Leaving Low Earth Orbit

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On the sunny afternoon of December 21 1968 an orange sailed through the open glass windows in a Heliopolis apartment in Cairo. The projectile bounced once on the floor of the boys room before it came to a halt under a photograph of the family. Adults blamed the entire episode on wayward boys in the neighborhood. But the older boy had an unlikely explanation which he kept to himself. He imagined that the orange was tossed his way by Jim Lovell, the second in command of Apollo 8, and a man he came to idolize for no particular reason. The vessel had just been launched in far away Florida, but the boy had kept close track of the entire mission even before launch. Two decades later, after a lecture by Lovell, the grown man wanted to introduce himself and mention the orange, but did not, to his regret.

The race to the moon, and the bets placed on the eventual first arrival, occupied minds throughout the 1960s, and whether one favored the United States or the Soviet Union depended largely on the person’s political orientation. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Egyptian television played a short snippet of one of his sermons, the boy’s favors swung toward the Americans. He watched with some trepidation as a squat and ungainly Soviet tub, dubbed Zond 6, carrying a turtle and a number of smaller critters orbited the moon in an eccentric manner during the latter part of November 1968, before skipping back to earth and crashing in the wilds of Kazakhstan, killing all animals on board, small and smaller. But his excitement soared as the closing act of 1968 belonged to the spectacular vessel called Apollo 8, launched from America and piloted by Americans. The closing weeks of 1968 were notable in Egypt by the fact that the state media gave prominent play to Apollo 8. It was a significant departure from its hereto skewed reporting which hailed every Soviet achievement and downplayed every American one. There were daily reports of the accomplishments of Apollo 8, and on the day after its safe arrival back on earth, December 28 1968, the stations promised a full half hour documentary on Apollo 8. For the passionate follower of the space program the documentary seemed a suitable present on his birthday. He fidgeted all day waiting for it. His birthday fell awkwardly during a fast, making the idea of a cake out of the question; instead it was always celebrated with some variation of fruits or vegetarian delicacy topped with a single candle. On this day he had no wish to linger on a celebration and was eager to rush to the TV and watch the documentary which delivered everything it promised and more.

What the documentary promised were photographs of the earth and the moon and footage of the men inside their capsule and of the heavenly bodies outside it. There were certainly those, in full black and white graininess. The documentary also delivered more than it promised, albeit in an intangible form. There was the awe imprinted on the young viewer of the vastness of the distance between the earth and the moon, and the comparatively insignificant size of the vessel. Apollo 8 traveled more than 100 times farther than Columbus, in a vessel smaller than his and with no possibility of patching up leaks while sailing toward its destination. Jim Lovell’s error of wiping out the computer memory and reorienting the vessel by the stars was a throwback to an earlier era of technology, but also an affirmation of the indispensable place of craft in all journeys of discovery. The boy found the diagrams and illustrations of the earth, moon and the vessel entirely unsatisfying, due to their truncated perspective. Instead, and only to comprehend the scale of the enterprise, he placed the orange which he had kept from days earlier on one end of the long hallway in the apartment, and on the other end he placed a playing marble. He tweaked the distances to approximate that between the earth and the moon. He could not find a satisfying stand-in for Apollo. Even an ant would have been too big, and insufficiently majestic. He imagined Apollo, too tiny to see on his reconstruction, racing toward the moon, carrying within it even smaller creatures. These creatures were his heroes. His sunday school teacher had tried to convince him, mostly in vain, of the existence of God based on the vastness and the unlikeliness of the universe. But in the hallway of his home he came to comprehend the true wonder of human existence, the inexplicable ability of tiny creatures to venture to places utterly inhospitable to their weak forms.

The birthday documentary began to pull America into view. Immigration was a near certainty now, and only a matter of months away. There was the excitement of tunneling out of Egypt, of whose failures he had become tired and ashamed. But America had remained elusive in spite of his diligent research. He memorized the names of all 50 states and their capitals. He collected road maps of the country and many of the bigger cities. He listened to the vinyl discs that came from America by couriers. He had followed the presidential campaign, and the mysterious Electoral College. He imagined that forsaking his tribe would be easy, but what American tribe would he belong to? Apollo 8 mission control offered a tentative answer. The tribe of men who seemed able to do complex things without any seeming effort. They spoke in acronyms with hushed and even tones, whether the matter at hand was routine or catastrophic. Their uniform of short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and half-rimmed glasses signaled a welcome otherness. Neither birth nor kinship guaranteed membership in that tribe; the price of belonging was facility with arcane knowledge. He listened carefully to their clipped chatter. They reduced the terrifying act of leaving earth’s embrace into a comfortable three letter acronym, TLI. Trans Lunar Injection. This was quite a departure from the world he had known so far, where daily acts of stupidity were celebrated with great fanfare. Three men were commanded to escape their home planet into the vastness of space with a single understated sentence, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI. Over”.  A reporter’s comment, heard faintly in the background, provided a succinct summary of the event. Leaving low earth orbit. Low Earth Orbit, LEO. That phrase stuck with the boy as a metaphor for all that was about to happen to him. It captured in equal measures the excitement and fear of leaving home. In his hallway construction immigration was but a small move, from one section of the orange to another. But he saw it as something closer to the first ever human departure from earth’s influence. Immigration would happen weeks after Apollo 11, and it would start with a walk down the hallway from the bedroom to the foyer; from the orange to the marble. While a few family members said their goodbyes in the early morning light, he imagined himself leaving low earth orbit. America neither kept the promises of 1969, nor disappointed in a larger sense. In the tumult of the 1970s, many radicals attacked the space program, and even science itself. He took no effort to argue with them, feeling that they are simply bound to the gravitational pull they had never questioned. The country as a whole abandoned the promises of the Apollo program, confining humans to low earth orbit, but spectacular machines made further journeys; the Voyager twins, and the Mars expeditions did not send humans out of earth orbit, only the fruits of their mental labors. While the language of science, and the space program, crept into his daily expressions, he tried to keep LEO private. Once, while castigating one of his graduate students for aiming too low, he demanded “you really needed to leave low earth orbit on this issue”. The student, just a few years younger, was puzzled by the expression but adopted it anyway. Soon enough it was common around his lab. LEO was a synonym for any effort deemed lacking in imagination, poorly executed or simply boring. A better-funded competing group across the country was described as a “a bunch of LEOs”. He regretted the public use of what had been his private phrase. But the idea of leaving low earth orbit remained as a metaphor for any worthwhile venture; leaving the comfortable and combating the unknown before returning to the familiar. He counted himself lucky in a number of ways, but mostly in having the freedom to occasionally leave the familiar and experience the anxiety of the unknown. In escaping low earth orbit he would find delight in not belonging and redemption in transgressing without fanfare. He would never find comfort in the assurances of religion or the musings of philosophers. For him life was too incomprehensible and random. It made sense solely within its context and only by its ever-shifting rules. The trepidation of its inevitable waning made bearable by the thought of it as one exciting preparation for a final departure from low earth orbit.

— Maged Atiya

From “Tales of Immigration”


September 11 and the “Eastern Question”

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In 1957 an Egyptian historian was appointed to the prestigious Patten lectureship at Indiana University. He used the occasion to give a series of lectures on a subject that had occupied him for more than 30 years. In 1961 the lectures were assembled into a slim book, just 280 pages including the indexes. The book would have been much larger, but the historiography and bibliography were assembled into a separate volume, nearly 200 pages long. This blogger is the current custodian of the author’s own first copy of both volumes and can attest that the historiography is far more thumbed than the main volume.The author had a life-long habit of stating his ambitious, even radical intellectual plans, in an understated preface. Perhaps it was his village upbringing that left him with the conviction that modesty and humility are life’s best insurance against the caprice of fortune or the disapproval of God. Of the subject matter knowledge he accumulated over the course of three decades on three continents he says “I never had the courage to attempt a general treatise on this vast and variegated sphere of historical knowledge … until the time of the invitation to the Patten Lectures. Since a major condition was the delivery of the text of the lectures for publication … I had no choice but to succumb to the temptation which I had been able to resist for many years”. This was the preface of Aziz Atiya’s “Crusade, Commerce and Culture”, a remarkable and now prescient book. Of the subject he notes “I have attempted a distinction between the Crusade, a movement with roots deep in the Greco-Persian-Arabic past, and the Crusades as a series of military ventures limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. With that sweeping and radical statement, it comes as no surprise that the author describes the Crusades as one attempted solution for a historical problem that continues to our day, the “Eastern Question”. The Crusades were merely a phase, a “Frankish Solution” to that question, and neither the first nor the last. The author explicitly states that the “Eastern Question” is narrowly understood to be the definition of the European powers’ concern over what would become of the lands governed by the declining Ottoman Empire, but he notes that the concern is yet another episode of a larger cultural struggle between two worlds, and one that finds it nexus in the Levant.

The book opens with a summary of the various attempted solutions to the Eastern Question, from Alexander the Great, to the Roman occupation of the East, to the Byzantine dominance, the rise of the Arabs and Islam, the Carolingian solution and finally to the Crusades themselves. He gives one of the most concise and brief definition of a then not-yet fashionable term in the West, “Jihad”, before dropping it altogether in favor of a more neutral term, “Counter Crusades”. The author is rather comfortable with many concepts that we now try to avoid in Western intellectual discourse. There is the essential cultural difference between “East” and “West”, on which he finds no side to favor. The author started his intellectual life as an Easterner with a Western education and completed it as a Westerner with Eastern roots. That arc left him with appreciation for both and no fear of delineating differences while noting the larger human commonalities, which materialized in the exchange of goods and ideas; commerce and culture, in that order. He notes that both the Crusades and Counter-Crusades (Jihad) were holy wars indeed, which makes them not the opposite of peace, but the opposite of secular wars. He experienced several such wars in his lifetime, and all of them were crueler and more destructive than the skirmishes he chronicles. He gives in a single page a radical and alternative history of the Islamic conquests, not as a result of Islam, but as a continuation of earlier infiltration of Arab irregulars into the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. This view of early Islam (later expanded and endorsed by such scholars as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Glen Bowersock) was likely the result of his copious research in early non Islamic sources in the crucial seventh century C.E. He notes that the continuous competition between West and East co-existed with a great of mutual attraction between the two worlds. Of Alexander the Great he says “Curiously, Alexander who Hellenized wide areas in Asia and who married his soldiers to the daughters of Iran in order to create a uniform Greco-Iranian nation, became himself in the end an Oriental potentate”.  The author’s take on the Jewish revolt of 117 C.E. is also a radical one, defining it as “first instance on record of what might justly be described as wars of religion”. A single and jealous God left no room for the compromises of multiple deities, and would endow those who had faith in him with resolve, a sense of divine law and justice, and on occasions wanton cruelty in defense of uncompromising belief. The Jewish wars, the growth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam mark a fateful junction in human history. “Hitherto, the Eastern Question had been one of race and culture. At this juncture, it became a religious problem”. The impressive research and  rich historical details in the book, especially in the discussion of commerce and culture, make it difficult to take sides in what amounts to a “clash of civilization”. The author remains a detached referee, handing out yellow cards to one side or the other without fear or favor. It is clear that he views the differences in world views as nearly insurmountable, but wishes them to return to an earlier form, that of culture rather than religion. The book had a valedictory air to it, as he never went back to a similar systematic study. The remaining 30 years of his life were spent in the collection of books and the study of Eastern Christianity. He was also fascinated by the burgeoning phenomena of Western Islam, transmitted to him by many Muslim friends who took up residence in the West.

Almost exactly 32 years after the publication of the book, Samuel Huntington took up the same thesis, but with less historical sweep, in the “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington accepted the alignment of Western values with Christianity, and formulated the regrettable notion of “Islam’s bloody borders”. The borders had been bloody before Islam, and although we can never prove it, would have likely remained bloody absent the rise of Islam. The identification of Christianity with Western values left the Eastern Christians behind front lines they did not intend to create, nor were willing to cross. Atiya, a Copt by baptism, was keenly aware of the rapid Islamization of Egypt and the Levant after the Crusades. The alignment of Western and Christian values was the choice of the West, not the Christians. The West set about purging its perceived domain of Islam, and any domain that was not amenable to such a purge was declared non-Western.

In the author’s view the fundamental dichotomy between West and East was not alleviated by religious commonality. He blames Byzantium’s suppression of Eastern Christians for the ease with which the Arab armies seized the Levant and Egypt, and notes that “The growth of peace, justice and security in the countries of the Levant was accompanied by the steady development of a new superior Arab civilization to which the Eastern Christians contributed no mean share”. The subsequent 300 years of mutual diplomacy and peace between West and East, the Carolingian solution, ended with the age of the Crusades. The author notes “Strictly speaking, Muslim terrorism as the order of the day in the Near East must be identified with the predominance of the Turks, who were new to Islam and had no comprehension of the language of the Qur’an”. This view, which must seem odd today, was in fact a not uncommon discourse among nationalist Egyptian intellectuals during that time, who prefered to champion racial cohesion over religious differences. The author demonstrates how during the “Carolingian solution” the West accepted the essentially Eastern nature of their Christian faith as demonstrated by the great effort and expense that went into promoting pilgrimages and visits to the East. The notion of Christianity as a “Western religion”, was not a cause of the Crusades but a result of them. The Crusades were raised by a French Pope, and represented the “Frankish solution” of the Eastern question. Although in territorial terms they failed to secure any foothold for the West in the Levant, they were to launch the rise of the warlike West, fatally injure Eastern Christianity, and initiate a long term decline of Arab and Muslim culture.

On every September 11 since 2001, the themes of that book come to mind. For a moment after the attack President George Bush slipped and described the response as a “crusade” before quickly walking back his comment. The terrorists had no compunction about describing their crimes in religious terms. The question that comes to mind, 17 years after that event, is whether we must continue to relive the “Eastern Question”, or whether a fundamentally different outlook must prevail, for the sake of every newborn on all sides of the divide.

— Maged Atiya

 


King of the Copts

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On April 14 1977, at 1 PM, a commercial airliner touched down at Kennedy Airport in New York City, carrying the Patriarch of all the Copts. Few Coptic patriarchs had ever ventured outside Egypt, and those who did went to places such as Ethiopia. Hours before the touchdown the TWA terminal teemed with Egyptians, so many that the overflow crowd stood outside the terminal and into the parking lot. As soon as the Patriarch stepped off the plane a crowd of dignitaries rushed to greet him with enthusiasm and the usual Egyptian insouciance toward personal space. The greeters included priests and bishops, diplomats and notables, common folks who were lucky enough to make it to the front row, and a single cameraman who recorded the venue for posterity in jittery and grainy details. The aural space was occupied by two dozen deacons, in vestments and with cymbals and triangles, who broke into ancient hymns in Coptic. Outside the terminal the crowd turned the place into a festival of traditional reverence, newfound pride, and customary jostling. A young monk, recently arrived from Egypt, stood in the middle of traffic beaming beatifically. A New York City police officer approached him with gentle deference. “Padre, would you mind stepping onto the sidewalk?”. The monk smiled back insisting that “God wants me here”. Eventually he stepped onto the sidewalk, in perhaps a sign of God’s mercy on New York motorists. A man at the back of the crowd, near the parking lot, took up the unwise, and possibly sacrilegious chant “Shenouda, Shenouda Malik Al Aqbat”. (Shenouda, King of the Copts). No one seemed to follow him and he eventually gave up. A couple of Mukhabarat types hung out on the edges, easily recognizable by their sense of fashion, sunglasses and worn out shoes, representing the inability of Egyptian intelligence to blend in, or possibly its desire not to do so.

The raucous reception left one of the organizers of the visit in an ebullient mood. Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed had been seven years a priest, taking up the cloth in middle age after a long career as an academic historian. During these seven years he had become the senior pastor of St Mark church in Jersey City and a roving troubleshooter for all things Coptic in the United States. A few days after the arrival he exclaimed to some of his flock “God took our hand and guided us. We received our Patriarch like a King!”. Later in the year he edited the cameraman’s footage in a newsreel style file, providing the background commentary in a voice over suitable for historic events. Another organizer of the trip was more reserved in his assessment of the reception. Bishop Samuel had obtained more votes in the papal election six years earlier, only to lose to Shenouda in the altar lottery.  For over a quarter century he had been a fixture on the world stage, representing the Coptic church in various ecumenical councils. He wanted the visit to announce the return of Copts to an equal place in world Christianity, and the reception at JFK was too populist for his taste, as he told his close friends. Still, parts of the trip stayed close to Samuel’s plan. The Patriarch visited every major religious group in New York City. Shenouda arrived at the residence of Terence Cardinal Cooke in the company of a dozen Catholic and Coptic bishops and priests and held fairly amiable talks with the representative of a denomination that he clearly regarded as junior to his own. In a sign of brotherly love he gave the Cardinal an icon painted by Ishaak Fanous, considered one of the greatest of iconographers. Those in the know must have smiled at the presentation, for the Coptic Pope had recently prevented several of Fanous’ icons from being mounted in churches on account of their overtly Catholic manner. Fanous made no effort to hide his opinion of the Patriarch’s artistic judgement, and in time the relationship between the two men grew frosty. There were also visits to Greek and Armenian prelates, and a reception for Muslim Imams. There remained the tricky matter of Jewish religious leaders, as Egypt was still technically at war with Israel. Archbishop Iakovos resolved the matter in a characteristically forthright and blunt manner. He invited several Jewish rabbis (including Rabbi Arthur Schneier) to the gathering with the Coptic Pope and thus settled it. Samuel served as the host master for meetings with mainline Protestants, as many of their leaders were his long-time friends, and the meetings went without a hitch, likely to his relief. The visit to the UN was diplomatically correct, although Secretary General Kurt Waldheim did not expect the Pope to expound with vehemence on how to resolve the Middle East crisis. There was also a visit to the White House. Publicly everyone announced that the short meeting was amiable and friendly, but privately many noted that the President and the Pope did not warm to each other. There was the rumor, never confirmed, that Shenouda’s assessment of Carter was rather blunt, “Ragel broustangi ameen tayb wi ghalban” (A Protestant man of faith, kind and hapless). The Egyptian ambassador in DC pulled out all the stops and invited a host of diplomatic and religious leaders to a reception in the Pope’s honor. There was the rumor, again never confirmed, that the diplomat did so on personal instructions from President Sadat himself. These activities were, however, a side show to the real purpose of the Pope’s trip.

Fr. Ghobrial arranged the visit to be a total of 40 days, conscious of the iconic number. For most of these days, the Pope advanced through the American countryside in the manner of a royal claiming a new possession. He visited many churches, and dedicated as many as half a dozen new ones. The flock in every parish competed to show off their new churches. The lack of a church did not dissuade some congregations from availing themselves of a papal visit. The Long Island parish, totaling a 100 families, had no church.  A plot of land in Woodbury, meant to build a new house for a local doctor, was hurriedly contributed to the church by its generous owner, and the Pope blessed the first stone to be laid down. At the dedication, Catholic bishop McGann and the county executive, Ralph Caso, sat through the ceremony with commendable patience. New churches were dedicated in several states. The scripts was always the same. The Pope celebrated liturgies before retiring to the basement of the church to break bread with the faithful, answer their questions and offer his guidance. Some stood up to describe the “situation” in Egypt in unvarnished and unflattering terms. But the Pope would not hear of it. It is not that he disagreed with their assessment, but rather he felt that such matters are best not left to his children. Obedience and loyalty were his due, and for the most part his children agreed. It was the rare man or woman who disagreed with the Pope, or felt as one man said “in Egypt Sadat shuts me up, but in America the job falls to the Pope”, We have no record of what the patriarch thought of all of this, beyond the fulsome praise he publicly gave to his American flock. But time would show that it was the beginning of a dramatic change in the lives of the Copts.

Up until that trip the Pope had a distant interest in the American flock. His predecessor, Pope Kyrillous, thought little of immigration. For the previous decade the task of ministering to the new immigrants had fallen to Bishop Samuel. He came to America often, taking personal interest in the new immigrants; on most occasions staying in their homes, praying in their living rooms and sharing meals at their tables. The immigrants developed genuine love for the thoughtful and dynamic man. From the 1960s until his passing he offered practical solutions for their problems and thought deeply about the issues likely to be raised by immigration. He was neither a gifted speaker nor a natural writer and as a result the loyalties and the affection he earned were largely retail and personal. His care and actions should have made him the natural pastor to immigrant Copts. But the trip had changed something in the life of the community. Shenouda, a charismatic leader, secured loyalty with ease, and in the difficult decade to come, these loyalties played a dominant role in the lives of immigrant Copts, and would influence observers in Egypt deeply. The influence of Samuel would fade, and dramatically so four years later after his assassination alongside Sadat. Shenouda shaped the American Coptic church, even while in exile in a monastery. Few now remember that in the early 1980s an American federal court in Houston reaffirmed his role as the sole leader of the church rather than the papal committee. The case was brought on his behalf by American Copts. The community was divided, sure enough, but the force of Shenouda’s personality and Egypt’s history would reside with Shenouda’s partisans. Beginning in the 17th century Coptic lay “notables” assumed larger roles in the community, and in some cases sidelined the church in such matters as appointing bishops and managing church assets. That began to change in the late 19th century, and the century before the trip marked a tug of war between lay and church leaders. The 1952 revolution reordered the power relationships in Egypt, and wealthy lay Copts were on the decline in influence, both in the church and in the country at large. The immigrants that began to come to America in the late 1960s and 1970s were of the middle classes, many had benefited from Nasser’s educational reforms, but were marooned in their country with a degree and no decent job prospects, and increasingly uneasy about the islamization of the public sphere. Shenouda spoke to their needs, and seemed like one of them, while Samuel, for all the affection he garnered, seemed to recall an earlier age. A small incident illustrates the changes afoot at the time. An older women, a daughter of the old Coptic aristocracy, was in the reception line for Shenouda, with Samuel next to him. She bent down to kiss Samuel’s hand, and as expected he pulled his hand away and thrust the cross he carries forward so her lips touched the cross. She repeated the movement with Shenouda, but this time the Patriarch left his hand firmly in place. Afterwards, she was outraged, declaring to her friends that “even my father never asked me to kiss his hand!”. The rest of the people thought nothing of kissing Shenouda’s hand.

Shenouda wanted the immigrant churches to be disciplined outposts of the Egyptian church. His exile to a desert monastery and the growing social and official discrimination towards Egyptian Copts had the effect of binding the immigrant churches closer to Egypt. People close rank when under attack. The majority of Egyptian Copts felt that Shenouda stood up for them, and in his struggles they saw a reflection of their own. Slowly but inexorably he drew them inside the church walls, until the church became the center of their lives, and he, their father in both spiritual and worldly terms. But the immigrant Copts by and large suffered little discrimination, and their lives did not need to center around the church. Shenouda claimed them by presenting the Egyptian struggle as their own, and by a number of edicts and decisions, some theologically dubious such as insisting on rebaptism of the non-Coptic spouse in intermarriage. The tactics favored closing ranks over erecting an open tent. Influencing events in Egypt was, for many immigrant Copts, their due, a small compensation for the psychic pain they endured as a marginalized people in the country before immigration. For many Egyptians, including some Copts, the immigrants’ interest was a mixed blessing. But Shenouda felt that on the whole they represented an asset, and cultivated them through multiple visits, where he baptized their children and consecrated their churches and priests. But his tactics, and the immigrants’ acceptance of them, also delayed the necessary redefinition of a Coptic identity in immigration and away from simply being the Christians of Egypt. The immigrants were more reliable supporters than the old Coptic elite, of which he spoke derisively, “Are the elite just people with a particular philosophy or are they people with actual influence on the Copts in the Church?”, he asked of Abdel Latif El Menawy. The extinction of public intellectuals and civil society brought about by the Nasser revolution fell especially hard on the old Coptic grandees and intellectuals, but for Shenouda it was neither a calamity nor a trend to be resisted. He viewed these men, and the occasional woman, as lacking the fiber necessary to hold the community together during difficult times. He often said that any patriarch would have acted as he did, but this is hardly a statement of modesty; rather it is an attempt to forestall debate over his actions. In seeking to set up the church to make up for the deficits of the Egyptian state, especially towards the Copts, Shenouda fell into the trap predicted by Matta El Meskeen. A church that imitates the state will likely also inherit its corruption. The immigrant churches did nothing to counter such deviations, and in some cases unintentionally furthered them. A people living in economic security and cultural freedom chose to inherit the flaws created by a repressive society. The man who hailed Shenouda as “King of the Copts” in 1977 was wrong at the time, but prescient about the things to come.

Sooner or later new generations outside Egypt were bound to ask the question of what it means to be a Copt and seek their own path and their personal answers. They are beginning to ask for a different deal from the one their parents accepted from Shenouda. Their passions and support for Egyptian Copts still burn, but they are unlikely to accept a shushing in a church basement. Any patriarch succeeding a man who served for four decades, much less one with an outsized personality, is bound to have his hands full. There are entrenched interests with old loyalties, there are habits once novel now ingrained, and many who feel they could do a better job of leading. This is hardly unique to the Coptic church; it is simply human nature. Pope Tawadros’ II task is made more difficult by many circumstances, some outside his control, others of his own making. The tumult in Egypt and his own involvement with its politics are perhaps the lesser of all the issues that will matter on a historic scale. For the first time in 15 centuries, since Chalcedon when the Egyptian church chose its lonely path and when the common folks followed their leaders and withstood much oppression, the “Copts” will need an identity that transcends Egypt. The immigrant community, now more than 10 times larger than what it was 40 years ago, will likely play a major role in the evolution of the church, constructively or otherwise. The question will be as to what end is the value of social freedom and economic prosperity if they are not harnessed to affect a wider cultural improvement? Egypt will always matter, but its ways can be pushed aside, and some of what is learned in the new lands substituted for them. The rude but direct question is, do the Copts need a king or a patriarch? Will they bend down to kiss a hand or a cross?

— Maged Atiya

 

 


On the Egyptian Democratic Transition – Review of David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of the Soldiers”

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Once upon a time a US Democratic administration dedicated itself to a policy of freedom and prosperity around the world. In Egypt it placed its bets on young men who would reform the country’s corrupt social and political order and bring back greatness to the land, always described with the hackneyed phrase of “ancient”. The time was the summer of 1952 and the young men, almost all younger than 40, had thrown out the the young king, just 32, who had ruled for 16 years, growing fat, ridiculous and old beyond his age. A few weeks after the coup the New York Times sent its star reporter and chief London correspondent to Cairo to get a read on where Egypt is going. Clifton Daniel was no stranger to the country, having lived there and reported on the region and the turbulent events in Egypt after World War II. Daniel, an urbane mandarin and future husband to the US President’s daughter, knew everyone of note, and had even dined with King Farouk who criticized his table manners. In the late summer of 1952 he connected with many of his Egyptian friends including the young men of the liberal elite, politicians, diplomats, and a host of other academics and intellectuals. All seem to support the coup and hope that the men in uniform would reform the political system and establish Egyptian democracy on a firmer ground. The Times had reasons to expect Daniel to write a definitive article, or even a book, on the new Egypt. He never did. A quarter century later, recently retired as editor of the Times, he gave an extended talk to journalism students at Columbia University. A older woman in the audience asked him where he would go to report today if he could pick any spot. He did not hesitate; the Middle East and Egypt. Many of the men who supported the coup in 1952 reflected on what it had brought the country decades later and still insisted that their support was no error. “It was either the army or the Brotherhood”, many insisted.

The events of 2011 serve as an antipode to those of 1952. The 1952 coup turned into a revolution, while the revolution of 2011 turned into a coup. Improved communications and a radically changed America meant that an entirely different situation existed in 2011 than in 1952 for US reporters. Communism, the major concern in 1952 was dead in 2011, replaced by terrorism as the major threat. The US had changed radically as well; its President was a black man, the marriage of his parents would have been illegal in most of the US in 1952. The US continues to see itself as a force for freedom and prosperity, but with some hesitation and uncertainty, the result of failed wars and a creeping imperial order.  And the New York Times continues to send its star reporters to the region, especially Egypt. The man who happened to start his tenure on the threshold of these events has now written his version of them. David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of Soldiers” is a gripping book, cinematic and fast-paced as befits a first hand account of seismic shifts in a big country. The book is also a hard-boiled bildungsroman of a newly arrived reporter excited at the events he witnesses but ultimately growing jaded about the ways of the (and here is that word again) “ancient” land. Although that alone is worth the price of the book, there is much more to it than the disillusionment of David. Foreign correspondents will sometimes write the first draft of historical events based on eyewitness accounts. On occasions they will also deliver a nuanced understanding of the land they report on. The book is clearly an attempt at both, succeeding in the first task more clearly than in the second. The fearless and dedicated reporter in him will go anywhere and report on any event even at considerable personal risk. But Egypt leaves him at times surprised and perplexed. Any failure in the task of bridging understanding is less the fault of Kirkpatrick than in the rigid constraints imposed on him by his own culture, and more importantly the Egyptians’ culture. Late in the book he notes that his employer banned the use of the word “secular” about any Egyptian. This is a regrettable form of cultural determinism more than matched by the unfortunate habit among Egyptians of regarding any outside reporter not aping their favorite views as either a spy or an idiot. In reporting the events Kirkpatrick had to cut through the fog of tear gas. In reporting the intent behind the events the fog of misunderstandings proves much harder to wave away. The book has to be read and evaluated on the merits of three threads that run through it; the first hand accounts of the events, the representations of the back room maneuvers among many Egyptian and non-Egyptian actors that the reporter had access to by virtue of his position, and finally the broader lesson that these events leave with us. It is a tall order. Comparable to trying to understand plate tectonics using data from a single or a few earthquakes.

In the years of living madly between 2011 and 2014 Egypt seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Kirkpatrick was there in every major news event to report first hand. We come away with sympathy for a man who craved to do his job, however dangerous, while still trying to maintain a semi-orderly normal life with family, friends and colleagues. At dangerous moments his concern is often for his colleagues or interpreters, whom he sees sharing in the dangers but unlikely to share in the glory, and who will be in Egypt to experience the fallout long after he has gone onto other assignments. This concern adds texture to his reporting beyond what was already published in his dispatches. It is impossible not to feel sympathy, admiration, and perhaps a bit of envy, for the experiences he reports with sparse and rapid prose. He is eager to report on the events without becoming part of them or, when the bullets fly, a victim of them. The task is made harder by the Egyptians; some clearly wish to enlist a major Western paper as a witness for their cause, while others are certain that the reporters for these papers are misguided dupes or ill-intentioned meddlers. The degree of venom heaped on such publications, and on individual reporters, is a reflection of the polarized pathology of Egypt at the moment and also of how the events in Egypt became an element in the larger Western discourse about its attitudes and values. Still we have to be grateful for the record Kirkpatrick leaves us, even if at times one is aware of its limitations or of alternate versions. His first hand accounts are vastly superior to many other reporters in Egypt at the time, when some of them were so taken by the thrill of the barricades and the camaraderie with Egyptian actors, some of whom have suspect causes, that their dispatches become indistinguishable from agitprop.

Some things in Egypt never change, like the sun and the sand. Many of the actors in Kirkpatrick’s reporting are back on the stage to reprise roles they had previously played. One of the stars of his reporting is the police, who seem to delight, indeed take pride, in their culture of persistent impunity. In February 1968 a clutch of young boys from a private school in Heliopolis demonstrated against the light verdict for the officers responsible for the 1967 debacle. With voices not yet changed they screeched “Feen Al Qanoun” (Where is the law?). They were arrested and taken to the police station for the customary beating. One by one the boys were led into the captain’s office and made to recite their refrain. A young conscript, barely out of his teens, slapped each one around declaring “Ha Howa Al Qanoun” (This is the law). When done, each boy was asked a question “enta eh?” (what are you?) to which the expected answer is “Ana Masry” (I am an Egyptian). Kirkpatrick describes nearly identical events, only now more brutal. The Egyptian state, decades after Nasser, kept his fist but lost his smile, energy and charm. In his retelling of how Egyptian leaders view their fellow citizens we hear echoes of Nasser’s famous sad refrain “letting Egyptians participate in politics is like letting children play in traffic”. Even the title of the book echoes a phrase first made popular by Aziz Al Masry, head of the Egyptian army in the 1930s and a spiritual father to the Free Officers “The country is held together by the hand of the Army”. A seasoning in Egyptian history would have made the events of these years, however unpalatable, easily predictable. Kirkpatrick seems slightly aware that he too is a participant in the drama, his role having been played by many eminent actors before him. Egyptians crave outsiders to witness their spats and are keen to enlist them to favor one side or another. There is some comfort in that the author has done considerably better in his allotted role than many others before him. Kirkpatrick describes in vivid terms the chasm between different classes of Egyptian, symbolized by his two Arabic tutors. The reality is that every Egyptian contains a bit of each; a flammable combination of pride and a sense of inferiority and lost greatness. The narrative of loss is as old as Egypt; how the great land has declined and fallen. Westerners have sometimes contributed to that narrative, and Kirkpatrick does as well. But the remedies that the Egyptians and the outsiders recommend vary greatly. The Egyptians invariably look for the great man who will lead the country from the current intermediate period of chaos and into a new kingdom of greatness. The outsiders cannot fathom such an attitude and are invariably flummoxed by its manifestation. The disillusionment of David owes a great deal to that seemingly unchanged fact of this, yes again, ancient land.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the access Kirkpatrick had, as a star reporter for a major Western paper, to the inside players in the Egyptian serial drama of 2011 to 2014. Egyptian officials and powerful players were always eager to reach out and shape the narrative, even while cursing out the reporter as naive, bumbling or worse. US diplomats and government officials did as well, displaying an astounding combination of keen insights, deep understanding, wishful thinking and utter cluelessness. It almost never occurs to American officials that there is little the US can do about or to Egypt. After all, how can that be with a $70 Billion investment in Egypt’s military and the clear and unmistakable indications that its officers listen and heed the advice of the US?  A young Obama assistant, Ben Rhodes, gives flesh to these thoughts in carefully worded leaks to Kirkpatrick. But Rhodes knows little of Egypt, and in his constant banging about the clearly dead Egyptian democratic transition appears like the foolish characters in the Monty Python skit about a dead parrot. Older men and women, such as Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Joe Biden and Robert Gates have deeper knowledge and keener instincts. Yet Egypt disappoints them as well. Twenty five centuries ago a Greek warned that everything is backwards in Egypt. But neither he, nor the men and women who followed him took heed of that advice. In fact, even when fully in control of Egypt, well-meaning outsiders found it difficult to impose their will on the Egyptians. As both Augustus Caesar and Lord Cromer noted, the Egyptians often say “Yes” when they mean “No” and at times say “No” when they are sure that “Yes” is the right answer. The Egyptian air is thick with talks of meddling outside hands and conspiracies. Kirkpatrick provides a blow-by-blow of the various outside actors in the Egyptian drama, from top leaders to walk-on extras. From America, Obama is too distant in the narrative, even if his government officials are deeply involved. His ultimate detachment reflects a new reality; the US is a lesser player in Egypt than many other regional actors, such as the Gulf countries. Many will take the account in the book as proof that the US is not serious about democracy in Egypt. But the fact remains that the US can be no more serious about it than the Egyptians. In the first election since 1938 where the government did not tilt the scales, they narrowly elected a fool for president, rigged up an electoral system to give majorities to minorities, hold no one accountable, provide no checks and balances, and write constitutions in the manner of minor litigants at a traffic court. It is unfair to ask the US to support such a ramshackle structure. A solid Egyptian democracy, built on decent laws and ideas, needs no outside support. An Egyptian democracy needing an American ambassador to do shuttle diplomacy between political actors will collapse regardless of the words and actions of the most well meaning outsiders.

Kirkpatrick attempts to understand what the events he witnessed mean for Egypt and its future. This is the weakest part of the book, in part because he was denied access to many major sectors of Egyptian society and their views. The fault is largely with these sections of the society who locked him out as hopelessly biased. Many will read his thoughts as forgiving of, even favoring, the Islamists and their intentions. His sympathies are largely in the right places, such as reporting on the travails of women and the Copts, and in some cases with the right people, such as Mozn Hassan or Hossam Bahgat. In other cases, he fails to discern the motives or the seriousness of his native informants. Some of the throwaway comments in the book will give fodder to his critics. For example, he mentions that there was more freedom of speech during President Morsi’s tenure. It is true, but mostly as a reflection of his ineptitude at suppressing it than his belief in its value. He insists that more Copts were killed during Sisi’s tenure than during Morsi’s. This is also true, but only because they were targeted specifically because of their broad sympathies. Yet such matters are minor compared to a larger point Kirkpatrick makes which Egyptians should engage, however painful it might be. He asks an implicit question, “What about the blood?”.  The events of 2011 to 2014 are bloody enough, but are bookended with two horrific massacres when the state turned against some of its people. The deaths at Maspero in 2011 are a precursor to those at Rab’a, although in very different ways. No one seems eager to understand how either event came about. Many Egyptians will insist that Egypt is different, that it lacks the blood letting capacity of a Syria or an Algeria. On a percentage basis, this is clearly true. But it is an observation designed to obscure their failure to engage their history from a moral perspective. Obama quoted Nelson Mandela to urge Morsi to be more inclusive. Morsi’s followers called him their Mandela without even a hint at adopting Mandela’s moral and historic stance. The word “martyr” flows easily from Egyptian tongues, but what are these unfortunate victims standing witness to? Every faction in Egypt celebrates its martyrs as leading the way to a happier future. The Army, the police, the Islamists, the Copts, the revolutionaries and even Kirkpatrick in a moment of weakness, insist that the sacrifices of martyrs will not go in vain. But what if the way forward is not through spectacular sacrifice but a more mundane process of compromise? What if the witnesses that the country needs are not those who die for a cause, but a wider collection of voices who live to see their predictions proven wrong, their favored biases made less certain and their fears remain unrealized? Egyptians would do well to engage accounts such as these in the book, however limited in focus and duration, and regardless of world views and biases they might represent, as corrections to their certainties and realities. At end of reading this book one comes away with the realization that Egypt has not so much slipped back into the hands of soldiers, as the soldiers of Egypt having become again hostages to its sorrows. Perhaps the way out of this moment is for the people to focus less on the actions of their soldiers than on the causes of their sorrows.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


The Resurrection and Death of Salama Moussa

lamentations

“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


The Fabulous Career of Colonel Ahmed – Theater Impresario

Hamroush

During the waning days of 2011, when the dwindling revolutionary left engaged in pointless and futile street battles with the Egyptian security services, retired Colonel Ahmed Hamroush , age 90, breathed his last. It had been a fabulous life. He was a member of the Egyptian army and a second tier “Free Officer”. But he was also a communist and a member of the “Haraka”, Democratic Movement for National Liberation, a far left organization, ecumenical in every sense. It numbered among its members committed democrats and Stalinists. It included intellectuals and street activists. It had Muslims, Jews and Copts. It garnered support from Egyptian citizens and foreign residents. It proclaimed itself uniquely Egyptian but kept far flung connections in Baghdad, Damascus and Paris. At its largest, the DMNL numbered fewer than 1000 members, but they were committed to the cause and punched above their weight, at least until they were punched down by the young officers. The first blood was drawn in September 1952, barely a few weeks after the coup. Additional blows came in 1954 and on New Year’s day 1959. The officers who were members of the movement were all sidelined. Youssef Siddiq, the man most responsible for the success of the coup, was arrested and then released into pointless idleness. Khaled Mohieddin drifted in and out of Nasser’s favor. Other less known officers saw their careers stagnate or worse. But Ahmed Hambroush thrived. His task during the coup was to secure the person of the King. Afterwards, he assigned himself the task of the historian of the revolution. At first, it was journalism that attracted his attention, but ultimately Nasser detailed him to the task of running Egypt’s theater productions. The announcement of the 1952 coup promised that once the nation’s politics were cleaned up the men in uniform would return to the barracks. They never did, and in many cases they took over jobs that had been normally the province of civilians. It was this phenomenon that prompted Anouar Abdel Malak, a colleague of Hamroush in the DMNL, to write his famous book “Egypt: Military Society”. The two men were typical of the denouement of the Egyptian leftists. Some became dissidents, in prison or exiles, while others became officials and indirectly the jailers of their erstwhile colleagues.

Hamroush was to lead a life closely linked to fables – first in official journalism, then as the man in charge of most of the theatrical productions, and finally as a self-appointed historian of the revolution. Hamroush was an energetic producer – in a different world he would have had a corner table at Sardi’s. His productions were always well attended. He favored realism and avoided modernist work. The productions were drills by another name. School children, some as young as 7 were brought to matinees during the 1960s. The children were instructed to sit patiently while the actors played out Brecht or some other such fare. There is no question Hamroush cared about the wretched of the earth, and like many in his generation, felt that a strong hand at the top was necessary to accomplish the desired transformations. At his death he was largely unknown to most Egyptians, including revolutionaries, the majority of whom favored talking over listening and protest over culture. But it was the discipline and commitment of men such as Ahmed that turned the 1952 coup into a revolution by reorganizing the power relationships in Egypt. In contrast, the 2011 events, which proclaimed themselves as a “revolution”, quickly became a coup against a sitting president. Hamroush thus represents an intermediate stage in Egyptian governance, when authoritarianism was purposeful and instrumental before it turned into an end onto itself, a tick of the ruling class.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Killing of Brigadier General Yusuf, a Writer

Sibai

On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.

Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.

It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.

In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel.  He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.

Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.

— Maged Atiya