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Nasser: The Last Arab

Nasser: The Last Arab

by Said K. Aburish

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Since the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 there has been no ideology to capture the imagination of the Arab world except Islamic fundamentalism. Any sense of completely secular Arab states ended with him and what we see today happening in the Middle East is a direct result of Western opposition to Nasser's strategies and ideals.



Since the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 there has been no ideology to capture the imagination of the Arab world except Islamic fundamentalism. Any sense of completely secular Arab states ended with him and what we see today happening in the Middle East is a direct result of Western opposition to Nasser's strategies and ideals.

Nasser is a fascinating figure fraught with dilemmas. With the CIA continually trying to undermine him, Nasser threw his lot in with the Soviet Union, even though he was fervently anti-Communist. Nasser wanted to build up a military on par with Israel's, but didn't want either the '56 or '67 wars. This was a man who was a dictator, but also a popular leader with an ideology which appealed to most of the Arab people and bound them together. While he was alive, there was a brief chance of actual Arab unity producing common, honest, and incorruptible governments throughout the region.

More than ever, the Arab world is anti-Western and teetering on disaster, and this examination of Nasser's life is tantamount to understanding whether the interests of the West and the Arab world are reconcilable.

Nasser is a definitive and engaging portrait of a man who stood at the center of this continuing clash in the Middle East.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
According to London-based journalist Aburish, his is the 28th biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). The statistic says much about the appeal of the Egyptian colonel who forced out King Farouk yet failed to modernize an unwilling nation that adored him. Nasser evicted Britain from Suez and funded the Aswan Dam, but, Aburish concedes, could not lead Egypt out of backwardness, corruption and Islamic extremism. This biography has more politics than life in it, and much repetitive and often contradictory history. Once Nasser joins with dissident fellow officers whom he quickly co-opts, the reader learns little more than that he was always a good husband and father, spurned corruption and suffered early on from the heart trouble and diabetes that killed him at 52. Aburish mourns the lost potential of the man he sees as the greatest figure in the region since Saladin, but acknowledges that the inability to delegate authority to anyone not an incompetent and thus likely to unseat him left Nasser unable to achieve real change. The book attempts to explain Nasser's contradictions regarding relations with America (and the CIA), Russia, Israel and his Arab neighbors, but Aburish is unable to persuade even himself. At one point, for example, Nasser's "heir apparent" Zakkaria Mohieddine quarreled with him "and never saw Nasser again," but 15 pages later he is named prime minister "and seldom met his leader alone." Also marred by a propensity for triteness, this biography is unlikely to appeal to readers beyond those who are fixated on Middle Eastern political turmoil. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Gile Gordon, Curtis Brown Edinburgh. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thoughtful-though sometimes puzzling-biography of the Arab world's "most charismatic leader since the Prophet Mohammed," and the last to command international influence. Gamal Abdel Nasser's death, more than 30 years ago, marked an end to Arab internationalism, an effort to build a pan-Arab polity. In the place of that populist movement, writes London-based Arabist Aburish (A Brutal Friendship, 1998, etc.), stand, on one hand, corrupt dictatorships ("The House of Saud fails to qualify as an institution, unless perpetuating despotism is elevated to an acceptable form of continuity") and, on the other, Islamic fundamentalism. Many readers may question Aburish's view that the West is the cause of this fundamentalism, but there it is: Nasser's "dreams have been hijacked by the Islamic movements the West created to defeat him." One need not accept that odd thesis, though, to profit from Aburish's account of Nasser's rise to power and his concerted efforts, once he got there, to extend the possibilities of an Egyptian-led Arab enlightenment into the dark corners of the Arab world-which included Saudi Arabia and Iraq, whose governments opposed Nasser at every turn. Aburish also traces the origins of Nasser's growing militancy to a conference of nonaligned nations of 1955, in which China's Chou En-Lai, Yugoslavia's Tito, and India's Nehru separately urged him to lessen his reliance on the West and become an independent, neutral force in the region. Nasser did so, Aburish shows, which set him in opposition to France and England (whence the Suez Crisis of the following year), cost him American support, and drew him into the Soviet camp, even though Nasser remained a middle-of-the-roader through andthrough ("Becoming a revolutionary meant throwing caution to the wind, something Nasser the conservative, ardent nationalist never did"). "For an Arab to excel in administration is rare," Aburish remarks in another curious statement. If so, Nasser was all the more exceptional. Agency: Curtis Brown UK

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The Last Arab

By Saïd K. Aburish

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 Saïd K. Aburish
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5616-5


The Dreamer from Nowhere

Gamal Abdel Nasser shared a single, odd trait with other Arab leaders of the twentieth century: like Hafiz al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Yasser Arafat of Palestine, he adored his mother but had an uneasy relationship with his father. Beyond that character-forming quality, however, he had nothing in common with the others, not even in the way he manifested his dictatorial inclinations (or indeed, on occasions, his lack of them). Moreover, unlike most other Arab leaders, he unpretentiously continued to celebrate his own ordinary background as a man from and of the people.

Nasser's hometown of Beni Mur in the district of Asyut was and remains utterly lacking in distinction. It could have been mistaken for any of hundreds of medium-size villages in Lower Egypt, or the "Said," as Egyptians call that part of their country. Though Beni Mur was where his family came from and he considered it home, Gamal was not born there, but in the Bacos district of Alexandria on January 15, 1918. He was the firstborn of thirty-year-old Abdel Nasser Hussein, who had been transferred to Alexandria as a postal clerk.

The fact that his father's position merited his being transferred from one part of Egypt to another suggests a middle-class status, but it was only marginally within Egypt's small middle class. At the time, only the upper classes had family names; the rest of the population — the peasantry (which included most Egyptians) and other nonaristocrats — were named after their fathers. Gamal, without a family name, began as one of the people. Abdel Nasser was Gamal's father's given name, and he was called Abdel Nasser Hussein after his own father. Hussein Sultan, Gamal's grandfather, belonged to a small class of petty local notables and owned a few acres of land in a village where most of the inhabitants tenanted the land of rich pashas in Cairo.

In the 1930s the pashas, less than 2 percent of the population, owned more than 65 percent of the land and employed and exploited over four million peasants who tenanted for them. A tenant farmer usually lived off two acres of land and his small share of what they produced. He had hardly any rights, and when elections were held he was supposed to vote in accordance with what the pasha told him. Because banks did not deal with poor people, there was little social mobility, and very few ever overcame their peasant background. Historians have rightly described Egypt as a "hydraulic society," totally dependent on irrigation from the Nile River. But only 5 percent of the landmass of Egypt was cultivated, and this land was intensively farmed. Then as now, the country had no resources beyond agriculture, and it was poor. In addition, there were years of drought, so the few people like Hussein Sultan who owned small plots of land found other vocations to protect themselves against crop failure.

Educated at an American missionary school, the Wissa Charitable Secondary School, Abdel Nasser was tall, dark, sturdily built, and handsome, characteristics he bequeathed to his son, who im-proved on them by having piercing black eyes which twinkled. Abdel Nasser's awareness of status drove him to wear the fez, a relic from Ottoman Turkey which symbolized belonging to the city bourgeoisie. He drew a line between himself and the average citizens of Beni Mur, the tenant farmers, and in a way this justified assigning local notability to the Nasser family.

Abdel Nasser Hussein married above his station. Gamal's mother, Fahima, was the daughter of a relatively well-to-do coal merchant, Mohamed Hamad. Beyond that and the accepted fact that she was typical of her generation, a good housewife and mother who obeyed her husband, we know very little about her. Even her grandchildren, Nasser's children, do not have much information about their grandmother. This is understandable; Fahima died in 1926, leaving Abdel Nasser with eight-year-old Gamal and three younger brothers. Interestingly, at the time of her death, Gamal was living with his paternal uncle Khalil in Cairo.

Legend has it that Abdel Nasser Hussein did not tell his son of his mother's death for months and that Gamal did not have the chance to attend her funeral. But why was Gamal in Cairo anyway? Either Fahima had been ill and unable to take care of him, or his parents saw a special spark in him and decided to send him to the big city and a better school. Because there is nothing to suggest that Gamal objected to his Cairo exile and he did apply himself to his schoolwork more than most, one assumes that the reasons for his Cairo presence suited him. But there is no definite answer to this and other questions — and the family sidesteps the subject.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Fahima contributed to her son's well-being and influenced her children's lives. She used the forty-dollar monthly income (a substantial sum then) she received from her family to educate her four children,1 and Gamal's attachment to learning implies that he noted his mother's noble gesture and responded to her hopes. While there is no record to suggest this, it is possible that Fahima was behind sending Gamal to a school superior to the Koranic one which existed in Beni Mur. The Beni Mur School taught local students the Koran and other religious tracts and the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic over a period of three years.

According to most of his biographers, Gamal adored his mother, and the injury of her death and not being informed about it deepened when his father remarried a mere two years later. But in Arab societies, including Egypt, it is hardly unusual for widowers to remarry after short periods of widowerhood, and withholding bad news from people is quite common. Most of the time, widowers need someone to attend to their children from the previous marriage, while the carrier of bad news, such as the death of a loved one, has always been frowned upon. Yet, the whole episode left an indelible imprint on Gamal's psyche even though for the most part he continued to live with relations. Abdel Nasser had not committed any violation of what was normal and one is forced to conclude that Gamal was an unusually sensitive child who behaved differently from most Egyptian children his age.

Gamal's father moved from one village to another without moving higher in rank. Gamal Nasser, or "Victorious" (Gamal Abdel Nasser translates into "handsome servant of the victorious, Allah"), as he later in life became known, was shunted back and forth from his uncle Khalil to his maternal grandparents, and eventually lived with his father and stepmother. Nothing detailed exists regarding his relationship with either of them, and there is less about his relationship with her seven children. Whatever turbulence there was in these relationships was kept beneath the surface, showing in hurt rather than in argument or open disaffection.

The impressionable youngster lived in Beni Mur, Cairo, Alexandria, Katatba, Ismailia, and Demanhour among other places. After completing the three years of Beni Mur's Koranic school he studied at the Khoronish, El Nahda, Nahasseen, and Ras al-Tin schools, as well as others. At the Koranic school, when Gamal was between the ages of seven and nine, his first achievements were noted. The sheikh in charge of the school later encouraged his students to be "like Nasser." Indeed, he was not only a good student, he became an observing Muslim at a very early age, something which must have pleased the sheikh; and throughout his life, Nasser never acquired any vices except smoking. His Islamic ways were reinforced by one of his uncle's neighbors, Hassan al-Bakry. Deeply religious and well versed in Islamic teachings, Bakry liked the young Gamal and taught him a great deal. Like everybody else, Bakry was captivated by the charm of his young neighbor.

The combination of living in so many places with different people and attending so many different schools did not dislocate Nasser, it broadened his horizons — he got to know Egypt well. This meant becoming aware of the class divisions which racked it. Gamal traveled from one place to another by train, and he must have seen how inhumanely crowded the third-class compartments were and noted the conditions of the poor fellahin, or peasants, who traveled in and even on top of them. Most fellahin traveled with all their earthly belongings gathered in one bundle which they carried on their backs, and most suffered from obvious eye and tooth diseases. At the age of twelve he lived at Uncle Khalil's when the latter lived in the Khan al-Khalili district near Al Azhar, the foremost Muslim university in the world. This added to a natural inquisitiveness, and by reading a great deal about Al Azhar and its students, he became aware of conditions in many Islamic countries.

On another occasion he was living with his father and stepmother when they rented half a house in the Khamis al-Ads district of Cairo. The house belonged to the Jewish Shmuel family, who lived in the other half, and young Gamal befriended the young Shmuels and behaved toward the elders with the same deference and respect he accorded Muslim neighbors. In addition, he seems to have been aware of the international atmosphere of Alexandria, where one out of three people did not speak Arabic. French, English, Italian, Greek, and Armenian were spoken regularly, by foreigners as well as pretentious Egyptians. The people who spoke Arabic, the natives or fellahin as the upper crust called them, lived in the poor quarters of the city. Most of them were workers and servants for members of the city's international community.

By all accounts, Gamal was a model guest when with his relations. His uncle Khalil, an unassuming family man and an official of Al Waqf Islamic Endowment, a charitable establishment, and his prosperous maternal grandparents had nothing but praise for his obedience, helpfulness, and good manners. He dressed correctly but modestly, and his eating habits were simple. He could live on the staples of the average Egyptian: cheese, rice, meat, and cucumbers and other vegetables. These habits were to stay with him throughout his life. His only indulgence was going to the cinema on a regular basis. Gamal's self-denial was voluntary, particularly when he was with his maternal grandparents, who tried to spoil him by being generous with the pocket money they gave him.

The most telling part of his personality was his ability to maintain scholastic continuity despite the many moves from school to school. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge. All his biographers (Lacouture, Nutting, Stephens, Mansfield, Abdel Malek, Tikriti, Woodward, Stewart, Wynn, and eighteen others) agree that he spent most of his spare time reading, especially in 1933, when Uncle Khalil happened to live near the National Library, from which young Nasser started borrowing books. Though the source of his mastery of English remains a mystery, he read in English as well as Arabic, and he read serious periodicals as well as books.

In addition to the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, and the lives of the Sahaba (Mohamed's earliest supporters), he read Carlyle, Napoleon, Gandhi, Dickens, Voltaire, Hugo, Lord Cromer (onetime British governor of Egypt), Liddell Hart, and many others. He read mostly the biographies of great men, especially favoring the literarily competent and the pacifists among political leaders. Cruel dictators did not fascinate him the way Stalin captured the imagination of Saddam Hussein, the only other modern Middle Eastern leader who was well-read. In fact, Nasser even had literary pretensions that went beyond the usual nationalistic essays written by Egyptian teenagers of his generation. In secondary school he started a novel called "For the Sake of Freedom." (Just about everything he wrote had the word freedom in it.) This attempt at writing a novel appears to have been influenced by Mustapha Kamel, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century pamphleteer and founder of the Egyptian National Party. The antiestablishment and anti-British Kamel and the nationalist poet Ahmed Shawki were to remain two of Nasser's idols for the rest of his life.

Whether it came from Kamel, Shawki, or his pious uncle Khalil, the model student had something mysterious within him that considerably influenced his future life. According to Nasser's late, able biographer Robert Stephens, the Beni Mur tribe hailed from the Hejaz, the western and more advanced part of the Arabian Peninsula. In other words, their Arab and tribal inclinations and sense of personal loyalty differed from those of the average Egyptian. Their slogan is supposed to have been "We never attack unless attacked." Furthermore, although his formative years were spent in Alexandria and Cairo, he considered himself the son of Beni Mur, and his thinking belonged to the countryside. The Saidis are proud, generous, emotional, and manly. So Nasser had that rare combination of tribal Arab and Saidi characteristics.

Nasser's daughter Huda, the guardian of his legacy at Al Ahram's Center for Study of the 1952 Revolution (Al Ahram is Egypt's leading daily), admits that she never spoke to her father about his lineage, but she suspects that Stephens was right. She and others also speak of the legendary pride and hospitality of the Beni Mur people and how open and straightforward they are. Half Egyptian myself (my mother hailed from the Saidi town of Sanhud al-Kubra), I recognize these traits as totally valid and very evident in the everyday life of the Saidis; my Al Azhar–educated maternal grandfather subscribed to them.

Also, very much like the author, Dr. Huda Abdel Nasser is intrigued by the fact that one of her uncles was called Izz al-Arab, or "glory of the Arabs." Stephens claims that only someone who believed in the Arab notion of glory would give a child such a name. Dr. Huda Abdel Nasser is not aware of anyone else in Egypt called Izz al-Arab, nor am I. In fact, even in countries which wear their Arabness more openly than Egypt, such as Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, it is difficult to find a name that implies an equal attachment to the Arabs and their history. As we will see later, Nasser believed in and spoke of the glory of the Arabs regularly.

It is obvious that very early in his life, Nasser acquired the notions of freedom, dignity, and glory. With nothing else to go on beyond what Stephens, Huda Abdel Nasser, and others believe, it also seems possible that the disaffection Nasser developed toward his father did not stop the family, most likely his uncle Khalil, from imparting to him a sense of Arabness, which merged with Saidi pride and other elements he discovered through reading later in life. However, this sense of Arabness is not as strange as some promoters of Arab disunity would suggest. A majority of Egyptians celebrate their Arab identity without hesitation. In fact, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Egyptian schoolboys, Nasser included, marked the anniversary of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine by striking. In Cairo there were organizations such as Jimaat al-Wihda (the Unity Group), the Arab Writers Union, Rabitat al-Arab (Arab Union), and many more. Even Egyptian women had a committee to support the Palestinians in the mid-1930s.

So what we have is a sensitive, introverted child who was polite and accommodating but never warm and outgoing, who read voraciously and incorporated what he read into an Arab-Saidi attitude toward pride and dignity and indeed religious tolerance. Moreover, the prevailing conditions of obscene wealth and extreme poverty which existed in Egypt at the time would not have escaped his sensitive eye. The single recorded incident which provoked his outrage at the denial of dignity to the Egyptians was to come later, in 1942; but there must have been many more incidents which burned within him but did not unsettle him. After all, in addition to being the oldest nation-state in the world, Egypt was also the oldest feudal dictatorship in the world. It had been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Kurds, Arabs, Circadians, Turks, French, British, and even King Farouk's Albanian dynasty for over three thousand years.


Excerpted from Nasser by Saïd K. Aburish. Copyright © 2004 Saïd K. Aburish. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Said K. Aburish was born in the biblical village of Bethany near Jerusalem in 1935. He attended university in the United States and subsequently became a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and The Daily Mail, and a consultant to two Arab governments. Now a freelance journalist and author, his books include Children of Bethany, Cry Palestine, and biographies of Arafat and Saddam Hussein.

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