Memory’s a funny thing; in Egypt, where I’ll be living a month from now, it’s everything.
As I pack my bags and prepare to leave America, I’m spending more time than is mentally advisable on Twitter.
Can’t think of a better, more immediate way to catch the very latest gossip and tips before going to Egypt, where information is tightly controlled, and many independent news sites blacked out on the Internet.
Yesterday, an item related to the latest Trumpian blowhard bullying caught my attention. It was posted by Declan Walsh, Cairo Bureau of the New York Times, and was simply a link to a POMED article titled Egypt’s North Korea Connection.
The piece provides a history of Korean/Egyptian ties, some intrigue-laden Lord of War details on Pyongyang’s use of front companies to conduct illegal arms deals in Africa via Egypt, and discusses, at some length, the Naguib Sawiris/Orascom’s connection to the hermit nation.
You can read all about that here.
But shifty arms deals, though fascinating, or Turmpian braggadocio, which is far less so, are not what I wish to discuss.
Rather, this post is about how the chance mention of Orascom, one of Egypt’s largest companies, unexpectedly jogged my memory to Ayam Zaman, a stock phrase used by most Egyptians to evoke their country’s Belle Époque days.
Let’s go back there, if only for a moment.
In the days of the English, and the last years of the reign of King Farouk, there was a very bright young man named Ahmed who graduated first in his class in 1948 from Cairo University.
His academic record at university was extraordinary, as he achieved perfect scores in all his courses. But what he truly excelled (and loved most) was the field of electrical engineering.
King Farouk bestowed a medal on this promising young man upon graduation, and Cairo University wanted him to become a professor and teach advanced, pure mathematics. He was widely recognized as one of the most gifted young men of his generation.
That man was my father.
But my Dad declined the offer to join academia.
Instead, he travelled to England, and began an apprenticeship, under the direction of renowned writer C. P. Snow (who served as physicist-director of scientific personnel for English Electric between 1944–1964), in the company’s various factories that produced transformers and turbines in the Midlands.
My father hated the British occupation, but he wanted to learn applied engineering skills in order to help move Egypt into the 20th century.
So while many of his peers at Cairo U. took on cushy managerial jobs back home, Ahmed learn how to build things on a factory floor in a foreign country.
Upon his return from England, the revolution of 1952 took place.
Like most young men of his generation, Ahmed supported Nasser’s Socialist dream.
Though he came from an elite, land-owning family, he supported the confiscation of the vast farms of the idle, decadent Turko-Egyptian beys.
He threw himself into the national. project of modernizing Egypt from the ground up and abandoning its relegation to the status of a mostly agrarian nation populated by backward fellahs.
By the late 50s, my father had acquired a reputation for incomparable honesty (in a country where corruption was the norm), as well as, more importantly, the ability to oversee successfully large, complex electrical power projects.
While still in his early 30s, he had formed his own company, and bid on and won the contract to build Cairo South in Helwan. This plant — which of course has been upgraded and expanded many times since — still powers the capital of Egypt to this day.
Dad supported Nasser, but then the dream began to turn sour.
People began to disappear. Phones were tapped. The army never relinquished power, as General Naguib had said it would, and Egypt became a police state that drove out all who had once given the country its elegance and style and sense of cosmopolitanism.
Slowly, the best of Ahmed’s generation began to leave.
Many came to America, but my Dad stayed on.
After his company was nationalized, he was appointed chairman of a company that was the equivalent of GE.
He turned this failing company around in a year, and many thought he would replace Aziz Sidki as the next minister of industry.
And then, suddenly, just like that, my father one day took his family to New York, only a few months before the Six-day War.
But many stayed and found golden opportunities — especially now that much of the serious competition had left the country — to work with Nasser, and, later, Anwar Sadat, whose Open Door policy created the corrupt, avaricious oligarchy that flourished under Hosni Mubarak and which exists in Egypt to this day.
This world has all kinds of people in it. Not all, of course, are venal.
Osman Ahmed Osman was a shrewd businessman who prospered in Egypt from the late 50s on; Onsi Sawiris, another — though each had long stints of seeking their fortune outside the country during the Nasser regime.
Perhaps they each discovered they could sidestep ethical niceties, and made huge fortunes accommodating the military regime, while others, like my father, and Ibrahim Khalifa, and many others like them, left much behind, to start over in a new, inhospitable country with $15 in their pockets (which is what Nasser allowed them to leave with), all for the sake of giving their children a chance to grow up in a place where people were supposedly free.
Fifty years later, we now have Trump as President of the United States, and the naive dream of freedom, as envisioned by my father and many Moslem immigrants to the Untied States, has turned to ashes.
Was it all for nothing, then?
Should my father have remained — he, by far the most brilliant Egyptian engineer of his graduating class — looked the other way, and made a cynical king’s ransom in a country that was ripe for the taking?
Many did, particularly those whose ethical fidelity to the ideals of the ’52 revolution was far more ambiguously situational than my father’s, as evidenced by the various travels bans and other judicial interventions over the decades, which were typically circumvented with the passage of time and the nostrum of state bribery.
Let’s come back to present realities.
Naguib Sawiris, who is Onsi’s eldest son — we are roughly the same age — is sponsoring the premiere of the El Gouna Film Festival next month.
As of this writing, I plan to be in attendance.
I’ve bittersweet feelings, as do most long-term, political emigrés, about returning to live for six months, or so, to the place where I grew up. But I doubt, should I actually run into Naguib Sawiris at his festival, in the town his brother founded, that I’ll mention my father.
My sense of it is that deeply felt memories are often the eidetic product of the vagaries of chance, but should never be dismissed as mere nostalgia.
Their emotional permanence, however, is usually without personal substance to even the most well-meaning of strangers.