Roots of Egyptian Sectarianism through a 100 year old novel

 Orginally published in bikyamasr


I picked this novel from my Library in the early hours of Monday 10th of  October 2011. Plagued by insomnia, after what unfolded in Cairo and led to the  tragic death of many innocents (mainly Copts), I needed to remember better days. The days when Egypt was more tolerant with a normal social fabric.

Zaydan, a Lebanese scholar who moved to Egypt and opened a

publishing house Dar al-Hilal (The Crescent), was  knowledgable, passionate novelist. He was  a proud Christian and a proud Arab fascinated by the Islamic history.

His main objective since the publication of his first novel – The Fleeing Mamluk- was to provide Arabs with a sense of their own history in an accessible way.

I came across Zaydan in my childhood; sitting bored on a hot summer day, my grand mother offered me a novel from her vast library. It was “Armanosa Al Masryia” A story  of an Egyptian Coptic girl  who was  doomed to be the bride of the Nile (a custom of offering a virgin as a sacrifice to the river Nile) and was saved by the Arab conquerer of Egypt.

I loved the novel and the author. For me, Zaydan was a pearl hunter who dived in Islamic history looking for stories of harmony and tolerance, two values, which I grew to love and respect.

Zaydan success did not just reflect his work but the social cohesion during the nahda- renaissance-period (1860- 1935). Modernist Islamists and tolerant society created an environment that was ripe for the like of Zaydan to flourish. Reading was an integral part of the life of many Egyptians who were eager to know and understand their history. Neither the religion nor the ethnicity of the author was a precondition.

Later, Nasserrism prompted government sponsored education, literature and art.  However, there was a string attached, as censorship started to emerge. Only books and novels that provided a platform for the regime‘s ideology were allowed. Others, which did not fit in or were, considered anti- socialist would be denied publication. Luckily, social cohesion between Muslims and Christians maintained the popularity of Zaydan’s novels.

Sadat’s era was a turning point; Egypt witnessed a significant shift in emphasis to business. When money became a goddess and religion became a trade, reading was inevitably considered a futile activity. With the change of the political outlook toward political Islam, booksellers started to stock religious books, and demands for literature and history books were sharply dropped.

If Sadat’s era were the era of deterioration, Mubarak ‘s would be the era of total stagnation. Political decay and corruption led to a sharp decline in every aspect of life including Literature. The educational system did not provide sufficient space for students to read, discuss and reflect.

Reading and learning might prompt some awkward questions and the government had no appetite to handle such an ordeal.

Arab dependence on satellite TV for its news and entertainment compound the problem. Rather than learning their history from books, they depend on films and soap operas, which were mostly biased and full of historical inaccuracies.

The Project “reading for all” was a shallow attempt to rekindle the passion for reading. Its main aim was to glamorize Mubarak’s wife Suzan. A foolish ill- managed project with a selective biased toward certain books that lacked a genuine desire to educate young generations.

Also, social in-cohesion becomes the norm; Muslims and Christians stop reading each other history. Ignorance prevailed, and sectarianism started to rise sharply. Scoring point in the fierce battle motivated those who bothered to read, Muslims read the Bible to look for dispute between Mark, Mathew, Luke and John accounts. Christians read leaflets of Salafis and other Islamists, which asserted their feeling that Muslims hate them. Zaydan became a history that was either ignored or even mocked by some who considered him a romantic idealist.

It was a nice antidote to re-read my old novel and remember the good old days. However, I am not under any illusion that things was perfect even during  the renaissance era. In 1910, the newly opened Egyptian University offered Jurji Zaydan a professorship in Islamic History. Sadly, Zaydan was dismissed before he even begun his job.

Despite of his popularity, Zaydan was a hated figure among some conservative who opposed his appointment by the university. They objected to his Christian origins and secular leanings. The Tradionalist won the battle, and the Egyptian renassiance failed to eradicate the dogmatic barrier.

The tragedy at Maspero had many direct reasons, but the roots of the problem  started years ago. By abandoning  scholars like Zaydan and the cultural stagnation that subsequently followed (particularly in religious studies), Egypt embarked on a steady downhill path toward sectarianism and intellectual decline.

We should have the courage to face up to the problem and address its roots. Living in a denial would only compound an already challenging issue .

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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3 Responses to Roots of Egyptian Sectarianism through a 100 year old novel

  1. Jon Goodfellow says:

    “Egypt witnessed a significant shift in emphasis to business. When money became a goddess and religion became a trade, reading was inevitably considered a futile activity.” Well spoken, Nervana. It is very similar in my country today- the United States, where political Christianity is synonymous with the decline of literacy and learning in the name of “business”. Without the shared culture across the leadership spectra, the cohesion necessary for shared exploits declines.

    On another front, I would like to hear more from you on Turkey and its emergent “Neo-Ottomanism”. “Neo-Ottomanism” means different things to people, depending on what they emphasize. The later Ottoman era has seen significant scholarly re-evaluation emphasizing innovation on many fronts, including both secular and non-secular forces. A lot of the tensions in modern Turkey seem to have continuity to those trends in my mind. Not to mention the ongoing relations of former Rumeli to Turkey today in the Balkans. I just finished re-reading Mark Mozower’s “Salonica: City of Ghosts” recently after following unfolding events in the Balkans. One wonders how the collapse of the EU’s efforts in the region could effect inter-ethnic tensions once the incentive to make nice for economic reasons evaporates. Any thoughts?


    • nervana111 says:

      Thank you so much Jon. Your kind means a lot to me. Yes Turkey & the Neo-Ottomanism is certainly a topic I would like to talk about. Certainly in the near future. but please view my post Ottomans versus Mamluks post ( wrote it last June)


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