A Nation ReinventedOn January 8, 2020 by Mona Abouissa
An essay about the search for identity that starts at the Suez Canal. From myth to reality, how the Canal played a role in Egypt’s mutation from 19th-century orientalism to today’s neo-nationalism.
Published in the catalog of the exhibition After the Canal there was Only “Our” World (Bucharest, Romania), 2020
The 1973 War Panorama in Cairo is a masterpiece of Egyptian nationalism—sacrifice, loyalty, heroism. It is the most boastful of war memorials, with dramatic battlefield scenes painted by North Koreans. The vigour and grandiloquence of the Egyptian and Israeli armies depicted there, frozen in a climactic moment with the Egyptian army having the advantage, has a faint resemblance to Eugène Delacroix and other 19th-century Orientalists. They escaped Western industrialisation in favour of the exotic east, when Egypt was an Ottoman province. The 1973 October War was Egypt’s last full-scale war against Israel, which had attacked and destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground and occupied Sinai in six days in 1967. The Suez Canal was closed and turned into a battlefield until the ceasefire in 1973. Egypt did not win the war in a traditional sense, but it managed to regain control over Sinai and the Canal through years of diplomatic dueling. The victorious army grew in influence. That autumn war was a catalyst in Egypt’s nationalist identity to which everyone, the living and the dead beyond the Canal waters, subscribed. The Panorama’s main building is surrounded by a shrine of decommissioned MiGs, stripped of their engines. These planes and their pilots once flew at supersonic speeds; now, they are at the mercy of children and sandstorms—a legacy of the Soviet-Egyptian alliance (1954-1972). After this “national victory”, the generals, once again, sashayed into public imagination as victors reinventing the nation. The Panorama is not the only war memorial; the country is littered with such armyphiliac temples, from similar museums hosting North Korean expressionism and old Soviet war memorabilia to pharaonic-inspired monuments to new leaders and state-sponsored mega-projects like the New Suez Canal. Even the country’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, districts, schools and so forth) have been renamed after martyr generals and their battles, forever immortalising them in the memory of gridlocked commuters. Between today’s state, nationalistic narrative dominated by the generals-turned-presidents and the past Imperialist Orientalist imagery sold at Sotheby’s auction house is a nation mostly misunderstood. To understand the nation in its obsessive quest for selfhood one arrives at ground zero—the Canal.
I crossed the canal several times. The first time was with my family when we moved to Egypt from Moscow, I was a teenager. In Ismailia, a town that owes its existence to the Canal, we fished out comatose starfishes from its caramel waters and ate mangos that grew in abundance. The second time, I traveled to Port Said at the neck of the Mediterranean, to meet an Egyptian communist, Essam. When he was young, while his city was a battlefield from 1967 to 1973, Essam and his comrades fought guerrilla style. Nasser closed the Canal to Israeli shipping and Israel attacked in return, in 1967, and occupied Sinai across the canal. The nation collapsed from regional might into an ideological concussion, defrocked and amputated. The Canal was split between two states at war, closed to shipping. I took a public ferry going back and forth across the Canal and watched ordinary Egyptians with children eating ice creams under the melting sun and tried to imagine the battlefields. On a third trip I followed Muhamed Abu Bakr, a MiG fighter pilot, with his 1973 companions. We crossed the Canal, the old and the new, in three buses packed with their thrill-craving entourage, sailing through military checkpoints thanks to their military IDs to their former battlefields turned into tourist sites. In the course of their actions, some of which bordered on madness (Muhamed watched his friends plunge their stricken MiGs into Israeli outposts as a final act of martyrdom), Egypt was once again in control of the Canal. It’s inhabited not only by starfishes but also by ghosts—over 100,000 people died either building it or fighting for it. Their bodies are still being recovered, ever since statesmen rushed to redevelop Suez after the 2011 economic slump.
Port Said also has a museum dedicated to the army. Among the battle paintings and boastful statues done in the exaggerated Socialist-realist style, there’s a Roneo printer (the equivalent of social media in rallying resistance at the time). It belonged to the communists—Essam’s elders—who participated in shaping the nation but are now a forgotten chapter in its history. The generals-presidents erased them from popular imagination. And although the communists returned after the 2011 revolution, decades of state hunts curbed their grassroots influence. The printer has no mention of its original owners. I returned home from that trip with a revelation—and Hepatitis A.
On these trips, during which I was trying to separate myths from facts, my understanding of Egypt changed. Somewhere in that crusade of obsessive men in search of immortality at the Canal’s shores, runs my own story. A story of a man meeting a woman in Moscow’s metro in the 1980s. Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former president and Pan-Arab leader, allied with the Soviets to aid him in the building of a republic, from factories to rockets to ballet dancers. The USSR welcomed Egyptian students, unsanctioned communists in particular, to travel in order to study. One of them was my father. In a way, Nasser’s vision made that chance meeting possible.
In the shadow of their Pharaonic civilisation, the rulers of Egypt seemed challenged to construct the impossible. As if the mummies breathed down their necks from beyond their necropolises. Maybe that was what French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps felt back in 1854 as he stood between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. He told Said Pasha, ruler of Egypt at the time: “the names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.”
Khedive Ismail, Said’s successor, saw the Canal completed in 1869. Obsessed with Western glamour, Ismail initiated other grand development projects using cotton revenues, booming during the American Civil War, to reinvent the country. That includes today’s downtown Cairo full of lianas, lions, mermaids and other mystical creatures carved out of Italian-designed buildings and feeling a bit awkward amid the Capital’s gridlock. Today, a Zamalek palace for Napoleon’s wife is a five-star rated Marriott hotel harbouring moneyed Saudis relaxing by the pool and checking out the bikinied foreign clientele. The Royal Opera House was built in 1869 also, in six months, by Italian architects. It is also where Verdi’s Aida, a pharaonic opera, was performed for the first time. The Opera functioned for another century but burned down in 1971, under suspicious circumstances. The country’s identity was metamorphosing and supersonic dogfights (our pilot Muhamed from the Canal trip was part of them) ruled the skies over Suez. And the Opera-less performers traveled to battlefields to raise the soldiers’ morale. The transformation of the nation from a mere colony into today’s republic was anything but glamorous. But back in the 19th century, with Egypt under the Romantics’ paintbrushes, the Canal was a scene of celebration. Flotillas were formed and 500 chefs served their culinary creations to royals under canon, rocket and firework displays. And as the trade ships crossed the Canal on their way between Europe and Asia for the first time, they were crossing the two opposing worlds—the West and the East. It was the dawn of Orientalism.
The Orient—Egypt, Turkey, the Levant and North Africa—was a European cultural and geographical concept inextricably linked to Islam, distinct in the fact that it was so different from Christianity. Interest in the Orient grew after Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt, in 1798, and a post-revolutionary France saw the apogee of Egyptomania that continued with the subsequent British seizure of Egypt, in 1801. In no other period was the output of Orientalist art so diverse, or in such high demand. Escaping conservative Europe, Orientalist artists were captivated, even shocked, by the novelty, mystery and otherness of the East. Meanwhile, politically, Orientalism sat comfortably with the agendas of ruling empires, hungry for colonies and their resources.
In times when empires divided and conquered, the line between local and foreign was distinct, class-divided and sacrosanct. Egypt, as such, remained underrated. Illiterate and now under British, not Ottoman, bayonets, Egypt had the dual mission to fight proxy wars and deliver cotton. The West, recovering from WWI, decided to reduce everyone’s identity to a paper containing the name, place of birth, nationality and, most importantly, the trace of one’s sojourns. The main purpose of the new passports was to restrict movement, especially of war refugees and saboteurs. A wide ranging foreign diaspora of artists, thinkers, bankers and refugees moulded Egyptian identity. Egyptians were torn between European modernism, as practiced by the influx of Greeks, Armenians and Italians, and a half-formed nationalism. Leftists called on the downtrodden masses for a proletarian revolt. Meanwhile, Islamists, their rivals, preached for a religious state. Courting the two camps, a small group of officers plotted a coup. They had a different vision for the nation to that of the leftists, or Islamists, or de Lesseps. In 1952, fires were set to foreign owned shops, cafes, clubs, hotels, theatres and the Royal Opera House (which it survived), to cleanse Egypt of foreign influence. Later the same year those officers, Nasser among them, took over the government, expelling the British-backed monarchy. A new identity was set in motion, one that was authentic, even xenophobic, but grand—independent Arab nationalism. They expelled the foreign diaspora, confiscating their assets. Islamists and Leftists, who had stood by the officers, were hunted and imprisoned. And their Roneo was confiscated to cut their communications. At the heart of it was a 39-year-old Nasser, a master of radio waves. His government took control of the media (for national security) and popularised military nationalism across the region. On the radio, a few years later, Nasser gave a speech mentioning “de Lesseps”—his code word—and Egyptian forces stormed the Suez Canal Company.
After the Second World War, Arab states emerged from the carcasses of dead ‘empires’, French and British, in need of an ideology. As the new nuclear-equipped superpowers, Soviet and American, foraged for allies. At the intersection of this global race of weapons and ideals was Nasser and the Canal. The president knew that in order to transform his nation he needed two things: respect and fear. He needed to act—and act grand—and so he seized control of the Suez Canal, the last foothold of foreign influence in Egypt. And allied with the Soviets, he developed the army and Egypt; Egyptian ballet dancers and fighter pilots were sent to the USSR to be trained while Soviet engineers built factories, air defence systems and the Aswan Dam. Three wars followed: the first, right after the nationalisation, with Israel, France and Britain ended with a ceasefire in 1956; the second, ended with the defeat of 1967 that almost ruined Nasser’s cult; and the last, which ended in 1973 after Nasser’s death, was the war that saw the resurrection of the officers’ clan.
Egyptian nationalism was born from an old wound, coined in war and owned by a privileged clique. Artistic output switched from depicting harems and caravans to portraying socialist-inspired exaggerated forms and narratives devoid of any critique, as the regime filtered out patriots from infidels. For another decade up until 1964, the leftists and Islamists shared prison cells. That decade also produced the art of the oppressed. Communist artists and writers found Nasser’s camps and their harsh conditions an outlet. They say that whenever they were rounded up in cells, it was time for them to read and create (if they could). Cells turned into cultural salons with minimalist theatres and hidden libraries. A former communist, now a renowned international author, Sonallah Ibrahim, now in his eighties, was a product of Nasser’s prison camps. He wrote his first scandalous book, That Smell, which is about sex and prison torture, on rolling paper and smuggled it out. The novel was published 20 years later. Enjy Aflatoun, who is considered an Egyptian modern art pioneer, was a leftist activist imprisoned from 1959 until 1963. After her release, she found that the movement she dedicated her life to was dissolved by Nasser’s autocracy. So, Aflatoun left for Europe and kept painting. But despite all, Nasser’s socialist ideals are still praised among leftists.
Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor famed for his diplomatic wit, was etched into public imagination as the liberator of Sinai. He knew Egypt couldn’t win a full war with Israel. He needed to do enough in order to bring Israel to negotiations, and so the army crossed the Canal. After years of diplomatic battles he won Sinai. Under Hosni Mubarak nationalism declined and was replaced by capitalism, consumerism and general apathy. The nation lived parallel to the Canal, forgetting it slowly. The young once again looked to the West. Political opposition was virtually eradicated by the presidents’ witch hunts. And the Suez Canal became a tourist destination, just like the pyramids and the minarets, although you can be arrested for taking a photograph. The 2011 revolution and its subsequent tragedy, in a way, restored the people’s sense of belonging. The new general turned president, Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, knew he needed a myth. He marched to Suez and built the “New Suez Canal” as an ideological platform upon which the might of bulletproof nationalism could be restored. This contemporary brand of nationalism—jingoistic and tech-savvy—became the state-sanctioned popular movement of today, outshining other post-revolutionary narratives. For now, the end product of the quest for Egyptianhood is back where it started—the Canal.
Is tragedy a prelude to self-invention? In an era when heroes were created and worshipped, between the defeats of 1967 and 1973, Ahmed Mansoury, the “crazy pilot”, was made in this fashion. A supersonic fighter who broke the speed of sound in dogfights, he claims he can still break ribcages. He told me unique kinds of men became fighter pilots, men with “an extra electric charge in their brains”. He is a product of the state’s nationalism; he mastered Soviet fighter jets, hunted Israeli Phantoms, watched his comrades being hit and returned—relatively sane—right into a pandemic of heroism. Until, that is, Mansoury and his hit-lists and newspaper clippings were forgotten. After 2011, Islamists, communists and everyone else stepped into the political race. Mansoury marched into TV studios, cocky and crazy, with his old helmet under his armpit and told tales of dogfights, some dark and some spectacular. Men like him, their lives forever entwined with the Canal and what it represents, forever embedded in their minds, as though it were a thick blue artery, diving into two burning battlefields where their dead comrades roam still. To believe in heroism, to exist in the realm of the supernatural, one needs an edge; one needs to be louder, faster, bigger, brighter, darker, etc. After the TV shows, Mansoury returns to a lonely flat and sleeps in a coffin-sized bed. He prepares for the afterlife and asks God to give him a discount on the price of his sins, since he fought in His name. To chase after former glory in today’s cynical world—as Mansoury says, they “won that damn war!”—none of us, civilians, can even come close. And if our identity is incomplete, it’s because we missed the war. And when those generals cross the Canal, they know it belongs to them.
The Suez Canal belongs to my story, despite and because of my first thoughts of delicious mangoes. It is paradoxical how this manmade waterway pokes different memory sensors; for some mangoes and viruses, for others ghostly battlefields, it reminds some of their youth, and still others of a time when they were the most scared and the happiest —memories, flying faster than bullets. And there are others who exist outside the Canal’s purview, it’s just a waterway to Sinai’s summer camps away from city life. It depends on who tells the story and who tells it the loudest. In the 19th century, it took Orientalists months of crossing seas and mountains to explore exotic Egypt. We, on the other hand, travel at the speed of light through fiber optic cables to wherever we want. Distance is destroyed and with it mystery. Anyone can be a narrator. Anyone can tell his or her story of the Suez Canal, laying claim to a piece of it. From Orientalists’ canvases and nationalists’ battlegrounds to virtual space, everyone has their own take. The narrative of the Canal, and of Egyptian identity, continues.