Psychological warfare is getting the better of us in the Arab World, politicians and statesmen more than intellectuals and lay people. Self-deprecation, heralded the good part of the time by our non-representative regimes, are the hallmark of the present general mood in the Arab world. I came to this shocking realization after moments of reflection yesterday afternoon following a visit to the grave of Jamal Abdel Nasser, in Masr El-Jedidah suburbs of Cairo.
On my way to a business meeting yesterday afternoon, my driver pointed to me the mausoleum of Jamal Abdel Nasser. I pressed upon the driver to make sure that he stops on our way back so I can pay my respect to this historic Arab leader. For a while now, I have been reminding the driver that a next Friday, I need to visit the Shrine of Nasser. The occasion finally presented itself.
Posing before flowers’ adorned tomb of Nasser, with one bouquet carrying the name of a delegation of “The free men of the Occupied Golan,” memories were stirred and threw me into a deep contemplative mode. Nasser was, as the case with most of the Arabs of my generation, my inspirer. He was the only contemporary leader who entwined my concept of personal welfare with the grander cause of the deliverance of the Arab masses. As excessive extroverts are prone to delinquent conducts, Nasserism harnessed our youths’ excessive energies into captivating ambitions of realizing loftier goals of freedom, social justice and economic welfare for all.
As a youngster, all those who knew me called me by Nasser’s acronym “Abu Khaled.” When my first son was born, everybody was surprised that we named him a different name from Khaled. Nasser and his Pan Arab dream ran deep into the veins of our lives. At the ages of 9 and 10 I received two letters with Nasser’s signatures in reply to my letters of support and encouragements in his march to the future. I insisted in 1960 of naming a newly born brother Abdel Nasser, in defiance of the prowling of the secret police of the anti-Nasser King Hussein’s police regime. In 1963, at the age of 16, I was incarcerated as a political prisoner for a solid 17 days, along with grown-up Jordanian-Palestinian Political leaders of Nasserite leaning. In September of that same year, I made sure when I went to Cairo to pursue my high school education that I find a residence next to Nasser’s villa at Manshiet Al-Bakry. Several times I caught a glimpse of him in his motorcade driving to and from his home.
Coming from a city, Nablus, that until recently – a mere four years before the coup d’etat of Nasser’s Free Officers – was an integral part of Arab Palestine, one could sense the far-reaching significance of the reverberating event of the success of Nasser’s coup d’etat. With the mass exodus of panicked Palestinian refugees swarming the hitherto non-occupied neighboring Palestinian towns, Nablus had its share of housing war stricken refugees into what thought of as temporary squalid camps of Balata and Askar, a few kilometers from the center of the city.
In the plight of these refugees, I witnessed first hand as a child the display of injustice and assault on human and Arab dignity in their most naked forms. With predominantly simple agrarian economy of limited job opportunities, the luckiest among these bodily-abled refugees could wind up performing menial jobs as hired hands running domestic chores or field works to earn a near subsistence level of an income. The pains and miseries of their fresh uprooting by the Jews were amply marked on their wounded souls and battered human pride. The ballads they often recited, with a twinge of exaggeration of forgone convenient amenities to gloss over their humiliations, were an outlet, a source of relief in the face of helplessness, despair and dehumanization.
I recall Um Issa, an elderly lady in her late sixties weeping profusely chanting a Folkloric Fallahi (peasantry) ballad while wiping the table in the dinning room. She felt free for a moment to let go the restrains of the requisites of self-composure giving expression, in the process, to tormenting agony in the sole presence of a 6-year-old kid, a non-entity. Her ballad was of a husband gunned down by the Jewish bandits in the rush for exodus, and a son that remained missing. Of a home she left behind, that despite its modesty, and with all its possible shortcomings, still called a home that gave her a sense of family, a sense of togetherness, a sense of community, an address, a sense of identity, a sense of dignity. Only a short distance of Yafa (“Jaffa”), the beautiful Mediterranean Sea stretching beyond the horizon was hers to hang on it her dreams and trust of the future. She was deluded in the comfortable thought that discriminating Yahweh’s caprice and wrath were myths restricted to the fables of textbooks, to a few twisted minds. The sight of the whistling robins trotting the pinnacles of the citrus trees in the out-stretched famous Jaffa groves, assured her of a caring super being, a beautiful divinity watching over all innocent earthly vicegerents. Um Issa poured out her humiliation, her indignity, her plea to a merciful God in that ballad, that Chanson of a human agony. A scene often revisited before my very ears and eyes, and to the complete ignorance of my elder guardians.Um Issa, I was told, died a few years later as a perfect stranger, in abject poverty, in a tiny space that she shared with her gracious sister, Um Omar, and a timid niece, who often lent a hand in the housekeeping of our residence. Somehow, despite my anticipating eagerness as a 10-year-old youngster to a long stretch of a life ahead of me, the liberating sensation that Um Issa was free at last, dawned on me.
Nasser, with his incredible articulation of the grievances and the aspirations of the downtrodden masses, and his coined outcry “Irfa’a Ra’saka Ya Akhi,” (“Raise your head, brother”), appealed immeasurably to the oppressed Arab populace.
He was the embodiment of the saviour, the messiah long-in-awaiting. After a long age of superpowers’ conspiracies and colonization of Arab lands, culminating in the loss of Palestine and the creation of the refugees’ problem, Nasser’s revolting outcries galvanized the Arab street. For the first time in centuries, an Arab leader appeared to show one face and speak with one tongue. He sprang from the midst of the commoners. He was a no detached blue blood ruler, securely fastened to a seat of power of the design and dimensions of a colonizing power or a ruthless Khalief or Sultan.
Nasser’s grand designs for a free and strong Egypt faced, from the very inception, the constraints of local, regional and superpowers’ geopolitical designs and realities. The tripartite Suez Campaign, only four years after coming to power, shifted Nasser’s priorities and the guiding paradigm of his political philosophy. The abortion of that tripartite collusion thrusted Nasser’s Egypt into the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the premature assumption of the leadership of the movement of Pan Arabism.
Legitimate criticisms of the Nasser’s era are abound. Some center on controversies over abuse of power, some enumerate the blunders of mismanagement of the Egyptian economy and others highlight the unjustified ill-conceived and costly military and political adventures, such as the Yemen debacle. What, in all fairness, is overlooked in such analysis are the hard realities of looming conspiracies to frustrate and thwart Nasser’s plans to empower his people for a better future. The archives are thrive with declassified documents attesting to the extent and depth of designs of dominating western powers of the time, Britain and France, with Israel a constant catalyst and a proxy in brewing the conspiracies. The details of the clandestine talks at Sevres, France, to plan the aborted Suez Campaign, as related in General Moshe Dayan’s memoirs, are most revealing of the maliciousness of such designs.
Nasser outlined in his book The Philosophy of the Revolution, his vision and the vision of his officers colleagues the objectives of their coup d’etat. They were six objectives that are all centered on longer-term solutions to lingering social, economic and security ills besetting the lives and well-beings of the Egyptian people. Nasser, as a grand reformer, aspired to jumpstart a campaign of modernization that would launch his country into the age of an indsutrialized nation.
The presence of occupying foreign British troops on Egypt’s soil, at and near the Suez Canal, represented a major preoccupation on the sovereignty of Egypt that was addressed in the objectives. No mention was made of containing Israel’s expansionism, or helping with the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes, or any other political issues of concern beyond Egypt’s territory. But Nasser’s Egypt was not to be left alone; so dictated Israeli leaders, ruling dynasties in the Middle East, and ruling elites of Britain and France, two colonizer powers hopeful of prolonging indefinitely their rewarding dominance in North Africa and Arab Asia.
Nasser’s doctrine and philosophy stemmed from a humanist’s concern for the well being of the downtrodden masses and the legitimacy of national dignity. He was a universalist in his outlook to life, matching his motto “the Cause of Justice is Indivisible; and the Cause of Freedom is Indivisible,” with deeds of active support to the liberation movements in Africa and the third world. His humanism and universal values found strong expressions in his active role to mitigate the effects of the cold war, and the ills of the ideological rivalry in a bipolar world bent on extreme ideologies through the creation of the respectable non-aligned movement. Nasser, Nehru of India and Tito of Yugoslavia incessantly enlisted new emerging third world nations in the non-aligned movement that influenced, to a great degree, U.N. resolutions, currently a tamed pet susceptible to the financings of the U.S. and Britain.
Nasser was first to bring to my attention at the age of 14 the name of the great English novelist: “Charles Dickens.” When asked in a newspaper interview, whom of all the world novelists moved him most, Nasser’s reply was crisp and terse: “Charles Dickens.” As some one who very closely followed every word that Nasser utters, to the point of succeeding in mimicking excerpts of his speeches, Nasser’s admiration of Charles Dickens plunged me into the English novelist’s Classics: “The Tale of Two Cities”, “the Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield.” With streams of intermittent tears as I came across Dickens’ vivid narratives of poignant emotional scenes as I was absorbed in those readings, I appreciated Nasser’s reasons for an answer to the “why” Charles Dickens of all the renowned novelists. The deduced response was because of Dickens’ incredible ability to vividly relate human sufferings. Those deep humanitarian sentiments shaped Nasser’s ambitious and far-reaching social and economic reforms, notwithstanding the insurmountable challenges to their fructuous implementation, not the least of which the voracious and ravaging colonialist designs. Always the little downtrodden non-entity, forgotten lot, that mattered and appealed the most to Nasser the humanist.
Nasser popularised free education and healthcare for all. He emphasized the need to industrialize Egypt and improve the standard of living of the Egyptian people. A great many learning institutions and hospitals were built. Suddenly, Egypt belonged to all the Egyptians and not to the privileged mere ½ of 1% of the total population representing the feudalists and foreign monopolies. New economic activities sprang, with new institutions creating a great many jobs to absorb the new manpower of a swelling population.
Israel, the capitalist elites of the world safeguarded by the bullying Western powers, and the ruling dynasties of the Middle East never ceased to conspire to get Nasser, and with him his far-reaching ambition of: “Irfa’a Ra’saka Ya Akhi.” The June war, termed the six-day war, got the better of Nasser’s plans and ambitions for a prosperous and a more egalitarian Middle East.
At around 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon of September 28, 1970, in the midst of a nap, I heard a knocking at the door of my room at Witte Hall, at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. That particular afternoon I was exhausted from a daylong string of boring electrical engineering lectures. At the door was my neighbor, Bob Hilton, a Law Student from Chicago. Bob and I, along with an interesting group of Witte Hall Masters and PhD residents often retired to the Den at the end of the corridor to touch on the social and political events of the day. It was the Vietnam era with all its upheavals and political controversies. Often we would convene during study breaks after 7:00 p.m. Bob, conveyor of exciting news did not wait to my inquiry what seems to be the urgency for him to call on me that soon surprised me with his casual words: “Nasser Is Dead.”
Poor Bob. As a rationalist trained American individual immune to the over spells of the effects of a cult of personality culture to which I was born, froze in his place with my thunderous “NOOOO.” Subconsciously shrieked that thunderous shrill of denial with both of my hands grapping and shaking Bob’s arms in a gesture of a frenzied disbelief. I have lost contact with Bob since 1972, end of my schooling at Wisconsin University; I am concerned the fright I had caused him must had rendered him sexually impotent for the rest of his life. Little insight did Bob have of the dynamics of different cultures at our young ages of 22 for him to make a meaning of my unbecoming reaction.
Bob did not know what Nasser represented to our youth. Bob did not realize that he was in many ways announcing the lapse of an epoch, the death of an identity, the burying of a youngster’s dreams.
All these thoughts crossed my mind at the solemn moments of my pose before Nasser’s tomb. The man was a nation. Nasser was the epitome of a dream, of the deliverance of the Arab masses and the redressement of wrongs befallen the dispossessed Palestinian. At least, this how, as a tender youngster’s mind simplistically perceived the realities as nourished by Nasser’s promises, always viewed from the optic of a more benign and a trusting universe.
By Rajai Masri