Forewarning: blunt re-telling of personal history, discussions of politics, indoctrination and propaganda, anti-Semitism, all relevant to current events. If you’ve read other posts on this site, this one is very much not like the rest.
I was born in Egypt in the very early 90s. When I was about two or three my parents moved to one of the oil-rich Gulf countries to work. That is where I went to school.
Explaining education in Gulf countries is way out of scope for what I want to exorcise today. What I can tell you is that until I was almost done with high school, we didn’t know whether we’d have to go back to Egypt, so from grades 1 to 9 I went to a school that taught the Egyptian curriculum. The country was not Egypt, but the students were Egyptian, the teachers were Egyptian, the books came from Egypt, and the exams came from Egypt.
This is not a day to mince words, so I will also tell you that the education I received was abysmal on every level: factually, practically, morally. It would be a joke if it wasn’t so despicably ruinous of childhood as well as an education. In the midst of it there is one particular black mark I often think of, and that’s art class.
The Egyptian school curriculum for middle school grades included art. You had to take art.1 Of course like with every other subject, this requirement was purely nominal and for show. What it meant was children’s asses needed to be in seats, and a teacher tasked with being the “art” teacher had to check a box that says art happened. No one taught any artistic technique, theory, history, media. I do remember being taught one thing in art class though, and that’s hating Israel and hating Jews.
The Egyptian school curriculum and culture are awash with propaganda. Any subject that could be warped to extol the virtues of the nation and demean its enemies was thusly warped. Geography books taught lies about what the country produced, chapters on civics told fantasies about the form of government we had, and history books taught outrageous fables about victories that were in fact defeats and betrayals that never happened.2
One of the most important national holidays in Egypt has nothing to do with independence or the founding of a nation. It’s October 6th, the day Egypt “defeated” Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Egypt, a nation that gained independence in 1922 and sits on top of one of the world’s oldest civilizations marks the peak of its national pride on a war it lies about to its own people. A war that Egyptians are taught was a rout when in fact by the end Damascus itself was being shelled and Israeli forces were 100km from Cairo.
And each year in art class, for weeks that run up to October 6th, we did one thing and one thing only: paint the Egyptian victory, and more importantly, paint the Israeli defeat.
I have memories of countless paintings I had to do of generic battlefields with Egyptian flags flapping in the wind while Israeli flags burn, of proud Egyptian soldiers cresting one sand dune after another, machine guns in hand spewing bullets at hapless Israeli soldiers collapsing every which way while Egyptian fighter jets shoot Israeli planes out of the sky.
Blood, fire, barbed wire, bodies, and burnt tanks. Those are the only things I remember from art class.
It’s embarrassing to think of the things I was taught and mortifying to think of the things I believed, I cannot even repeat them.
As a child in that system I was taught anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in their purest forms. Stories of sadistic Israeli domination and crushed Arab innocence, stories much like blood-libel or excerpts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were exchanged between average kids in average school yards all the time. All lies.
The indoctrination happens in homes, it happens on television, it happens in recess, it happens from friends’ parents, and it happens in art class. It happens from complete strangers, like the man who stopped me while I was walking with a can of Pepsi in hand to tell me that Pepsi was short for “Pay Every Penny Save Israel”, and he was dead serious.3
I am sorry to bring this fact to your consciousness, but it’s what happened. And it is what still happens.
I’m telling you this because I know that for those who never lived in a world like that, it is impossible to imagine what it’s really like. Even as I tell you now, you still don’t know. How could it be real. How could children be taught to hate before they learn to add and subtract, to imagine killing the enemy and shedding their blood, to imagine the glory of blowing themselves up to strike fear and terror in their hearts, to delight in their suffering.
That was my world, that was the world for millions of children who are now adults, and that is the world for millions of children today. That is what happens there. They teach children to hate Jews. I’m not here to tell you to do something about it, I don’t know what is to be done about it. But you have to know, and I had to tell you.
We “took” art. Not learned it, or practiced it. We took it like medicine. ↩︎
Since the revolution and coup d’état of 2011 and 2013, I’m sure all those books have changed although I doubt they are any more truthful. Instead of lies about Mubarak’s Egypt and Nasser’s revolution, there will be lies about Sisi’s Egypt and the 2011 revolution. ↩︎
To be clear, my parents did not believe any of this, but we all had to be careful about what we said. As expatriates belonging to a religious minority, we were second class citizens in that country and always lived in fear that the wrong word spoken to the wrong person would send us packing. ↩︎