By Karim Hamam
CAIRO: Sometimes ignorance can make a nation war against itself. And sometimes that ignorance can be perpetuated by people that believe they are trying to help.
The word “Copt” means “Egypt” — both terms coming to us from the Arabic word pronounced Qibt and the Greek Aigyptos, which is derived from the Egyptian source “Kmt”, the letter m having been displaced by the phonetically interchangeable letter b. It’s as simple as that, don’t believe otherwise.
Like the High Priest Manetho of Sebennytus of the third century B.C — writing under the reign of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus his Aegyptiaca and other books in Greek to acquaint the Greek empire with the antiquity of Egypt and correct it from false notions that he saw were written by Herodotus and whose home city went through a similar lingual transformation to exist today as Sammannoud — I too feel a need to write this essay to acquaint my readers with some misconceptions about our name.
Egypt is not the name of a race, but the name of a color; and not the color of a people, but that of a land. “Black” is the color of the Nile valley and the Delta, as it was renewed in its fertility by the rich silt that was once brought to us by the annual sacred floods.
It was never the name of a religion either. Early visitors to Egypt used to refer to its Christians and Muslims as Copts. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century scholar, sociologist and historian referred to the pre-Christian Egyptians of Pharaonic times as Copts as well. It was not rocket science but simple common sense when the meaning of the word was still known, or at least still properly used.
Egyptians continued to identify themselves simply as Egyptians until state political fascism in the 1950s introduced a new wedge in our social coherence by remaking our identity as Arabs. Unlike our original name which identified us with the land, the new term identified us this time as part of a wider race. But it was a political miscalculation which rather than producing the desired effect of strengthening us as a people, ended up together with that added regime’s successive and disastrous failings in making us take a special pride in tracing our near and distant roots to all four corners of the earth rather than to a village or a town on this ancient black soil.
The term “Arab” actually refers linguistically not to a race, but to a state of being; the root of the word signifying “mobility”. The name of the Egyptian farmer on the other hand, the “fallah” literally means being a rooted “tiller” of the land. Based on these two very different forms of existence of nomadism and agriculture, naturally arose some different manners and customs that are clear to both the Egyptian farmer and the Arab nomad, yet oblivious now to most of our urban political ideologues, writers, journalists and citizens who have been conditioned otherwise by the educating state.
Contrary to being a familiar practitioner of racial politics, Egypt has always been a melting pot. Perhaps we have all been nomadic horticulturalists at one time in history as we all descended on the only fertile river valley from a drying desert around us in all directions to form the eventual cohesive Egyptian nation-state, which consolidated sometime at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. In fact our Egyptian language has since ancient times until now always been an Afro-Semitic tongue, and the Nile valley has continued until these modern times to absorb immigrants into our united valley culture; all of us leading similar lives due to the standard topography of the land and close-knitted nature of our culture, and all of us simply and contentedly identifying ourselves as Egyptians; with this land.
Today I am watching in the news zealous churchgoers throw stones at state security forces for withholding from them a permit to build a church. And seeing a picture of the security forces, aided by a middle aged man and a woman in black niqab, throwing rocks back at the churchgoers. Little does the lady know that she is casting stones against her fellow Copts, and little do the churchgoers know that they may be casting stones back against her son; their nephew, as one tradition going back to the Prophet, yet in our case a more literal one, held it that we Muslim converts refer with respect to our Christian relatives as“akhwalna el Aqbaat”; or “our uncles, the Copts”. And what a tragedy it is to watch the evolution of such a chasm in our family based on such a silly misnomer.