I am an Arab

Posted on April 3, 2008


I’ve taken a lot of heat on this blog and elsewhere because I consider myself an Arab, unlike most Egyptian Christians of my acquaintance. I have of course been under the most attack from Copts in diaspora, whose knowledge of Egypt often seems to stem from sedately guided teenage trips around Egyptian monasteries, a few vacations among cousins whose Arabic was too hard for them to understand, and information received at church (and even though I can respect churches’ understandable focus, what they disseminate is not the whole truth). While I appreciate that sometimes Christians in Egypt are targeted or persecuted, whether by government actors or otherwise, I cannot see why I should feel more strongly about those abuses than those perpetrated on Muslim Brotherhood members, homosexuals, political opposition members, women, and many other groups and individuals. Personal rights and freedoms are a distant speck on the horizon in these parts, be they religious or otherwise.

I am also of the opinion that people in Egypt are treated in a manner commensurate with their socio-economic status and influential contacts. Thus, a rich Coptic person would definitely be much better able to secure his or her rights than a poor Muslim person. Not ideal, but that’s the reality in this cesspool.

I have never felt that the treatment of Christians in Egypt, however, has anything to do with their Arab identity, and I resent the fudging of these issues together. Opinion is generally divided in Egypt as to exactly how Arab Egyptians, and Egypt generally are, especially in the wake of the heavy toll pan-Arabism has taken on Egypt, bitterness over the richness of Gulf Arabs and a host of other reasons of varying significance. It is telling that when an Egyptian casually uses the word “Arabs” in conversation, he is usually referring to people from the Arabian Peninsula (and probably commenting on their yearly waste-laying of Cairo). Talk is often bandied about Arab colonialism and whatnot, and sympathetic as I am to the debate about colonialism, it’s simply too late to shake off Arabness, whatever that may entail. Century upon century has passed and Egyptians, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or whatever, have worked out a shared history, language, music, and art. A culture, if you will. And what is Arabness anyway? Ethnically, who can tell? It’s been too long, and different peoples have come and gone over our country too many times for anyone to know her “lineage”. If Egyptians are culturally Arab – and we may be if only on the grounds of being native speakers of Arabic – I don’t see why Christians should be less so than Muslims. Although frankly I think aamiya (colloquial Egyptian) should enjoy much more widespread application, as beautiful and rich a language as fusha is. It is our language, after all, and should not be demeaned to mere slang.

When I voice the aforementioned opinions , I am usually – as in the link above – told I am dhimmized and an ass-kisser and should convert and whatnot. Perhaps detractors may be better convinced by two informative articles on the subject, particularly our shared history, recently published in Egypt’s Daily News:

Christian Arabs are Arabs Part 1

Christian Arabs are Arabs Part 2

And on a related topic, I understand that many people abroad – whether Coptic or not – feel that the only way to bring about political change in Egypt and recognition of human rights is by lobbying the American government to lean financially on Egypt. Leaving aside political rhetoric about how change should come from within and such high-flown and not always practical sentiments, such interference is just making people who are here angry and resentful, and I don’t feel that the leaning will result in anything more than lip-service. Depicting local Copts as in league with the Americans against other Egyptians cannot possibly bring about anything good, and the amount of attention the current American administration gives the issue is completely out of proportion to that to other groups whose human rights are often violated even more extensively. I don’t think making noise abroad changes anything here, not really. It would be easy if that were so.