2. Interview with Tarek Heggy at CIDT [1]

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The following presents an interview with Tarek Heggy at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation. Drs. Cornelis Hulsman and staff members discuss sensitive issues throughout the Arab world.

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Transcriber: Christian Fastenrath
Dr. Tarek Heggy is one of Egypt’s more prominent authors on the subject of Egypt’s need for political reform. Dr. Heggy was invited to join Arab-West Report’s board of advisors and accepted an invitation from CIDT to visit its office on March 21, in order to meet with its interns, who are students from several different countries. Heggy is very outspoken about the need for freedom and pluralism within Egyptian society, believing that religious fundamentalists, both Muslim and Christian, try to limit the space for diversity—a factor that is essential for development in any society—as much as possible. Heggy believes that the Egyptian elite do not care very much about the voices of the general population and are upset about what they believe to be U.S. interference in Egypt, as can be seen in statements like: "America likes to talk about very nasty things, such as democracy and homosexuals."
CIDT: Would you please introduce yourself and tell us about what motivates you as an author?
Heggy: Since my graduation from university, I have spent the past 36 years wearing two very different hats. I have worn the hat of both an oil executive and a writer. As an oil executive, I traveled to many places around the world, such as The Netherlands, England, the Far East, and Africa. At the end of my Shell career, I had worked as the chairman of Shell in Egypt for 10 years, with several regional missions.
The hat of a writer is more interesting. My first book was published in 1987, in Morocco. My 21st book was published a few weeks ago. I have written 16 books in Arabic and five in English. You asked me these common questions: Why do I write? What am I trying to advocate in my writings? In answering these questions, I want to mention five keywords: the critical mind; universality of knowledge, which is closely related to the activities of your office; integration with humanity; and, progress and management. I will revisit each one of them, although I think most of them relate in one way or another to your main themes.
1. Critical mind. After the long journey traveled by Western philosophy and literature, I believe that the keyword for development in Europe since the time of the Renaissance is the critical mind, or the activation of the critical mind. This occurred after the segregation of church and state. People worked on activating the critical mind to such an extent that one of the greatest German philosophers, Immanuel Kant, said, “Criticism is the most constructive tool human beings ever developed.” This is the opposite of what most Egyptians think. For them, criticism is destructive, not constructive.
The critical mind is at the core of what happened in Europe. People in Europe ask questions. It is a culture of criticism where people accept and practice criticism as well as activate and value a critical mind. Criticism is a key part of the educational curriculum—a factor that creates an environment of questions. On the other hand, Egypt is an environment of answers. People have many answers, but they do not raise many questions. Much of this is related to religion. It is tremendously important for Muslims to memorize the Qur’ān. I am a Muslim myself, but I surpassed this sensitivity because I believe that a huge part of Islam is Arab and nomadic as opposed to religious. A lot has been added to the religion by Arabia.
In this society, people go to school and they are asked to memorize. We are not in a question-asking environment. People do not ask questions about religion. Now, I am not talking about religion, I am talking about a culture—there is a big difference. This is a culture of answers; people are always searching for answers. I met with people who said that they had called a muftī over the phone who then told them what is haram and halal. People talk a lot to the muftī department. They say, “Do we do this? …I did that during Ramadan …I said that to my husband …I said, I said …” They are always seeking answers, which is the opposite of raising questions. Since the time of Aristotle, questions have been described through the metaphor of one with open eyes, while answers are represented by one who is blind because answers are the end of the road.
In my writings, I try to shock the local mind with a very strong message. We need to accept criticism! Criticism is constructive and not destructive. Without activating criticism in our educational institutions and media, we will remain marginal on the face of earth. People do not examine anything in this environment. People just take things for granted and just believe that a shaykh has all the answers. As a result, we do not have an environment ripe with inquiries. We simply do not challenge ourselves. Even the word ‘challenge’ is positive in English, while in Arabic it is negative.
When I was with Shell, I used to comment on an appraisal report: “You never challenged your boss.” The answer would be, “Should I?” Challenging your boss does not mean that you attack your boss. You challenge him objectively. You engage in a dialogue. The word challenge, by definition, is negative in this environment. People look at it like they view criticism, which is also viewed negatively.
People in this environment are like false doctors. Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān, a Lebanese writer from the 1920s, wrote about all of us in this part of the world, which he called the Orient. "The Orient is like a patient who likes a doctor that keeps lying and saying, ’It is not that serious. It is a very light fever, it will be all right!’ Meanwhile, in reality, it is very serious and unless the patient knows that it is, he will never improve." I think this is very correct. In this part of the world, people like their doctors to lie.
Someone once asked me, “Tarek, is it not true that the only difference between us and a company like Shell is that we do not have money while they do?” This is the belief of many people here. However, it is not true and thus, I answered, “No, the difference is much larger than that. It is not only that we do not have money and they do. Money is a result, it is not a beginning. It is a result of a good management, not the other way around. Money did not create the management, management created the money.” People like to simplify things and, as a result, draw incorrect conclusions. They believe that the only difference between the advanced world and us is that the advanced world is richer. However, they are richer because they work hard, and they viewed every single institution with a critical eye.
CIDT: You said that the Orient doesn’t like to challenge their doctors and even like their doctors to lie. I asked Pope Shenouda about people questioning some of his decisions and he answered, “I am the father of the Church and should children not listen to their father?” Of course he intends well but it is, nevertheless, very paternalistic.
Heggy: His perception confirms what I said because he has made Egypt into a nation of children. By the way, I learned through my friendship with him that there is no great difference between Copts and Muslims in this respect. I am a Muslim who has mingled with more Copts than most Muslims. I have been to all of the monasteries and slept in most of them; I have friends there. I have discovered that there are many similarities, but these are cultural and not religious matters. Egyptian Islam and Egyptian Christianity have a very large overlap, but there are also differences.
I mainly recruit Nubians and Copts for my company. This is in my interest, but not because I like Christians more than Muslims. I like people for their positive qualities, and Copts, as a minority, have a lot of positive qualities. For instance, they are more willing to accommodate to a situation that may not be exactly to their liking. Their egos do not get in the way very much. Additionally, they are very decent, polite, modest, and honest. Somebody might say they had to be this way in order to defend themselves as a minority. It does not matter, if they had to do this only because it is the only way a minority can survive, then so be it.
2. Universality of knowledge
In my writings, I try to advocate the idea that there is no citizenship or nationality for knowledge. By definition, knowledge is universal. It is human, but there is a great tendency in this part of the world to segregate applied sciences from social sciences. People here believe applied sciences are universal, but social sciences are not. This belief is wrong. I have written many articles saying that applied and social sciences are very related to each other; they are of the same mind. Actually, social sciences and humanities started the Renaissance Era before applied sciences. We started with painters, poets and musicians before we had mathematicians, chemists, and physicists.
This also happened in the old Greek civilization. If you sort the names of Homer, Euripides and Aischylos with those of scientists, you will find that the literary wave began earlier. It also happened in the Islamic civilization. In the 8th and 9th centuries, they started translating people like Aristotle. Medicine and science came later. I understand why: one needs to activate the mind. Once the mind is activated, it becomes active in every domain: in mathematics, space, physics, and chemistry. That is why I fight the segregation between applied sciences and social sciences.
When the European mind produced the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance, there was no segregation between applied sciences and social sciences. It was the same mind that produced both of them. However, for Arabs and Muslims, it is much easier to say: “We are keen on cars, computers and machines, but we are not keen on human rights and democracy.” I call the latter the software of the Western civilization, which is more important than the hardware. The hardware is the machines, the computers and the printers, but the software, the human being, the value system, and the attitudes are equally important.
What made the Mercedes is not simply a design but also the attitude of the designer and the maker. I say the same about the Pyramids. When one of my bosses looked at the Pyramids for the first time about 25 years ago, he said, “This is a management miracle.” Everybody talks about it as an engineering miracle, but it is equally a management miracle. The process of working out the designs for their perfection and of implementing them is a monumental management task. When we went to Abu Simbel, he completed his views as he said, “In Cairo, some people told me the Pyramids were built through slavery [CH: which people may say but is not true]. However, Abu Simbel was not built under slavery. You cannot do this under slavery; you cannot have painters and sculptors working under the whip. Egypt must have had a very large class of workers, a good quality class.”
3. Integration with humanity
I fight the ongoing tendency to further segregate from the march of mankind. In most Muslim societies, people tend to say: “We are different and we want to be different, therefore we cannot integrate.” We find many signs of this. For example, the Algerians remain North Africans in Europe because they failed to integrate. In Denmark and in Germany, there are Turks and North Africans who have stayed there for three generations without integrating.
Scientifically, it is very easy to know why they did not integrate. Algeria did not export physicians and engineers to France, but lower class laborers who resist integration because they do not have the necessary qualities for it, such as language skills and cultural approaches to integration. For the Algerian laborer, it is much easier to work hard in a Renault factory and go back to his Algerian street, eat Algerian food, speak Arabic, and sleep in a place surrounded by cultural protection.
4. Progress
I have written extensively about progress. One of my Arabic books is entitled, ‘Values of Progress.’ It was also translated into English and can be found on the internet. Looking at the title, you can see how I look at progress. I relate progress to a value system. Progress is not related to the hardware side of civilization, it is related to the software side—a civilization’s values. Teamwork, modern management techniques, paying attention to people and human resources are all a part of these values, and they should be implemented from recruitment to training and finally, to development. All of these are part of the software of civilization. We are talking about ideas, concepts and attitudes. This is the kind of progress is a product of a value system.
In Egypt, we do have some obstacles to these values which, unlike what many people believe, are not European by definition; they are human, and they are universal. Teamwork is not a Western idea. In fact, it is more Asian than European. Many professors of management have seen how much stronger the attitude of teamwork is in Asia than in America. Deming, an American professor and the father of quality management, said, “I found myself only in the Far East. Why? Because if you work in an organization in America, the pressure comes from above. In Asia, it comes from peers and supporters.”
Even the values of progress are not Western. They were developed in the West, but they are essentially human. That is why we have progress in Japan and Korea today, and even in Malaysia, a society with a Muslim majority. This means that there is nothing wrong with Muslims simply because they are Muslims. It is the system and as soon as the right vehicle pulls the system, success will be achieved, as can be seen in a Muslim society like Malaysia.
5. Management
I relate most of the problems that the Egyptian society faces to a lack of management. The Arabic language has one word for two English words. Ask an Egyptian for the Arabic word for management and they will likely reply ’idārah.’ The same word translates to the English word ‘administration.’ Is this a puzzle? No, it is not a puzzle; it is a fact. Egyptians mix administration and management. Management in Egypt was mainly related to the army. Therefore, for Egyptians, a good manager is very punctual and tough with those who make mistakes. We must realize that this is not management; this is administration.
Management means making the best out of your resources, both human and natural. I do not think that there is any Egyptian who says that Egyptian bosses are managers. They are simply bosses who lead their subordinates through a relationship based on fear and obedience. A manager discovers the capabilities of his subordinate through encouragement, promotion and training, or even by suggesting that the subordinate is capable of taking over the boss’ job. This happened to me in Shell. My Dutch boss said, “Tāriq can take over the job for me now.” I was only 35. This would never happen in this part of the world. Why? Because we do not have managers. Instead, we have bosses. A manager manages both human and natural resources. If there is no management of resources, we have bosses rather than managers.
Egypt is very poor in management. The traffic, for example, is not managed. If there is no traffic policeman present, the traffic usually runs smoothly. During Ramadan, I sometimes see things you can only see in Egypt. Somebody volunteers to be the policeman, he parks his car and sorts it out. Usually, he does a better job than the real policeman.
CIDT: I found myself doing this when I got stuck …
Heggy: A khawājah [the Egyptian word for foreigner, stranger] doing this? By the way, Egyptians have very strange opinions concerning khawājahs. They consider them superior and inferior at the same time. He is superior, because he makes Mercedes, therefore he must be good, but we also think that he is a bit of a fool. In Aswan, an example of a khawājah would be somebody who spent 20 years studying Egyptology. An Upper Egyptian man might come to him and say, “This is an authentic piece, do you want buy it?” The piece is not authentic, but made by his wife. So why does he think that this German or British man, who spent all of his life studying Egyptology, will buy this piece as if it was an antiquity? I think many Egyptians think that foreigners who do not have a good command of Arabic are less intelligent, as if Arabic is the sign of intelligence [CH: foreigners also express a great degree of naivety with regard to methods, which Egyptians believe to be clever, that Egyptians use to lure a khawājah into making a decision he/she will later regret. For example, lying for one’s own benefit, telling convincing stories with magnificent promises, saying how important honor is in Egypt – which is true, and claiming that it is one’s honor to fulfill one’s promises. It is with these methods, expressed through beautiful words, that khawājahs can be decieved].
My predecessor, a Dutchman, once gave a speech on how English is pronounced by Egyptians. It was all based on the letters b and the p. He concluded by saying, “I was always tolerant and patient, except when somebody who was working for me said, ‘Sir, you cannot bark here, go and bark somewhere else.’ I replied, ‘I don’t bark anywhere, you son of a bitch.’ Then he said, ‘No, no, you can bark there, there is a barking lot.’ I said, ‘A barking lot? So people go there and bark?’ He replied, ‘Yes, exactly.’”
He added that there was a worst case, when the b became a p. Once, an employee at Shell told him,“This is the question: to pee or not to pee?”
So these are the five areas I have been struggling with. If you ask me whether I am making any progress, I have to tell you that I am probably not. I believe very much in one of Hegel’s laws: do not expect qualitative changes, but be happy with quantitative changes.
CIDT: How long have you been writing?
Heggy: I have been writing since I was 12. I have a play dated May 1966, but it is a joke. I wanted to have something with my name on the cover, so I wrote a Sherezae play and put my name on the cover. I first published a book when I was 27, in April of 1978. It was published in Morocco while I was teaching at the University of Fez, where I stayed for three years. It is one of the most beautiful cities on earth because it is the opposite of Cairo. In Cairo, the old and the new are mixed. In Fez, there is an old city and a new city. When you go to the old city, there are narrow streets and donkeys. It is as if you are in the 14th century and absolutely nothing is new.
CIDT: How are your books distributed, how are they received and how do people respond to them?
Heggy: We do not have any good statistics on this subject, but I will try to give you some hard information. In England, you could even ask how many copies were sold, who the buyers were and from what age group they were. However, we do not have anything like this in Egypt.
My 16 Arabic books were published in about 40 editions. The number for each edition in Egypt is very small, between 1,000 and 5,000 copies. I know that I sold 100,000 copies of my books in Egypt over 30 years. We assume that three people in Egypt have read every book. So, I must have reached 300,000 readers. However, this is totally insignificant. If I appear on Channel 1 of Egyptian television, 15 million people watch me. The effort of 30 years and 16 books can be surpassed in 10 minutes. Of course, you do not relay the same message. You create an impression more than relaying messages. I have appeared on numerous television shows. On my website, you can see about 30 of my television interviews.
I believe that we Egyptians do not read much. That is why, in the end, Najīb Mahfūz complained when his publisher told him that his books had not sold more than 3,000 copies per title. Can you imagine that Najīb Mahfūz sold only 3,000 copies per title? This is very modest. Reading is not an Egyptian habit, and there are many reasons. The education system does not motivate people to read, and we must also consider the economic facts. This book [showing a book on Islamic art] was sold at the Diwan bookstore for LE 250 [about $43], which is a totally unreasonable price in Egypt. Any book that is more than LE10 will not be sold. That is why I consider the family library project of Samir Sarhan very important. Some books, which originally cost LE 2,000 [about $347] originally, were sold for LE 50.
So the answer to your question is that I must have reached about a quarter of a million readers. However, I might have reached many more than this through expounding the same views and opinions on the television. I now appear more on Nile TV. However, Nile TV is not that popular, and it reaches the wrong target [mainly non-Egyptians]. My views are probably not that welcome on Channel 1 [Egypt’s most watched TV channel]. If they asked me over the phone about my views on the constitutional amendments, they would decide not to invite me to appear on television upon hearing the first words out of my mouth.
CIDT: You spoke about the universality of knowledge and the unity of humankind in your book ‘Re-Awakening the Arab Mind.’ You focused on the Egyptian mind and, to me, this seems like an Orientalist term to distinguish an Egyptian mind. You also said that you mainly employed Copts because you saw some qualitative differences between Copts and Muslims. How does this fit with your concept of the unity of mankind?
Heggy: I am not very comfortable with the phrases “Egyptian mind” or “Arab Mind.” That is why I kept saying that the Arab mind was a product of historic and cultural components. If these components changed, the outcome would change. This means that the Egyptian or Arab mind is not a biologically determined fact. After calling the book ‘Naqd al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī’ in the first edition, I called the second edition ‘‘Uyyūb Tafkīrnā al-Mu‘āsir’ [Misconceptions of Our Contemporary Thinking].
This shows that I agree with what you said. The Egyptian mind is a product of circumstances. Changing the circumstances will change the outcome. I say the same about Islam. Islam, as it is today, is a product of history, education and circumstances. If you change them, you will change the end product. If somebody says that Muslims are not culturally tolerant to others, I reply that we need to accept that this is a product of time, even if I agree with their opinion. Muslims in Andalus were very tolerant to Jews, and the best scholars there were Muslims and Jews.
CIDT: How do you see the prospects in terms of changing these historical components that formed the Egyptian mind?
Heggy: In history, there are two roads to the solution: the European road and the Far East Road. The former, I call slow cooking. It happened in Europe over four or five centuries. The Far East road is fast food, squeezed from the leadership to the lower layers, who were all ready to grasp the message. That is why it took a country like Korea less than 30 years to move from $500 per capita to $15,000. This is not the European model because it did not happen over four or five centuries. This is not the same as what happened in Europe with Voltaire, the French Revolution and Charles I and II of England.
So, we have the fast and the slow kitchen. I think that Egypt cannot afford to follow the slow cooking method. If it does, the result is not guaranteed. It may even be possible that if Egypt took the slow path, it might fall into the hands of the forces of darkness, which could take Egypt into a Taliban era for a long time. Egypt can only follow one road: we need quality leadership that will pull the society together.
Look at what happened in Malaysia. Malaysia had people who understood that it is not a shame to say, “The Chinese are more productive than the rest of the society. Let them lead the society!” So, the 25 % Chinese population led the other 75 % of the society.
So, I think that the only way is to obtain quality leadership that will pull society along toward these positive goals. Do we currently have this kind of leadership? No, we do not. Does it look like that we will have it in the future? I am not certain. Am I pessimistic? To a far extent, yes I am. Look at what happened with the constitutional amendments. The president presents a draft of 34 amendments which then go to the two houses of parliament and are instated just as they are. They did not change a word. The views of the opposition, from the extreme to the moderate, were totally ignored. Next Monday [March 26], they will be presented to the people in a referendum.
CIDT: You were just speaking positively about the Far East model for societal change where you have a small percentage leading the big percentage. Is this not what is happening in this system?
Heggy: No. Where are they leading us? I am not even sure that they are leading. The word ’leading‘ is very neutral in English. I can lead you to hell and I can lead you to paradise. I just have to show you the way. I do not think the top of the society has a vision of where they want Egypt to go.
Human beings lose the link to reality when they stay in power for too long. Human nature changes. Americans do the best thing. After eight years they bid farewell to the president, even if he is the best man on earth. There is a dialectic relationship between our rulers and us. They are not responsible for everything, a great deal of responsibility stays with us.
I remember a friend of mine, Mansur Hasan, who was the Minister of Culture. He was very close to both Sādāt and Mubārak when they came to power. He wrote an article, which he could not publish in the end, about how Egyptians spoil the human nature of their leaders. He wrote, “If you are a simple person and then you become a president, everybody, even those with a PhD in medicine, chemistry or irrigation, will come to you and tell you that you know their area of expertise better than they do. In the end, you lose respect for others. You get the wrong impression of your qualities. Then you decide to do everything on your own, your way. You can say, “Do the flyover here!” Then, everybody will tell you that you know better than anyone who has a PhD in bridge construction. The same happens with irrigation and tourism.
So it is not only our rulers, it is all of us. We have a dialectic relationship where we spoil them and lead them to failure. A friend of mine once ate peaches with the president and said, “These are wonderful Italian peaches!” The president replied, “No, they are from Egypt.” My friend said, “No, I grow peaches. These are Italian. Egyptian peaches cannot be like this because they take a different temperature.” The president insisted that the man is destructive. Even at the level of peaches, different views are not welcome or even utterly rejected.
CIDT: You spoke positively about the progress in the Far East. What do you see as its main features that could be copied here? Can they be copied?
Heggy: The formula is human. They have leaders that guide the society and create economic welfare. The main difference between the Far East and Egypt is the labor culture. The task of running a plant with 5,000 Chinese is different from running a plant with 5,000 Egyptians. You do not have to put a lot of effort into persuading 5,000 Chinese about the need for team work because it is part of their culture. In Egypt, it takes longer and requires more enforcement, example and guidance because people here are more fragmented than unified.
The formula for progress is human. Get the best sons and daughters of society to run the government. For instance, this happened in Singapore, where the best sons and daughters of society ran a small government. Egypt has a very large government. In fact, it is one of the largest per capita in the world. Egypt has seven million civil servants, while Turkey, with a population similar in size to that of Egypt, has 700,000. In Egypt it used to be that the main task of the government was to create jobs. These were not real jobs, but simply a desk and a seat. Even though it is not a 100% typical, I think the formula is human,. It takes visionary and forceful leadership to change this, like Muhammad Ali’s leadership which was seen in Egypt about 200 years ago.
CIDT: I had long discussions with a professor of history at the American University in Cairo about what would be the best for Egypt. Although I do not like the political formation, it seems that an oligarchy would be the best solution. With Muhammad ‘Alī, 300 skillful people could bring a great deal of positive change to this society.
Heggy: Muhammad ‘Alī puzzled me a great deal. He was illiterate and did not speak a word of Arabic. He was an Albanian. What did he do? He called on the society of Saint Simon from France. They worked out all the plans for him.
Machiavelli, a wise man who is very unfairly treated in history, described how life worked. He did not say, “This is the best way,” but taught the prince how it worked. Once he said to the prince, “The prince who is not wise himself cannot get any wise advice.” The person should be wise to use good advisors.
Apparently, Muhammad ‘Alī was very wise. He went to the French and he used the advice of the Saint Simon Society, who worked out the irrigation system, the canals and scholarships to France. Every five years from 1826 onward, a group of Egyptians was sent to France to be educated in all sorts of areas. This was beyond him, but he was the visionary leader who decided to use the right pilots. Using the right pilot is wisdom.
Lets go back to your question. Its core is puzzling. How do you define good leadership? The richest Egyptians? It would never work. The best educated? Then you would have to define what you mean by educated. Having a degree? Education here in Egypt means having a degree, but not necessarily having visionary and enlightened thoughts. There are people with many degrees who do not have 90% of what it takes to be a good intellectual. What happened to education in Egypt is pathetic. A PhD means three years of donkey work, but not necessarily clever and analytical thinking. This it is not required. On the contrary it is not even supported in the educational system.
CIDT: Going back to the Far East and Egypt, I attended an intensive course on regional studies at Cairo University and the lecturer was one of those who wrote the speeches of Mahathir Muhammad. He talked about the rapid progress in the field of economy. However, at the same time, he felt frustrated as an intellectual because he thought that progress was at the expense of freedom of expression.
Heggy: Things have changed and Mahathir is no longer in office. Neither are his peers in other countries, like for example, Korea. The one who opened the door, the first president who started the race to progress, was taken to trial and put in jail afterwards. When progress starts, democracy either follows swiftly or lags behind. In Malaysia, it lagged behind because Prime Minister Mahathir stayed in office for three decades and even ruined the life of his opponents. Look at Anwar Ibrāhīm. He was put in jail for allegedly being homosexual, but what has homosexuality to do with politics?
CIDT: You talked about freedom of expression and the lack of vision. I am sure you follow what is going on on the internet where there are these blogs and an explosion of information exchange. Nowadays, we can read novels like ‘The Yacoubian Building’ and ‘Chicago’ that contain concepts that I would describe as shocking.
Heggy: These are wonderful novels. The author, ‘Alā’ al-Aswānī, is a very good friend of mine. I think he is a genius. However, there is a big difference between Alaa as a novelist and Alaa as a human being. My friendship with him is amazing because my political ideas are opposite to his. Still, I love him as a novelist. The genius novelist inside him is the best part of him.
As an example, look at Mozart. He was a very lousy guy apart from being a genius musician. Go and watch the film Amadeus. He ran after all the waitresses and girls. This was Amadeus as a person. However, when it came to music, Amadeus was a genius.
CIDT: How do you know the film gave an accurate portrayal of Mozart? I have checked out a number of films, and many film directors take a good deal of liberty with the real facts.
Heggy: Look at Mozart himself. Everybody said that his wife did not go to his funeral because it was a very stormy day in Vienna on the 5th of December, 1791. Now, Americans can tell you what the weather in Vienna was actually like on that day. It was a lovely sunny day. The lady did not want to go because Mozart was already dead, and she was with her lover. Despite this, her lover served Mozart well. Without him, we would not have Mozart’s music. As Mozart was a very messy person, he usually left all of his papers without numbers and titles. However, the man who became his wife’s lover collected all of these notes for Mozart. He later became the ambassador of Austria to Stockholm. There, he focused on Mozart’s notes and produced the 300 pieces of Mozart.
Going back to ‘Alā’ al-Aswānī, he is a leftist. For me, an Egyptian leftist is somebody who remains from the 19th century. However, I still like ‘Alā’ al-Aswānī very much and I am very proud of him. Last month, I was in Switzerland and I saw him on a French television channel. The next day, he was on BBC. When he talks about his novel, it is very impressive. His first book, ‘Nīrān Sadīqah’ [Friendly Fire], is equally a work of genius, and it is unfair that nobody talks about it because it is wonderful. Its main character, an Egyptian, said the following, “Mustafá Kāmil said, ‘If I were not an Egyptian, I would have loved to be an Egyptian.’” He then goes on to say, “Have you ever heard something crazier than that? Have you ever heard of a Japanese man who died because he was not born Egyptian? Have you ever heard of a Canadian who was taken to the mental hospital because he was not born Egyptian?" However, at the end of the novel, very nasty things happen to this main character and he ends up in the mental hospital.
CIDT: Exactly, it was because he was Egyptian.
Heggy: Exactly. I told ‘Alā’ al-Aswānī that he was very vicious. I thought that I was very similar to the main figure of the novel until the last page, when he was taken to a mental hospital. Throughout the novel, he would say thing like, “Look around you! This is made in China! This is made in Japan! Nothing in this room is made in Egypt!”
‘Alā’ al-Aswānī is a dentist and is younger than me. His father, cAbbās al-Aswānī, was a famous writer in my generation who wrote ‘al-Maqāmāt al-Aswānīyah.’ [The maqāmahs of Aswan] [Reviewer: the maqāmah is an Arabic literary sort of writing that is similar to melodic prose] His articles were written with the style of 4th century writings. ‘Alā’ al-Aswānī is a very brave person, as can be seen in his articles about Jamāl Mubārak. He is merciless as he knocks down. Currently, he has been writing for 18 months for one of the two publications, al-‘Arabī al-Nāsirī or al-Ahālī.
CIDT: I read an interview with him in Akhbār al-Adab. While he was not defending himself, he really was under attack in the interview.
Heggy: Look at what Egypt is doing to him. He has been translated into 15 languages and sold 150,000 copies in France within a three month period. However, he is labeled by all professors of literature in Egyptian universities as a mediocre novelist. The people who label him as mediocre are not even known by their wives and children; they are probably not even known within their flat. How can we ruin the good sons and daughters of our society in this way? We just dismiss the opinions of these people by saying, “He is not even a novelist. He does not know the rules of a modern novel!” In the end, it still holds true that great publishers in Europe and America have invested money and time into translating his work. I could not put down ‘The Yacoubian Building’ until I had finished it. I do not know how it is in English, but it probably had the same impact on people. Now the same is true in German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian.
CIDT: Was his first book also translated into other languages?
Heggy: I do not think so. It was not successful at all. I mean, he says that it had bad luck. Nobody wrote about it, but his second novel compensated for the lack of success of his first book
CIDT: I attended one of his lectures about his book. There were students, I would say that they were quite liberal, who attacked him and blamed him for being part of a conspiracy.
Heggy: I can imagine that average Egyptians say that he was translated because he plays a role for certain powers, and not because he is a genius. Do people have to sell 150,000 copies in Paris in order to create rumours such as these? The young generation immediately thinks about things like this. A few days ago, I said that if American troops were all of a sudden withdrawn from Iraq at the moment, many countries, beginning with Jordan, would become Islamist in less than five years. I referred to a very good paper published by the Jerusalem Times. While people tell me that “maybe the Jerusalem Times wants to persuade the Arabs that …,” I find that it is always like this.
The person who believes in conspiracy theories is a very defeated person from the inside. He blames everything that goes wrong on a superpower working against us. People always say that these superpowers are America and Israel, America and Israel, and America and Israel. If you have a lower fertility rate in a governorate, they say that this is because there were Israeli experts working with the agriculture of this governorate. Conspiracy theories make up the stage that precedes surrender. The core of a conspiracy theory is that the future is controlled by others and that one cannot contribute to its making, or even challenge its makers. To this, I say, “What about the Japanese? What could be worse than two nuclear bombs hitting a country? They started from ruins. Could any conspiracy be harsher than this?”
If we accept the conspiracy mindset, what do we do? If the Jews, Israel and America control everything in the world, what do we do? Do we commit suicide? Do we surrender? Or, do we challenge? When I say challenge, I do not mean that we kill people. I mean that we do positive and good things, and that we contribute to all the domains that we have not yet contributed to. What is our contribution to medicine? To engineering? To IT? So far, it is nothing. So what stops us? People will say thing like, “We have been very busy with Israel and that is why we have not worked!” Israel was also very busy with us, but it did not stop Israel from working. We are as much of a threat to Israel as Israel is to us. Neighbors, who do nothing to hide their objectives, surround Israel. Still, it does not prevent Israel from being democratic and continuing to work hard. When I was at the university in the 1960s, Israel was an agricultural country. It exported mandarines and oranges. Now, it exports computer software and hardware.
I want to get back to your point. I believe that Egypt has been paralyzed throughout the past 25 years. It is very difficult to imagine what could be worse.
CIDT: Which fields do you think are the most affected areas?
Heggy: First, look at the numbers. Our GDP growth from 1981 to 1991 was zero. This means that it took the new regime 10 years to understand the jobs that needed to be done, leaving our GDP growth to remain at zero. When Sadat died, it was 7%. However, it remained zero during the following 10 years.
When Sādāt came to power in 1970, his most intimate friend Kamāl Adham, the head of the Saudi intelligence, advised, “If you want to have an equilibrium to the left, open the doors to the Islamists!” This is what he did; he opened the doors to Islamists everywhere within the trade unions and the universities. In the end, he was killed. His policies left us like a piece of raw meat a few inches away from the lion. The Muslim Brothers have nothing to do with religion. They are a political party and they want to gain power in the name of God, as if they have a proxy. Of course, in having a proxy from God and being blessed, you may come to power but you may not leave it.
Thirdly, what has happened in the field of education over the past 26 years, apart from the building of schools? Every time the first lady or the President talk about education, they give us the number of concrete buildings. They build more schools, but is this the biggest challenge? Or is it the rotten curriculum, a curriculum that does not differentiate between Arabic literature and the Qur’ān? When my daughters studied Arabic in school, I could not understand whether it was Arabic or religion. For me, in the1950s and 1960s, Arabic was literature; it was poetry, a part of a novel, a short story, or a critique. Now, all they have in Arabic are Qur’ānic verses and Qur’ānic verses are religion.
Education has never been tackled from the viewpoint of educational philosophy. Why are we educated? We are educated in order to create new citizens of the 21st century who can handle what the subjects that I talked about, such as the universality of knowledge, information technology, tolerance in terms of race and religion, and the acceptance that life is pluralistic by definition. These things have to be sewn into education. We never did any homework on things like this. On the contrary, we kept only discussed concrete topics, adding concrete facts to more concrete facts.
Economically, I do not know why many people in Egypt have not exploded yet. Did you see the fire yesterday [March 20] in Sayyidah Zaynab? These people have no steam, therefore they do not explode. Many foreigners who live in this country wonder why people have not exploded, living the way they do in Imbābah [an overpopulated popular area in Cairo]. Usually, people explode when they reach certain points. Yesterday, hundreds of people were thrown onto the streets because of this fire. Some of the people shouted to the camera man as if he were responsible, “Tell me what I will do tomorrow? When I bring my kids from the school, where will I take them to?” The camera man replied, “I am not the governor of Cairo.”
CIDT: How did this fire happen? Was it on purpose?
Heggy: No, it was not sabotage. I think an explosion of a gas cylinder was responsible.
CIDT: Let me go back to the conspiracy theory, because this is something that you mentioned about Egypt. This happens with Copts as well. However, with them, it is not blamed on the U.S, it is blamed on Muslims. If you do not get your promotion at work, it is because there is a conspiracy against us Christians. This information ends up traveling very far. Look at the articles published in the publication Al-Katībah al-Tibīyah, or even, the actions of U.S. Coptic associations and the reports they write.
Heggy: We have to understand why Copts do that. Najīb Mahfūz’s name sounds Coptic, however, this is because he never used his full name, Najīb Mahfūz ‘Abd al-‘Azīz. When he graduated, as the best student, from the Department of Philosophy at the Cairo University in 1934, he decided not to search for a PhD scholarship abroad. Then somebody told him, “As a Christian, you cannot use the public funds to get a PhD.” Mahfūz replied that his name was ‘Abd al-‘Azīz and was not Christian. Yet it remains that there are many Muslims who refuse to supervise Christians for their MA or PhD theses. I have helped many Copts to find a supervisor.
CIDT: In which fields of study does this happen?
Heggy: Medicine, in particular, because there is a great concentration of Muslim Brothers in medicine. I helped many people in this field by taking them to ‘Ādil Sādiq, before he died. He was a psychiatrist, very open, and I gave him Copts because they were unable to find a supervisor. If anybody says that Copts are fairly treated in Egypt, he is an unfair person. The minute you utter your name becomes the minute you begin face troubles. This is because it is your name that usually reveals what you are.
It has not always been like this in Egypt. In my generation, Christians did not migrate to the very Coptic names, and they would call their children Sharīf, ‘Ādil or Ashraf. I had friends in school and I never even knew that they were Christians. Today, because of public pressure, Copts migrate to typically Coptic names. Sometimes I lecture in the Cathedral, and I find that half of the room is called Mīnā and the other half Joachim.
CIDT: There are certainly issues that have to be addressed and things that are the real facts, but there are also terrible exaggerations. These are not doing good, instead they create an image of “that cannot be true.” We have researched this topic, like all those stories about Christian girls physically forced to convert to Islam …
Heggy: Or raped. Somebody once asked me whether “it was correct that 300,000 Coptic girls are raped a year?” It is not 300,000, 30,000, 3,000, or even 300, and I very much doubt it would be 30. Then I discovered that people falsified certificates claiming that they had been raped in order to obtain asylum. The person who would falsify the papers was a Muslim, but. it was his business. He would give the girl a certificate that she had been raped and the police would investigate the case. Her paper work for residence in America would become almost routine.
Three hundred thousand rapes? We would be unable to walk in the streets. I do not think that there are 300 rapes in Egypt every year. You are right, these cases have to be investigated.
CIDT: When you look at the conversion issue and which topic is a hot issue in Coptic circles, you are dealing with a whole host of social problems. The whole situation has problems, such as problems in the family, attempts to escape and poverty. In the 150 cases of alleged forceful conversion that we have investigated over the past 10 years, we found zero evidence of physical force. I am not saying that it could not happen, but until now, we have not seen it.
Heggy: You are absolutely right. I refused to go to one of the Coptic conferences because the slogan was wrong. I am originally a lawyer, and it is my opinion that Egypt has discimination but not persecution. They insist that persecution exists, but we do not have numbers and we do not have statistics, even when we go to the Dutch embassy to look at the reports. Yes, while there are clear cases of discrimination, discrimination and persecution are not the same, neither legally nor in degree. Persecution is a systematic plan for acting negatively. When it is not codified, left to the culture and people’s reactions, is becomes discrimination. There is discrimination in Egypt and there is discrimination against Egyptians who are thought to be Christians.
CIDT: There are Christians discriminating against Muslims. It is a very small number, but they are there. Certain companies only employ Christians. You simply do not feel this discrimination because it appears in such a tiny number.
Heggy: I see it, I understand it and I even sympathize with it. When I am in the restaurant al-Gouna, I know from the names of the staff that more than 50% of them are Copts.
CIDT: This is not the issue. The issue is that there still exists these publications. The U.S. Copts Association [http://www.copts.com] publishes all kinds of radical stories in Arabic on the internet. The internet plays a big role in reaching out to youths. Al-Katībah al-Tibīyah, which I find highly disturbing, is widely distributed in churches in Egypt. Church officials, Orthodox ones in particular, cannot hide behind the idea of freedom of expression. They allow this kind of rubbish to be distributed in the churches, which means that they give these publications a certain value that they do not deserve. The distribution of Father al-Maskīn’s works is forbidden in churches. What kind of policy is this? So how do we deal with this? We decided that the solution could be the building of an English Electronic Documentation Center that would also be available in Arabic in order to reach a broader audience in Egypt.
Heggy: I think it is actually a good idea.
CIDT: It could be a way to promote the critical mind. We want people to realize that the stories that are published do not have to be true and that they have to be careful and avoid swallowing all of these stories. We have to avoid accepting stories because someone tells you they are true, or because someone in the U.S. claims that they are true. So what? Still, people accept these stories without question and this is creating tensions. If you are discussing real issues, it is fine and there are no problems. However, it is not good to discuss blown up stories that have no basis.
Heggy: Of course. Unfortunately, we are not very healthy at the moment. I have been watching as the numbers of Coptic migration to the church has increased over the past 15 years. My two secretaries are Copts. They met their future husbands in the church, found their jobs in the church, and all of their journeys have been organized by the church. In the afternoon, they do service in the church. The reaction of the Coptic society towards things that they do not like can be seen in the church as they convert the church into a society. This is very unhealthy and it needs to be very carefully tackled. It especially needs to be tackled because the common answer would be, “If we go somewhere else, it is not as healthy, as open, and as fair to us as the church.” As you said, the church itself is part of the Egyptian autocracy. I am very supportive of the Copts, and my writings are full of that, but I still believe that the church is as authoritative and autocratic as our state.
The wife of a very good friend of mine, Mīlād Hannā, used to tell me, “Please do something to correct the relationship between the pope and Mīlād.” I used to ask, “Why the hell are you bothered by that?” She would reply, “I am very scared that when Milad dies, the Pope will do the same thing to him as was done to Ibrāhīm Abdel Sayyid when everybody refused to pray, he was not given a Christian funeral and they took him to a Protestant church because they sought revenge from him after he died.” This is exactly like our political regime: when the boss is angry, everybody joins him and they add to the anger because they simply want to please the boss.
CIDT: George Bibawi
Heggy: George Bibawi, the man of theology.
CIDT: No, he is a church historian. I know him well.
Heggy: Does he live here?
CIDT: No, he lives in the United States.
Heggy: Most of the topics that are covered by the media here are theology-related. They are not usually to the history of the church.
CIDT: He uses history. In fact, he compares and contrasts how certain issues are taught in terms of the history of the church and how they are taught today.
Heggy: Is he close to Mattá al-Maskīn?
CIDT: Yes, to a certain extent, because he is a lot more outspoken and aggressive than Father Mattá al-Maskīn. The reason for it is that he was expelled from Egypt by Pope Shenouda. He is the only person that I know of who has been expelled from the country by the head of the church.
Heggy: I was reading about Mattá al-Maskīn a few days ago and I discovered, for the first time, that, for nine years, he also had a problem with the predecessor of Shenouda, Kyrillos VI.
CIDT: You are right about that. In some sources, you will find that the pope suspended Mattá al-Maskīn. However, on Saturday, we went to the monastery and one of the fathers told us that it was more to do with one of the abbots of the monastery who was not on good terms with Mattá al-Maskīn. the pope actually ignored this struggle, but he was …
Heggy: Suspended?
CIDT: No. This is what has been said on Pope Shenouda’s website, but the monastery of St. Makarios denies that he was suspended. I once sat with Pope Shenouda in his car. When we were passing by the Monastery of St. Makarios, he said, “This is where the rebellious monk Mattá al-Maskīn lives.”
Heggy: I have not seen the pope now for over two years, but I know how the pope considers some of the people he sees as his opponents. He once said, "I am not Jesus Christ. I do not forgive.”
CIDT: It was in the same context. I heard that George Bibawi apologized. I was in the church and everyone was there and …
Heggy: The pope said, “I forgive what you said to me, but what you said about the church I do not forgive." You should try to understand the pope. He is a very special person. The seven years, from 1947 to 1954, were very interesting. He joined the Monastery of al-Siryān on July 18, 1954, but prior to this, he was involved in politics and actually a member of a party.
CIDT: The Ummah Qibtīyah?
Heggy: No, not the Ummah Qibtīyah, but Qutlah al-Wafdīyah. The Ummah Qibtīyah is the group that opposed Pope Yūsāb II.
CIDT: Do you know what the Ummah Qibtīyah did when Pope Yūsāb II was kidnapped?
Heggy: Members of the Ummah Qibtīyah went to Pope Yūsāb’s cell and said, “You come with us.” Young Copts with the name Ummah Qibtīyah. Their charter is exactly the same as that of the Muslim Brothers, you just have to remove the word Islam and Muhammad, and replace it with the word Christianity. Their oath is exactly the oath of the Muslim Brothers: “Al-Islāmu Dīn Allāh. Al-Masīhīyatu Dīn Allāh. Muhammad Za‘īmu Allāh. Al-Masīhu Za‘īmu Allāh.”
CIDT: Immediatedly after the kidnapping of Nazīr Jayyid, Pope Shenouda started a discussion in the Sunday School Magazine today about the succession of Yūsāb II. A living pope! This means that he did not criticize his kidnapping at all?.
Heggy: Usually, in history, a monk would become a pope after a monastic life of 25 to 35 years. Father Antonius, now Pope Shenouda, tried to become pope after only two years within the monastic life. He became a monk in 1954, and in 1956, Yūsāb died. On paper, Antonius was allowed to nominate himself. So, they introduced the requirement of living only 15 years as a monk before one could nominate oneself for the papacy, which also excluded two other young monks. A good friend of mine, Father Rafael, who was the personal secretary of Kyrillos, told me that Pope Kyrillos said that they changed the election law in 1957, in order to stop Shenouda from becoming the successor of Pope Yūsāb. Rafael told me that Kyrillos knew that the idea of being the pope had always been in Shenouda’s mind.
There is a famous story where the stick of Kyrillos, which is the symbol of the pope, fell on the ground and Shenouda went to bring it back to him. Kyrillos said to him, “Do not hurry, you will have it.”
In the Heikal’s book about Sādāt, he mentions something which makes us doubt the election process. According to Heikal, Sādāt exploded and said to the Minister of Interior, Mamdūh Sālim, “Is that not Shenouda? You said you would get me a polite pope!” Get you? The phrase “get you” is not what we think of.
CIDT: According to Coptic tradition, there are three lots with different names. It is a little child below the age of knowing who picks one of the lots, and then God elects that person. However, here it is suspected that the three names were the same name.
Heggy: They indeed say it was cooked, and that all three names were Shenouda.
CIDT: What will happen with his successor? If it is Pope Bīshūy, will Egypt be in for trouble?
Heggy: If Bīshūy becomes pope, the church will never be unified. The Egyptian church needs somebody like Kyrillos VI, a man of spirituality, or maybe even a monk that we do not know yet. And Bishop Mūsá? Is he more religious or intellectual? I would classify him as educated more than spiritual. In order to find a spiritual successor, you have to go to an unknown monk.
The church does not need another prime minister, because Shenouda has been more of a prime minister than a pope. He once said to me, “Do not ask me not to talk about politics!” Is there any issue on earth that does not have a political dimension? Even this coffee! If I say it is bad, it means that the wrong coffee was imported from the wrong country, which is political. Shenouda sees life in a very political way; he is a political animal. He was a poet, he was a politician, he was a writer, and he was a soldier. I once said something to him about soldiers and I thought that he would kick me out. He was talking about Israel as if he were a Muslim Brother. He was very angry and said, “These Jews killed Jesus.” I said, “I heard about this rumor.” He replied, “You know that they [referring to Jews] do not believe in Jesus?” I said, “You do not believe in Muhammad. They do not believe in Jesus, but you do not believe in Muhammad, so should the Muslims kill you?” Then he got very angry, “These stupid ones who go to Jerusalem without my permission [referring to Coptic pilgrims to Jerusalem].” I said, “I do not know who I am talking to, Pope Shenouda or first lieutenant Nazīr Jayyid.” He fought in the 1948 war. I even have a picture of him with the two stars. He is a person full of ambition and he cannot stand opposition. For him, if you do so, you are a betrayer.
CIDT: So, we have Baba Husnī and Baba Shenouda.
Heggy: That is the best one I have heard this week.
CIDT: On a different note, could you explain the reaction of the opposition to the succession of the president?
Heggy: In Egypt, one asks more about the reaction of the army than about the reaction of the opposition. The opposition is very weak.
CIDT: You have met with government officials. A few days ago, you met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. How do these officials respond to your views?
Heggy: The only one who listens to everything I say and write, and does not give me the impression that I should not be saying these things is ‘Umar Sulaymān. He is the head of intelligence, but he has surpassed the title. He is now nearly sharing the presidency, and most of the external files. To him, I speak very freely. In contrast, Abū al-Ghayt [Minister of Foreign Affairs] has a very limited horizon. He dislikes Americans, for instance. He also dislikes the idea of any further development between Egypt and Israel. I think the only member of the ruling elite who listens to the views of others is ‘Umar Sulaymān, and he listens to very harsh views.
CIDT: Yes, he listens, but does he agree?
Heggy: If you asked me if I knew any member of the ruling group, including ‘Umar Sulaymān, who believed in democracy, the answer would be no. There is no belief in democracy whatsoever. They believe that democracy is a nightmare that America has created for them. America likes to talk about very nasty things, such as democracy and homosexuals. I do not think our rulers ever respected us. It starts from there. You have to respect your people in order to believe in their right to participate. What is democracy? It is participation. I have lived under three presidents and I have never heard anything that suggests that they respect the people or the ideas they could contribute.
CIDT: Hāfiz Abū Si‘dah said in a private meeting that he prefers this regime to a Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Heggy: I might agree with Hāfiz, but I will add that it is Mubārak that has led us to this choice. He led us on a 25-year journey that would come down to the choice between himself and them. Theoretically, we should have a third option of somebody from the civil society. We do not because somebody looked after them, like they looked after Dr. Sa‘d al-Dīn Ibrāhīm and Ayman Nūr. So, we do not have a name. People have not been allowed to come to the service. There are two political elements in Egypt: Mubārak on the surface and the Muslim Brothers on the subsurface. We do not have a third player. The civil society has been systematically weakened.
What happened to Dr. Sa‘d al-Dīn Ibrāhīm? We should not accept what happened to him on the basis that we reject his views. That is a different story. What happened to him was brutal, but it does not mean that I like his views. He thinks that the Muslim Brothers would accept the division of power if they came to power. I do not, but this does not have anything to do with what Mubārak did to him. What was done to him was brutal and affected everybody. When Ibrāhīm was arrested, I decided not to visit Israel for three or four years. I was afraid. Fear is a human feeling. If anybody says they do not know fear, then they are not human. Who will compensate for the 36 months he spent in jail with criminals? He was totally innocent, as was found by the Court of Cassation. In this case, it did not break his morale, but his body.
Looking at the presidential elections, we had four candidates. However, one of them died in a car accident, Ayman Nūr and Nu‘mān Jum‘ah are in jail, and Mubārak is still ruling us. Has it ever occurred before in history that four people run for presidency and three of them disappear, leaving only one of them? Why is Ayman Nūr in prison? Even if he is guilty of his conviction, what does it matter? He had the correct number of signatures required by law. The probably penalized him for saying, “I am the one who will defeat Jamāl Mubārak in 2011!” Look at Dr. Sa‘d al-Dīn Ibrāhīm. Why did they change the accusations? In the beginning they claimed that he stole money from the European Union, and then ruined Egypt’s image. I do not understand what that means because Aswānī must have ruined Egypt’s image with Nīrān Sadīqah.
CIDT: We would appreciate it very much if you accepted our invitation to become a member of the board of advisors of Arab West Report.
Heggy: It would be my honor and pleasure.

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