Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Liberty blues

By Fayza Hassan
Statue of Liberty Statue of Egypt (Progress)
Left: A watercolour by Frederic Auguste Bertholdi showing the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbour, the site he chose when he arrived in America in 1871. Right: The Egyptian model Bertholdi designed as an Egyptian peasant woman, which was to be put up at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Titled Egypt (or Progress) Bringing the Light to Asia, it was never built, but clearly served as an inspiration for the Statue of Liberty -- which, critics said, was merely a revised version of Bertholdi's first model
 
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Like Europeans, Americans were attracted to the mysteries of ancient Egypt even before Bonaparte opened the way to serious scholarship. The popularity of Freemasonry and other secret societies that flourished in their new nation may have been instrumental in stimulating their curiosity about a civilisation seemingly shrouded in enigma and immersed in symbolism. Moreover, Egypt was in Africa, a continent demanding to be explored and whose native population required to be converted to Christianity. Adventure beckoned, and Americans were prepared to heed its call.

"In the early 19th century, just as the first successful steps were being taken towards understanding the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system, the government of the newly independent United States of America was busy incorporating the mystical symbolism then associated with Egypt into its civic identity. The unfinished pyramid on the Great Seal (now to be seen on the back of every dollar bill) and, later, the obelisk chosen to honour President Washington [the Thothmes III obelisk, one of a pair of 'Cleopatra's needles', transported to New York and set up in 1880 in Central Park by Lieut.-Commander HH Gorringe of the US Navy] were the most prominent of the Egyptian-inspired motifs that were used to express the pretensions and aspirations of the new state to the mystical wisdom of ancient Egypt." (Ann Macy Roth, "Ancient Egypt in America", in Archeology under Fire).

For a long time, however, the Egyptians did not disapprove of this appropriation. On the contrary, until the late 1950s, Egyptian rulers welcomed the American fascination with things Egyptian, relied on their expertise and paid their ideas and institutions the greatest respect. Furthermore, individual Americans were often able to create long-lasting bonds with members of the indigenous communities.



Clockwise from top: memorial service for Franklin D Roosevelt at the American University in Cairo's Ewart Hall; the Lillian Thrasher Orphanage; AUC's founding fathers after their presentation to the king, on 27 March 1923; the American College for Girls, in Ghamra; Bistawrous Khayyat and his father Wassif
MISSIONARY MAN: The second half of the 19th century witnessed the arrival in Egypt of American missionaries who, already well ensconced in Syria, were looking further afield for more potential converts. Unlike their British predecessors, who, through the Church Missionary Society (connected to the Church of England), had attempted -- and failed -- to draw Copts to their church (and ended up abandoning in 1848 the training college they had established for Egyptian priests), the American Presbyterian Mission was overt about its intention to convert Muslims. The results of this endeavour were so dismal, however, that they soon concentrated their efforts on members of the Coptic National Church. The Copts "resented and fought the American missionaries who attracted, through their modern methods and teachings, a great many converts from the Coptic church, causing what was thought to be disloyalty to their ancient church and a schism among Egyptian Copts," writes Hanna Wissa in the chronicle describing the life of his family in Assiut at the time.

EVANGELISM ON THE NILE: The early American Protestant missionaries' success was due to an energetic dissemination of printed works. They usually settled in provincial towns and used emissaries who plied the Nile in small boats to sell Scripture and Christian literature in the neighbouring villages. The American missionaries also opened schools in Cairo and Alexandria, but received little response as the urban Coptic population was more attached to its own churches than village people, exposed only to the influence of the less educated members of the Coptic clergy.

In Upper Egypt, the response to the American effort so encouraged the missionaries that in 1860, those stationed in the area bought their first houseboat, the Ibis, which was inaugurated by the Reverend Hogg and his family on their grand proselytising trip. "They left Cairo on March 1st and returned on May 8th; they had travelled 1,160 miles and visited 63 villages, and talked with 7,000 people, among them 62 priests, 45 monks and two bishops, all members of the Coptic Church. They talked in Arabic about subjects ranging from the unique atonement of Jesus Christ to the sacraments. The pattern of travel was that the only stop was on the Sabbath (Sunday), except when they passed an important town such as Beni Suef, Minya, Assiout, Girga or Luxor. The routine was to call on the notables, government officials, Coptic leaders and other interested persons. Books were made available for sale, invitations were given to visit the boat, or the house of some willing friend, where a service was held in the evening... This procedure became the pattern of Nile Evangelism for many years," explains Wissa.

The missionaries sought to establish close relations with the indigenous population, and considered that intervening in the private affairs of the members of their congregation was virtually a duty. Only in this way, they reasoned, could they ever gain -- and keep -- enough converts to fill their church.

A VERY IMPORTANT GUEST: In the early 1870s, the responsibility for disseminating Evangelical teachings was handed over to Egyptian missionaries, as the Reverend Hogg and his colleagues had planned. The American consular agent in Assiut at the time was Wassif Khayyat, one of the first members of the city's wealthy Coptic families to embrace Protestantism. He was at hand to entertain Civil War hero General Ulysses S Grant during the future American president's memorable visit to Assiut. As Khayyat himself spoke no English, it was his son Bistawrous, educated at the American missionary school in Beirut, who toasted the famous guest at the end of the formal dinner given in his honour at the consular agent's home. Wissa, who preserved the somewhat lyrical speech, transcribes it as follows: "Long have we heard and wondered at the strange progress which America has made during this past century, by which she has taken the first position among the most widely civilised nations. She has so quickly improved in sciences, morals and arts, that the world stands amazed at this extraordinary progress which surpasses the swiftness of light. It is to the hard work of her great and wise men that all this advance is imputed, those who have shown to the world what wise, courageous, patriotic men can do. Let all the world look to America and follow her example -- that nation who has taken as the basis of her laws... freedom and equality among her own people, securing [these rights] for others, avoiding all ambitious schemes which would draw her into bloody and disastrous wars and trying by all means to maintain peace internally and externally."

American ladies
Clockwise from left: engraving from The Graphic, 1890, in which American tourists are chipping away portions of the carving on the columns of the Ptolemaic Temple at Dendera; professor from the University of Chicago copying an inscription in Wadi Halfa; Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park
FIGHTING FOR EGYPT: Apart from bringing General Ulysses Grant to Assiut, the American Civil War had an unexpected -- and more lasting -- effect on Egypt. The Union blockade and the Confederacy's policy of withholding cotton from export caused Europeans to adopt Egyptian cotton as a substitute. This gave the Egyptian economy a momentous boost at a time when Khedive Ismail was acquiring an insatiable appetite for cash, needed to apply his creative ideas to the country's swift modernisation. Ismail's interest in urban architecture was equalled and often overshadowed by his desire to have a strong army, a necessity if he was to achieved his dearest and as yet secret dream of gaining independence from the Ottoman Sultanate. In 1868, in Constantinople, he met Thaddeus Mott, a Union colonel with Turkish family ties. Impressed by the American veteran, Ismail commissioned him as a major general in the Egyptian Army. About fifty former Union and Confederate officers soon followed and received commissions in the Egyptian army, signing on to fight for Egypt in any war -- except one against the United States.

General Charles Pomeroy Stone was named chief of staff of the Egyptian Army and served as the nominal head of the American officers, who had entrenched themselves in a wing of the Citadel. When they were not fighting in Abyssinia and the Sudan, they established schools to train officers, enlisted men and conducted classes for the soldiers' children. On an official visit, General Sherman complimented them warmly on their accomplishments.

Friction between the two cultures was frequent, but Americans did not always get along with each other either. The details of a shooting incident between American officers in Alexandria filled the pages of the New York Herald during the summer of 1872. Notwithstanding these spots of trouble, Americans gained the consideration of their vice-regal employer, not least for their spectacular contributions in the field of exploration: Charles Chaillé-Long's journey to Uganda and his discovery of Lake Kioga; Alexander McComb Mason's map of the White Nile, which he completed all the way to Lake Albert; the exploration and mapping of the desert regions of Darfur and Kordofan -- these are just a few examples of their achievements.

Egypt's growing money problems cut short these ambitious endeavours when the British and French debt commission established itself to oversee Egypt's finances. On 30 June 1878, the American officers, no longer affordable on a tight budget, were dismissed. Only Stone remained until 1883 in his position as chief of staff, serving Khedive Tewfik who had succeeded Ismail.

LEFT IN THE LURCH: During the 1882 Orabi revolt, General Charles Pomeroy Stone considered it his duty to protect the khedive and followed him to Alexandria, taking his son with him and leaving his wife and teenage daughters in their house in Cairo. The chief of staff's youngest daughter Fanny described these days of confusion in her diary:

I watched mamma's face as she read the letter. When I saw the tightly compressed lips, the despairing gesture with which she handed it to sister, saying, 'Read it to the children, Hettie,' I knew we were in a 'bad fix,' as Johnny says. We all crept off to our rooms without speaking, without even looking each other in the face. I knew positively that mamma would never leave Cairo without papa's orders; and he, knowing the danger of Christian ladies traveling alone, cannot yet advise us to leave.

Alexandria is in flames; the soldiers and low class of Arabs are pillaging and plundering, and Arabi is encamped near Ramleh.

This morning, after breakfast, mamma called us all to her, and said: 'My children, we are in great trouble, but we must look it bravely in the face, and try to help each other to bear it. Papa has a good reason, of course, for leaving us here; he may rescue us yet; only we may have to undergo great suffering in the meantime. You know he left me money enough only for a few days' expenses. That is all gone, and I must use your little store; I shall be forced to exercise great economy, as it will last but a short time. Now, I want you to promise me to be patient, to be cheerful, and always brave. Go on with your studies, keep always busy, and trust to me to save you, if it is possible, when the worst comes. We have fire-arms enough in the house to defend ourselves until we can get help from the staff-officers; and if they fail us, you can be brave and face death like good soldiers. Only promise me never to let an Arab touch you. When it comes to that, remember I expect you to save yourselves by putting a bullet through your heart. Don't leave me to do it.'

We all kissed her, and gave our sacred promise to do all she required; then we all went to our different duties. Johnny is safe, thank God!

Contrary to Mrs Stone's foreboding, the women in the family incurred no hardship; they were taken to Suez, where they boarded an American ship and were joined by General Stone. He was the last of the American officers commissioned by Ismail to leave Egypt.

Missionaries
John Hogg Ibis
DUlep Singh and Bamba
The first missionaries (the Reverend Hogg is standing, second from left); John Hogg, founder of the American Mission in Assiut; the Ibis; Dulep Singh and Bamba
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Marrying Bamba

In early 1864, a young and immensely rich Indian prince, Dulep Singh, came to Egypt, intending to spend a few days visiting the country. He was detained for a while longer due to the sudden illness of his secretary. Dulep Singh had been educated in Britain, where he converted to Christianity and, when time came for him to marry, he began seeking a wife "suitable to his peculiar tastes and way of life." Although Queen Victoria, with whom he was in high favour, had vouched for an Indian princess, educated in England, the prince feared that such a candidate might be naturally inclined towards "the gaieties and frivolities of a fashionable aristocratic life." One day, while strolling near his hotel, he decided on a whim to pay a visit to the American missionaries, whose quarters were in the vicinity (The American mission headquarters were situated in Ezbekiya, not far from the Shepheard's Hotel). He met the director, John Hogg, and became quite interested in the mission's activities, even making several small financial contributions.

On the eve of his departure, he wrote to the mission inquiring if he might not find among the students of the mission schools "a truly Christian girl who had joined the church and whom you and Miss Dales [the head of the girls' school] could recommend to me for a wife." Singh was in luck. Such a girl could indeed be found at the school: fifteen year-old Bamba. She was the daughter of an Abyssinian slave woman and a wealthy German merchant residing in Egypt, whose father had placed her at the American mission to acquire "a proper Christian education." During her early years there, she had undergone a religious experience and had publicly expressed her faith in Jesus Christ, whereupon she was taken into the church as a student-teacher. The American missionaries recommended that the prince meet Bamba who, according to them, would make him a suitable wife.

The prince extended a formal proposal, which Bamba accepted. They were married in Alexandria and before their departure the Maharajah donated $5,000 to the mission in his wife's name, with a promise of more to come. The couple returned in 1865 for a trip up the Nile. The prince purchased the Ibis. During their trip, the couple distributed religious literature in the villages where they docked for provisions. Upon their departure, the Ibis was left in the care of its former owners, allowing them to continue their work; in 1874, the Maharajah, having completely refitted the boat, gave it to the mission in Assiut as a contribution to a fund for the establishment of a college.

(in Hanna Wissa, Assiut, the Saga of an Egyptian Family)


SERVING IN FAYOUM: By the turn of the century, the soldiers had gone, but the missionaries stayed on. In his recently published memoirs, Pierre Cachia, today a professor at the University of Edinburgh and a distinguished Arabist, recounts the circumstances of his birth and early childhood in Fayoum in the 1920s. He vividly recalls that "the doctor who attended the family at the time was a legend in the town. He was an American medical missionary called Askren, reputed to be immensely wealthy but to have chosen to spend his whole life serving in this distant land. The force of his personality was such that he could blithely ignore the convention of a Muslim provincial society, freely enter households where there were secluded women and treat them with jaunty familiarity," recounts Cachia, who remembers fondly the dedication of the good doctor.

PITY THE CHILDREN: While Dr Askren was gaining popularity in Fayoum, another American was becoming quite famous in Assiut. Lillian Thrasher was the daughter of a farming family in Georgia. She first volunteered for missionary work at the neighbouring orphanage but ten days before she was to be married to another missionary, she received her "calling". Having broken off her engagement, she arrived in Assiut in the autumn of 1910. Shortly after her arrival she was called to the bedside of a poor widow who had a baby girl. The woman died and Thrasher, finding no one willing to care for the child, took her home with her. The infant was the first in a long line of orphans to whom Thrasher dedicated her entire life.

The growth of the orphanage was hampered by lack of funds at first, but by 1916 Thrasher was caring for 50 children. Helped by private donations and with the assistance of the large Coptic landowning families of Assiut, land was bought and buildings constructed. When she died in 1961, the orphanage had expanded to 13 buildings, including a church, a clinic and a primary school. Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who had given orders for a car donated by missionary-minded people in the United States to be delivered to Thrasher exempt of custom duties, wrote to her in 1959: "I would like to tell you that your work for the orphans is very much appreciated by everyone in this country. I wish you continued success in your philanthropic endeavour."

AN IRON FIST: The year is 1925; the place, the American College for Girls in Ghamra; the occasion, inspection day of the girls' sewing baskets. In the dormitory, 12-year-old Denise, the youngest boarder at the school, is fretting. She cannot find her thimble and time is running out. An older girl finally lends her one. In the classroom, the silence is ominous while the teacher stops and examines each student's set of white and coloured threads, scissors, needles and thimble. She picks up Denise's thimble, which is far too large for the girl's finger. "Put it on," she orders, and the child obeys. "Is this yours?" she inquires sternly. "Yes," murmurs Denise. "Come with me, then," says the teacher, and drags her off toward the bathroom. Denise watches as the teacher grabs the lufa and rubs it vigorously on the cake of coarse soap used for the boarders' baths. "Show me your tongue," the teacher commands and Denise, bewildered, complies. The teacher proceeds to wash the little girl's mouth out vigourously. Later, when her mother complains, Dr Martin -- the school's headmistress, who will rule the school with an iron fist for generations -- explains that this is common practice and the right thing to do. "We have to wash away the lie," she explains.

"I have never been able to like Americans since that day," says Denise, who refused to entrust them with the education of her own children until 1956, when, to her chagrin, she was faced with the collapse of French educational institutions in Egypt (caused by the Tripartite Aggression following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal) and forced to consider the American University as an option. Alumna of the American College for Girls still remember the harsh discipline, drab uniforms, punishment meted out without explanation and the general austerity of the institution; it was quite popular, however, with conservative Egyptian families who approved of the strict discipline and balked at any sort of coeducational system for their daughters, therefore refusing to send them to the American University. The American College for Girls offered a two-year college programme, an option preferred by more traditionally minded families.

THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: In contrast, Cachia's American experience was a totally positive one. Moving to the capital to pursue his academic objectives, he enrolled in the American University at Cairo's high school section, and never looked back. He had earned his secondary school certificate in 1938, by attending a state-run secondary school in the provinces; having had to memorise all his lessons by rote, he was struck by the freedom and diversity that characterised the American system. "There was an elasticity to the curriculum that was new to me. The boys too were the product of differing backgrounds and educational traditions, having previously attended French or Greek or Armenian schools... Where before the way ahead was an inviting but straight and narrow path, it now opened onto a broadening vista, and the further ahead one looked the more enticing it became... Toward the end of that year, I went up to Dr Howard [who taught sixth-form English] to say that I may well go on to do a BA Almost casually, he said, 'Yes indeed -- and beyond!' To me this was like stepping suddenly out of a drab and stuffy building and into the fresh air."

During those years, the American University -- "which has since lost its secondary school appendage and apparently feels sufficiently well integrated to have changed the 'at' in its title to 'in'," writes Cachia -- provided members of foreign communities established in Egypt, as well as a small number of Egyptian students, with the only viable alternative to Fouad I University. It offered the added enticement of earning a coveted scholarship to further their studies in the United States. At first, no women were admitted, but after 1926, AUC became a co-ed campus and a number of alumna have gone on to brilliant careers in fields previously open only to men. In any case, the students there, whatever their gender, enjoyed opportunities and privileges unheard of in the various Egyptian universities, although "AUC was then a very small and rather young institution in no way comparable to the American University of Beirut, which has had a seminal effect on the Arab world since the 19th century. Its student body numbered a mere 150 or so. It had a core of permanent American teachers in key positions, some locally recruited men of all kinds, and a constantly changing population of 'short-termers,' young Americans who came for two or three years, often straight after graduation, to see an interesting part of the world and to get some experience and perhaps some 'seniority' in an academic career. The teaching was therefore often rather raw; the library held a mere 30,000 volumes; and the degrees the university conferred were not recognised by the Egyptian state," recalls Cachia. Small numbers promoted closeness and understanding between the staff and the students, however, and he formed personal ties with his American professors that lasted beyond his college years.

Unlike the British and the French, whose educational institutions were taken over by the government after the 1952 Revolution, the Americans, weathering the political climate intelligently, managed to hang on to theirs. Today, both AUC and Cairo American College, another landmark of American presence in Egypt, are thriving establishments, successfully catering to a large number of Egyptian and foreign students alike.

THE WAR YEARS: Notwith-standing the role played by individuals and institutions, it is only during World War II that the US became a tangible entity, its manifestation taking the form of a victorious army whose well-nourished soldiers could afford to give away chewing-gum, cigarettes and the coveted newly invented bottles of Coca Cola. "By European army standards the American rations were lavish to the point of extravagance -- vast quantities of tinned meats, fruits and vegetables. In any American mess you could be sure of getting an excellent hot meat and vegetable stew, a plate of fruit, white bread and a cup of coffee. Things like cigarettes, chewing-gum and toothpaste were handed out in a way that made the British soldiers gape. The Doughboy was always generous in sharing out his good things," writes Alan Moorehead in his African Trilogy.

Egyptians, having had to contend with the arrogance of the British occupiers, paid little attention to a crucial characteristic of the American course of action abroad, aptly described by Olivia Manning in the Levant Trilogy. During the war, Harriet Pringle, a British character in the Trilogy, is temporarily employed at the American Embassy as assistant press officer. "Having grown up in the belief that Britain was supreme in the world and the British the most fortunate people, she had been shocked to find that to the Americans she was an alien who rated less than a quarter of the salary paid to an American-born typist. She protested to her superior..., saying: "I'm not an alien, I'm British. [He] liked this so much that he managed to get her a rise in salary. The rise was not great but it reconciled her to her alien degree..."

Harriet likes and trusts her superior, until the day German radio broadcasts a threat to Cairo. At half-hourly intervals, a voice announces: 'Tonight we will bomb Cairo off the face of the earth.' Harriet and the locally-hired embassy employees are not unduly frightened. "The American staff did not seem frightened either. Mr Buschman [Harriet's superior] made no comment when he went through the news sheets that contained the repeated threats to destroy Cairo, but when she left the office that evening, Harriet saw the Embassy cars gathered outside, prepared for flight. Next morning, the cars were not there. The Embassy seemed empty except for Harriet, Iqal [an Egyptian employee] and the Levantine girl typists... Harriet had to realise that so far as Mr Buschman was concerned, she and Iqal were equally alien and equally dispensable... [Mr Buschman] was concerned for the safety of the American staff but need not worry about aliens."

Who would qualify for alien status today?

MADE IN HOLLYWOOD: For the generation of Egyptians who came of age in the immediate aftermath of the second World War, the mention of the United States conjured up images of a magic land inhabited by benevolent, good-looking semi-gods and goddesses, whose idealism and glittering life-style was being abundantly disseminated by the movies. Hollywood, having replaced the missionaries, was in the business of manufacturing the American image and selling it abroad, providing the affluent members of Egyptian society with role models whose attitudes and fashion statements they were eager to copy. On the whole, however, Egypt's privileged classes were still more attracted to ideologies imported from Europe, whose influence, number of educational institutions and cultural activities, especially in the cities, largely surpassed those of the Americans.

The American civilian population began to expand slowly but surely (mainly diplomatic and teaching personnel, businessmen, employees of oil companies and their families) as signs of imminent British departure became clearer. The new arrivals went almost unnoticed by the Egyptian population at first, and in most cases Americans remained aloof and separate. Unlike other, more or less permanently settled foreign communities, they described themselves emphatically as "expatriates" and were rarely seen outside their own restricted circles.

Edward Said, whose American nationality, acquired by accident, meant little to him as a young boy who had never visited the United States, recounts in Out of Place his first contact with Americans: "It was as an American businessman's son who hadn't the slightest feeling of being American that I entered the Cairo School for American Children [which opened on Road 7 in Maadi in 1946] in the fall of 1946... When I stepped on the bus I felt a seething panic when I saw the colored T-shirts, striped socks, and loafers they all wore, while I was in my primly correct gray shorts, dress white shirt, and conventionally European lace-ups... Then at lunch, as they unwrapped the same neatly cut white-bread sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly -- neither of which I had ever tasted -- and I my more interesting cheese and prosciutto in Shami bread, I fell back into doubt and shame, that I, an American child, ate a different food, which no one ever asked to taste, nor asked me to explain."

DEALING WITH THE REVOLUTION: Meanwhile, American diplomats were busy working out a formula that would allow their country's political agenda to replace, almost without a hiatus, British's straightforward imperialism.

According to Matthew F Holland, in 1951, Ambassador Edwin Locke Jr had been sent on an unsuccessful mission to the region to develop a Middle Eastern version of the Marshall Plan. During that period, for the average Egyptian, American presence materialised in the form of food subsidies, such as flour and vegetable butter "donated to the people of Egypt by the people of the United States" as part of a confused and often misguided technical assistance/ foreign loan/ credit facilities and aid package, worked out by the State Department to prove the United States' good will, first to the Egyptian monarchy and then to the Free Officers' regime, which had replaced it so unexpectedly in 1952.

Taken aback by a turn of events that the American ambassador in Cairo, Jefferson Caffery, apparently had failed to foresee, it became essential to redesign American policy quickly. The principal policymakers for the Middle East -- Acheson, McGhee, Byroade, Roosevelt and Caffry -- agreed with Locke's assessments of events in the region and his projections for Egypt's political future, writes Holland. Locke viewed dictatorship as "not necessarily evil and disruptive," but rather as a force promoting stability and progress. This central belief dictated the American decision to "help this progress along with moral and financial support to lessen the ills and tensions that beset mankind." It is in this framework that contacts were established and cultivated first with Mohamed Naguib and then, as he was recognised as the true leader of the movement, with Abdel-Nasser.

While mistrust of America was common among the Egyptian intelligentsia during the Nasser era, it was not general in any way: as early as 1971, poet Sayed Hegab wrote in the foreword to A New Egyptian : "The reason I agreed to write this book was the hope that it would serve as a bridge or a window between American youth and the youth of Egypt. For me it is a step that is toward comprehension, which is necessary for peace... And I think the majority of young people in the United States are a force for peace. In my book, I talk to these young people."




WHILE American children in Egypt engage in many of the same activities as their friends "back home", from softball to sailing, they do so in settings others only dream of. Felucca rides on the Nile, improvised Sphinx headgear (a perfect idea for Halloween!) and a birthday party picnic at the Pyramids -- these are just some of the perks of broadening your cultural horizons at such an early age.
OPENING THE GATES: With the open door policy instituted by the Sadat regime, American companies flocked to Egypt in the late 1970s. Their employees arrived by the hundreds, bringing families, furniture, four-wheel drives and household pets. The exclusive suburbs of Cairo (especially Maadi) were transformed overnight into propitious indigenous money-making territory for those in a position to supply furnished flats and miscellaneous goods and services. The native inhabitants of the chic quarters retreated to other areas of the city in order to take full advantage of the unexpected hike in the value of their property. Thanks to the American invasion, they had become rich overnight. The cost of living in environs favoured by US citizens soared to unheard-of levels, not always with a proportionate improvement in the standards of services.

Meanwhile, the basic -- and not so basic -- requirements of the newly-settled expatriate community were taken care of by their companies. The Americans had ready access to well stocked commissaries and duty-free outlets. High-ranking company officers received regular shipments of foodstuff from the States and often invited friends over for meals entirely "made in the good ol' US of A." Their imported rations of liquor, bread, cereals, cakes, etc., were so abundant that it became common practice to put the surplus up for sale.

The Egyptians, starved for foreign products, composed an ideal market, though many looked askance upon a practice so alien to their own traditions. Attendance at the American school in Maadi increased and, as new buildings went up to accommodate the new arrivals, so did the already prohibitive tuition fees. In 1979, a hefty hike forced the school board to admit that CAC would from that moment on primarily cater to students whose costs were charged to companies.

An active and visible community of "Americans abroad", complete with its own meeting places, newsletter, churches, bazaars, clubs, sports grounds and festive celebrations, was developing fast. Seemingly unsure of its status vis-à-vis the native population, it remained open to the outside world for a while: Americans from Ohio and Georgia took classes in colloquial Arabic and boasted about their "Egyptian friends." They proudly wore T-shirts stating "I'm not a tourist, I live here" in English and Arabic. Others, home-sick for the American way of life, joined groups such as "Women in Exile," which offered solace and recipes for adjustment.

Less complicated and grateful for the relative safety of the Cairo-by-night scene, youngsters from Kentucky and Maine could be seen commandeering dozens of taxis in Maadi on Thursday nights, heading for the fashionable watering holes.

THE COMPOUND MENTALITY: The first wake-up call came in 1986, with the rebellion of the state security police, followed in subsequent years by escalating attacks on American property and personnel in different parts of the Middle East. After the Gulf war, walls started to come up around CAC, and bunker-like compounds were built in a hurry for diplomatic and key personnel. The American embassy and Cairo American College were turned into regular fortresses. All-American events like the 4th of July, previously open to the public, became exclusive and were celebrated in more formal or more subdued fashion. Families departed and many remained in the States while a system of regular furloughs was worked out for the men who stayed on. Security became an issue of primary concern.

"It must be so hard to come to a country so different, a people so different, to take control and insist that everything be done your way. To believe that everything can only be done your way... I read the accounts of these long-gone Englishmen, and I think of these officials of the American embassy and agencies today, driving through Cairo in their locked limousines with the smoked-glass windows, opening their doors only when they are safe inside their Marine-guarded compounds," writes Ahdaf Soueif in her latest novel.

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER: According to Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, however, the American community is as prosperous and visible as ever. Only a negligible number among the 16,000-17,000 US citizens now in Egypt actually live under some sort of protection. Cultural exchanges between the two countries are increasing by the day, promoted by institutions such as AUC, the Fulbright Bi-National Commission and the American Research Centre in Egypt. This is one area the ambassador intends to encourage actively, he says, increasing funding for cultural activities as well as a two-way exchange of scholars and students. Many Egyptians are studying in the United States while Egyptian-born Americans are returning to settle in Egypt, enriching the country with the knowledge and expertise they have acquired, he adds. Ambassador Kurtzer views American-Egyptian relations in a very positive light and foresees even greater improvements.

Whether the American community remains as buoyant as it was in the first part of the 1980s is to a certain extent an immaterial observation, since few Egyptians outside Maadi are aware of its existence as an entity. For the average Egyptian, Americans are generally perceived as typically coming to Egypt on short-term "missions" and rarely lingering beyond the call of duty; yet those who stay on after the termination of their mandates are numerous, usually individual scholars or members of established institutions, who enjoy the psychological dépaysement and make special efforts not to congregate with other expatriates.

Earl (Tim) Sullivan, AUC's present provost, has lived in Egypt with his family for over twenty years. "What attracts Americans who decide to make Egypt their home is the psychological (as opposed to the material) comfort that they can enjoy here," he explains. Sullivan is not alone in his choice: several generations of students share memories of classes with Professors Vandersall, Shukri, Scanlon and Rodenbeck, to name just a few who stayed on. Their children, like Rodenbeck's son Max, are uplifting examples of the way cultures, if given a chance, can blend harmoniously. Married to an Egyptian, Max is fluent in several languages and has written about Cairo in a way that perfectly expresses his deep love and understanding of his favourite city and its people.


Sources:

Lynn Meskell, ed.: Archeology under Fire. Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Routledge, 1998

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Robert A Fernea: The Arab World, Forty Years of Change, Doubleday, 1997

E A Wallis Budge: Cleopatra's Needles and Other Egyptian Obelisks, Dover Publications Inc., 1990

Anna and Pierre Cachia: Landlocked Islands. Two Alien Lives in Egypt, AUC Press, 1999

Pierre Carbitès: Ismail the Maligned Khedive, George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1933

Hanna F Wissa: Assiout, the Saga of an Egyptian Family, The Book Guild, 1994

Edward W Said: Out of Place, Granta Books, 1999

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love, Bloomsbury, 1999

Olivia Manning: The Levant Trilogy, Penguin Books, 1979

Alan Moorehead: African Trilogy, Cassel, 1998

Matthew F Holland: America and Egypt from Roosevelt to Eisenhower, Praeger, 1996

Samir W Raafat: Maadi 1904-1962. Society and History in a Cairo Suburb, The Palm Press, 1994

Sifting the Sands of Time: Historic Photographs from The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago, Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993

Nicholas Warner, ed.: An Egyptian Panorama. Reports from the 19th-Century British Press, Zeitouna Press, 1994

On the Americans in Ismail's army, see also http://home.earthlink.net/~atomic_rom/egypt.htm


 

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