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Beyond Mummies, Pharaohs, & Cecil B. DeMille

Recent events prompt me to think about how our often very flawed and skewed view of the world is determined.  For me, in the case of Egypt, it started in 1956.  I was six, barely old enough to be watching our relatively new TV set, let alone understand the complexities of the crisis over the Suez Canal.  Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized this critical shipping path, part of an effort to topple the last vestiges of western colonialism in the Arab world.  The international crisis, involving Britain, France, Israel, the United States, and the United Nations made dramatic television for a young boy suddenly exposed to the notion that this was a dangerous part of the world to be viewed with trepidation and suspicion.

That same year, my mother took us to see “The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. DeMille’s epic story of Moses.  Yul Brynner portrayed an evil Pharaoh overseeing a cruel system of slavery; we all cheered as the Egyptian armies were washed away in the Red Sea while the Israelites escaped toward the Promised Land.  Curiously, the frequent references to the story of the Exodus during the Civil Rights movement over the next decade helped to fix Egypt as the archetype of bondage for a young person coming of age, overwhelming other Biblical imagery of Egypt as a place of sanctuary for Joseph’s family during famine, or of the Holy Family on the run from Herod’s wrath.  Coptic Christians may honor those holy sites where refugees Jesus and his parents rested on their sojourn, but American Protestants, at least in my childhood, gave this Egyptian role in the Biblical story scant attention.

By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, following several trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Egypt became established in my imagination as a treasure trove of ancient and exotic artifacts – beautifully restored tombs, fantastic mummies, carved sculptures, and hundreds of pieces of art – most thousands of years old.  Stunning pictures in The National Geographic that arrived every month in my home reinforced this, showing massive tombs moved to high ground ahead of the rising waters caused by the building of the Aswan Dam.

Then came 1967 and the “Six Day War” with Israel.  I was seventeen, completely ignorant of the decades of Arab humiliations that culminated in the imposition of the Israeli state on an unwilling population in 1948.  Israel was the victim, Egypt and Syria the evil aggressors.  Scenes of victorious Israeli soldiers celebrating at the Western Wall carried unambiguous meaning for an American teenager, schooled in the heroic Israeli, post-Holocaust and Zionist narrative.  And it would be a long time before Arab and Palestinian perspectives on those years leading from 1948 and beyond 1967 raised any discomforting questions.

Little had changed by 1973 for a now young seminarian watching anxiously as Egypt won the early rounds of the Yom Kippur War. (Who knew that Arabs called it the October War or the Ramadan War?).  But then, after frightening early losses, vulnerable Israel beat back the attacking Egyptian armies.  Meanwhile, seminary may have disclosed the richness of ancient Christian culture in places like Alexandria, or the contributions of the ascetics in monasteries in the Sinai.  But little was said about today’s Christian community.  Contemporary Egypt remained a world unkown.  Then, just a few years later, in my late twenties, Anwar Sadat was in Jerusalem meeting with Menachem Begin and others – who could forget the tender scene of the two grandparents – Sadat and Golda Meir, sharing family stories? – putting in place a process leading toward a peace agreement in 1979 that has held to this day.

In 1981, now in my 30’s I watched in horror along with the rest of the world as Sadat was gunned down.  Fast forward over twenty years to 2003 when, at age 53, I spent a brief two days in Cairo, visiting Christian partners, Muslim leaders, and a few of the ancient sites.  That brief bit of ecclesiastical tourism did expand my sense of Egypt, but it had to compete with an impression of Egypt fixed at a young age and reinforced over five decades by years of snapshots found in western journalism, religious narratives, and American foreign policy.  Egypt the Biblical oppressor.  Egypt the place of ancient wonders.  Egypt the post-colonial upstart.  Egypt the dangerous neighbor to innocent and vulnerable Israel.  Egypt (along with Syria), the client state of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Egypt the unexpected peacemaker.  Egypt the good Arab willing to recognize Israel in return for massive US foreign aid.

What was missing from this very personal collage were Egypt’s people, missing that is, until the dramatic events in Tahrir Square over the past days.  These people were not Pharaohs or military dictators.  They were not soldiers in armies chasing fleeing slaves into the sea or attacking neighboring Israel.  They did not build the pyramids, are not preserved as mummies, and spend their lives – most of them – struggling merely to keep their families fed in an economy that enriches the few while impoverishing the masses.  Through the media we met them as real flesh and blood human beings with a love for family, a yearning for freedom and a desire to succeed in life that makes them similar to you and to me.  Tahrir Square was many things, most notably an upheaval that has, we hope, ended a dictatorship.  But in a more personal way it has altered my imagination and perhaps those of many others.  It reminds us that viewing any people solely through the lens of ancient texts, dusty tombs, one sided historical narratives or geopolitical interests not only does a disservice to their humanity, but may ultimately be dangerous to the peace and the justice we all want to enjoy in this world.

John H. Thomas

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