Antoun Sidhom (1915 – 1995)
Antoun Sidhom’s life spanned some 80 years, a good part of the 20th century. This was a time which saw substantial changes on all levels in Egypt, not least among which was a population that ballooned from 13 to 60 million, a State that went from a monarchy and British Protectorate to an independent republic, and a community that moved from agricultural to industrial, socialist, then free market economy. Sidhom lived through all these changes and was an integral part of them.
My earliest recollections are of a spacious home full of light—and people—in Shubra. Shubra is a middle class district in Cairo famous for its high Coptic population, and the house was that of my father’s extended family. For some reason I grew up thinking this was the house where my father, Antoun Sidhom, was born, till I discovered it was not so; it was the last stop in a long journey my father’s family had taken.
Antoun Sidhom was born on 3 March 1915 in the Delta town of Tanta, to a middle class Coptic family. His father, Sidhom Ibrahim, used to be the manager of the estate of one of the big landowners and businessmen, Abdullah Bey Shedeed. My father had seven siblings, but this was a time of poor health care and high infant mortality in Egypt and families used to have as many children as they could given that a number of them would not survive and that the mainly rural community favoured numerous children. Two of my father’s siblings died at an early age; he was the fourth among the three brothers and three sisters who survived.
My father’s early childhood was spent in the Sharqiya town of Zagazig, east of the Nile Delta. Early recollections involved playing in the lush green fields, lighting bonfires, and lots of fun. He and the brother directly older than him, Kameel, were look-alikes; only Kameel was the prankster who would play a practical joke and flee, and Antoun was the one who’d get caught. Yet they remained very close up to their last days.
The family moved to Alexandria in the 1920s. The house where they lived in the district of Muharram Bey still stands, as do the schools the children attended.
A few special memories stand out. I remember my grandmother talking about the years in Zagazig as rather tumultuous since these were the years of that followed the nationalist revolution in 1919 that called for independence from the British. Egypt had been under British occupation since 1882 and was thus an ally of Britain in WWI (Watani International, 28 December 2014, P1; http://en.wataninet.com/culture/heritage/valour-and-new-beginnings/12785/). In return, Egypt was promised independence once the war was over, but this never materialised and the Egyptians had to fight for independence which they only gained in 1954.
Being so close to the sea made my father a good swimmer. When we were children, it was he who taught us all how to swim. Much later in my life, however, I got to know that as a teenager my father had suffered from a near-drowning incident which left him with a strong fear of the sea. Yet I remember him standing tall and firm in the sea at Alexandria, teaching me and my brother and sisters all about swimming. How he managed his fear so that we never had an inkling of it—quite the contrary, he taught us not to fear the sea and how to cope with the waters—is for me to this day an amazing feat.
When my father spoke to us of his time at school it was obvious how much he cherished it. He attended the Morcossia (St Mark’s) School in Alexandria, one of the numerous schools founded and operated by the Coptic Church. Coptic schools were among the finest in the country, and were not confined to Christian students but enrolled boys and girls of all religions.
My father was a meticulous scholar. I still have one of his English Literature books, The Prisoner of Zenda. He had taken it to a book binder, asked him to undo the original binding then rebind it so that a blank page would be inserted in between every two consecutive pages. On the blank page, he wrote his remarks, explanations, and comments.
In the 1930s, the family moved to Cairo. My father joined Cairo University, the only member of his family to do so. While yet a university student, his father suddenly died. The family was devastated, to the point that they decided to move into a new home; they couldn’t stand living within the same walls that had seen happier years. They moved to the house in Qotta Street in Shubra; the spacious house the pleasant recollections of which I have to this day.
The relation between the senior Sidhom and his employer, Shedeed Bey, had been so warm and trusting that, when Sidhom died, Shedeed Bey let his eldest son Badie replace him in overseeing the estate. Kameel had gone into trade, the eldest daughter Nazeera had married a teacher, Saber Hanna, and the two younger sisters Marie and Henriette had just left school. Incidentally, Sidhom Sr had named them after the daughters of the employer he held in so much regard, Shedeed Bey.
While in university, my father got actively involved in politics and the resistance to the British occupation of Egypt. He helped circulate material that called for political effort against the British. A close friend of his once told me that my father narrowly escaped being caught by the police in one incident. “He had just brought in several boxes carrying copies of the ‘Black Book’ that was contraband. Minutes later the police broke into the place and caught us all. Your father was the only lucky one who didn’t get caught!”
Sidhom’s studiousness paid off and, in 1937, he graduated from university with a degree in accounting. In 1939, he partnered with another accountant and friend, Azmy Rizkallah, and founded an accounting and auditing office which was among the first Egyptian such offices in Egypt; hitherto the profession had been in the hands of foreigners who resided in Egypt.
Rizkallah married Sidhom’s sister Marie in 1942.
In 1948 Sidhom married my mother, Samira Guirguis, who came from a Coptic family with Upper Egyptian roots in Assiut. She was a graduate of the American College for Girls in Cairo, today the Ramses College for Girls. Her father, Kamel Guirguis, was an educator and was among the pioneers who were then active in the modern revival of the Coptic Church and culture. He was a close friend of Archdeacon Habib Guirguis, famous for being the founder of the modern Sunday School movement in Church; in fact, my mother remembers that a substantial part of the Sunday School curriculum was designed by the two friends in the Kamel Guiguis family home in Cairo. Owing to the common surname and the close friendship between the two Guirguises they have frequently been mistaken for brothers. Last year, Habib Guirguis was canonised; he is now St Habib Guirguis.
My parents lived in the extended family home in Shubra. It was there that I, my brother Youssef and sister Wafeya were born. By then we had become too big a family to be accommodated in the large house, and we moved out. But the memories of that place will always remain among the fondest I have. It was already home to my grandmother, an able matriarch who ran the whole house along with the lives of its residents; my uncle Badie and his wife and daughter, and my youngest aunt Henriette. My other uncle and aunts lived with their families near by, and the big house in Shubra always buzzed with cousins and relatives, as well as a host of domestic activities that modern amenities have progressively made obsolete. The food supply of the day had to be bought fresh from the market or from street vendors who regularly passed by, the poultry was bought live and prepared at home, cooking was on kerosene cookers, baking in stone ovens, water was boiled in copious amounts for washing and bathing, everything was scrubbed squeaking clean with primitive material; and all this had to be completed before the men came home from work in the early afternoon. After that there came the lighter—but still arduous—chores of laying the table, eating and washing up, then socialising, and tea and supper in the evening. No wonder the day’s work would start at dawn; refrigerators, heaters, or modern cookers hadn’t been heard of.
In 1953, Antoun Sidhom moved with his family to a large flat in Downtown Cairo where my youngest sister Nadia (1954 -1998) was born.
The same building had for years hosted his office and witnessed some of Egypt’s most tumultuous times. On 26 January 1952 my father was in his office when the Cairo Fire erupted. He warned many of his friends off, but some would not believe his words; news of Cairo burning sounded so outrageous. My maternal uncle, Ramsis Kamel was then getting ready to marry a young woman from Alexandria who had come with her family to Cairo for the wedding. They were staying at the grand Shepheard’s Hotel in the Downtown area, and they were late to respond to warning. They managed to save their skins, however, but all their belongings and the entire bride’s trousseau were lost as Shepheard’s, together with many buildings, shops, foreign-owned businesses, and theatres Downtown burned down.
To this day, it is not known exactly who was behind the Cairo Fire, but it is widely believed to have been the Muslim Brothers (MB) who, uniquely among other nationalist movements, were notorious for their acts of violence and political assassinations. The nationalist movement was at its height; Egypt was in a state of unrest and political agitation and, in July that year the revolution which came to be known as the 23 July 1952 Revolution erupted.
The revolution was led by army officers, the Free Officers as they called themselves, and obliged King Farouk to abdicate the throne to his infant son, Ahmed Fouad, and leave the country. A year later, Egypt was declared a republic. I do not recall that anyone in my family was too sorry Egypt lost the monarchy which had gained notoriety for being corrupt, but the Free Officers were all MB which in itself was not too reassuring. Yet there was an initial admiration of the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was elected president in 1954, but this quickly faded. Once Nasser became president, differences with the MB surfaced and obviously threatened him; he finally cracked down on them and rounded them all up in prison where the torture and oppression they underwent produced their most extremist thought.
Nasser’s 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the subsequent Suez War led to a movement to drive away many foreigners, especially Jews from Egypt. Among them were a group of Egyptian Jews who had founded a company they called Le Scribe Egyptien that dealt in electronic business and banking systems, and introduced into Egypt some of the first computers. The owners had to sell the company before they left; a number of Egyptians teamed up and bought it. Among these was my father who rose to be the company chairman till he died in 1995.
In 1958, freedom of expression in Egypt was severely curbed, which led my father to decide that the Coptic community was in need of a voice, a paper to express their concerns. He managed to obtain licence for a weekly paper.
He decided on the name Watani, literal for My Homeland, to stress the Egyptian character of the paper even if its focus was Coptic. And to this day, under the leadership of his son Youssef Sidhom, Watani is faithful to this special mission.
Nasser initiated the movement of the Arab nationalism and unity, and in 1958 engineered the Egypt-Syria union under the name the United Arab Republic; but this lasted only till 1961. Even though the Egyptian and Syrian people have always had very good relations—Levantines came to Egypt in droves throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and settled down to successful, thriving lives—the political union was a disaster. There were whispers that the union had broken down due to Nasser’s despotism and socialist policies, but the whispers could not gain audibility since Nasser had already squashed all free speech.
During these years, censorship was severe, so Watani confined itself to general interest and Church topics. The Sadat regime exercised more lenient censorship; at the same time Copts suffered harshly with the attendant rise of Islamism, which the paper covered. But it had to wait till the Mubarak years for censorship to be fully lifted.
In July 1960 Nasser had announced his socialist system—he had already in the 1950s reduced the ownership of agricultural land to 200 feddans per family—a few years later it was again reduced to 100 per family. He nationalised private business, industry and trade, schools, institutions, and the media. The Coptic schools were nationalised and passed into the hands of the Ministry of Education.
Many Copts, Levantines, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews were hard hit by the nationalisations and left the country. Among the many who lost land and businesses was Abdullah Bey Shedeed who, too old to leave the country, died destitute in Alexandria a few years later. My uncle took care of him till the end.
Antoun Sidhom came near to being economically wiped out since all his money had been invested in shares of companies that were nationalised. The business in the accounting office shrank as many businesses became public sector. He decided to set out to Libya where, together with two partners, he founded an accounting office. The partners used to divide their time between Egypt and Libya, keeping the lives of their families intact. We were all children in school then. I remember much later in life a chat with my father in which he told me about that difficult time in his life, and how my mother supported him with all her might till the family finances floated again. “Strange,” I said, “we never felt there was anything unusual at the time.” His reply: “That’s one of the nicest things anyone told me.”
The Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967 was a gruelling experience for us Sidhoms. Apart from our national pride which took a painful hit by the humiliating defeat of Egypt at the hands of the Israelis, our father was then in Libya, and the roads were too unsafe for him to come back. It later turned out there was a silver lining to that cloud; all Copts who returned from abroad at the time were detained by the Nasser regime which was then taking some hysterical, unreasonable moves. The detainees were later released because there had been nothing against them, but the gruelling time in prison was definitely an ordeal. For the second time in his life—there will yet be a third—my father narrowly escaped being unjustly caught.
Nasser died in 1970, and was succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat as President of Egypt. The humiliation of the Six-Day War defeat took six years to be wiped out by the October 1973 War in which the Egyptian Army crossed the Suez Canal into Israeli occupied Sinai, raised the Egyptian flag, and fought the Israeli army. Even though this war left no clear winner or loser, it led to talks with Israel that ended with the peace treaty in 1979.
Once the October War was over, President Sadat went back on Nasser’s socialist system and fostered a free market economy. Business again thrived, and Sidhom could once again fully settle down in Egypt. He still travelled abroad almost twice a year for business, but now we were all grown up and my mother went with him. They used this opportunity to go to many places in the world where they would sightsee, fulfil their avid appetite for culture, and shop for generous gifts for us and our children.
On account of the peace treaty with Israel, however, opposition to President Sadat escalated. It did not help that, hoping to counter the socialists whom he saw as his archenemy, he had given free rein to the Islamist movements, and these were vocally against the treaty. They had grown into a daunting force that operated openly, promoting hijab among Muslim women, fostering Islamic mores and teachings, demanding the implementation of Islamic sharia and spreading a culture of hate against Christians and moderate Muslims, and violently attacking Copts. Watani began reporting on sectarian violence which escalated to unprecedented levels.
On 5 September 1981, Sadat clamped down on those he saw as his opponents. But he did not target the Islamists; he imprisoned more than 1500 individuals, including prominent intellectuals and liberals from across the political spectrum. He banished Pope Shenouda III to a desert monastery, and closed down Watani. My father was among the names of those to be imprisoned but again, for the third time in his life, he narrowly escaped because he was not in Egypt. On 6 October 1981, President Sadat was assassinated at the hands of the Islamists.
The Mubarak years that followed saw Watani back in print by court order in 1984, resuming its role in reporting on the Islamist terrorism that rose to a crescendo of violence against the Copts, and in demanding Coptic rights. Sidhom’s editorials continued to make these demands heard.
I always remember my father saying that the middle class among Copts was the mainstay of the Coptic Church, meaning they were the most attached to the Church and the most supportive of all its activities. True to form, himself coming from the middle class, he maintained a close relation with the Coptic Orthodox Church in both personal worship and public service. He was a member of the Coptic Melli (Community) Council and he had a special relation with many of the clergy and bishops. He was very close to Pope Kyrillos VI (Pope from 1959 to 1971) and his successor Pope Shenouda III (1971 – 2012) whom he was able to persuade to write a weekly article for Watani; this Pope Shenouda did for some thirty years.
On the personal level, the 1970s saw me and my brother and sisters get married and have children. Sidhom went from being a kind, loving father to being a doting grandfather. As each of us moved out to our separate homes, we would all converge on our parent’s home for help with our children and support during difficult times, invariably drawing on the never-ending spring of love that awaited us there. This in addition to the regular and special family gatherings, boisterous occasions full of fun, laughter, and good food cooked by my mother. To this day our children, now adults with careers and families of their own, recall these gatherings that overflowed with love and attachment.
As the 1990s came, the third generation of the Sidhom clan had grown into young adolescents, with several already in university. But Sidhom’s health waned progressively, not helped by family tragedy which struck and which Sidhom faced with utmost courage, fortitude, and compassion. Finally, on 2 May 1995, his health gave out; he left the earthly world and passed away into eternal light.
He was unquestionably great, a man of humbleness who exuded deep love, gentleness, and wisdom. His wit and sense of humour were legendary, the many Egyptian popular proverbs that dotted his speech were apt, and his laughter was larger than life.
Perhaps because his laughter still rings in my ears, I feel I would like to end this story with an incident that may carry no substantial importance yet is quite expressive. In his last days, my father was in hospital and had lost all strength and appetite. Thinking she might tempt him into eating something, my sister Wafeya cooked some spaghetti with a special cheesy sauce for him. It was a very small portion, and I remember sitting by his bed and trying to cajole him into eating even a little bit. As anyone who has been with an invalid knows, the obvious response is to try to evade the entire situation by going to the bathroom, which my father typically did. When he came out he sat on the bedside looking rather depressed, not wishing to go into bed lest the feeding session starts again. I looked at him and said: “Daddy, there’s something I have to tell you.” Yes, dear, he said. “I ate the spaghetti,” I said. His eyes sprang to attention, then he broke into one of his merriest laughs. Oh Daddy, I’m sure you’re laughing now (so why do I feel like crying?)
2 May 2015