My Egyptian Cousin

Jonathan Lethem

I have never travelled further from New York than Western Europe; Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an advocate of democracy imprisoned in Egypt. But Saad and I are both outlying members of the same sprawling Midwestern family: Saad is married to my first cousin Barbara. His name is much in the news and on the op-ed pages these days, if you’re looking out for it. A year ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a photo of Saad on its cover, in which he is seen peering from between his courtroom cage-bars. But even such prominent items can be lost in the dispiriting muddle of Middle Eastern politics, so hard to keep in view amid yellow-alert warnings of poison-gas attacks, or alongside sniper headlines which further convince our fear-stupefied Western selves that anyone called Muhammad has a predisposition to run amok.

Saad is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies, which campaigns for a secular and democratic civil society in Egypt. Famous in Egypt for his controversial writing on minorities, and for his role as a Presidential adviser and television commentator in the Sadat years, Saad came increasingly under attack in the official press during the Mubarak era.

His defence of the persecuted Coptic Christians and his criticism of electoral corruption was, it seemed, tolerated because of his closeness to the Mubarak family – the President’s wife and sons had been among his students. But Saad, like Falstaff, may have known his President too well and not well enough. When he publicly warned against the possibility of Mubarak grooming one of his sons to succeed him, he was arrested, as an object-lesson to other would-be activists. Mubarak perhaps did not so much initiate this action as withdraw his protection, allowing reactionary elements, who had long been calling for Saad Eddin Ibrahim to be silenced, to do as they wished.

In July 2000, after raids on his home and on the Ibn Khaldoun Centre, Saad and 27 of his students and colleagues were charged with accepting foreign funds for the purpose of defaming Egyptian society in a documentary film and a paper on election-rigging. The EU, which supplied the funds in question, has since endorsed their use in four separate affidavits. The laws under which Saad was prosecuted were framed in an attempt to stem the flow of funds for subversive Islamist activities. He was tried before a special court set up after Sadat’s assassination to deal with terrorists, but which is increasingly used to persecute homosexuals, members of religious minorities, and advocates of free speech. My cousin Barbara described the courtroom in a letter to me:

The scene can only be experienced, it is nearly impossible to describe: throngs of reporters blocking the line of vision between lawyers and the bench, cell phones going off every two minutes, lawyers dressed in ‘robes’ that once were styled on British barristers’, but now a tradition so long forgotten that glued-on cotton balls stand in for ermine ruffs. Janitors shuffle around in plastic flip-flops among years of cigarette butts asking us for backsheesh – during the proceedings – for ‘cleaning’ the room. The defendants stand in an iron cage for the duration of the hearings, but the grill is so broken down that we can pass notes and coffee in to Saad at any time.

Five of Saad’s students and colleagues were convicted along with him; most have now been freed having served nine months. Saad’s captivity, though, still serves a purpose. I have tried to understand it this way: imagine that the President of the United States, rather than ignoring the bee-stings of a dissident leftist – Noam Chomsky, say, or Ralph Nader, perhaps Michael Moore – had had him imprisoned. Astonishment would quickly give way to fear of speaking out. The incarceration of one person, the right person, can be an act of the most ruthless efficiency, chaotic kangaroo-court tableaux notwithstanding. So Saad, a 67-year-old scholar in failing health, faces six more years of imprisonment. An appeal hearing this month appears to be his last hope (short of a Mubarak pardon) of being spared.

My cousin Barbara spent her childhood in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, and met Saad in 1967 when she was his student at DePauw University in Indiana; they were married in 1971 and moved to Cairo, where their two children grew up and where she is a director of research with the International Population Council. Her father – and mine – grew up on farms in Iowa and Missouri: our grandfather was a travelling salesman who dealt in farm equipment and supplies. That she was able to make such a move may have something to do with the 1960s. Among the many international groups to send representatives to Washington DC on 25 October for a Free Saad Eddin Ibrahim rally was the Duck, a group of Saad’s former students and colleagues from DePauw, named for the Fluttering Duck – a, yes, coffeehouse, at the corner of Center Street and Vine in Greencastle, Indiana, where the lecturer and his Midwestern acolytes used to hang out. In a recent e-mail circular, the Duck reminded members to send notes of protest to the Egyptian Embassy, in order to help the Ibrahim family ‘to keep on keeping on’.

I first met Saad some time in the 1960s, when I was five or six years old. I clearly remember him visiting our house in Brooklyn as early as 1971, and then more clearly still at Lethem family reunions held at various sites in Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri on through the 1970s. I understood his place in my life, and in my family, through a lens of ‘1960s consciousness’ inherited from my parents. This inheritance was effortless and, until quite recently, relatively unexamined. My mother was New York Jewish, and, behind that, a mix of High-German-assimilated and Polish-Russian shtetl; my father was Midwestern-Protestant-nothing, with distant Scots-English roots, and by the 1970s had become a practising Quaker, partly in protest against the Vietnam War. The real religion in our house, though, was a combination of art and protest and utopian internationalist sentiment. Through the Friends Service Committee and through our connection with the Guardian, a Communist newspaper, our family took in lodgers from all over the world – I remember particularly a Rwandan Tutsi and an Okinawan. Intermarriage, of any sort, was felt to be heroic, and Barbara, with her Egyptian family, seemed absolutely heroic. So did my fabled Aunt Molly, the dark horse of my mother’s family, who’d fled New York and married a Mexican, and then set up as a folk artist in Arizona. Even the Midwestern Lethems were obsessed with their purported trace of Native American blood – my legendary great-great-grandfather, named Brown, is said to have taken an Oglala Sioux bride.

Also, I grew up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood with more brown faces than white. So it was thrilling and consoling – not only righteous but intuitively right – that splashing around alongside us paler kids in the motel pool in Maryville, Missouri, during those 1970s family reunions, were my dark Egyptian cousins, Randa and Amir. And, by the poolside, arguing politics with my World War Two veteran uncles, and with my outspoken radical Jewish mother, was their growly, bearded, imperious and quite lovable father, Saad. In fact, though we might by some current standards seem conceptually ‘opposed’, we half-Jewish and half-Egyptian cousins were more like each other than we were like the many dozens of pure Midwestern cousins surrounding us. We’d brought a new flavour to the Lethem family, a scent of the wider world, of cosmopolitan cities and oceans, to a landlocked tribe. Though in New York City I made a very unconvincing Jew to other Jews – unobservant, un-Bar Mitzvah’d, attending Quaker Sunday school – in Kansas I was hot currency. One of my cousins once walked me down a suburban street in Overland Park, Kansas in order to show me off, though that was a mission of mercy: there was an adopted Jewish kid on the street, shy and ashamed at being the only Jew anyone in the neighbourhood knew. He was perhaps seven or eight years old. I was proof that a kid like him could turn into a normal teenager: see, Jews are okay! Even Chris Lethem’s got one in his family!

I felt I was a token of a world improved by mongrelisation. I was by that time enamoured of Arthur C. Clarke, whose Stapledonian socialism thrummed just under the surface of his glossy futures. ‘We must not export our borders into space,’ he said. Those visions seemed to me then an obvious extension of my parents’ hippy values. I remember once disconcerting my father by explaining, with the patronising certainty of an adolescent lecturing an adult, that the chimera of nationalism would dissolve into a single planetary government within my lifetime, if not his. We were all going to intermarry and brownify and hold hands and honour our essential human cousinhood – weren’t we?

Well, 2001 wasn’t Clarke’s year. I remember sitting with Saad 15 years earlier, watching the 1976 Olympics on a Missouri motel-room television. If at that time he had any inkling that the Islamist Right, soon to slaughter Sadat, or the Reagan Right, soon to slaughter FDR’s and my parents’ hopes for American society, were together going to keep the Fluttering Ducks among us in abeyance for another millennium or so, he didn’t say anything to damage my own hopefulness. Certainly, his outlook must have been more realistic than mine, or even my parents’. Still, it’s unlikely he could have imagined the degree of slippage in his own culture – the extent to which the educated urban middle classes to which he and his students belong would be squeezed on either side by Islamic activism and what he has called the ‘Oriental despotism’ of the ‘pharaonic’ Mubarak regime.

In the immediate aftermath of the New York attacks Saad wrote a new postscript for the reissue of Egypt, Islam and Democracy.[*] Writing from his jail cell, he reminded us that, for Egyptians, 11 September has a very relevant (if somewhat smaller) local precursor, one rarely mentioned in American discussions of the World Trade Center disaster – the attacks at the Temple of Luxor in 1997, in which Islamist militants killed sixty tourists, mostly Swiss, British and Japanese, as well as a number of Egyptian guides. Saad describes what happened at Luxor as ‘the bitter harvest of the last decade’. ‘It was like an earthquake: it was swift and devastating at the epicentre, but its economic and political aftershocks were longer and more pervasive.’ The terrorists ‘exposed the vulnerability of the state, the fragility of the economy and the soft underbelly of society’. As New Yorkers must fear al-Qaida living next door, so must Egyptians. It isn’t only the Lethems who would, given the chance, sooner be sunning themselves at a motel poolside.

[*] AUC Press, 278 pp., $19.95, 1 May, 9 77424 664 0.