Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Alan Mackie's book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt

British journalist Alan Mackie’s book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt
Susannah Tarbush
[an Arabic version appears in Al-Hayat Arabic daily newspaper ]

The British financial journalist and consultant Alan Mackie has specialised in the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, for most of his journalistic career. He has written on Egypt for a variety of publications including the Financial Times, Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), and the Economist magazine.

Now Mackie’s highly–enjoyable book The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt has been published in London by Muswell Press. In his book Mackie writes of his five decades of experiences in, and views on, Egypt from his first brief visit in 1965 to his most recent trip there in 2012.

Mackie was living in Cairo at the time of the 1973 October war. He feels there are certain similarities between the 1973 war and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. “In facing down Mubarak’s intimidating security machine Egyptians overcame their fear as they had done in the October war when they challenged Israel’s vaunted invincibility and stormed the Bar Lev line,” he says. And “just as in 1973 they experienced for a few exhilarating days what it was like to control their destiny.”

He writes that the Revolution marks “a profound turning point for Egypt. Most importantly in redeems the promise of 1973 when Egyptian briefly took control of their destiny only to see it snatched from them by force of circumstance and their own lack of readiness to assume, in Sadat’s words, responsibility for themselves.” This time it is different. Tahrir Square was an act of national bonding that touched all Egyptians, whether they supported the Revolution or not: “2011 introduced an entirely new dynamic”.

Mackie first visited Egypt in 1965 when he was a university student travelling in his summer vacation. He had travelled from Turkey to Aleppo and Damascus and arrived in Beirut, where he got to know a glamorous young American woman called Linda Kanelous. She had been involved in Beirut with a small-time gangster named Farid who had given her a flat and a chauffeur-driven car. But she ended the relationship when she found Farid too controlling.

One day, sitting by the swimming pool of the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, she quoted to Alan from Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and suggested she and Alan go by boat to Alexandria, and from there to Athens.

Alan spent only a day and a half with Linda in Egypt, and by then they had already started to quarrel. After they arrived in Athens they separated and he never saw nor heard of her again. But “something happened in that 36-hour shore leave in Alexandria that was to change my life.” He explains that he was born in the East - in Sri Lanka – and as a child went to boarding school in England, returning to the East by air in the holidays. “These trips by air had the quality of being transported by a magic carpet to another world.” in Egypt he found “unmistakable whiffs of the East: the smell of slaked dust, donkey cars, water buffaloes, palms and mangoes.” His trip through Asia Minor and then to the shores of the Sahara had “covered the dead ground between these two worlds and united them.”

In the several following years Mackie worked as a journalist in London, but his sense of nostalgia about Egypt remained with him. And when he found an opportunity to live In Egypt he took it, arriving in Cairo in 27 January 1973. He remained there until early June 1974, so was in Cairo during the October 1973 war with Israel. The war made a deep impact on him. Although disillusionment had followed the initial Egyptian success in the 1973 war, Egyptians “came out of the war knowing they had it in themselves to change their circumstances...”
Alan Mackie with Buzeina El-Gamal and her mother Fatheya

Before going to Egypt in 1973 Mackie had learned some basic Arabic at evening classes One goal of his living in Egypt was to learn Arabic. At first he stayed in the Lotus Hotel, before moving to the legendary Golden Hotel whose proprietor was Fares Sarofim. Sarofim still used to visit the family estates in Al Minya, Upper Egypt.

Mackie wanted to totally immerse himself in Egypt and to understand it from the point of view of Egyptians. On the acknowledgments page of his book he pays tribute to the two wise old men who were his “gurus" in Egypt. One was Fares Sarofim, who died in 1982. The other was Hassan Fahmi, a retired engineering professor from Cairo University. Mackie writes that “Hassan Fahmi provided the “lateral dimension to my understanding of Egypt and Sarofim as a Copt provided the vertical dimension.”

Fahmi’s wife was English, and he was the father of the famous dancer Farida Fahmi . Mackie was taken to meet him several times in his flat in Zamalek, and in his book he records some of their conversations.

The Sons of Adam: A Memoir of Egypt has three main sections. In the first section Mackie presents his wide-ranging analysis of the Egyptian revolution. The middle section consists of the detailed personal diary that Mackie kept during his 18 months in Egypt in 1973 and 197.

In the final section of the book Mackie writes about his trips back to Egypt since 1974, and what became of the people and places he had known. He assesses what went wrong with the Sadat presidency between the 1973 war and his assassination in 1981, and then the factors that led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

Mackie’s book is difficult to categorise within any one genre. It is part memoir, part diary, part travel book, part political analysis – and in some places it reads like a novel, with some stunning passages of description, and skilfully-drawn characters who come alive in the pages. As well as writing about Egypt, Mackie vividly records a visit he made to Yemen.

Photos of Groppi, Cairo
photo of Groppi courtesy of TripAdvisor

Mackie frequented cafes such as Groppi’s, Lappas and Cafe Liberté. It was at the Lappas cafe that he met a young man called Maher who had lived in London and was the son of the actress Malak el-Gamal. Maher invited Mackie to a party where all the guests were actors and actresses, and also to a hashish den. When Maher heard how much Mackie was paying for his room at the Golden Hotel he said he was shocked, and suggested that Mackie move to live with Maher’s uncle Am Mohammed in the district of Shobra. A quarter of Cairo’s population lived in Shobra, nearly half of them Copts.

This was how Mackie came to live with the El-Gamal family for much of his time in Cairo. Am Mohammad and his wife had a son, Atar, and two daughters Buzeina and Malak. A Palestinian, Ibrahim, had the room next to Alan’s.

Mackie continued to visit the Golden Hotel where one of his best friends was the manager, a young Copt named Amin Simaika who was the nephew of Fares Sarofim and came from Alexandria. He invited Alan to visit Alexandria with him, and the chapter on Alexandria is one of the most beautifully descriptive in the book. Mackie succumbed to the charms of Alexandria, and those of Agami a bus ride away, where he lay on the beach and let the sun and the warmth wash over his mind “till it was scoured and smoothed in the ebb and flow of the sea cleansing the sands”.

As a tall blond man Mackie had some problems during the war after Al Ahram published a picture of a smiling Egyptian soldier with a tall blond Israeli prisoner of war. He became a figure of some suspicion and was twice forced to go to a police station to be questioned, Am Mohammed coming to his rescue. The mukabarat were suspicious of the notebook in which he wrote Arabic words he did not know, and the fact that he underlined certain words in newspapers, although as Am Moahmmed explained to them, this was because he was learning Arabic. Later, when spies were arrested, it became even more dangerous for Mackie for a time.

After Mackie left Egypt in 1974 he continued to work as a Middle East financial journalist. He worked in Cairo as a journalist throughout the latter Sadat years and returned periodically in the 1980s and early 1990s but then for around 10 years he did not visit at all. When preparing his book he visited, most recently in June 2012.

When he revisited Alexandria in 2002 he was sorry to find that a six-line highway had been constructed along the cornice, cutting the city off from the sea. And he was saddened by the changes in Agami. “The half mile walk to the beach through what used to be walled lanes and fig orchards was now more reminiscent of Gaza, a slum of crumbling algae-stained tenements, pools of fetid groundwater between them.” But the changes in Shobra were more positive, especially with the building of the Metro line.

In assessing the Revolution, Mackie stresses its grass roots nature, and how the revolutionary experience brought Egyptians together across traditional alliances, “turning established structures on their head and pitting friend and foe of the ancient regime against new forces, that occupy the middle ground.” It has “energized political debate at all levels of society.” He is hopeful that a regenerated and reformed Islam, rather than Islamist extremism, may emerge.

Alan Mackie in Agami

He observes that neighbourhoods set up community centres and organised their own social and security networks just as they had done in the October War, “which accounted for the extraordinary self discipline with which the demonstrations were organised.” Mackie is very concerned about Egypt’s always fraught relations with the West and examines the neo-colonialist dimension and the West’s support for Israel.

“Popular anger at the way the Palestinians have been treated, and the West’s collusion in their oppression, colours the political discourse in the new Egypt” he writes. Palestine “defines the Arab world’s relations with the Israel and Israel defines the West’s relations with the Arab world.” Israel was “a colonial enterprise a century too late. .. now it survives by force of arms”.

The transitional government had to rein in its initial open embrace of Palestinian resistance, as it did approaches to Iran, and President Morsi has declared Egypt will honour existing peace agreements. But future relations with the Jewish state will be on a different footing and there has even been talk of a referendum on the Peace Treaty at some point “to give the authorities diplomatic cover for a tougher policy.”

Mackie condemns the way in which the West has tended to engage with other cultures through its own stereotypes, with alien cultures being demonised if they are considered hostile. “Resisting America’s view of reality has been one of the most daunting challenges Egypt and other Arabs have had to face....” he writes “so overbearing and ruthless is the juggernaut of military and economic power deployed to impose it, and unnervingthe faith Americans place in their democracy to ‘do right’.”

He slams the West’s antipathy and prejudice towards, and ignorance of, Islam, and its tendency to meddle in the region’s affairs, which give oxygen to extremist elements. He left Egypt in 1974 with the sense that the West is not very good at “listening”. Instead, it tends to “talk down” to other cultures, assuming that its values are a universal good. But the Arab and Muslim world has proved extraordinarily impervious to western cultural imperialism.

On 9/11 the West woke up to the fact that a large part of the world, if not actively “hating us” wanted to be taken into consideration and heard. “Since then a profound shift in economic power eastwards is forcing the West to adapt to different ways of seeing things, whether it likes it or not.

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