The Resurrection and Death of Salama Moussa


“Lo, the desert claims the land.Towns are ravaged, Upper Egypt became a wasteland Lo, everyone’s hair has fallen out Lo, great and small say, ‘I wish I were dead’ Lo, children of nobles are dashed against walls Infants are put on high ground Food is lacking Wearers of fine linen are beaten with sticks Ladies suffer like maidservants Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds Men stir up strife unopposed Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with laments See now the land deprived of kingship What the pyramid hid is empty The People are diminished.”

Lamentations of Ipuwer 2200 BCE

“The temples of the gods and goddesses from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta had gone to pieces. Their shrines had become desolate, had become mounds overgrown with weeds. Their sanctuaries were as if they had never been. Their halls were a footpath. The land was topsy-turvy and the gods turned their backs upon this land. If an army was sent to Syria to extend the frontiers of Egypt, no success of theirs came at all. If one prayed to a god to seek counsel from him, he would never come at all. If one made supplication  to a goddess similarly, she would never come at all.”

Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stela 1334 BCE

In his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others.

Manetho 300 BCE

The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged in the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe.

Fouad Ajami 1995

Travel across the Arabic-speaking world and a common theme emerges. It is encountered in the pitiful eye of strangers and in the questioning eye of the academic: what has happened to Egypt and the Egyptians?

Samuel Tadros 2018

On August 4 1958 the Egyptian writer Salama Moussa took his last breath. Half a century earlier, as a young man in Europe, he discovered how little he knows about the history of his land, or the culture of the West that he observed with fascination and admiration. The shy and introverted young man was not short on self-confidence or anger. Like his namesake he resolved to come back to his people with commandments on how to live their lives. Over the course of five decades he wrote books at the rate of one a year and published articles at the rate of one a week. He became known, indeed notorious, for the trouble he kicked up, and for his ability, in the words of Wadi’ Filistin, to make enemies and admirers. His hectoring on freedom of thought, sexual freedom, the rights of women, evolution, psychoanalysis, language and secularism came in jumbled but pointed streams. His people listened (when they did) and ignored most of his recommendations. They chose the certainty of what is known to fail over the uncertainty of what might succeed. He did not help matters by his own conduct. He urged strict birth control, but fathered eight children. He advocated sexual freedom and open marriage, but lived a conventional middle class life. He simultaneously urged people to build businesses and the government to control the economy. He railed against religious superstition, but found himself embroiled in matters of church governance. He insisted that Arabic was retarding the growth of his country but wrote exclusively in it. He insisted that freedom of thought was paramount in any cultural project, yet supported the 1952 coup and participated in the Third Arab writers conference a few months before his death, an event that Albert Hourani defined as the moment of death for the liberal age that Moussa had championed for most of his life. Yet all his contradictions did not stop his contemporaries from admiring him or hating him, and on occasions both. The list of those who called him a mentor is long, so is the list of those who found him insufferable. ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad, once a friend, became a bitter enemy and they continued to battle to old age, when a year or so before Moussa’s death ‘Aqqad swore never to argue again with this “despicable communist”. Taha Hussein admired his passion in defense of shared opinions, but was stung by his attacks on Arabic, and his wholesale condemnation of all Egyptian ‘Udaba’ (intellectual) as mere servants of the rulers. His death came roughly half way between two events that symbolized the demise of his project; the conference mentioned above and the January 1 1959 wholesale arrest of many of Egypt’s leftist intellectuals as “communists”. He thundered that the Egyptians deserve a “literature of the people” rather than the fare imposed on them by their intellectuals. But when the people chose, it was not fine literature but religious hectoring and political conspiracies that carried the day. He dreamt of the day when hundreds of outlets would cater to the people without elite intervention. The day has arrived and he would be aghast at what the people choose to consume. Egypt, two generations after his passing, stands in reprimand of all that he dreamt for it. Yet, were he alive today, he would likely insist that all is not lost.

The eulogies came quickly after his passing and continued for decades, with all of them predicting, in one way or another, that he will consigned to obscurity. Immediately after his death, Hussein Fawzy gloomily noted that “When Salama Moussa realizes his rightful place in the country’s history, and when his country prizes him, then I will feel that my country acknowledges the rightful place of free thought, intellectual courage and scientific inquiry”. In a set of reflections on intellectual history of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz noted that “Salama Moussa was a man of the future, always committed to social justice, industrialization, scientific knowledge and democracy. He stood against all superstitions. I am his student and affected by all his thoughts, except his dedication to the West”. The Lebanese academic Khalil Bitar noted in 2007, with his country’s civil war in the rearview mirror, that Moussa was unlike intellectuals of his generation in “refusing to blame others for the failures of their society, and largely forgotten for insisting that sectarianism is the ruin of all societies, Eastern or Western”. Even Mohamed Hassanein Heikal lamented that “he was an important intellectual but never given his due”. It is hardly surprising that Moussa would be forgotten, given how Egypt has drifted away from his vision in the past six decades. Religion has not become a private pursuit, but a matter of contentious, even lethal, public policy. Women experience the patriarchal oppression with more not less force. Freedom of thought and expression are mythical, less for the heavy hand of the state than the oppressive nature of the society. Almost everything the man has wished for his countrymen has been rejected by them. Yet he is not totally forgotten; every few years one thinker or another brings up his memory, attempts a resurrection before consigning him to forgetfulness again. A retrospective of the man, published by Fikry Andrawous and available only in Arabic, continues to fly off the shelves in Cairo. Young men continue to discover this writings and be profoundly, and largely privately, affected by them. Andrawous dedicates nearly 70 pages to such testimony. A typical one comes from Maged Moustapha Ibrahim. As a young college student in the early 1980s he was stricken with a serious case of boredom by the decrepit intellectual atmosphere around him. One day he came upon the “The Education of Salama Moussa”, and within days he was traveling with a book bag full of Moussa’s writings and reading nothing else. The implicit question in such tales is “what happened to us? what happened to our brain?”. This is the cry of the Egyptians at an “intermediate period”; what historians label centuries of chaos sandwiched between bursts of glory and brilliance.

Living in the intermediate age while empowered by easy communication tools has generated a peculiar sort of non-verbal laments. Dozens of social media and other accounts are dedicated to evidence of how Egypt once looked. The women went about in fetching sun dresses. Men kept their hands off them. The beaches were free and the people frolicked in flimsy swimsuits. The streets were orderly and clean. People from all around the region flocked to Egypt as a beacon and a destination. People fear “state failure”, but Egypt in the current intermediate period is a not a failure. It is a joke. The remedy, all insist, is to reject the current false idols and go back to the true gods. This has always been the recipe for any intermediate age. Psalm 115, pinched by the Jews from an ancient Egyptian hymn, makes the point.

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

For all his errors and peculiarities, Moussa understood one important insight about Egypt, and hammered the point home with his signature inelegance. It is a point made in a very different manner by Freud about the mythical founder of his people in “Moses and Monotheism”. The root of Egypt is the root of Western civilization. If the Egyptians were to take the current salafism to its logical end they would find themselves deeply attached to the West they admire, hate, attack and court its favor. It is perhaps why the peculiar and difficult man experiences a cycle of resurrection and burial, an ancient habit of his kin, the people who ushered in the Axial age and then proceeded to smash it to bits.

— Maged Atiya

Descent of Men (Egypt Edition)

The outlines of the case are simple. The mob came to the home of a Christian man accused of dishonoring a Muslim woman by offering his love. They torched some nearby homes of other Christians. The mob dragged out his mother, disrobed her and paraded her naked through the streets. The police arrived much too late to prevent the spectacle. The Governor of the province (Minya) blamed the entire matter on the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no evidence that the crowd was demanding the return of Morsi, nor that they had just put down their copies of Sayyid Qutb and sprang into action fired by the zeal of his writing. In any case, had the crowd been composed of partisans of the Brotherhood the police would likely have shown more alacrity and less restraint.

Naturally, many will file this case under the heading of “Sectarianism”. And it does qualify for that perennial and tiring problem of religious bigotry in Egypt. But this observer wishes to call another aspect to attention; that of misogyny. The bias against women in Egypt is one that transcends the religious divide and has profound and retarding effect on the nation. What we have witnessed in the last decades is nothing less than the descent of Egyptian men. Even if all the Christians were to disappear from Egypt, the underlying illness captured in this episode will continue to haunt the country.

First, why should an affair between a Muslim woman and a Christian man be more offensive than one between a Muslim man and a Christian woman? It is not the religion but the gender. It is not for this observer to sort out whether misogyny is built into “Islam” or merely a construct of its interpreters. Islam, like any religion, is capacious enough to contain whatever good or ill its faithful can crowd into it. In any case, no religion has a monopoly on misogyny. The point is that the events contain many tell tale signs of the dangers such feelings pose to the country, and of the prevalence of those feelings among many, including Islamists, secular authoritarians, nominal progressives and every shade in between.

The Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamists in general, maybe innocent in these events, but not in others. They have sought to reform society by imposing the will of of one half on the other half. Women are “protected” by the paradoxical acts of gently covering hair which lacks nerve cells and savaging genitals which have them in abundance. Their vision of an upright land where every woman is invisible and silent contradicts all evidence of what makes a free and prosperous society. Nor are the so-called revolutionaries innocent of such feelings. Few want to remember the case of a CBS reporter stripped and nearly raped in the midst of the euphoria celebrating “freedom” from a supposed dictator. To the victim of the assault it must have seemed that every male celebrant is a potential oppressor or worse. The military, the vaunted protector of “mother” Egypt’s integrity and honor is also not immune to misogyny. It saw fit to poke between the legs of young women to prove the decency of its men. Sexual freedom and autonomy of women remain a proxy for rebellion. The religious authorities, both Muslim and Christian, are entirely male. They will undoubtedly rush to make sure that the ordeal of one old woman does not mar “brotherly” feelings among Egyptians of differing faiths. Every woman who lives in or visits Egypt can attest that harassment can come from such a wide variety of sources that it transcends ideology.

All that brings us to a grim conclusion. It hard to see how Egypt can progress when in a crowd of hundreds of men not one had enough Shahama to cover the nakedness of an old woman. Even the beasts of Dr Moreau have tried and cried “Are we not men?”.

— Maged Atiya


Warning signs

A recent New York Times article about the Muslim Brotherhood new strong man, Khairat el-Shater, was gushing to a fault. Yet embedded in the article are all the flashing yellow lights necessary to give a thinking person pause about the new clothes of the Brothers. The article portrays them as kith and kin to US Republicans. Conservative religious types who believe in the Free Market and party discipline. Somewhere towards the end of the article we are reminded that the deputy leader frowns on women talking to men other than their immediate relatives, even on the phone.

We now look back with amazement at all the European Socialists who ignored the warning signs of the Russian Communist party, insisting that time will moderate these tendencies, and even justifying them as necessary to create an effective movement and governance. It is not very different now. A man who controls his “women” in such a complete and total fashion is unlikely to brook any opposition ? Just ask Aboul Foutoh.

In the Country of Women

The irreplaceable Salah Jahin had a stable of characters for his sharp cartoons. One biting pair was a husband and wife couple dubbed “Samsoon wa Zaleellah”, a play on the Biblical Samson and Delilah as well as on the colloquial Egyptian word for a beaten-down servant (Zaleel). The man is perpetually in a tank top covering his ample girth, his head balding with an unruly mop of hair. The woman is always disheveled in a house dress.  The man usually makes idiotic and pompous pronouncements and the woman always answers in a servile but clear and biting way.

The situation for women in Egypt has not improved since the death of Jahin a quarter century ago. One of the fables making the rounds lately is that Mubarak never really wanted his son to follow him, it was his wife Suzanne that pushed him into it. This is a convenient story for the Generals who served Mubarak for over 2 decades but turned against him when it seemed that Gamal was a shoe-in.  The great Baba they served was never that wrong, it is that witch of a wife that did it. To the potent brew of misogyny, the observation that Suzanne is “half-Egyptian” adds a strong after-kick of Xenophobia.  Almost identical charges were whispered against Sadat’s wife. Nasser’s wife (who was also “half-Egyptian”) was spared the wagging tongues. It is no wonder that one of the items that came up in the discussion about the new constitution was that the President’s wife needs to be “fully” Egyptian.

There is no Intrade for Egyptian politics and societal changes. If there were, I would bet massively on a change coming from the women’s direction. Egyptian will never be fully free, nor fully functional, till this tetchy patriarchy meets its end. It may take decades though.