On being an Armenian and an Egyptian

Thomas Gorguissian , Saturday 22 Sep 2018

'Yes, indeed I am biased, I have no other choice, based on my deep understanding and great appreciation of what I called the survival components of my Armenian and Egyptian DNA'

Thomas Gorguissian
Thomas Gorguissian among his colleagues at the Kalousdian Armenian School

Any call to celebrate the Armenian component of Egyptian society indeed deserves praise and needs attention.

This is especially the case when we look to it as an opportunity to go back, revisit history, revive memories and appreciate those days that shaped our life, gave meaning to our existence and enabled us to contribute to the life of Egypt.

Egypt for Armenians was where our grandparents came and settled. Where Armenians as refugees, displaced from their homelands, were welcomed and embraced. And, yes, where I was born, grew up and dreamt to be a writer.

During my childhood, what I heard from the old people around me, was always these words: “We Armenians arrived here escaping from massacres having nothing. We found refuge, we got help, we found friends, we became family... we found home.” It was a tough journey with many stories to be told. The message was always clear to me and my younger generation: “Those hard times are gone.”

With this recent call from Egypt to Armenians to revisit their roots, the facts and memories I can recall and revive are many and joyful — and hard to include in one article.

What can I do? Write about Armenians’ contribution to the arts, culture and society of Egypt? Or how Armenian photographers like Van Leo beautifully captured Egyptian moments of joy and fame? Or why many Egyptians will always remember the Armenian jewellers and goldsmiths in their life — those who have added beauty and glitter to their hands, ears and necks? What about the Armenian Youssef Effendi, who in the era of Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the19th century brought the tangerine to Egypt, and who from that time lent his name to the citrus fruit known as Youssfi or Youssef Effendi?

In revisiting history I am reminded that Armenians in Egypt (as elsewhere) were eager to have their schools, churches and newspapers.

More than 160 Armenian newspapers over 150 years were published in Egypt, starting with Armaveni (Palm Tree) in Cairo in 1865.

The list also includes satirical publications like Malesh, launched in December 1911. It is always interesting for me to consider how the Armenian cartoonist Saroukhan created “Al-Masry Affandi” character and shaped the path of the political cartoons in Egypt. How about the musician Fouad Al-Zaheri (Fouad Garabed Panossian), who composed the music for nearly 140 Egyptian films? There are many other stories to recall and tell.

Stories that tell us about how Armenians found in Egypt the space not only to survive but to add and contribute - with gratitude - to a place which became home for them.

As I believe what Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote — “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it” — my birth and growing up in Cairo’s Shoubra neighbourhood shaped my Egyptian being.

In addition, Downtown Cairo, Heliopolis, Tahrir Square, Emadeddin and Qasr Al-Aini streets — and of course Alexandria — formulated and brewed who I am as an Egyptian- Armenian or Armenian-Egyptian.

My life in Egypt, by Egypt and for Egypt includes my being a writer, journalist, pharmacist, film reviewer, basketball player, teacher, actor, singer, dancer and soldier. Yes, I served in the Egyptian military, in west of Qantara area.

My writing career started in late secondary school, with Houssaper, the Armenian daily newspaper, where I wrote columns as well as reviews of Egypt’s cultural and literary events. Thus, I began interviewing Egyptian filmmakers and writers.

This work took me to the sixth floor of Al-Ahram, just a few blocks from Houssaper, where Tewfik Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz and other literary giants had their offices.

It also took me to cinematic shooting sites and Baara Cafe, where the extras used to gather between gigs. While in Cairo University, at the faculty of Pharmacy on Qasr Al-Aini Street, I began my regular visits a few blocks down the street to Sabah Al-Kheir magazine, where my first Arabic pieces were published.

All these together I lived — and loved it. And those days and all these colourful pieces of my unique mosaic of experiences, my variety of joys and sometimes pains, enriched and shaped my life.

Yes, those days have sometimes puzzled and annoyed me, sometimes disturbed me at the time, but they also purified me and made me who I am today.

The richness of my life in Egypt was possible simply because I did not consider my being an Armenian as an obstacle to being an Egyptian, too.

It is not just a birthplace or an official document that defines your identity. It is a mindset — your readiness and ability to add to who you are, to who you think you are, and to who you want to be. It requires an ability to see the similarities or the common ground rather than the differences between us and them, or between me and us.

My being - who I am, who I want to be, and who I am trying to be — is that alloy, that mix of diverse, colourful and multilayered cultures. It is like a plate of koshari with its various components, or fakhfakhina, that known cocktail on the Egyptian juice shops’ menu.

In this revisiting, I remember how I got used to saying, repeatedly: “Please do not ask me who I am or where I am from — because I know well that by that question you are trying to pigeonhole me, so that you can later say with all confidence, ‘Yes, you are like those Armenians’, or ‘those Egyptians.’” It is an easy and cheap way to be judgemental, not coming out of your comfort zone.

I also remember how it took me a while to simply answer that common question, “What is your first language?” It was and still is difficult to explain how I had two first languages: Armenian and Arabic. I used, and still use them both, according to my surroundings, the people I have encountered and the precise situations.

Working for years from 3 pm to 10 pm as a pharmacist in Metro Pharmacy on 3 Emadeddin Street, serving daily dozens of customers from all walks of life, provided a great stage for using my language and communication skills, beside my knowledge of drugs!

If I am asked about my Egyptian “ingredients”, I must include: To be nostalgic about the good old days. To be optimistic about the creative talents of the new generations.

To have a deep belief that Allah is always there, whatever the situation. To have a great sense of humour — to laugh at life and people, rather than let life and people laugh at you.

To know well that whatever is going on with its ups and downs, Egypt in the end will prevail. It is not just that Egypt is ‘too big to fail’, in that often repeated expression.

More to the point, Egypt is too experienced not to survive and flourish. And this reality, concept and understanding is not written in today’s manuals and “how-to” advisories.

Yes, indeed I am biased, I have no other choice, based on my deep understanding and great appreciation of what I called the survival components of my Armenian and Egyptian DNA. I hope one day I will write about it in greater detail.

The sense of humour within me was definitely shaped by my being Egyptian.

Meanwhile my deep sorrow and sincere resilience were carved within me by my being Armenian and by the history of my family over the last 100 years, living and surviving genocide, diaspora, nerkaght (return to homeland), aksor (exile) and fighting for and reaching to an independent Armenian state.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: On being an Armenian and an Egyptian

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