On the occasion of the 51st anniversary of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, I received a letter from Abdel-Fattah Toukan, a classmate of mine from Victoria College and a great admirer of the famous Egyptian leader. “Attached you will find a letter to me from Nasser,” he wrote, “a leader who made a powerful impact on me. It was my great honour to receive it while a student at Victoria College in Egypt. Please publish it in commemoration of his death, so that all will know the greatness of Egypt and its eternal leader who took the trouble to read every letter he received, even if it came from a foreign elementary school student.”
The letter itself, bearing the Egyptian president’s official seal, said, “I have received your kind letter which brims with patriotism and faith. Nothing is dearer to me than to see such fervent dedication. It gives me strength and encouragement in my work for the sake of the eternal Arab nation. I pray to God to grant us all success in the performance of our duty in our commitment to the advancement of the nation to which we all devote our lives and efforts.”
The letter was signed by Nasser and dated 29 October 1963.
Abdel-Fattah Toukan now lives in Toronto, Canada. After graduating from Victoria College he studied engineering at the Alexandria University, earned his MA from the University of Liverpool and obtained his PhD in international law from the University of Alabama. He is chairman of the board of Arab Engineers for Engineering Services, and is currently supervising the construction of a water purification plant in Japan, the largest in the world, promising to deliver 400 million m3 of water a day. He is also overseeing a major engineering project to link Europe and Africa, known as the “T Bridge.” The “T” stands for Toukan.
In his letter to Nasser he wrote, “I am a son of the Arab nation. My father and mother are Arabs. They believe in Arabism and Islam. They work together to help me understand the facts I do not know about usurped Palestine, how they had to leave it and how it was occupied by British colonial power which handed it to the Jews. When I listen to them, I find it hard to believe. I ask, ‘How can that be? Where is Gamal, the giant rebel who expelled colonialism, nationalised the Suez Canal and built the great dam?’ They answer, ‘Gamal and his free brothers were with us in the battlefield and felt the reality of the betrayal that occurred in 1948.’ I say, ‘Why do we begin the sacred march to regain the usurped nation under the leadership of free and faithful Gamal?’ My father answers, ‘The sacred march will begin soon. What we must do now is prepare for that day. Our duty is to stand as one behind Gamal, the destroyer of colonialism and the inspirer of hopes for Palestine and the return to our homes.’ By God, we will return. God is great. Long live Gamal.”
The letter brought to mind how much Nasser epitomised pan-Arab hope in the heart of all Arab peoples. He inspired in them the sense that he was close to them, that they could speak to him at any time and he would answer. Recall that this was long before the internet, when the world relied on snail mail.
Like Toukan, I too was impressed by how the Egyptian leader, despite all his concerns, would respond to the letters he received, even from a ten year old Arab schoolchild. I was reminded of the story my friend Gaber Asfour once told me about how he wrote to Nasser to complain of being passed up for a university appointment despite his qualifications – only for Nasser to rectify the problem at once. Another example was Kamal Al-Menoufi, who wrote to the president to say that his academic stipend had been cut off despite his good grades. In this case, Nasser had the office of the presidency cover Al-Menoufi’s fees until his stipend was reinstated, after which Al-Menoufi went on to become dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
Former minister of State for Presidential Affairs Sami Sharaf once told me that Nasser took an interest in all the letters he received, whether from Egypt or abroad. At one point, they became so numerous that a single office was not enough to handle them. Mahmoud Al-Gayar headed one office, Abdel-Moneim Gibril another.
I had the opportunity to read some of these letters to Nasser which are in the possession of his daughter, Hoda Abdel-Nasser. All contained a special mark indicating that they had been shown to the president and acted on as per his instructions. For example, one letter indicated that someone had visited the letter writer’s home and found it unpainted and in a miserable condition. Another led to a new law making it possible for a father’s pension to be passed on directly to his children.
This unofficial correspondence between the president and ordinary people is a treasure. They offer a rare glimpse into the human side of the president and also help explain some of the background to his decisions. I hope that the eminent scholar Hoda Abdel-Nasser publishes a book containing these letters, making them available to the general public and providing a detailed record of an interaction between the famous political leader and the Arab people that is a world apart from politics.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly