Renowned Armenian-Egyptian author Sona Zeitlian examines the centuries-old relationship between Armenians and their adopted Egyptian homeland.
UNTIL THE FALL of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the modern Republic of Armenia, the Armenian people had been without a homeland for centuries. Between war, migration, deportation and genocidal massacres, the majority of the native Armenian population was forced to find settlement away from its homeland.
Egypt took the lead among nations that gave Armenians in exile a home. Here, Armenians were allowed to retain their cultural identity, given the opportunity to obtain citizenship and encouraged to contribute to every aspect of Egyptian society, including its political and military establishments.
The relationship between the Armenian diaspora and what became their adopted home has been put into focus with the publication of Armenians in Egypt: Contribution of Armenians to Medieval and Modern Egypt by renowned Armenian-Egyptian author Sona Zeitlian.
Zeitlian, now in her 70s, was born, raised and educated in Egypt. A teacher in Cairo for many years, she writes passionately about her ancestors? contribution to her birth country. Filled with photographs and illustrations ? and wonderfully annotated ? Armenians in Egypt explores the achievements and accomplishments of artisans, politicos and pashas of Armenian descent who helped weave the complex tapestry that is modern Egypt.
While Zeitlian was in Cairo for a series of lectures connected to the English edition of the book, et sat with her for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Egypt Today: By all accounts you have had a very successful return to Egypt; how long has it been?
Sona Zeitlian: It was twenty years ago that I was last here. Unfortunately, that trip was cut short because my home at the time was in Lebanon and it was a time of civil war. I got the news that my husband had been kidnapped [he was later killed by his captors and his corpse found by the side of a Beirut street; no group has ever claimed responsibility for the slaying] and it was a whole new set of realities that had confronted me. Thankfully, my feelings then were completely different from those I?m experiencing. [laughs] I?m here to celebrate the Armenian-Egyptian experience, which means so much to me.
What?s the biggest change in Egypt you?ve noticed since returning?
I made it a point to visit both Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo to get both perspectives of the city, and so much has changed. There?s demographics, obviously: There are so many people and so much traffic, but those are only the things that you see immediately. On the other hand, there is much progress on the economic and political fronts. The Middle East is a turbulent place, and so what attacks one country will automatically attack the others. The Palestinian problem has been with us for so long and has affected our destiny in the Arab world, and we all feel the repercussions of that everywhere that we go.
The turbulence continues, especially with the situation in Iraq. The problems really haven?t changed. They are problems that have been with us for decades now and I feel strongly the urge to find justice. For me it is more urgent than the search for democracy. Of course democracy is essential, but the feeling from the common people is that they have to find justice finally.
Unless justice is granted to the people, I don?t think that there will be good grounds to build democracy.
Most Armenians have never been to their ancestral homeland, but they speak with an incredible passion on the subject. To what would you credit that?
There are two very important things about Armenian life that make us so passionate and make us seek the justice that has been denied us. First there?s the genocide. It was covered up; the powerful nations of the time, for their own political interests, accommodated it. They would say, ?It has to be proven? and so on. Of course there are many people who have learned the truth about the genocide, but political interests prevail.
Statesmen have to take relations between countries and strategic situations into account ? and that is understandable ? but there is still an urge in us Armenians to find justice. Ninety years have passed, but we have two things that have sustained us, and the first is our church. Our church is not an international church. It is a church only for Armenians, a national church. The destiny of the church has been tied to that of the people. I mean, the Armenian church developed in the fifth century. We have had this national church, and even when we had no kings or nobility, it took care of the people.
The second thing we have going for us is our high regard for our culture. We had the alphabet very early on in the fifth century and this year we celebrate the 1,600th anniversary of the Armenian alphabet. The culture was nourished by intellectuals all of those years in the schools. Those schools, both national and private, fostered this. For instance, in Egypt, we had 30 schools up until the 1960s, when the community started to disperse. We had 30 private and public ? when I say public I mean community schools ? so there was great emphasis on education.
These important factors stressed our ethnic identity and made us passionate about what each of us can contribute to the Armenian people.
The ultimate support of any individual is the family, and they know that no matter what, they have a safe haven and open arms to receive them. So family has also sustained us.
Ultimately, my book is about setting the record straight in two ways: First, it?s about everything the Armenians have contributed to Egypt. Second, it?s about everything Egypt has done for the Armenian immigrants who came here with nothing, but were given the opportunity to make a life for themselves.
The implementation of justice, it seems to me, is very much dependent on who your publicist is. How is it that the world believes the genocides carried out against the Jews of Europe and the aboriginal people of the Americas, yet the Armenian experience flies below the radar ? even though estimates claim anywhere from 650,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were massacred between 1915 and 1918?
You know, that?s a very important question. The first act of the genocide was to wipe out the intellectuals. They were the head to chop off, so as to make the body unable to defend itself and ultimately to disappear. It was very well planned from their perspective and we lost the cream of the Armenian society. Two generations passed before we were able to regain a foothold.
Even now, we are not very good at public relations. Maybe it is the residual effect of the genocide: the fear of what might happen if you raise your head and raise your voice. Maybe. But I think that the time has come that we should think about other strategies. For example, in Sohag in Upper Egypt, there is an old Armenian monastery called the White Monastery. At one time it belonged to the Armenians, and there are inscriptions that mark the dates when the Armenians were there and what they had achieved. Later on, as the Islamic population increased, there was a move of Armenians toward the Delta, Cairo and so on, and when there were no more Armenians in Sohag, the monastery passed to the Copts.
It is now an important place of pilgrimage for the Copts. A few years ago, under the previous ambassador, the previous patriarch, the Copts said, ?We are going to whitewash the walls inside, and if you like, we can give you permission to remove these inscriptions and take them to your own churches or do whatever you want.?
There was a lot of discussion about this, and ultimately the patriarch of the Armenian Church decided that it was better to keep our heads down. It is the same state of mind that I was referring to earlier. Why not say, ?Thank you for returning this to us!? and take advantage of the situation?
We didn?t do that and we should have.
What was it that enabled the Armenians to weave themselves into Egyptian culture?
The very early Armenians that came here came to study at the great institutions, the Alexandria Library and so forth. This was in the third and fourth centuries, and they came to study at the Hellenic institutions that had a worldwide reputation. Other Armenians came for trade opportunities, because there had been long-established Armenian trade networks on the caravan routes in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. They also supplied and trained troops ? you would call them mercenaries ? to defend the caravan routes.
There was a third category of Armenians, and those were slaves. When the amir freed his slaves, those slaves, according to their abilities, often became generals. The person who led the Fatimid army and who was the initiator of building a new capital was of Armenian descent. He was a former slave, a Muslim and also the founder of Cairo. Surprisingly enough, Al-Azhar University ? though it was not a university at the time, but still a place of higher education ? from that time until today they still remember his name, Gohar. He was called, ?Gohar the Sicilian,? because he was imported as a slave to Tunisia from Sicily. That was another category, former slaves who had attained important positions in the Army: in the administrations and especially as calligraphers or secretaries. If you were a good calligrapher, you had a position in the administration.
The first Armenian who was instrumental in founding the Holy Armenian See, the future patriarchate, was also a former slave who was also the governor of Syria. When the Fatimid dynasty was in poor shape, this former slave was already known as a very courageous man, so they asked him to become vizier in Cairo. He made one condition for this; he said, ?I will bring my Armenian army with me.? Because of their dire straights they replied, ?Whatever you want, just bring peace to this country.? It is estimated that there were 10,000 Armenian soldiers that accompanied him. This was Badr al-Gamali.
During his time, he never forgot that he was an Armenian. He was a Muslim, of course, and he was also not only a vizier, or what we would call a prime minister today; he was also the leader of the army and the chief of the propaganda apparatus. He monopolized all three posts, so he was really a dictator if we used the modern term. He was very good to Armenians, and the time that he was vizier here corresponds to the time of the fall of the Armenian kingdom in our native land.
Because of the benevolent attitude towards Armenians in Egypt, many Armenians came here, and he gave them free housing and encouraged the establishment of the Holy See.
The acceptance of Armenians in Egypt wasn?t the norm, was it?
There was a huge difference in Egypt. Armenians here gave a lot of money and material help in 1896 and 1915 to the Armenian casualties and the refugee camps in Syria and so many other places. The Egyptian government accepted the transfer of so much money out of Egypt for humanitarian reasons. They could have objected and said that no Egyptian money could leave the country, but they allowed it. So, we have much to be grateful for to this country.
One hears of sporadic tensions between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Is there a similar tension between Armenians and Muslims?
I wouldn?t say that. You know, when the revolution took place, one of the important slogans was ?Egypt for Egyptians.? Now, Armenians were by this time Egyptian and there was a difference between Armenians and Greeks or Italians or other foreign minorities in the sense that there had been special dispensations for foreigners. It was an Ottoman arrangement that they made to encourage the Europeans to invest in Egypt. Europeans were free from the regulations and the laws of the country. They only followed the laws of their own country, and if anything happened ? from a misdemeanor to manslaughter ? they were judged only in their consulate courts and not by the government of Egypt.
Armenians did not have this status since they had no independent country of their own. In fact, there was only an Armenian embassy in Cairo after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Armenian Republic was established just 15 years ago.
I will give you an example. I taught at Kalousdian School in Boulaq. There was a very rich Armenian who had a monopoly on hammams, or public baths. He was also very prominent in the maritime trade on the Nile. He was a very wealthy man, but he had no children, so he gave all of his money to that school, and it bears his name because of that. There was a rule that even though you leave your money to a specific school, the money goes to the Ministry of Education, and it is the ministry that determines if they will give the money to the school or not. It depends on their agenda.
Our patriarch wrote the prime minister at the time and said, ?Do you want this school to be closed, where so many Armenian children are being educated, most of them free of charge? Do you want us to lose this school? If you care for the Armenians, you must do your utmost for us to retain this school.?
Mubarak Pasha Baya, a very prominent Armenian who was the prime minister, found the loopholes to approach the problem through. The result was that he was able to keep the school for the Armenians and in court it was registered in the name of the community.
Last year they celebrated their 150th anniversary. So, you see, this is an example that without having a government or an embassy to support you, and only thanks to that high official, the rights of the Armenian people were taken care of.
So is Egypt still an attractive home for Armenians?
The political situation has changed. You know what struck the Armenian community in Egypt hard was Nasser?s nationalization policy. My father was a tobacco distributor in Old Cairo and one day when he went to his place of work, it was closed with red tape and he was told, ?Now this belongs to the government.?
They said that maybe if he waited 15 or 20 years, that gradually the government would return what it took ? and of course that never happened. The Armenian community was really a wealthy community, many involved in both light and heavy industry, and that blow was very hard. In just one night, you went back to your work and it was no longer yours.
At the same time there was a welcoming cry from countries like Australia and Canada. They opened wide their doors and said, ?If you want to leave, we are ready to welcome you.? If those doors had not opened as wide or they were not so welcoming, not so many Armenians would have left ? I am sure.
Of course much has changed now from the policies of that time, but it?s a shame: One of our foremost filmmakers, Atom Egoyan, was born in Egypt and his father was a classmate of mine. He was born here, and when the revolution came he was five years old and his family immigrated to Canada. Now he is a famous film director and producer, and if he had stayed here that talent would have gone to Egypt.
Have you been able to get a feel for the current Armenian-Egyptian experience? And what has been the general reaction to the book in Egypt thus far?
There were many Armenians who came to me and told me that they did not know so much about their culture and history in Egypt ? even though they have lived here all of their lives. What impressed them most was that there was an uninterrupted Armenian presence here.
Today, we have a very good ambassador to Egypt, and he has taken good care of the community. There was an initial printing of the book that appeared in 2004 and at the time he was newly appointed as ambassador to Egypt, and one of the friends of my daughter who knew him in Armenia gave him the book. She thought that it would give him an idea of the history of Armenians in Egypt.
Apparently, he liked the book, and when we started working on the expanded English edition, he asked to write the forward and he wanted to present the book in Cairo where the story began. From what I saw at the launch party yesterday, it was well received by the Egyptian dignitaries and the other ambassadors. If you present them facts and not just speeches, and you accept in all humility what this country has done for the Armenian community, it will always be well received.