EGYPT’S NATIONAL NINCOMPOOPERY
The definition of “nincompoop” is somebody who is a fool, simpleton, or stupid; somebody with a certain defect in the mind so as to make him act unwisely or imprudently, and not in the best interest of himself. In short, he is duped into self-destruction by his very actions of inaction. But to clarify the meaning of nincompoopery further, I resort to the assistance of Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904), the famous Russian writer of short stories. One of his fascinating stories is “A Nincompoop”. I use this story as an introduction to discuss Egypt’s national nincompoopery.
“A Nincompoop” by Anton Chekhov
A few days ago I asked my children’s governess, Julia Vassilyevna, to come into my study.
“Sit down, Julia Vassilyevna,” I said. “Let’s settle our accounts. Although you most likely need some money, you stand on ceremony and won’t ask for it yourself. Now then, we agreed on thirty rubles a month…”
“No, thirty. I made a note of it. I always pay the governess thirty. Now then, you have been here two months, so ….”
“Two months and five days.”
“Exactly two months. I made a specific note of it. That means you have sixty rubles coming to you. Subtract nine Sundays… you know you did not work with Kolya on Sundays, you only took walks. And three holidays…”
Julia Vassilyevna flushed a deep red and picked at the flounce of her dress, but – not a word.
“Three holidays, therefore take off twelve rubles. Four day Kolya was sick and there were no lesson, as you were occupied with Vanya. Three days you had a toothache and my wife gave you permission not to work after lunch. Twelve and seven – nineteen. Subtract… that leaves… hmm… forty-one rubles. Correct?”
Julia Vassilyevna’s left eye reddened and filled with moisture. Her chin trembled; she coughed nervously and blew her nose, but – not a word.
“Around New Year’s you broke a teacup and saucer: take off two rubles. The cup cost more, it was an heirloom, but – let it go. When did not I take a loss! Then, due to your neglect, Kolya climbed a tree and tore his jacket: take away ten. Also due to your heedlessness the maid stole Vanya’s shoes. You ought to watch everything! You get paid for it. So, that means five more rubles off. The tenth of January I gave you ten rubles…”
“You did not”, whispered Julia Vassilyevna.
“But I made a note of it.”
“Well… all right.”
“Take twenty-seven from forty-one – that leaves fourteen.”
Both eyes filled with tears. Perspiration appeared on the thin, pretty little nose. Poor girl!
“Only once was I given any money,” she said in a trembling voice, “and that was by your wife. Three rubles, nothing more.”
“Really? You see now, and I did not make a note of it! Take three from fourteen… leaves eleven. Here is your money, my dear. Three, three, three, one and one. Her it is!
I handed her eleven rubles. She took them and with trembling fingers stuffed them into her pocket.
“Merci,” she whispered.
I jumped up and started pacing the room. I was overcome with anger.
“For what, this – ‘merci‘?” I asked.
“For the money.”
“But you know I have cheated you, for God’s sake – robbed you! I have actually stolen from you! Why this ‘merci’?”
“In my other places, they did not give me anything at all.”
“They did not give you anything? No wonder! I played a little joke on you, a cruel lesson, just to teach you… I am going to give you the entire eighty rubles! Here they are in an envelope all ready for you… Is it really possible to be so spineless? Why don’t you protest? Why be silent? Is it possible in this world to be without teeth and claws – to be such a nincompoop?”
She smiled crookedly and I read in her expression: “It is possible.”
I asked her pardon for the cruel lesson and, to her great surprise, gave her eighty rubles. She murmured her little “merci” several times and went out. I looked after her and thought: “How easy it is to crush the weak in this world!”
Here we have Julia Vassilyevna, the governess of the storyteller’s children, being cheated out of her money by her employer. Julia has worked for over two months as a pedagogue for the two boys, Kolya and Vanya, and should have been paid forty rubles each month for her work; but it seems that she hasn’t requested her employer to pay her. So, he calls her into his study to settle the account, and invites her to sit down, saying: “Although you most likely need some money, you stand on ceremony and won’t ask for it yourself.” Then starts the painful scene in which the employer cuts her pay, ruble after ruble, under various pretexts. As Julia sees her earnings being unjustly reduced by her employer, she does not object, but meekly acquiesce. All she does is to flush a deep red, fill her eyes with tears, perspire at the nose, and tremble at the chin; but utters no word of protest. She even furnishes her employer with more opportunity to fleece her further. When eventually he brought her pay for the two months down from eighty to eleven rubles, she, with trembling fingers, stuffs the rubles into her pocket, and whispers, “Merci”!
This ‘merci’ enrages her employer; so, he shouts at her: “For what, this – ‘merci’?”
“For the money!”
“But you know I’ve cheated you, for God’s sake – robbed you! I have actually stolen from you! Why this ‘merci’?”
For this she answers, “In my other places they didn’t give me anything at all!”
It seems that Julia Vassilyevna has been oppressed for a long time and has had worse masters; so the injustice she has just received at the hands of her new employer, as bad as it is, is received by her with gratitude.
As it happens, we discover, at the end of the story, that Julia’s employed isn’t really an oppressor. He has just been playing a little joke on her as he wanted to teach her a cruel lesson, seeing how much she had been submissive. So he asks her, “Why don’t you protest? Why be silent?” In his exhortation to her to show more courage in demanding her rights, and resisting exploitation and injustice, which he doubts she will respond to, he seems to be addressing us all: “Is it really possible to be so spineless? Is it possible in this world to be without teeth and claws – to be such a nincompoop?” To this, Julia does not answer but only smiles crookedly, which confirms to him that it is possible for some to be nincompoops; to be exploited and unjustly treated; to be cheated and robbed – and yet to keep silent, and not utter a word of protest. He concludes, “How easy it is to crush the weak in this world!”
Let us be clear here: Julia Vassilyevna is not a Christian intent on self-sacrifice, accepting injustice, and turning the other cheek out of a position of spiritual strength and a will to emulate Christ, possibly in an attempt to convert the oppressor– rather she is weak; being reduced into submission by past experiences of oppression, and a certain inability to protest abuse, or say, “No”. She is diseased, and her malady is serious. She seems to be living with a statement stamped on her forehead, and declaring to all: “I am here to be cheated, robbed, abused, exploited, oppressed.” The strong in the world, often oppressors, know how to prey on such weak individuals who cannot protest injustice, or push for their rights – and they know that the subjection of such individuals will not be difficult. In the words of Anton Chekhov, which he puts in the mouth of Julia Vassilyevna’s employer: “How easy it is to crush the weak in this world!”
I read this story and thought of the Egyptians/the Copts. Are we Julia Vassilyevna? In other words are we, like her, nincompoops (for, as with idividuals, nations too can be fools and simpltons, or at least certain sections of them)? Have we encouraged our oppressors by our timidity and weakness to rule over us; exploit and rob us of our country, land, riches, and heritage; and destroy our identity, culture, religion, and values?
There is no doubt that the Egyptians have acquired a certain reputation of being timid and falling easy prey to foreign occupiers and oppressors. The Egypt which is closer to our hearts, the true Egypt which we are proud of, is Pharaonic Egypt. From its Archaic Period, through Old and Middle Kingdoms, to the New Kingdom, Egypt remained truly Egyptian, ruled by Egyptians and for the Egyptians. It developed its own, unique culture and civilisation from which the whole world borrowed. The only time it was ruled by non-Egyptians during that long stretch of time, of over two thousand years, was when the Hyksos subdued our country, desecrated its sacred places and oppressed our people, during the Second Intermediate Period (1786-1550 BC). That hateful rule was at last ended when King Ahmose I liberated Egypt and established its Eighteenth Dynasty. But Egypt’s great days were destined to end. From c. 1000 BC, it fell once again victim to a succession of foreign rules that oppressed the Egyptians and exploited the wealth of Egypt, with only very short periods of return of the national spirit, and resumption of independence. And so we had Libyans, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and then Muslim invaders of all kinds and sorts – Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Circasians, Ottomans, Albanians, etc. – lording over us, and ruling Egypt until sometime in the 20th century – nearly three thousand years of slavery to others, and the loss of our national independence. What happened? Whence has this weakness, malaise, and lack of nationalist sentiment come to us? Whither has that fire in the belly that drove Seqenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose I,[i] to launch their national liberation campaign against the Hyksos, gone? In other words, why is this national nincompoopery, which submited to foreign invasion and oppression without much resistance? Time and again outside observers commented on the cruel and dehumanising treatment that haughty, foreign elements in Egypt, principally Arabs, Turks and Mamlukes, had accorded to Copts and Muslim Fellahin of Egypt, who took it only silently, as if they were abject robots deprived of pride and self-respect. What was it? Was it cowardice? Was it passivity? Or was it selfishness, as no Egyptian seemed to be bothered about what was happening to other Egyptians? I guess it is all of that; but the common denominator and thread that runs through, and unite, all of these negative attributes, seems to me, to be a certain weakness in the nationalistic feeling of the later Egyptians. Gone were the days of Narmer (Menes), Djoser, Snefru, Amenemhat, Thutmose, and Ramesses – and with them went Egypt’s majesty, pride, spirit, and splendour. Henceforth Egypt is to be ruled by foreigners or freak nationals, whose loyalty and allegiance lie mostly somewhere else.
[i] These are the heroes of the national war of independence that liberated Egypt from the occupation of the Hyksos.