Achment Gonim is of Egyptian descent, raised in Greece and educated between Britain and the US. As part of TRT World’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, the 25-year-old reflects on how that historic scar helped shape his identity.
The smell of salty waves splashing against the decaying rocks commands the air. There is a peculiar solitude engulfing the magnanimous coastline as it gently echoes its Mediterranean legacy.
Sitting on the corniche in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria during a visit back to their homeland, a father looks deeply into the eyes of his son, telling him:
“Ahmed, you must never forget you are a Muslim Arab. I am telling you this so you know who you are. Whatever happens to me, you need to be proud of where you come from and help your people.”
“So why don’t we stay here, dad?” the inquisitive child asked.
“Because of what Israel and the West did to us in 1967. They took our land and we lost everything we had. Our family was starving so I had to leave to provide for them. The ‘Naksa’ son, you must never forget it.”
At five years of age, this was the first time the young boy was confronted with his identity, an inherited belief system coupled with an ancient tribal culture and tormented history that was to burden him throughout his future travels, yet become the epicentre of his raison d’etre.
Naksa, Arabic for “the Setback”, refers to the 1967 Six-Day War which marked Israel’s victory over Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel’s military, economic, and political superiority were established, and today marks 50 years of the occupation of Palestine.
“I will become president of Egypt,” the young boy would excitedly exclaim to his family and friends.
Every Sunday, it was football, politics and religion — an educational opportunity for Ahmed, who didn’t spend much time with his migrant parents who spent their days and nights serving wealthy Greek suburban families.
“You don’t need to celebrate your birthday. Have you liberated Palestine and Jerusalem? Have you saved Iraq [from US occupation]? What have you done my son?” his father would tell him. “What you need to do is to stop wasting your time, start reading, writing and learning.”
Though he was intrigued, the boy was starting to get overwhelmed by the heavy rhetoric and was finding other ways to pass his trouble-free days instead.
Bouncing the ball on his head while his feet sank in the soft white sand on the Greek coast, Ahmed started developing a knack with the round ball. A talent limited by a clear absence of team spirit and temperament.
He was inherently influenced by the contrast between what he learnt and observed at school, and what he was hearing and living at home. A singular personality was brewing in the mind of someone who was living across two divergent worlds, and therefore different from most other children his age.
In the early 2000s – while attending an international school in Athens, Greece – Ahmed was experiencing what is known as “third culture”, a term referring to children raised in a culture other than that of their parents. Being taught everything through a British curriculum and world view meant that he was increasingly starting to question his father’s teachings. A different history, different values and different outlook on life all started becoming ingrained.
“You cannot live like people here. They will never treat you like one of them. You are not one of them, and you cannot believe the lies they teach you at school,” his father poignantly murmured while walking his now high school-aged son to the bus station one morning.
Parallel characters started to develop as the child sought football stardom, and alternatively dreamed of being immortalised as a revolutionary hero. Yet he envied the ability of his peers to maintain their childlike consciousness, untouched by blasphemy, war, divisive politics and conspiracy.
His undiplomatic disposition, familial scepticism and unintentional narcissism were enough to prevent him from pursuing his Zidane-like moment. Unsurprisingly, as an egocentric testosterone-filled teenager, he aggressively blamed this failure on those around him, and the nepotistic, corrupt and at times racist nature of grassroots football.
Fortunately, the pursuit of knowledge had not died, mostly thanks to the persistence and upbringing of his mother — an orphan who had raised her eight younger siblings — and the ideological intellect passed on by his 70-year-old father.
At 17, having witnessed the distinct paradigm shifts created around him in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he was thrown into the jungle of adult life.
Still, despite being cocooned in the theoretical bubble of academia, the young man grew more and more confused, desperately unable to reconcile the teachings of his father with his own morphing identity amidst the First World problems of life in cosmopolitan Europe.
Whilst attending an international relations lecture at university in the US, the topic of the 1967 Six-Day War is analysed. As he desperately tries to defend all that his father taught him, one of his American classmates interrupts him abruptly.
“Come on please, we completely destroyed Egypt and all the rest of your anti-semitic neighbours. You wanted to destroy Israel but we will always be the greatest and you cannot do anything to stop that. It wasn’t a Six-Day War, it was more like a six-minute war.”
Many of his classmates chuckled and laughed as Ahmed was left alone boiling in rage without a chance, as the room quickly turned against him.
Sandy shores, scorching sunlight and the warmth of his family homes, whether in Athens or Alexandria, were all absent from this dimension, and slowly eroding from his dispirited existence. The confines of the lecture room were unable to fully draw him in, and his teachers were unable to nurture his mind with what he viewed as their theoretically outdated words.
Early adulthood and inspiration
The boy now looks like a man, but is more focused on confronting mundane incidents of racism, expressing his own reactionary politics, defined by a deep hatred for the US, Israel and colonial history. Still unattached to the concept of a higher education and missing a purpose in life, he was getting carried away most of his time enjoying the guilty pleasures of a Western life.
That exploded when that once unthinkable phenomenon that he had dreamt of as a child actually happened. The cry for “bread, freedom and social justice” roared from the streets of Tahrir Square.
“Walk like an Egyptian,” they said around the world, as the hereditary scars of disunity and humiliation carved in 1948 and 1967 came to a momentary halt. Goosebumps creeped on all his limbs as euphoria flooded the hearts and minds of Arab youth, wherever they stood.
Suddenly, it all made sense. His long derailed focus was back on track, and he steamed rapidly through graduation. The weary disconnected bridge linking East and West in his mind was once again reconnecting, as the young man galloped his way into what he thought would be a refreshing new era for him and the world alike.
“Learning when you are young is like carving on a stone, but when you get older it is like trying to carve in water,” his father uttered to him over the phone.
A change of curriculum, university, field of study and attitude moulded him into becoming an over-ambitious underachiever. Yet that failure was no longer disheartening. Instead, it fuelled a sense of perseverance, team-work and leadership that he never before felt.
Now multilingual, armed with a prestigious education, and a “third culture” accumulated through travel, friendship and love, he returned to the heart of his beloved Arab world.
But the dimming sound of freedom was soon replaced by the violent return to the normalcy of tyranny, censorship and pain. By mid-2013, the counter-revolution was in full throttle whilst the powerless young man was left with the pressure of chasing a career whilst being mentally swamped with the sadistic myriad of inevitable events that would rapidly submerge his homeland.
It seemed like another “Naksa-like” moment. Unlike 1967, this time around it wasn’t land being lost, but hearts and minds that were being destroyed, and the fire of hope was once again blown away.This time, it wasn’t Israel killing Arabs, but rather Arab despots massacring and imprisoning thousands torturing them into silence. The collective trauma was the same, and the consequences on the psyche of future generations of Arab youth were perhaps even worse this time around.
Yet that short-lived glimpse of hope followed by the crushing defeat of people-led power, had triggered an uncensored confession of all that had been kept in the collective sewer of the Arab conscience.
The smell had escaped, and as the repulsive stench settled from the coasts of the Mediterranean to the deserts of the Gulf, the dreams of his generation had emerged only to fail them all once again. Sleepless curfew nights turned into nightmares televised in real-time, violently disheartening millions of viewers.
The now not-so young man, needed to find his bearings on the ever-shifting compass of life. So he returned to the cement-filled estates of his former colonial masters.
The young man knew he was lost in a mirage of a monotonous life masquerading himself in public as a content young professional in London. The question was, would he be courageous enough to hear the sounds from afar, trying to break into the prism of his mind?
Upon his return to post-coup Egypt, he stood toe-to-toe, and shoulder-to-shoulder with his father outside a mosque. Ahmed’s father came to terms with him about Arab people, their leaders and the self-inflicted conspiracy of what he saw as their dismal destiny.
The wise man, it seemed, had no more time for hyperbole, long-lost memories and inflated truths.
“We did this to ourselves. When you were young [telling you about the glory of our homeland] was the only way to make you love your country and your religion. Now you are a man and you can see the truth for yourself,” his father told him despondently.
Unfazed by the pessimist–stricken words of his parent and the fear of his mother losing a son, he felt determined to break out of the self-imposed normalcy of chasing a meaningless career. He desired more, as his partner reminded him of his unique oratory and linguistic talents that could “change the unchangeable.”
The best is yet to come
The clock was ticking and patience was running short. Another divine opportunity revealed itself from the East, as the sun failed to appear on a wintry Friday morning in London. An offer to cross the Mediterranean arose once again, this time to fulfil the journalistic mandate of helping to convey a truth that will empower the powerless, and give voice to the voiceless.
The veil of power rapidly uncovering itself in front of him, the re-inspired young man effortlessly tries to finds solace in the swaying winds gusting across his face, while he gazes at the endless tranquility of the Bosphorus.
The sound of the Adhaan, the Islamic call to prayer, beckons, reminding him how close he is to home, and of his responsibility towards his family whose words are prayer-like reminders of his existential purpose.
“It’s so beautiful it hurts,” his colleague exclaims.
Mind-boggled, the young man could very much relate to an invisible feeling of pain. Still, he can’t help but ponder about how he got here and where he will be next.
He can’t stop and think of his fortune which separated him from the many others who turned to violence, or thousands entangled in prison cells, silently censored and tortured, only to be left in the abyss of misery and contempt.
Staring at his far more experienced peer, he thinks to himself, “It does hurt but I will do something great, l will spend my last breath trying to help my people.”
Lesson from one Naksa to Another
Ahmed had come to terms with the realities of his generation’s 1967 moment. His family’s struggle, forced emigration, poverty and trauma caused as a result of the Six-Day War had been described so vividly to him that it had become an intrinsic part of his own psyche.
But the gust of fresh air that he witnessed during the 2011 Arab uprisings was enough to give him hope, to regain pride and a renewed sense of belonging to his land of origin. It was no longer all humiliation, defeat, depression and confusion, there was something to look up to back home.
The counter-revolution was traumatic, having seen friends, family and millions of his people suffer as a result of tyranny. Yet Ahmed refused to deal with the shock in the same way his predecessors dealt with their violent trauma.
He would not regress into anger, hate, vengeance and lack of hope. He was determined that he and his generation would use their talents to continue resisting the dictatorial epidemic that had swept the Arab world.
Now was not the time for becoming narrow-minded and rejecting others. It was not time to accept another setback as a given, or to fall for the illusion of another leaderless revolution. Before he would blame external forces, before attempting to react to the growing climate of racism and inhumanity around the world, he was was determined to tackle his own demons and those plaguing the collective mind of his un-evolving elders.
It was time to adopt a pluralistic message, it was time for freedom of expression, and it was time to sacrifice mundane pleasures for hard work and creativity.
Most importantly for Ahmed, it was time to survive this Naksa with his head held up high and learn from the invaluably scarring lesson of history.