The above cartoon, promoted by many official and Church channels in Egypt provides an equation (reminisceint of old style Socialist Realism agitprop)
Muslim + Christian = Egypt
A more relevant equation for all to contemplate is
Egypt – Christians = ?
— Maged Atiya
Several days after the terrorist explosion at the Boutrosiya Church Egypt is still dealing with its repercussions. A state funeral for the 25 victims, mostly women and children, was tightly organized. President Sisi attended and read out the name of the suspect. Later, Pope Tawadros II presided over the services for the victims, who were interned after scenes of heart-rending grief. Today the Egyptian government announced that the Army will undertake the repair of the Church in 15 days. While the alacrity is commendable, it is also unnecessary, and possibly counter-productive. Anything less than an exacting restoration will add to the grief of the community and further diminish Egypt’s dwindling cultural heritage. The Church represents a unique history and the preservation of its structure to the standards of its builders should be the primary goal of the effort, not speed.
The Boutrosiya was built to honor and serve as resting place for the only Coptic Prime Minister in Egypt’s history, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, in a crime tinged with sectarian feelings. His three sons undertook the construction effort; the learned Naguib, a one time government official and philanthropist; the worldly Wassif, the Foreign Minister who negotiated for Egypt’s independence from Britain, and the private Youssef, who bought and tended his brother’s lands, and was father to diplomat and UN Secretary General Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali and grandfather to the man responsible for Egypt’s economic turnaround in the late Mubarak years, Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali. The sons spared no effort to build the most magnificent structure they can afford. When Egyptian artisans could not do well enough, they imported Italians. It opened as a trumpet call announcing their faith to fellow Copts, their prominence to all Egyptians, and Egypt’s rising status to outsiders. If the Church was built to project power and status, it was also appropriated for an entirely different purpose by another of Boutros Ghali’s grandsons, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The grounds served as home for much of Merrit’s cultural interests and outreach. Merrit, a polymath who was fluent in several European and African tongues, established the Society of Coptic Archaeology and ran it from the Church (actually a misnomer since he undertook repair of Islamic antiquities as well). At one time, the Church contained over 13,000 volumes of books, some exceedingly rare. He made friends with many other scholars, who followed his template to establish other cultural centers and initiated a variety of efforts. Men such as Murqus Simaykah, who founded the Coptic Museum, Yassa ‘Abd El Messih, who cataloged the St Catherine Monastery rare collection, Sami Gabra, who co-founded the Society of Coptic Archeology, and with Aziz Atiya, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Labib Habachi, who excavated Nubia for the University of Chicago, Ragheb Muftah who rescued ancient Coptic Church music from oblivion, and many others too numerous to name in a short post. All these men passed through the Church at one time or another because of Merrit. These were interstitial men, neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, yet better able to bridge the cultural divides. Most wanted to serve Egypt, but the confluence of Army men and Muslim Brothers made them focus more closely on Coptic culture. Even there, they struggled mightily to raise scholarship to eminence above hagiography, and sometimes suffered Clerical reproach for it. For these men, work was prayer and learning a higher piety. They elevated their fellow Copts, even if the majority is barely able to recall either their names or their accomplishments, much less so other Egyptians.
The notion that the Army can fully and faithfully repair, in 15 days, significant damage to the Church which was a background to these activities seems miraculous. It is more likely that the job will be hastily done to meet a political deadline. The Church hierarchy may feel compelled to accept this seemingly generous offer, but lay Copts, especially those abroad, should advise caution. This is a historic site, and excellent restoration can be done, but likely at a painstaking pace. It deserves no less. As does the memory of men who strove to elevate their peers. The work of nations is varied, but the building of a nation is primarily cultural. A meticulous effort, supported by a communally raised fund, and done under private supervision of qualified art historians and restorers may well be the single ray of light in this bleak episode.
— Maged Atiya
In almost all Coptic Churches women and children sit in separate pews from men. At the end of the liturgies, both groups crowd the Altar to receive Communion. It is usually a joyous occasion, as the faithful are a bit closer to heaven than to their quotidian worries. At a little before 10 AM Cairo time, 8 AM GMT, on Sunday December 11 2016 an explosive device ripped through the women’s section in the Boutrossiya Church in Abassyia, Cairo, killing 25 mostly women and children, and injuring dozens more, some of whom are barely clinging to life. When the dust settled, the responses were familiar. The Egyptian State expressed outrage at the terrorists it has been battling for the better part of 50 years. The Coptic Church reminded its flock, in all likelihood needlessly, of the words of Tertullian. Outside observers who felt capable and eager to opine on such matters placed the blame on a variety of historic ills and practices. Most arguments felt tired and worn out, as most people have barely inched from their deeply held beliefs and saw the occasion as an opportunity for further hectoring. Well meaning souls from around the world extended prayers to Copts, who are notorious for the frequency and length of their prayers. Sending prayers to Copts is about as useful as dousing a drowning man with water.
All that was too late for sisters Marina and Veronia Faheem Helmy, and for Ensaf Adel Kamel, and Ensaf-adel and Aida Mikhail and Eman Youssef and Amany Saad and Amany-Saad-Aziz and Neveen Adel Salama and Regina Raafat and Nadia Raymond Shehata and Nadia-Raymond and Varina Emad Amin and Samia Gameel and Sohair Mahrous and Mohsen Elios and Widad Wahba and Samia Fawzy and Marcelle Guirguis and Neveen Nabil Youssef and Jihan Albert and Suad Atta Bishara and Sabah Wadih Yesa and Nabil Habib Abdallah, and for many more victims. Liturgies will be read for them today, and their souls consigned to Heaven, and sadness at their passing assigned to those who survived them and will forever miss them. But what about the living? What can be done for them?
The response to such an event should be grounded in reason, not anger; in desire to protect the living rather than merely avenge the dead; and to display an unwavering commitment to the sanctity of every life. One modest proposal, which skips past all the grand plans for historical changes, is to borrow from practices seen around the world in public buildings. Copts should protect their own Churches more effectively, to save lives and frustrate terrorists. The proposal is simple. The Church and the community can purchase their own detection devices and employ, at their expense, a civilian corp to man them. We are bound to hear from conspiracy-obsessed Egypt that such an act is a prelude to a “Coptic militia” to “divide Egypt”. If such concerns are valid, then they could easily be put to rest with simple steps. The corp should be unarmed, composed of men and women who are Egyptian citizens and of Muslim faith. The leader should be a government security official. The State can vet potential members, who should be paid handsomely, as it does the current police and army officers. The President of the Republic should be able to disband this corp at any time, and without giving reason, by a simple decree. This is hardly a cure for the persistent sectarianism of Egypt. A future happier Egypt should not need such a corp. Until then, we can at least save a few lives.
— Maged Atiya
“ty·rant \ˈtī-rənt\. One who obtains absolute executive power by appeals to factions of the people. Originally made with no reference to character”
Tyrants, like viruses, come in many kinds. As with viruses that attack the immune system, the most dangerous tyrants disable the human bullshit detection system. Such tyrants remain beloved by their people long after the stick has been repeatedly applied. The hobby of studying lovable tyrants, born of some necessity, produces a manual for how to become one.
First, you must have a grand goal, a destination so far away, and so enticing, that followers will want to endure the brutal journey to the paradise at the end. A lovable tyrant should not seek a 4% GDP growth, but the total elimination of poverty and suffering. In such a fashion, after all ills are tallied, people can still say “he meant well”. The long harangues and repeated beatings are made bearable, even justifiable, by warnings and promises of devils and angels. It is not works, but the inscrutable grace of the people that redeems lovable tyrants.
Second, you must acquire powerful enemies. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that the people you beat will feel uplifted in watching you get battered by the powerful. This is an evident truth in one of the most profound intellectual works about oppression and resistance, the 1967 movie “ Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman. Never ever let on that you are coming at ‘em with nothin’.
Third, and this is also a lesson from that film, look sharp while at it. Politics is theater, and tyranny is the grandest of theater. But you must look sharp in a new and original way, one that reveals in an off-handed fashion how little you care for convention. Once you break one convention, you can break them all. Lovable tyranny is a bit like a drunken party, it never ends with breaking just one glass. The people you oppress invariably come in two genders. One must swoon and the other must turn green with envy at that swoon. You are now lodged in their brain, they can no more eject you than they can perform a self-lobotomy.
Fourth, get yourself a Boswell, a scrivener, a Heikal or a Marquez, who will sing great epics in exchange for crumbs of approval. This will guarantee that some tweedy academics in far and free lands will mine your shit for pearls, because contrary theses generate the requisite publicity. Again seek ye guidance in “Cool Hand Luke”. The loser and small time con man, Paul Newman, became the celebrated leader of the downtrodden prisoners only after George Kennedy sang of him.
Above all, be on the lookout for Andersen’s little boy. He comes in many varieties, including the one who, when assigned an art class project to draw you in all your glory, did so featuring you, factually, in a tank top with a cigarette.
— Maged Atiya
“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 conscience” Sati’ 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
As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation. It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.
Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.
Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife”
The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.
— Maged Atiya
Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.
The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian, as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.
The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.
The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.
— Maged Atiya