Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Time for an Egyptian reawakening

Nostalgia, for Egyptians, is often mixed with grief. But the woes Egypt has experienced need not define the future, writes Amina Khairy


There was no way but to remember my originally French teacher who refused to start class before we all managed to say out loud without the slightest discordance “Bonjour Mme Elaine”. And mind you, if she could hear a single chair pushed on the floor, the class would be halted waiting for the criminal to make herself known and apologise. Chairs were to be carried, not pushed on the floor.

And while remembering Mme Elaine, came Mr Raymond, my dear physical education teacher who could clearly see my complete incompetence in playing handball but would not face me with the truth, and thus spending a whole year dribbling the ball on my own.

And here stands my beloved English language teacher Mrs Mary Elefteryadis who was, is and will continue to be a lifelong mentor for thousands of girls and women who attended her classes. Mrs Mary is one of the rare teachers who maintained an extremely strange relation with her students throughout decades. Listening to her voice in the corridor meant that all living organisms lounging in the corridor or carelessly strolling towards the toilets had to vanish. But this strictness came with a huge amount of love, care, sympathy and the real meaning of nurturing and bringing up responsible, self-confident, knowledgeable, highly educated female students.

Students of Greek literature tell us that Nostos is a theme that includes an epic hero returning home by sea, a return that entails a high level of heroism and greatness. And so does watching and reading “Nostos”, or “Return to Roots”, that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Cypriot and Greek counterparts inaugurated in Alexandria a few days ago. Returning to roots brought back a lot of nostalgia with a bit of grief.

Watching the celebration of the Greek and Cypriot communities who came, lived, worked and became part and parcel of Egypt many years ago brought a lot of happy memories. School teachers who became mentors and parents, classmates who turned to be lifelong mates, along with shops, music, art, food and the list of Greek and Cypriot communities who became Egyptians heart and soul goes on.

The formal words at the launch, namely that the initiative is “a message of love on the part of Egypt towards everyone who lived on its land and left an impact or a human heritage”, materialised in front of my eyes, for I belong to the lucky last generation that witnessed a rather cosmopolitan Egypt.

However, for many reasons, some known and documented, while others are known but are too sensitive to tackle, nostalgia was accompanied by grief. Grieving a once upon a time open minded, enlightened while not necessarily educated, art loving, beauty appreciating, embracing, accepting Egyptian society that turned over the years into a dark, gloomy, unhappy and a looking forward to death society.

The “Nostos” that was launched in Egypt a few days ago brought a larger notion of “nostos” that a few Egyptians grieve over. Egypt, once home to a large Greek, Cypriot and Italian communities, and those of many other nationalities, ethnicities and religions, has become a society that is almost totally immersed in a culture that is distorted, deformed and fragmented.

The fragmentation of Egyptian culture did not happen when Egypt was home to different nationalities and ethnicities. We have lapsed into a deformed culture with no clear roots, hazy characteristics, distorted ingredients and, alas, no Egyptian identity.

According to a paper published in Harvard Divinity School, entitled “The Egyptian Islamic Revival”, “From the 1970s through the 1990s, Egypt witnessed an Islamic religious revival, a resurgence in the practice and public expression of Islam among a broad spectrum of religious Egyptians, from Islamists to members of Sufi orders, which corresponded with a global revival taking place in the Muslim world. Social support and charity organisations proliferated, and men and women attended Islamic study circles in higher numbers in addition to other forms of religious gatherings. The social landscape quite literally changed; while few Muslim women in Cairo veiled in the 1960s, most covered their hair in the 1990s.”

According to the paper, the “revival” — in my own term “sabotage” — was driven by several factors, including the “return of Egyptians who had gone to work in the Arab Gulf, drawn by a proliferation of opportunities in the wake of the oil embargo of 1973. Egyptian returnees also funded social service organisations and the number of private mosques grew”.

And the “revival”, or sabotage, grew, expanded and finally exploded. The explosion which made itself known in the days following the January 2011 Revolution made some Egyptians realise the need for a local “nostos”.

A local Egyptian nostos means a return to our Egyptian roots, a medication that would help re-embed our sense of self-confidence and ability to have a culture of our own, which by the way does not contradict religions; on the contrary, it helps people become more inclusive to others, accepting differences and benefiting from others’ cultures and experiences without necessarily losing one’s identity.

That Egyptian identity includes Egyptian Jews who once lived next door, Egyptian Greeks and Cypriots who once became Egyptian citizens with a greater sense of patriotism and belonging than others who were born here. There is an urgent need to revive our own nostos, where the return of those who lived here and become real Egyptians even though they were originally not, is a major ingredient.

Egypt, the hub of the Arab world, where culture, music, films, books, ideas, creativity, history, geography should be reinvigorated. Revival of what we once were goes through the road not of religious extremism, manipulation or a lack of confidence, but through a real Egyptian reawakening.

The writer is a journalist at the Al-Hayat newspaper.


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