a careless developer. On the trip back he devised a plan to bulk up his son, and the younger brother as well. He enrolled both boys in the club on Al Magd Street and a regular regime of swimming, squash and weight lifting did the job.

The 1960s were a good time for Samir. His company had many contracts that offered a comfortable life. He moved his family to an apartment in Heliopolis, with many graceful touches. Gladiolus flowers where delivered every Wednesday to brighten up the place. Every other Thursday there was a delivery of cakes from Groppi for the Friday visits from family and friends. Once a month a man came to shine the parquet floors to a mirror finish. He was still young, vigorous and handsome. He had his shirts custom-made at Elia Tarzi, a self-proclaimed Copt but a suspected Jew, who made shirts for all the Free Officers, including President Nasser (but notably not Sadat, who hated the American cut and preferred British shirts).

He had come a long way from his village root, but did not forget them, or his surviving siblings. Once a month he drove his entire family to Giza to spend time with his sister Linda and her brood. He made sure his two boys were close to Salwa, Nagwa, Nashwa and Magdi. While Naguib was in between spouses, he invited him for dinner once a week, and after he remarried he remained close to him, his wife and daughter Vivian. Whatever tensions had existed between him and his older half-brother Atiya were now history, and he visited him often. In immigration he became close to Linda’s daughter Salwa, and Atiya’s daughter Enaya.

Then there was Maurice, his youngest brother. While a bachelor, he invited Maurice to spend a week every summer in his Alexandria apartment. Maurice was a party goer and a late riser, who made fun of his older brother with his puritanical habits of early rise and hard work. Maurice would stroll to the beach in the afternoon, after a late morning recovering from a long night carousing among Alexandria’s dwindling Greeks. His uniform was unvaried, a bathing suit small enough to be a scandal, a robe, sun glasses, flip-flops and a cigarette. The women disapproved, but Samir overruled them. After Maurice started a family in Senbelaween, Samir visited him regularly, always taking his first-born son with him. Maurice had come to own a mechanics shop that employed every variant of Egyptians. He was fair to his employees and called all of them with honorific “Ibn Al Kalb”, or Son-of-a-Bitch, which he also extended to himself. The love between the two brothers was genuine, and Samir took Maurice’s needling with good humor. Samir tried to impress on his skeptical son that Senbelaween, with its dust, dirt roads, and uncollected trash, was the real Egypt. But to the boy’s eye the difference between the provincial town and Cairo was only a matter or degrees and neighborhoods.

One sibling was always on Samir’s mind, although he admitted that to on one, except once to his son in a passing remark. His older brother Sami had been a prodigy, finishing first in Mathematics in Thanawiya and winning a scholarship to King Fouad I university. Two weeks before matriculation he died in his sleep. It was likely a congenital heart condition. But Samir, still in elementary school, was devastated. He watched his mother shriek, rend her dress and mourn the young man, and blame herself for not warding the evil eye from him. Every shriek tore into him and he promised his mother that he will live a long life and never let her see him die. He told his son all that in passing, late in life, explaining that sometimes brilliance is a companion to bad fortune.  As Samir got older, Sami’s life and fate haunted him even more. Sami was kind to his younger brother and more understanding of his quirks. But that could not explain the outsized importance he came to play in Samir’s memories more than eighty years after his passing.

Samir learned to make a sport of fighting the ferocious Egyptian bureaucracy, and he became a resource to many in his family who needed help in the matter of estates, wills, licenses, taxes,  pensions, and all the other critical matters that the bureaucracy controlled and mismanaged. He built a repertoire of amusing tales, which he retold with his sharp-edged humor. Some were merely hilarious, others chilling. Of the former, he explained how he secured for his maternal aunt a pension from her grandfather who had died decades earlier. The accumulated amount allowed her to secure a decent life and pass something onto her children. Of the latter, he related how he accompanied his cousin, and effectively adoptive father, the scholar Aziz Atiya to visit Nasser in the presidential palace in 1961. There was a new American ambassador in Egypt, who had known Aziz from a previous life as the president of the American University in Cairo. Aziz had been bad mouthed in Egypt for his relationship with the World Council of Churches, then claimed by Nasser’s propagandists as a CIA front. Aziz traveled from the US to Egypt for the meeting with Nasser and the ambassador, but feared arrest. He asked Samir to drive him to the Presidential palace, but Samir did not know how to drive. Instead he went as his valet and waited for him outside to raise the alarm in case of arrest. He kept the entire incident confidential while Aziz was alive, and for decades afterwards. Later in life Samir laughed uproariously as he related to his son how he tried to pass as a tough guy among Nasser’s body guards in the ante-chamber. The visit went well enough, and the ambassador affected a rapprochement. Samir managed to get the last laugh.

The good times had other dark shadows as well. He tried to keep his company small enough to escape the attention of the nationalization board, or at least he claimed so perhaps to cover up for his fears of growing too large and needing to delegate to others. He worried about his two sons eventually becoming cannon fodder for Nasser’s wars. Later he recalled that his major worry was his first-born son. He could accept the boy’s obedience, or manage his rebellion. But he knew not how to deal with the boy’s increasing detachment. He neither obeyed, nor rebelled, but lived in an imagined world apart from Egypt. Doubt starts as a hairline crack before it becomes a chasm. And the chasm of doubt left the two of them increasingly further apart. For a time the boy’s religious education consisted of a series of ejections from Sunday School classes, not for doing little, but for asking too much. All attempts to inculcate a sense of national pride in him failed. After the 1967 war, the boy began to construct an imaginary America out of books and road maps and constantly begged his parents to immigrate.

Eventually Samir made the jump as the 1960s were coming to a close. It was a terrifying leap, as he had no job lined up, and could not even put together a passable resume. Leaving the comforts of home for the unknown unsettled him, but he gave no indications of his anxiety. The new country could never match Egypt for the warmth and depth of their friendships. They made friends from the old country, and a few from the new one, but still felt they were isolated, often alone, especially after their sons became enthusiastic Americans.

America dealt fairly with Samir. After an extended period of unemployment he landed an executive position with New York Bell. Within a few years his salary had more than quadrupled, and the stock options offered to him shot up dramatically in value after the breakup of AT&T. He participated in the founding of St George church in Brooklyn. He made trips to all parts of the US and Canada to visit the increasing number of family members who left Egypt. But he still felt uneasy and unhappy. It was clear to his son that the boy from Senbelaween was now standing at his shoulder feeding his fears and anxiety. His response to material comfort was to fear is potential evaporation. He became “careful with money”, a euphemism that friends used to note that he lived several notches below his means. Occasionally he would allow himself some luxury, such as taking an extended African Safari that he had promised his wife more than two decades earlier. But he steadfastly refused to trade up houses or cars or allow himself more than the minimum of material comfort.

One luxury he allowed himself was to obtain a graduate degree in electrical engineering. Having a Master’s degree from an American university meant freedom from the inferiority he felt about not having attended the Faculty of Engineering, even if no one knew or pointed it out. His pride burned deep and mostly quietly. He struggled with the course load and work because, without ever telling his son, he wanted to get the degree before his son got his own Master’s degree in physics. In the end, he beat him by two weeks. The entire family went to a joyful lunch in Brooklyn Heights after Samir turned in his cap and gown. Within a decade of his arrival in America he was comfortable enough to leave his job while in his fifties and live out a peripatetic life, constantly traveling between Egypt and the US.

Immigration further strained the relationship with his first-born son. The boy had quickly grown to a man in the crucible of the 1970s New York college life, with its many temptations and pitfalls. The son lived his life in several bubbles well isolated from each other, and his family and father occupied but one. There were many arguments about religion, Egypt and the proper way to live one’s life. Samir and his son often came close to an unbridgeable rupture, only to walk away just shy of it. His son made the resolution that saying little would give love a room to displace all disagreements. What Samir thought, we will never know. In time it became clear to those who interacted closely with him that he loved his son deeply, even if he had taken a radically different road in life.

As Samir got older he became more visibly religious. He confined his reading list to the Bible and Agbeya. He listened to recorded sermons and watched Coptic satellite TV almost exclusively. He had not been so religious in his younger years, and the change may have reflected his own fears and thoughts about mortality, especially as he faced an array of potentially lethal ailments. In the last decade of his life he was happy to see his son turn his attention to Coptic issues, but they never discussed these issues, or religion in general. The fear remained of opening up old wounds and disagreements.

Samir remained active and working into his late eighties, fearing that any diminution in activity will end his life. But he eventually had to give in to the frailties brought on by many strokes. He became thinner and less vigorous. Both his hearing and eyesight weakened to near uselessness. His mind still burned sharply and he laughed when his son told him that his CPU functioned well but his I/O systems were failing. The occasion for the remark was the delivery on a new laptop that Samir wanted so he can learn new computer programming languages. His sharp mind was an asset to him and a liability to those around him, as he could be ferociously set in his ways and refused all manner of help that was necessary for his daily existence. The determination that lifted him from a poor orphaned provincial boy never left. In fact, his early years came to occupy most of his thoughts.

The last time he saw his son he kept addressing him as Sami. “I am your son Baba”, his son insisted. “Yes. But you love me and Sami loved me too. I mourned Sami. No one will mourn me. No one will remember me”, he was barely able to articulate the words as a result of a recent stroke. “I will remember and mourn you Baba”, his son added. “Yes, you will and so will Sami. We love each other. I wish you had met Sami”, he declared. Within a few minutes his mood lifted and was attempting to make a witty remark, but his tongue was slower than his mind, and he ended up skipping past the words to simply laugh at his own joke. This is how many will remember him, as the man with blunt honesty and a sharp wit. And this is how he would likely have wanted to be remembered.

The end came peacefully while asleep. We will never know his last words or thoughts, but at least his son hopes that he realized that the poor orphaned boy from Senbelaween had made and lived his life on his terms, and that he was loved. None of his family, his wife, children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, were there when liturgies were read for his soul and he was quickly buried, and not in the mausoleum he had built for himself and his family. Still his life was a triumph against the odds of his cruel country, which he always loved still. He would have insisted in the words of Timothy that he fought the good fight and kept the faith. We should grant him that in memoriam.

Maged Atiya

It Is Not All Religion

An anti-Mursi supporter of Egypt's army walks in front of his shop, with huge posters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with cross and crescent symbol of the unity Egyptians in downtown Cairo

Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife.  These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money.  And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.

The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter.  The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.

No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.

— Maged Atiya



A Papal Message of Hope?


In an interview titled “Papal Message of Hope” Pope Tawadros II spoke on a variety of topics. His words were meant to give hope to both Copts and Egyptians. But to some Copts, specifically those who are not Egyptian, the words may give them reasons for concern. It is difficult to gauge in a statistically meaningful way the attitudes of non-Egyptian Copts. The best one can do is keep a close ear to representatives of various strains of thought and try to guess the views of the majority accordingly. Nearly a week after the interview, most American Copts seem not to view it favorably, and in the view of this observer for the wrong reasons. Historian Samuel Tadros noted that the Pope “seems to think of himself as an Egyptian leading an Egyptian church”, and in spite of his generally favorable view of Papal administrative decisions warned of a “theological crisis”. Tadros, as usual, cuts to the chase and finds Ethnocentric discourse by Copts to be problematic. He is right in an American and perhaps a universal context, but to Egyptian Copts who know that many fellow Egyptians wish to deny them liberty, or even life, the nationalist discourse is the lesser of two evils, the other being the Islamist discourse. Other Copts felt that the Pope did not highlight the suffering of Copts in Egypt and by insisting that terrorists aim to attack Egyptian unity, rather than just the Copts, is echoing the views of a government too inept to protect its citizens. They are right, but perhaps Pope Tawadros finds lessons to learn from the early confrontational years of the papacy of Pope Shenouda. The reality is that the world will not rush to defend persecuted Copts in Egypt beyond words of concern. The safety of Egyptian Copts lies with a difficult and negotiated dialog with a negligent and occasionally complicit state. To paraphrase a Russian peasant, the world opinion is very far away and the Egyptian state is uncomfortably close by. Non-Egyptian Copts have the benefit of personal and political freedom and a considerable megaphone, but these tools do not translate readily to power to persuade the Egyptian state. While it is true that the so-called Islamic State made it clear it targets Copts solely on the basis of their faith, even the most delusional foot soldiers do not believe that they can eradicate Copts one Church bombing at a time. What they seek is a sectarian conflict. In a real sense, Pope Tawadros is correct. The terrorists are targeting the Egyptian nation as a whole, however indirectly.

Two aspects of the interview stand as real concerns for this observer. First is his admiration for Putin. This is really uncalled for.  But more importantly, there is Pope Tawadros’ attitude towards immigration. The Coptic Church has had three Popes since immigration began in earnest in the late 1960s. Pope Kyrillous would not hear of it. Pope Shenouda pretended it is not an issue, and for the first decade of his papacy outsourced the concerns of the immigrants to Bishop Samuel, who understood and even encouraged immigration and a reasoned level of assimilation. Pope Tawadros has yet to articulate a consistent attitude. Administratively, he has shown concern and respect for immigrant Copts. Privately, he expressed agreement with a more universalist message. But in this interview he seems to discourage immigration. Of course the reality is that for Copts who wish to immigrate, the real barrier is not his disapproval but the lack of a visa. Immigration and assimilation are a reality and will continue to be an ever-increasing a feature of what it means to be a Copt. There are difficult questions that the spiritual and cultural head of the Coptic Church must answer. Does being an Agnostic American disqualify one from identifying as a Copt? Can someone who is not ethnically Egyptian, or only partly so, identify as a Copt? Is the Church purely a theological expression of being a Copt, or does it have a cultural role for people long denied a culture of their own? If it is the former, then how can it be distinguished from other theologically similar denominations (such as Armenians for example)? If it is the latter, then what can it do to expand the figurative tent and accept differing social and personal views? The Church needs to look no further than to controversies that wrack the Jews about access to the Western Wall for evidence of the power of such concerns.

There are also questions that immigrant Copts and their descendants must answer. What exactly are Copts if concern for Egypt is not a major part of their patrimony? How are they different from the majority of Christians among whom they live and prosper? Even those who are not ethnically Egyptian but wish to identify as Copts need to have Egypt closer to their hearts, and develop a sensitivity to the difficult conditions under which the Church and the community operate there.

These are difficult questions and must be addressed if hope is beyond the merely aspirational.

— Maged Atiya



A New Church For An Ancient Church


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



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