The first Sudanese nun enslaved then emancipated to evangelize Africa.
The young woman who became Sister Fortunata Quasce, the first Sudanese nun, was born in “Tongojo, in the Nuba Mountains,” southern Kurdufan province, about 1841 and captured by raiders in the vicinity of her village when she was about ten years old . Since the invasion of Muhammad ‘Ali’s army in 1821, the area of the Nuba Mountains had become subject to routine raids as the Egyptian ruler sought slaves for the new army he was establishing. Although by the 1840s state-organized raids had more or less ceased, the Turkiyya, as the regime of the Egyptians was called, began asking chiefs and merchants to pay taxes in slaves and other goods. The raids in the Nuba Mountains, an area generally organized along decentralized lines, were frequent and even Nuba mountain chiefs raided each other to help pay for the taxes that the government demanded .
We do not know the name that Fortunata was given by her family nor do we know the names of any of her family members. If she ever disclosed this information to her fellow sisters later in life, it was not remembered. Her name could have been a variant on the name Kwashe/Kwache, since the Italians, who adopted her, tended to preserve at least one of the African names of people who came within their orbit. Little is known about her capture or how she reached the slave market in Cairo but at time of her capture, we can assume she followed the routes that were the well established. It is probable that she was first taken to El Obeid, the chief town of Kurdufan, and thence to the Nile, possibly crossing the Bayuda Desert from al-Matamma to Korti and then by boat downstream to Cairo. There she would either have been sent to the market in the eastern cemetery that was outside the town, near the Qaitbey mausoleum, or to one of the private wakalas (market buildings/caravanserais) in the center of the city close to the great Khan al-Khalili bazaar. She was given the name Bakhita by the slavers - the name was commonly given to female slaves from the Sudan.
In Cairo, she was purchased by an Italian priest named Geremia da Livorno, who, acting on instructions from Father Niccolo Mazza in Italy, went to the slave market looking for “bright and intelligent looking African children” to buy so that they could be enrolled in the Mazza Institute in Verona. Bakhita was 12 or 13 when she purchased, delivered with manumission papers, transported to Alexandria, and sent across the Mediterranean Sea with a group of 10 African children and 18 youths .
There was a long tradition of redeeming slaves (riscatto) in Italy. It first started during the period of the wars with the Ottoman empire and later the Barbary Coast pirates when many Europeans needed to be ransomed. As early as the seventeenth century, Franciscan missionaries in northeast Africa (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) were bringing African ex-slaves to Rome to be educated . This idea was re-envisaged by Niccolo Olivieri, an Italian priest, in the nineteenth century as part of the Christian expansionist movement. It became popular because many Italian missionaries who had gone to the Sudan to evangelize Africans died from tropical illnesses, and it was realized that it would be more effective if Africans were trained to carry out this work. Olivieri inspired Mazza to free enslaved Africans and educate them in Europe, becoming the raw recruits for a new campaign to evangelize “Africa by Africans.” Bakhita was one of many African girls whose fate meshed with the Catholic mission effort and thus were rescued from what would well have been a lifetime of household domestic drudgery in Egypt .
Bakhita’s Italian name, Fortunata, did not come from her godmother, the common Catholic practice, whose name was Maria Falezza, but may well have derived from her slave name, which also means “luck.” Once she was taken to Verona, she spent the next eleven years at the Istituto Mazza learning Arabic and Italian, Christian doctrine (the catechism) and notions of geography, arithmetic, history, pharmacy and medicine, and, especially, women’s work - sewing, embroidery, darning, and needlework. There were at least twelve others African girls at the Institute, along with some 300 poor Italian girls who were also being trained (separately) in women’s work. The Africans’ progress was monitored closely by a new addition to the Institute, Daniel Comboni, who became the leading force in the evangelization of Africa in the following decades and a major player in Bakhita’s new life. It was Comboni who revitalized the mission to Central Africa, placing great value on the potential contributions of the African girls and boys being trained in Verona and in several other places in Europe, including Naples and Lujbjana (Slovenia).
Comboni’s letters from the 1860s to supporters and benefactors in Germany and elsewhere provide valuable reports on the progress of the girls’ education. Of the twelve at Verona, Fortunata was not then singled out for exceptional praise. She was older than most of the girls, and the school authorities generally bemoaned what they viewed as a marked decline in the older girls’ willingness to be led. In 1863, when Bakhita would have been 22, Comboni wrote, “Our adult African girls, while they are very good and pious, no longer possess the docility that they had as youngsters. One must direct them with more perspicacity and let some of their faults pass by. For the moment, we are content with their progress” . One wonders what was the docility that Bakhita failed to display.
The young Africans were given a special name in Italian, moretta / moretto, perhaps suggesting a higher degree of civilization than Africana / Africano or nera / nero, but certainly a distinction from ordinary Africans. In all the literature of the period dealing with the educated graduates of the Italian schools, whether in Verona or elsewhere in Europe, these terms were used. Even after they returned to the Sudan, moretta / moretto continued to be applied to these adepts, regardless of whether or not they were in the mission.
An extraordinary event occurred in 1867 when the young women were invited to meet with Pope Pius IX at the Vatican. The ambitious Comboni arranged for the meeting and carefully guided the conversation. They were outfitted in pretty dresses and shawls and their heads were adorned with what, from the photograph taken of the meeting, look like gaily-colored turbans. The pope was delighted with them and while he commented on the blackness of one girl and the bucked teeth of another, to Bakhita he merely asked if she could embroider, sew, darn and knit - to which she responded with a modest “yes.” Several of the girls were overpowered by the occasion, and one of them had to be excused to be sick, and therefore did not appear in the group photograph .
Comboni’s scheme was to establish a bridgehead to Central Africa for his mission in Cairo, and then move on to Khartoum, El Obeid and elsewhere in the Sudan and the heart of the continent as soon as feasible. In November 1867 he took sixteen of the educated African young women to Cairo to open the first school which would served as the mission headquarters. It was called Institute of the Blacks (Istituto di neri), and was first located in Old Cairo in a former Maronite convent, then later in the new part of Cairo called Ismailia, and then finally (1887-88) to the island of Zamalek, during the reign of Khedive Tawfiq. Bakhita, with eleven years of training behind her, was one of the teachers. The institute’s purpose was to train African students so that they could help with the evangelization of the Sudan. The students tended to be poor freed slaves from the city, who had nowhere else to turn to for food and shelter; others were apparently purchased from local slave dealers. The morette served along side the white mothers as teachers and catechists. “They took special care of the sick, and offered to watch over them and tend to them, while at the same time initiating them into the true faith,” said one of the sisters . Baur, in summing up the achievements of Comboni’s work, writes about the Istituto di neri how “remarkable when one considers its short existence was the indigenous output of the Cairo training center: two priests, some well-trained catechists, and a greater number of women teacher, the latter bring a unique phenomena in the Catholic missions of the time” . One of those teachers was Bakhita Kwashe.
This was beginning of Bakhita’s new life to evangelize Africans by dent of her own life, using herself as a model that her fellow Sudanese could accept and follow. She remained in Cairo for six years and then was transferred to Khartoum in 1873 - a major step for the mission - and in 1873 to El Obeid, when that mission was opened.
In a report dated 1869 Comboni identified the outstanding adepts, and this time Bakhita was ranked as “outstanding” (grassetta). Others included Caterina Zenab, Giustina Bahr al-Nil, and Domitilla Bakhita .
Comboni re-established the Central Africa Mission in Khartoum in 1872, and he proceeded there by caravan with a group of Italian sisters and brothers and their black adepts, both male and female; the journey took 99 days. The mission established a school and a garden within the city and although slave trading was officially prohibited, it continued to redeem slaves from markets and slavers. At that time, about half the population of the city consisted of slaves. Several children who later became important members of the mission joined the Comboni family at this time. Some appear among the morette who were sent to El Obeid with Bakhita Kwashe. Most seem not to have taken religious orders and left the order once they married. Licurgo Santoni, an Italian who served in the Egyptian postal service in the latter part of the 19th century and was a great friend of the Combonis, visited Khartoum and observed the converts of the mission when he went to services. “On Sunday mornings, you would see these blacks, the husband and his wife, dressed in washed clothing in the European style, returning to the Mission to hear mass with devotion, proud of finding themselves free while viewing outside their compatriots who are scarcely-dressed and filthy slaves” .
Of the group educated in Europe, two were selected by Comboni to open the new mission station in El Obeid, and in 1873 they left Khartoum after only a short stay. They were Bakhita Kwashe and Domitilla Bakhita, a Dinka from the Madi (Madin?) ethnic group  who was five years younger than Bakhita when she was taken to Verona. For Comboni, this was an emotional moment because, with the African women working with him, he was finally able to realize his dream of converting “Africa through Africans.” Though she lacked the humility necessary for becoming a nun
- a qualification that Bakhita Kwashe obviously possessed
- Domitilla nevertheless stayed with the Combonis until her death in Cairo in 1921 .
The opening of a new missionary station at a government outpost in the Nuba Mountains called Dilling in 1875 should have been the ultimate calling for Bakhita, herself a Nuba woman. Grave, dignified and inwardly thinking, she must have embraced the idea of returning to her native land as the logical consequence of her special training. However, for reasons not known from the literature but possibly under the influence of Father Daniel Comboni who was visiting El Obeid or through her friendships with several of the Comboni female religious order called the Pious Mothers of Nigrizia (or sometimes Africa) that had been founded in 1872, she decided to pledge herself to the order and, in 1879 began the two years of prayer, contemplation, and preparation that was required for nuns to be confirmed into sisterhood. Thus she remained in El Obeid and never took the civilizing mission to the Nuba people. In 1881, her preparation was completed and on Easter Sunday of that year she became a sister - “Fortunata Quasce” - the only one among all the Africans sent to Europe during this century to join the Pious Mothers of Africa.
A photograph of her taken in a nun’s habit about this time shows her with a calm but serious expression, grave almost sad eyes, lacking facial cicatrices, and holding a (prayer?) book. A copy of a letter she wrote to Comboni in 1880 displays a fine copperplate hand. Yet she left behind few written records, thus we scarcely know her inner thoughts. A “notebook” attributed to her was probably drawn from recollections of her after her death by someone else. It tends to be a straightforward narrative. There can be little doubt that as an African woman, she must have presented a powerful role model to the Sudanese girls with whom she came into contact .
One of these girls was a young woman from the Azande tribe given the name Bianca Lemuna because she was an albino. She had been enslaved and brought to Shakka, a market in southern Darfur, and eventually fell in the hands of Gen. Gordon, who gave her to the Catholic mission in El Obeid. She worked in the kitchen of the mission when she wasn’t in class and at prayers. Bakhita was her teacher. In a letter describing Bianca to his patrons in Europe, Comboni mentioned an incident at the mission in which Bakhita offered to share her bread with Bianca. Since the sisters’ bread was made of white flour and the bread of the Africans at the mission was not, she always refused the offer. Bakhita’s willingness to include her in the community may suggest the nature of her role in the mission’s work .
The mission attracted many adherents who attended the schools of the sisters but the confrontation building in the Sudan against the Turkiyya led by Muhammad Ahmad who called himself the Mahdi could not be stopped and it worked against them. The El Obeid and Dilling stations fell to the Mahdists. Bakhita was imprisoned. The missionaries in Khartoum withdrew to Cairo, taking about 100 Christian converts and their families with them. Although this period is also not well recorded it appears that Bakhita’s steadfastness in religious beliefs was noticed even by the Mahdi’s successor, Khalifa Abdallahi Ta’isha. Her refusal to become Muslim obviously made life difficult for her and may have contributed to the decision that she should accompany Sister Maria Caprini in escaping from Omdurman - a highly dangerous undertaking. Bakhita being Sudanese and therefore assumed to be a slave was doubtless a factor in her favor since it would provide a cover for Sister Maria posing as a Muslim lady. Their escape was successful and they arrived back in Aswan and then Cairo in 1885. Bakhita returned to teaching at the Institute for the Blacks .
The Comboni missionaries who had fled Khartoum with their Sudanese converts found they could not be accommodated in the mission property in central Cairo. Moreover, the emancipation of slaves was in full bloom and the Combonis’ traditional relief work among black Africans made them a natural haven for poor, sick, and unemployed former slaves. By a piece of luck, they secured a tract of land from Khedive Tawfiq on the island of Zamalek that was large enough to support a substantial community, with enough land on which to construct housing for the priests, nuns, and adepts and land that could be tilled. The new property was called the Colonia Antischiavista Leone XIII after the Catholic Pope. Bakhita worked in this new home teaching catechism. A picture of her on Gazira (or Ghesira, as it was spelled) surrounded by the group of the sisters and their Sudanese charges survives. Her colleagues, most of whom were Italian, also included her old comrade from Verona, Khartoum and El Obeid, Domitilla Bakhita. The period she spent at the Institute was considered “serene.” 
When a new Comboni school was opened in Aswan in 1896, she was appointed a member of the teaching staff. The new school being located in Aswan and not Shallal, the village further south that had numerous outlying villages inhabited by Sudanese refugees, soldiers and their wives and children, most of the students in the new school were children of Egyptians. In 1897 some of them protested to the school authorities about the suitability of an African woman teaching their children, and they began taking them out and placing them in American mission schools where instruction was primarily by white women. Bakhita was reassigned back to Cairo in 1898, and though she protested to the Vicar about what happened, she remained at the Colonia Antischiavista on Zamalek. She died a year later in 1899. 
Hers was a life that once promised great personal fulfillment, yet ended in disillusionment and sadness brought upon by the political turmoil in Central Africa and by social circumstances in Egypt. Her life is now taught as a symbol of the struggle that religious Africans may face as they confront fundamentalism and social prejudice.
The birthplace is mentioned in Daniel Comboni’s letter to the president of the Society of Cologne, 4 October 1863 (giving a list of the students at the Verona school http://www.comboni.net/index.php?Lingua=EN&CodScritto=105&s=1), but I have been unable to locate it on a map; the principal source on the life of Fortunata is Maria Vidale, Fortunata Quasce: Pia Prima Madre della Nigrizia Africana, Archivio Madri Nigrizia, 9 (2005); see also Elisa Kidane, “Fortunata Quasce: Pietra Miliare di un Lungo Percorco,” in Spiritualita Comboniana: Al Femminile, Rome: Archivio Madri Nigrizia, 6 (2003).
Janet J. Ewald, Soldiers, Traders, and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 166-70; Roland Stevenson, The Nuba Peoples of Kordofan Province, Khartoum: Graduate College Publications, Monograph 7, University of Khartoum, 1984, 41-49.
Vidale, 17; Hans Werner Debrunner, Presence and Prestige: Africans in Europe: A History of Africans in Europe before 1918, Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 1979, 326.
Debrunner, 323; the movement also developed in France about this time: see Emile Leguay, Notice sur l’oeuvre de rachat des esclaves (Paris, 1847), and William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530-1880, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980, 269.
Other Africans were redeemed by both religious and non-religious Europeans during the decades 1820-1860 and were launched on unexpected life-paths. Ex-patriots living in Egypt not-uncommonly purchased slaves as domestic help or for sexual services, among whom:
Dr. Dussap, a member of the French expeditionary force in 1798 who remained in Egypt after the French departed, purchased a Sudanese woman named Halima by whom he had two children: Jacques Tagher, “Le Docteur Dussap, Un francais ‘original’ d’Egypte,” Cahiers d’histoire egyptienne, 4, 4 (May 1951), 342-46, quoted in George Michael La Rue, “A Generation of African Slave Women in Egypt, from ca. 1820 to the Plague Epidemic of 1834-35,” p. 8 in Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers and Joseph C. Miller (eds.), Women and Slavery: Volume One: Africa and the Western Indian Ocean Island, Athens. Ohio: Ohio University Press, forthcoming;
‘Ali “the Orphan of Cordofan,” was purchased by Dr. William Holt Yates, a member of the British Royal College of Physicians, while traveling in Upper Egypt in the 1830s: G. Michael La Rue, “The Brief Life of ‘Ali, the Orphan of Kordofan,” paper presented at the Avignon Conference on Slavery and Unfree Labour: Children and Slavery, 20-22 May 2004;
The British consul and well-known merchant of Alexandria Robert Thurnburn asked his brother-in-law to purchase Darfur-born “Selim” in Cairo in 1836 and send him to Alexandria: James McCarthy, Selim Agha: A Slave’s Odyssey, Edinburgh, Luath Press Limited, 2006;
Edward Lane and Robert Hay used a Scottish convert to Islam to negotiate the purchase of Greek female slaves (who later became their wives): Jason Thompson, “Osman Effendi: A Scottish Convert to Islam in Early Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Historians in Cairo: Essays in Honor of George Scanlon, edited by Jill Edwards, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002, 87;
The wealthy German merchant Ludwig Muller of Alexandria purchased an Ethiopian slave by whom he had a daughter named “Bamba,” later the Maharani Dulip Singh (1848-1886): on Bamba Muller, later wife of Maharajah Dulip Singh, http://www.4dw.net/royalark/India4/lahore4.htm (accessed 11/2/2006); “Bamba Muller,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography, http://www.dacb.org/stories/egypt/bamba.html (accessed 2/07/2007);
Linant de Bellefonds, the French engineer working for Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha purchased an Ethiopian woman named Za’faran (“Saffron”) by whom he had several children: Richard Hill, A Biographical Dictionary of the Sudan, 2nd edition, London: Frank Cass, 1967, “Linant de Bellefonds,” 213; she was named Za’faran al-Habashiyya, known as “Saffron Ester Linant de Bellefonds” in her marriage document: Gaston Wiet, “Petits papiers du consulat de France au Caire,” Orient, 8 (1958), 79-108;
An Italian purchased in 1836 a Chadian named “Said Abdallah,” who later became a famous model in Europe: Alphonse Castaing, “Souvenirs d’un indigene de la Nigritie,” Revue orientale et americaine, Paris, 3eme serie (1860), 141-55; on his career as a model, Barbara Larson, “The Artist as Ethnographer: Charles Cordier and Race in the Mid-Nineteenth Century France,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 87, 2005, review of Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor by Laure de Margarie and Edouard Papet, New York: Harry Abrams, 2004;
Sulayman al-Nubi aka Michele Amatore, probably from the Nuba Mountains, purchased by another Italian in Cairo and taken to Italy, joined the Piedmontese army and enjoyed a distinguished military career: “Sulaiman il moro,” http://digilander.libero.it/fiammecremisi/biografie/sulimanbio.htm) (accessed 11/2/2006).
The redemption process in Egypt may have come to an end in 1856 when slave trading was officially banned by Sa’id Pasha, although the ruler’s various orders regarding the suppression of the trade largely went unheeded and indeed the trade in slaves increased dramatically in the Sudan during his reign (Gabriel Baer, “Slavery and Its Abolition,” in his Studies in the Social History of Modern Egypt, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, 177; Imad Hilal, al-Raqiq fi Masr fi’l-qarn al-tasi ashr (Cairo: Dar al-Arabi, 1999), 342-47). In 1861, several Africans were enrolled in an institute outside Naples (Debrunner, 326). Lucie Duff Gordon, a well-connected Englishwoman living in Luxor during the middle of the 1860s, was often sent slaves by Egyptian and British friends, sometimes for safekeeping while they were away, sometimes for an interval before being sold again in Cairo or elsewhere, sometimes simply because she took pity on them, taking them in as others might stray pets (Lucie Duff Gordon, Letters from Egypt 3rd edition, London, Macmillan, 1865: “Darfoor” begs her to take in two: April 28, 1868, p. 173; Khayr was eventually sold and sent to Cairo: 327-28; 350; Last Letters from Egypt, London, Macmillan, 1875: Mabruk was lent by William Gifford Palgrave, the traveler and diplomat: July 10, 1866, 44).
Daniel Comboni to the President of the Cologne Society for the Aid of Poor Blacks, October 4, 1863, available on the www.comboni.org website, http://www.comboni.net/index.php?Lingua=FR&CodScritto=105, para 759 (accessed 11/02/2006).
Comboni to the President of the Cologne Society, December 27, 1867, http://www.comboni.org/index.php?ca=10008&CodScritto=229), paras 1541-49 (accessed 11/02/2006).
Kidane, 235. Not all of the Africans had been educated in Verona. One of them, called Amalia Amadu, was born in Bornu (Nigeria), traveled to Cairo via the Libyan desert, and was purchased eventually by a Christian who turned her over to Olivieri. She was eventually sent to a convent in Bavaria for training before returning to Egypt. Her biography is found in Comboni’s 1868 Report to the Cologne Society dated December: http://www.comboni.org/index.php?ca=10008&CodScritto=289, paras 1829-1832 (accessed 11/11/06).
John Bauer, 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa, Nairobi, Pauline’s Publications Africa, 1994, 178.
We know very little about Bahr al-Nil. Like Bakhita, she is said to have been a Nuba from Jabal Nuba (village of Libi), and she was bought by Geremia da Livorno when she was aged 13 and sent to Europe at the same time as Bakhita; thus she would have been among the older morette (Leonio Bano, “Morette e moretti educati in Europa e ritornati in Africa,” Archivio comboniano, 18:1 ), but she bore the tribal scarifications of a member of the Shilluk (Leonie Bano, Mezzo Secolo di Storia Sudanese (1842-1898) dall’Archivio parrocchiale di Khartum, Editrice Missionaria Italiana: Bologna, 1976, p. 357, #340; p. 367, #367. Of Zaynab (Caterina Zenab), somewhat more information is available, and although Comboni considered her a “great, able missionary,” she apparently left missionary work to marry, first to an Italian carpenter, then to Ernst Marno, the German traveler (Bano, “Morette,” 195; on her appearance before the King of Bavaria: http://www.comboni.net/index.php?Lingua=FR&ca=10008&CodScritto=229&s=1; considered a “great, able missionary” http://www.comboni.net/index.php?Lingua=PT&ca=10073&CodNews=100234; on her marriages: Hill, Biographical Dictionary. “Marno Bey, Ernst,” 232-33; Richard Hill and Paul Santi (eds.), Europeans in the Sudan, Oxford, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1980), 24; La Nigrizia (publication of the Comboni Missionary organization), vol. 1 (1883), 152; Bano, Mezzo secolo, p. 65, #37; for a photograph of her, possibly taken at the time of her meeting with the Pope in 1867, Francesco Morlang, Missione in Africa Centrale, Diario 1855-1863, trans. by O. Huber and V. Dellagiacoma, with the collaboration of G. Vantini, A. Nebel, and L. Bano, introd. by Richard Hill, Bologna: Editrice Nigrizia, 1973, facing 232.
Licurgo Santoni, Alto Egitto e Nubia, Memorie di Licurgo Santoni (1863-1898), Roma: Modes and Mendel, 1905, 370.
On the Madin, or Thain Dinka, see Stephanie Beswick, Sudan’s Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in South Sudan, Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004, 62.
Bano, Mezzo secolo, p. 399 #463; Maria Vidale, ed., Vittoria Paganini (Dagli scritti di), Archivio Madri Nigrizia 7: March 2004, 50; Vidale, Fortunata, 149-156.
The photograph of Bakhita: frontispiece, Vidale, Fortunata; also of her and Sr. Maria Caprini after their escape from the Mahdists in 1885, 121; on the “Notebook of Fortunata Quasce” or “Quaderno,” Vidale, Fortunata, 51. It may have been written by one of the missionaries, possibly Stanislao Carcereri, who arrived, as Vidale comments, for the first time in a country totally strange to him and who saw everything through very western eyes; interestingly, he was not a Comboni missionary but was with the Carmelian Order that eventually disagreed with Comboni’s operations in Dilling and withdrew from the Sudan: Hill, Biographical Dictionary, “Carcereri, Stanislao,” 96.
Daniel Comboni, Letters, #1065, Report on Bianca Lemuna, dated 8 May 1881: http://www.comboni.org/index.php?ca=10008&CodScritto=1065 (downloaded 11/3/2006).
Vidale, Fortunata Quasce, 108-118.
Vidale, Fortunata Quasce, 124-27.
Vidale, Fortunata Quasce, 129-140.
- All photos are from Vidale, Fortunata Quasce.
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This article, received in 2007, was written by Dr. Terence Walz, Research Fellow, American University in Cairo.