I was born at a time of great upheaval. In February 1938, Hitler annexed Austria a month after I was born. World War II soon followed. Ten years later the State of Israel was officially proclaimed. And then, when I was only 14, a group of “Free Officers” kicked King Fārūq out of the country, ostensibly to free the nation from corruption, and as a reaction against the humiliation suffered by the Egyptian troops in Palestine.
Yet despite the best of intentions of the young officers who took over the government of Egypt; their declared aims proved illusory.
At the time when I was born, my father was a judge at the Mixed Court1 of Egypt. I remember him as a person of great patriotism, and yet his education was entirely Western. After his high school graduation from Victoria College in Alexandria, he went to Cambridge in order to study Law. As it turned out, his presence in the heart of the British Empire did not in any way prevent him from taking part in open debates with his fellow British students as regard the iniquity of the British occupation2. It seems that he won most debates. His post graduate studies were conducted in Dijon where he obtained his Doctorate in Law from its prestigious University; on “the Problems raised by the Egyptian Constitution of 1923.”3 When he returned from Europe, his older brother was already engaged in the Nationalist movement, but for some reasons, he pressured my father, who revered him, to stay out of politics. And yet it was my father who convinced me of the justice of the Egyptian cause, which, for my father, was based on the principles of self determination, reinforced by his deep belief that modern Egypt has caught up with modernity and has espoused democracy as its modus vivendi. He also believed that Egypt has the right, and the duty, to reject any form of foreign subjugation, whether British or Ottoman. It is mainly from him that I learned to adopt a form of patriotism soaked in justice. Moreover, as an educator, it was my father who helped me develop my rational brain hemisphere.
My mother was raised by the nuns of the French “Sacre Coeur.” She excelled in Art and Philosophy, but did not pursue a university education after graduating from school. She differed from my father, primarily in her piety. Her patriotism was vibrant but romantic, often colored by the glories of the Pharaohs. It was my mother who helped me develop that hunger that all humans have for the transcendent, and it is to her that I owe any of the love of beauty and poetry that I may possess.
I was educated by the Cairo Jesuits (1945- 1956). At that time it was perfectly acceptable to be intensely patriotic, and still express that feeling, and the duties that accompany it; in French or English as well as in Arabic. I still remember my late mother singing patriotic popular songs in Arabic.
The Jesuit Fathers were known to be sympathetic to our Egyptian form of nationalism and completed their wonderful educative role, by instilling in us a healthy form of patriotism. It may help to recall that our Jesuit teachers were implicit supporters of the separation of religion from state. This principle was not taught to us explicitly in class, but was rather transmitted by example, and by offering a climate of openness.
For instance, what was wonderful in our educators’ system was that, despite the fact that our school was run by the Jesuit religious order, religion was not a subject to be addressed outside the religious classes, or after attending mass. Many of our teachers were in fact Muslims, and my favorite teacher of history was Mr. Hārūn hadād, a Jew.
What needs to be remembered is that friendship in those days crossed over religious affiliation in a most natural manner. For instance my maternal grandmother’s best friend was a Muslim lady: “Hafīzah Hānim.” When my grandmother died in 1952, condolences were received in my grandfather’s house as well in that of Hafīzah Hānim. Mutual friends used to walk from one house to the other (a few blocks away) to comfort the bereaved family and her best friend! The same spirit of creedal blindness sealed our relationship with the Jews. Today because we miss them, we remember how many of our neighbors and friends were in fact Jewish.
The same climate was present in school. For instance, I had a very good Muslim friend of the name of Husaynayn Shafīk. For about 3 or 4 years we made it our practice to have lunch outside the “College”4. We used to take a 20 minutes walk to a downtown food bar called “Bamboo,” where we had a quick bite, then returned school for the afternoon classes. And yet, after so many years, and after interminable conversations, Husaynayn did not even know that I was a Christian! He discovered that fact accidentally when we were about to graduate!
After the 1952 revolution, all foreign schools, including that of the Jesuits, were forced to follow the Egyptian curriculum and submit to the ministry’s exams. When I graduated in 1956, after being submitted to the national examinations, (which were held across the length and width of the country), our school was honored as the best in the entire country, and that included excellent results in the knowledge of the Arabic language, its literature and its use.
Today, as I am about to enter my eighth decade, if I have any hunger for truth and any love for justice and tolerance, it is to my parents and to my Jesuits educators that I owe it!
After the revolution, things started to change.
Starting in the mid fifties and long before the “politically correct” tendencies ever appeared in this unfortunate planet, it became increasingly uncomfortable to converse in any foreign language in public, or show preference for Western culture. There was some justification for that form of popular dislike, since many polyglots were felt to be detached from the people and their problems, and were often considered snobs, which they often were. Unfortunately, this feeling of antipathy to Westerners, Western culture and Westernized Egyptians, was encouraged by the government owned media, and it eventually led to their marginalization. This, in turn, was to become an important factor that encouraged the massive exodus, of foreigners and Westernized Egyptians, out of the Nile Valley.
What resulted was a demographic erosion of the Western oriented population followed. Then as a result of a growing Egyptian xenophobia, more and more people born on the wrong side of the cultural divide, that separated the pluralistic culture of linguistical minorities (Greeks, Italians, Armenians), from that of the purely Arabic speaking majority, had no other ambition than to settle in one of the Western Eldorados (Europe, America, Canada or Australia). The exodus that did occur was to become a little appreciated tragedy not only because it was followed by a like exit of many Copts and Muslims, but because it was to become a factor that will deprive the Nile Valley of its vivifying pluralism. It is indeed forgotten that the Egyptianized Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Jews and Syro-Lebanese, were enriching by, their diversity as well as by their culture, expertise and social habits, all sectors of the Egyptian society. Some became members of parliament, a few became Cabinet Ministers, and others were famous educators, writers, journalists, physicians and other professionals. But all were building Egypt’s economy at all its levels. Most member of my generation may still remember how most Egyptians appreciated the superior quality of Greek grocers, the services rendered by the department stores founded by Jews, as well as the excellence of Armenian photographers, and Italian decorators.
Obviously, there were other reasons for that exodus. Some were financial, others were religious, and some were political.
When I completed my medical education in 1963, my Jesuit educated friends, and many of my Westernized colleagues were gradually disappearing. Some left in a hush – hush manner for fear of being prevented to leave by the authorities. Other, namely Jews were often, asked to leave. [Especially following wars with Israel, 1948, 1956 and 1967] What is strange is that, at first, I hated the idea of leaving: “This is my country! I cannot leave the land of my ancestors!” But was it me who was arguing to stay, and trying very hard to keep my few remaining friends from leaving, or was it the patriotic echo of my parents that I was vocalizing? I am not sure. What I know is that I soon caught the exodus fever, and ‘leaving’ became an obsession for me too.
But men being what they are, love in the form of a pretty young girl conspired to exchange my passion to emigrate with that of getting married.
In June 1965 I was married to Jailane, and forgot for a while the plans to go West!
In the meanwhile more and more of my friends were leaving, and I eventually succeeded to convince my wife to emigrate.
In February 1967, I was finally in England.
In December 1969 I had two wonderful gifts: our daughter Natalie was born and I successfully passed the final FRCS exams in London!
Oh! How I loved the five years that I spent in Britain! I would have loved to stay there for ever. But this was not the view of my wife, who was never totally convinced that to “go West” will do us any good.
At the same time family “conspiracies” were brewing. Our parents and family knew that I loved teaching. As a result, some of its influential members worked very hard to obtain for me a teaching position in the Mansoura branch of Cairo University.
How could it be that I believed that Mansoura, where I was invited to become a member of the teaching staff, would bring me professional and cultural satisfaction is still not very clear to me.
Mansoura was, for me, a disappointment, despite the presence in its faculty of great reformers of Medical care such as Dr. Muhammad Ghunaym and Dr. Fārūq ‘Izzat, who were examples of dedication, and intellectual excellence, and who introduced modernity both in the academic mindset of the Medical School, and in the practice of Medicine in its Teaching Hospital.
But it is here that my European education became a cultural impediment. For instance, I was not able to feel welcome in the Islamo-centric atmosphere which was pervasive in the Medical School, despite the openness of colleagues like Ghunaym and ‘Izzat, who tried to make me feel at home. Unfortunately, they could not change a culture that was becoming more and more saturated with religious overtones.
Little incidents may serve to illustrate what I meant by a “religiously saturated milieu.”
One day, a group of Christian students approached me to complain about the “fact” that a ‘bearded’ Professor of Pharmacology5 had failed all the Christian candidates. I checked with administration6 and confirmed the story. I should have raised hell, but I guess I was far too timid. And yet my cowardice did no prevent me from complaining to a Muslim colleague of mine, who was teaching the specialty of Ear Nose and Throat (ENT). His answer shocked me even more. He had the gall to tell me that all the injustices experienced by the Copts in the University were but a reaction to the Christian form of discrimination practiced by my maternal Grandfather7 against Muslims. My immediate reaction was what the French call a “bouche bee.” When I recovered enough to close my mouth, I asked him as politely as I could: “How could you say that? If my grandfather can be accused of any discrimination at all, he might be asked ‘why is it that there are no “Copts” in the Department of Gynecology.’ Can’t you see that all my grandfather appointees have been Muslims?” I then added, “For your information my grand father went out of his way to guaranty, with his private money, the post graduate education of one of his many Muslims protégées. On a more personal level, when his only son died, and therefore at a time of extreme spiritual and emotional distress, he turned to a Muslim architect8 to build the funerary chapel. No my grandfather was no bigot, nor was he responsible for the fanatical attitude that prevails to day in all University based Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the “secular” Arab Republic of Egypt.” I would have liked to add that “it is fashionable to try and blame the victim, in order to pacify the discriminator, even when outright persecution follows9. And yet the source of intolerance can only be located in the heart of the one who practices it.” But I knew that such a remark will not help, because it is much easier to live comfortably in a fanatical milieu, as a member of the majority, than to combat fanaticism and become, in turn, a minority! And yet, I could have at least added: “Yes I know that the Copts have frequently exhibited various degrees of fanaticism, whether historically, or as a reaction against Muslim intolerance, and I rebel against that villainous trait irrespective of its origin, and try to expose it whenever I have the opportunity. Similarly, any authentic Muslim should feel it his/her duty to rebel against all forms of intolerance. Such authentic person should at least recognize that it is his/her duty to face the fanaticism of his/her co-religionists, even if it hurts! Fanaticism is a disease. That is why; as much as I am attached to my faith and deeply love my religion, I should never accept, let alone nurture, its disease! This is all the more important from the view point of all intolerant majorities since they have the power to promote, or combat, the grave injustices of discrimination.” I should have said all that! But unfortunately, my mind was on emigration, and I ended the debate with cowardly platitudes.
Another incident became the determining factor in motivating my exit to America. It happened at the time of promotion of the junior teaching staff, who wished to become Assistant Professors. In order to merit that ascent, the candidate had to present 5 research papers. Given the financial situation of the University and the absence of a “culture” of research10, as well as the absence of adequate clinical records, most “papers” were of poor quality, yet all candidates acceded to their promotion as Assistant Professors, with one notable exception: the sole Christian applicant.
As soon as that injustice was made known, I started to work on a speedy exit to the West.
In Dec. 1974 I was in Boston. In January 75, I started working as a Clinical and Research Fellow at the MGH11. This was a great time. For almost three years, I discovered the wonderful joy of science for its own sake. It is true that research has its more mundane rewards, but the process that leads to it has its superior form of joy.
This was beautifully illustrated one day, by my Dutch friend, Peter Soeters. We were having a cup of coffee at the MGH cafeteria, and were designing the next experiment on the only material available: the cafeteria’s tissue napkins! After making a few diagrams; Peter suddenly stopped and looked at me: Do you realized,” he said, “that we are having all this fun and we are being paid for it too!!” He then added “Our luxuries are subsidized by people we never met12!!”
This may help explain why, when I had more than enough research papers to make me a Professor in Mansoura, I decided to stay in America.
The MGH was a couple of blocks away from the Kennedy center13. I went there at the time of a lunch hour and applied to change my visa status in order to become a US Resident. The lady who interviewed me advised me not to apply as a physician, presumably because there was a glut of physicians at the time; but since I was doing research, the process that leads to naturalization will be expedited, if I apply in that capacity. I followed her advice, and came in with the necessary documents from Harvard Medical School and the MGH, and in a few months, I had my so called, “Green Card.” Five years later I became eligible to be an American Citizen. Soon after that I was naturalized, and never regretted it.
In October 1976, Jailane and I had another wonderful gift, a US born son that we named Ramsey, but who insisted that his name be Ramzi.
Yet, there were three tough years ahead of me:- I had to be trained once more as a Surgeon in order to get my specialty qualification as a Surgeon. I was already certified as a Physician in Boston, but that was not enough.
When I started my 3d “Residency in Surgery”14, I was 39 years of age, and I learned to take orders from much younger surgeons and colleagues. This was to become, for me, a good lesson in practical humility.
In 1980 I completed my American training and became eligible to sit for the Specialty Board which I soon obtained.
My wife still hoped to return to Egypt. I tried that in 1981, but failed one more time, simply because I could not adapt to, a practice and system of surgery and medicine, that were so different from the ones to which I have been accustomed to for over ten years. Also the rising conservatism of the Egyptian society was such that it became increasingly closed on itself. At this point I decided once and for all to settle in America.
After returning to the States, I decided to start my private practice in the specialty of General Surgery. I was obviously disappointed to have abandoned academia after working so hard on research and after enjoying, the only too vain pleasures, of recognition in meetings and in publications. Yet after I obtained my Board Certification in Surgery (in 1981), I realized that I needed a better income to take care of my family.
With these developments, I went ahead and opened an office in the Houston area in 1982.
Work became so heavy that I joined forces with another surgeon from Argentina in 1990. But the volume of work continued to grow. Because of that we recruited more Surgeons. Before I retired in 2003 our group included six Certified Surgeons (1 from Egypt, 1 from Argentina, 3 US born and 1 Canadian and all got along very well together)
In November 2003, I retired from the practice of surgery, but I was not yet ready to retire from the practice of life.
Family reasons compelled us to return to Egypt. I tried to practice surgery in Egypt, but found that I don’t have what it takes to promote myself in the very competitive world of Egyptian Surgery. Also I lacked the enthusiasm to work in a system that continued to remain alien to what I was accustomed to after three decades of British and American experience.
Will it be possible to serve the land of my ancestors outside the practice of surgery? Would it help if I join the growing number of self proclaimed cultural and social reformers?
Maybe. And what came to my rescue was a reassessment of my adult life.
At one time I thought that my MGH experience was lost for ever, and bitterly regretted to have aborted my academic career and abandoned the world of research that gave me so much joy.
But what I did not yet appreciate at that time was that; the practice of medicine and the years spent in academia and research inevitably trained me to be objective and analytic in the practice of medicine as well as in the conduct of experiments. Would it be possible for me to use that intellectual frame of mind outside the scope of Medicine and science? Could this become an asset to be utilized towards other horizons in my twilight years?
The Indians talk of the third age of man, as a time of reflection on one’s life. Fortunately or unfortunately, in my life span much more than self needs to be reflected upon!
At the dawn of my consciousness, I have been through the age of humanistic hope and through the dream of an Egyptian Renaissance. But that hope died in the earliest years of my youth. In fact what my generation lived through was an age of totalitarianism, with its usual accompaniments of wars and defeats, poverty and malaise, religious intolerance and discrimination.
I questioned myself once more: will it be possible for someone like me, to use an ageing brain trained to think clearly as a physician, a researcher or an experimenter, to re- direct my frame of mind, as well as my will to totally different fronts? Will it be possible to re-direct my waning vigor towards a mission of progress energized by a will to see obscurantism defeated, fanaticism vanquished and poverty conquered? May I hope to succeed with no ammunitions, save the key board of a computer that I am ill trained to use well?
I do not know but I am ready to give it a try!
It is to writing that I turned, since that offered me the only avenue to be in contact, and reinforce the efforts of reform of like minded people. Writing, associated with a fair degree of research, put me on the way to find a mean to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, socio- religious views that are the basis of the Egyptian social and cultural malaise. And since I firmly believe that there could never be an improvement of the social scene, or a cure for its malaise, unless and if, its causes are courageously and objectively addressed. Unfortunately Egypt suffers from the syndrome of denial. This renders a study of the malaise that much more difficult, since it is rather difficult to offer a solution to a problem whose existence is denied!
My involvement with Watanī was result of that frame of mind. It followed an exchange of letters with some of its authors. I was impressed by the patriotism, openness and courage of men like Yūsuf Sidhum and Adel Guindy with whom I corresponded. In one of my letters I commented on an article by Mr. ‘Abd al-Rahmān Wahīd, the past president of Indonesia, in which he called on Muslims and non Muslims to defeat the Salafists. This article was reported in Watanī on Jan. 8, 2006. My response appeared on Feb. 26th, 2006.
Watanī offered me a wonderful avenue to participate in its ongoing call for progress, justice, equal rights and tolerance. Moreover, Watanī is unique in that respect because of its consistency.
And yet I am perfectly cognizant of the fact that to initiate, and maintain, a meaningful dialogue is not easy.
The first step could be the recognition of the otherness of the ‘other’. And even this carries difficulties.
Then in order to make sure that dialogue is not changed into either confrontation, or into an exchange of useless platitude, both sides should strive to avoid such traps by undergoing, prior to any inter-religious dialogue, a soul searching intra-religious reflection. This preliminary step, seems to me, to be essential in order to better appreciate what constitutes the essential specificity of their respective beliefs, as well as the recognition of their respective shortcomings. For instance, it would be totally counter productive for a group to agree on a formula or principle that undermines the core beliefs of one side or the other.
The problem in Egypt is also compounded by a misunderstanding of what constitutes secularism, which to me is nothing but the organized humanism of an all inclusive government, but which to many, is a term used to justify an anti religious trend in government. And yet this form of humanism; is important in any dialogue because of its inherent neutrality, and because it, alone, offers an all inclusive philosophy.
Finally, all those engaged in dialogue should be prepared to accept the fact that they may never enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their children or grandchildren will, in a future, that we hope will not be too long.
The Mixed Tribunals were established in 1876 in order to supersede the Consular courts that judged Europeans living in Egypt. The system was abolished in 1937, but the courts themselves were closed in 1949. (See King’s Historical Dictionary of Egypt. AUC Press Cairo, 1984)
2 Gandhi, after all, got his Law degree from England, and used his understanding of the English system and of the British mindset, to win the full independence of his country.
3 And yet, presumably out modesty, he rarely, if ever, used his title of Doctor of Law.
4 Our school was known as the “College de la Sainte Famille.”
5 If my memory serves me right.
6 I knew a Christian administrator.
7 Professor Najīb Mahfūz the founder of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics. (not to be confused with the famous author), details could be found in the Wikipedia, Watani July 24, 2004, and Coptic Church review, summer 2000
8 Mustafá Mahmūd Fahmī Pasha (see Samir Raafat’s “Cairo the Glory Years, p. 306, Harpocrates, 2003, Alexandria.).
9 A Munich like syndrome?
10 Which was greatly improved by Ghunaym and ‘Izzat.
11 The MGH stands for the Massachusetts General Hospital which formed part of Harvard Medical School.
12 Meaning those who will finance our boss’ grants.
13 The Government Center of Boston, which dealt among other things with Emigration and Naturalization.
14 I already completed my training first in Egypt then in England.