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September 27, 2011

Hans Koning (1921 – 2007)

Hans Koning (1921 – 2007) was an American journalist, novelist and travel writer, with many fiction and non-fiction books, and who contributed to many prestigious American periodicals. In September 1975 he visited Egypt. The 1970s in Egypt was a decade of so many events that changed Egypt’s socio-economic-political scene: the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954 – 1970) and the coming to power of Anwar el-Sadat (1970 – 1981); the 1973 war with Israel and the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 and then the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty ; the demise of the Nasserists and socialists and the ascendancy of the Islamists; the ouster of the USSR Russians and the opening up of Egypt to stronger ties with the West and the market economy; the increasing Islamisation of Egypt’s society and politics through the increasing influence of Arab oil-rich states. Hans Koning went to Egypt to study the earlier changes that had been taking place and to get to know more about the Egyptian people. He visited several areas, met with many Egyptian intellectuals [including the Coptic writer and critic, Louis Awad (1915 – 1990), whom he calls in his book, Dr. Philip] and politicians. Following his return from Egypt to New York, he wrote his travel book, A New Yorker in Egypt.[1]

Hans Koning’s book on Egypt; 1976

Koning’s book is very interesting and there are many wonderful passages in it that interest the Coptic nationalist, Egyptians in general, Westerners and other readers across the world. One thing which is noticeable in the book is Koning’s interest in the ordinary Egyptians, and fellahin (peasants). His words reveal his sympathy for them and understanding of their socio-political situation. Koning cannot be described as a hater of the Egyptians – and it is clear from his writing that he didn’t want the Arab-Israeli conflict to get in his journey to understand Egypt.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923 – )

 As I already said, there are many interesting sections in the book; however, one in particular caught my attention: it is an encounter of Koning with the Nasserist writer and politician, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (he calls him Haikal), a leading Egyptian journalist whom he met at the Arab League building in Tahrir Square. For most of Nasser’s, and part of Sadat’s, period (1957–1974), Heikal was editor-in-chief of the influential Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.  He was a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union, the only political party permitted under Nasser. He was also a close associate of Nasser, friend and an advisor. In many ways, Heikal was responsible for many of Nasser’s faults, or at least shared in them. Both believed in Arab unity and worked for it. This new identification of Egypt with the Arabs, and committing it to Arab causes, in the opinion of Coptic nationalists, and so many others, has brought upon Egypt so many disasters; altered Egypt’s previous identity; and alienated all those who are not Arab, including the Copts.

When Nasser, the staunch Arab nationalist, died, and Sadat took over the political leadership in Egypt, the Arab cause seemed to have waned – Sadat was to focus on Egypt rather than seeing himself as leader of the Arab world. Only lip service was paid to calls for Arab unity, to the frustration of Arab unionists such as the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi and his likes. In Egypt the Nasserists lamented the loss of their influence. When Koning met Heikal in 1975, the latter was clearly unhappy about the abandonment of what Nasserists had considered for a long time their dream for all Arabs (i.e. Arab unity); so he tells Koning: “Egypt hasn’t forsaken Arab solidarity;” “Egypt’s Arab solidarity goes in cycles … And the pendulum will swing back.”[2] He might have been right – there is evidence in the post-2011 Egyptian uprising months that the Nasserists are regaining their voice. But there is more to what Heikal had to say to Koning at that meeting. Let us read it together, and then continue our discussion:

 “Egypt hasn’t forsaken Arab solidarity,” Mr. Haikal told me. He was a man I met at the Arab league. Their building on Tahrir Square, with much security outside and much luxury inside, gave the immediate impression of a temple of orthodoxy, with no wishy-washy Westernness. Even the clocks avoided European numerals. And Mr. Haikal, in his conservative business suit and tie on a hot Sunday morning, radiated a kind of power and self-assurance which made me think that he was no Egyptian but an Arab from one of the oil states. But it turned out he was a Cairene; it was the league that gave him that aura.

“Egypt’s Arab solidarity goes in cycles,” Haikal said. “And the pendulum will swing back. Islam is socialist, and Egypt is socialist.” When I expressed surprise, he went on, “Islam is the one civilisation that wasn’t based on exploitation of the lower classes. The nomads of Arabia didn’t provide their sheiks with income, only with some men and some camels. The wealth of Islam came from trade. We were the great middle-men between Europe and India and China and Africa. Your wealth, which you extracted from your serfs, fed Islam. And when those trade routes withered, our decline began. Now the trade is reborn, and instead of tea or silk it is oil. You can see we will take care it won’t wither away again, not in our lifetime or in our children’s lifetime.”

He had said all this quickly, having said or thought it often before. “But Egypt,” I said, “hasn’t Egypt been exploited for a thousand years?”

“The wooden swords in the mosques of Cairo.    .” Haikal answered. “The Imam used to hold a wooden sword at the service. Symbol that this was a conquered country. We found the peasants here, they were the legacy of the Byzantine past.”

“We?” I asked with what I hoped was a disarming smile.

“Wherever there is Islam, we can use ‘we’,” Haikal said.[3]

We see Heikal delivering what appears to have been a previously masticated rhetoric on Islam, socialism, civilisation, the West, the nomads of Arabia, exploitation, trade, oil, etc. – all common topics that Nasserists, and many Muslim Egyptians in general, love to dwell in. One can see Heikal’s simplistic ideas about economic system; distortion of the facts; and intentional neglect of painful truths. He fails to recognise the exploitative nature of the Islamic Empire, which was based on an imperialist idea of uniting all Arabs so that they constituted a formidable force to conquer non-Arabs (the ajjam).[4] The original Arab dream, which was responsible for the 7th Century outburst of energy, was realised by invading other peoples’ lands, including Egypt, the land of the Copts (Egyptians) as recognised  by the invading Arabs themselves, and exploiting the peasants of these countries for the benefit of the ‘nomads of Arabia’ and their aristocratic clans. The Arab occupation generally speaking represented a nation living at the expense of other nations. The peoples of conquered countries ploughed and sowed, and the Muslims, who had no work other than war and launching raids, freely reaped the fruit of the toil of others. [5] But one can forgive Heikal’s messing up of history and his play with clear facts – it is hard on all Muslims I suppose to see in Islam anything wrong. All this may be understood but not what follows.

Heikal’s extraordinary politico-economic assessment of Islam and Egypt, both of which he describes as socialist, and his contention that ““Islam is the one civilisation that wasn’t based on exploitation of the lower classes”, implied that Egypt, since it has come under the sway of Islam in 640 AD, has never been a country where the lower classes have been exploited (until presumably it was occupied by European and Christian power in the 19th Century). This prompted Koning to ask the logical question:[6]

– “But Egypt? Hasn’t Egypt been exploited for a thousand years?”

– “The wooden swords in the mosques of Cairo… The Imam used to hold a wooden sword at the service. Symbol that this was a conquered country. We found the peasants here, they were the legacy of the Byzantine past.”

– “We?” enquires Koning.

– “Wherever there is Islam, we can use ‘we’,” answers Haikal.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s answers exposed him. Heikal after all did not mean Egypt when he was talking earlier about ‘Egypt’ – his ‘we’ meant the Arabs, their nomads and aristocratic clans. Egypt was a “conquered country” and its peasants, who are the fellahin, were but “the legacy of the Byzantine past”. The wooden swords in the mosques of Cairo that the Imams unleashed during prayers were meant to remind the Muslims, and the conquered Egyptian race, of that fact – that Egypt belonged to the Arabs and Muslims by virtue of the sword. Here we are witnessing not a forgivable weak economic or political argument – it is more serious: Heikal is revealing his racial identity: he is an Arab and he self-identifies with them and not with the native fellahin of Egypt.

And this is in fact what all Arabists and Nasserists believe: they are not just Muslim but Arab; and their Arabdom is not only lingual, as the Baathist may claim,[7] it is racial. They do not belong in blood to the fellahin of this ‘conquered country’ but to the marauding Arabs who conquered Egypt. And that is where their pride lies. The Coptic nationalists believe that there is a racial nexus between many of the present Muslim fellahin of Egypt, the majority of them converted to Islam under the severe persecutions of the Mamluks in the 14th Century – a religious shift which was aided by natural and external factors.[8] This finding for us has been a happy one. It meant that millions of Muslim Egyptians share with the Copts their genetic pool – and this was supposed to make us more hopeful of the chances for the emergence of a real national unity and brotherhood that transcends all religious differences. We are not naïve though – we know that since the 7th Century many Muslim foreigners, Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Sudanese, etc., have poured into Egypt from all directions; and many settled in the fertile lands of Egypt in both Upper and Lower Egypt; furthermore, many mixed with the Egyptian fellahin by marriage. However, many of the new-comers stayed aloof and socially separated from the fellahin whom they despised and saw as racially inferior.[9] These supremacists, many from the Arab tribes that spread all over Upper Egypt, do not reserve their venom for the fellahin alone – they target Copts in Qena, Menya, Sohag and Assiut. Their attacks on the Copts must be seen as not only religious but racial too – and this is how the Coptic Problem should be seen:  in many ways both racial and religious.

The hope to focus on an Egyptian identity that could unite Copts and Muslims together is, however, being undermined by Arab nationalists, such as Muhammad Hassanain Haikal, who rather claim an Arab identity based not only on language or culture but also on race – deep down, they do not see themselves belonging to the peasants (fellahin) of Egypt (this “conquered country”), and who are passed by Heikal as “the legacy of the Byzantine past” (and who are in fact Copts, whether they stayed Christian or converted with time to Islam).[10] Their nationalist creed is dangerous on many levels:  on one level they create a racial barrier in Egypt between the Copts and Muslims that complicates Egypt’s religious problem; on another level their racial self-identification with the Arabs means not just a cultural communality with Arabs but a political allegiance (that “Arab solidarity” of Heikal), which led Egypt to many disasters in the last sixty years, and costs us dearly in human and material terms in unnecessary wars, and stunted Egypt’s progress along the path of democracy and liberties.

[1] A New Yorker in Egypt by Hans Koning (a Helen and Kurt Wolff book; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; New York and London; 1976).

[2] Ibid; pp. 214-5.

[3] Ibid; pp. 214-5.

[4] See the old dream of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, in 619 (that is, before the Hijra in 622), at the death bed of his uncle, Abu Talib, when he told the aristocrats of Quraish that he wanted to unite the tribe around Allah, which would allow Quraish then to rule over the Arabs and to force non-Arabs (the Ajjam; mainly the surrounding nations, including the Egyptians) to give Quraish  jizia (here basically means monetary and non-monetary tribute). Read Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya السيرة النبوية لابن هشام  (The Biography of the Prophet) by Ibn Hisham (Mustafa Al-Babi and Sons; Cairo; 1955); Vol. 1-2, p. 417.

[5] For more on the exploitative nature of the Arab occupation, read: The Arab Kingdom and its Fall by Julius Wellhausen and translated by Margaret Graham Weir (University of Calcutta; Calcutta; 1927). The book was translated into Arabic by Muhammad Abdel Hadi Abu Raida: يوليوس فلهاوزن .. تاريخ الدولة العربية من ظهور الاسلام الى نهاية الدولة الاموية (Cairo; 1958).

[6] I have put the interchange in a discourse form.

[7] The Baathists, whose first theorists appeared in Syria, and were mostly Christian, hold it that anyone who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Arab nationalism is based on the language mainly and is not necessarily racial. Read Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century from Triumph to Despair by Adeed Dawisha (Princeton University Press; Princeton and Oxford; 2003).

[8] Read about that mass conversion of the Copts to Islam under persecution in the 14th Century, and the natural and external factors that assisted this process, in my article I draw the attention of the reader in particular to the footnotes 21-28.

[9] One of the established, and sad, facts in Egypt is the divide between Upper and Lower Egypt; fellahin and non-fellahin – the latter in each being despised and made a subject of offensive jokes that are not challenged by most Egyptians.

[10] During Nasser’s life, his propagandists, eager to emphasise his Arab roots, often talked about his origin from what the Arab village of Bani Murr, near Assiut, Upper Egypt.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 12:19 pm

    Dioscorus Boles —- All OK? @abuamnon

  2. October 13, 2011 5:58 pm

    Brilliant article, you made me borrow Koning’s book from the library.

  3. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    October 14, 2011 7:03 am

    Thanks. The sentiments which Koning expressed in his book, particularly when it came to the poor fellah of Egypt, were very noble. I think Koning loved Egypt and its ordinary people but hated certain aspects of its politics and culture that pinned her down to the Middle Ages. Who of us doesn’t?

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