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I went to confession yesterday, which meant an evening visit to Fr. Carty down at the Jesuit Center in Cleopatra — a pleasant ten minute walk if you take your time.

The Jesuit Center is a relic of the sixties, though it was probably set up on Port Said street a little earlier. The chapel itself though is this monstrosity of seventies architecture that reminds me of terrible South Florida hippy churches with a lot of faded cream stucco and leafy patterns on molded plaster screens that scream “Beach church!” In contrast to this, remarkably, it has probably one of the most beautiful tabernacles I’ve ever seen: a filligree brass box inlaid with turquoises and wrought into four peacocks, which are a common theme in what the Church calls “the particular Oriental churches” — i.e., Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. This particular tabernacle must have come from an older, more awesome church; it’s distinctly out of place in the architectural monstrosity that is the chapel.

Hideous or no, I love the Jesuit Center. It’s unbelievable. The first time I met Fr. Carty, the longest priest in residence, our conversations were entirely in Arabic — it wasn’t until the third or fourth time we met that he asked where I was from, and lo and behold: the man is from South Boston. His accent has since faded, considering how he’s been living in the Middle East for thirty some years. He’s one of four Jesuits keeping the faith on Port Said, and the only one that speaks English, and consequently, my confessor.

Confession here takes a lot longer than it does in the States, where we have regular times and confessional screens (which means that you’re relatively — though not always — anonymous to the priest). No. Face-to-face here.

This also means that there’s about an half-hour lead up to the confessional part, and thanks to Padre’s hardness of hearing, that usually makes for some interesting conversations. Father usually asks about work and my students, but based on the order of his questioning, I somehow suspect that he doesn’t quite catch all I have to say. Even then, I try to throw in an anecdote, which usually leads to him catching only a few words out of a paragraph: “Christians,” “Muslim,” “history,” “controversy,” “classes,” “marriage,” and “difficulty.”

Confident he has heard all, he launches into a long-winded narrative of teaching Muslim students in Iraq in the sixties, living in Somalia, Morocco, Rome, and everywhere (seriously) in Egypt. He tangents on the need for more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, especially in Egypt, and how Catholics are a minority of a minority, throwing a few statistics out there, qualifying the differences between the Orthodox and Catholics, noting how when he first arrived in Egypt all the Jesuits spoke Latin to one another and it was relatively easy to establish a school. Pausing for a moment, he explains that, while he respects Muslims, he doesn’t find their faith to be altogether too challenging because it is not based on the idea of salvation, sacrifice, and imitation of Christ, although, he adds, he has seen Muslim girls praying before a stature of Our Lady, especially during exam week when he was at a Jesuit church in Iraq. The prayer is admirable, and they have their worship, I suppose; my nose? Oh, I fell down outside the tram station and within an instant two young men were carrying me to the nearby Shefa Hospital and they bandaged me up and sent me on my way. It’s just characteristic of the generosity of everyday Egyptians and so, thank goodness I didn’t break anything, especially at my age, so…

You get the idea. The man is a little bit adorable.

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Since leaving Middlebury College, I’ve missed a lot of things. Fall, in particular. I’ve missed the autumn rains and the snow, the smell of wood burning, strolling arm-in-arm with that special someone, the taste of Vermont apples (although there are some pretty tasty ones from Lebanon here). I miss the sunset over the mountains in the West and the sunrise over the mountains in the East. But most of all, I miss the bells.

Fr. Justin Baker, bless his crazy cowboy heart, was the first to start it at St. Mary’s eight years ago: he set the bell tower to ring out the Angelus, and most everyone in Middlebury flipped — in particular, the neighbors, who weren’t thrilled to have a five straight minutes of bells from the largest church in town sounding from mountain to mountain. Despite the complaints, though, the bells remained, and the complaints died down.

The Angelus is a pretty old-school Catholic tradition; it commemorates the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Mother that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and Christ would be born. Pretty much every Catholic Church in existence sounded the Angelus pre-Vatican II, until the practice was declared voluntary and gradually fell out of favor in more diversified communities. I first encountered the Angelus at TAC a couple of summers ago, when (in my more rebellious days) I had no idea what it was. Fr. Beaudin kept up the tradition after FJ left (or perhaps never turned off the timer), and I loved waking up to the sound, even if I just fell back asleep. It was a rather nice punctuation to the day, though I’ve sort of accustomed myself to the absence of church bells since being in Egypt (both times), and acclimatized myself to the adhan here. No church bells. Why? They’re illegal.

To my mind, the Angelus is kind of a toned-down adhan in both form and function. It reminds the believers of prayer, bringing them from the rolling hum of the day and back to the Divine. A few days ago, I went off on my own perceived imbalance of free speech here: today, I’d like to explain my sadness over the silence at six o’clock, twelve, and six again — when no bells sound.

85 and rising

There’s a lot of noise in Egypt. More than most people in America (or the suburbs) are used to. We play our music too loud or make too much noise at a barbeque and the neighbors complain. Here, everyone just turns up the volume that much more. It’s a case study in noise escalation at its finest.

At the base of all these sounds is the adhan; as I’ve noted elsewhere, the five-times-a-day call to prayer, sung out by every mosque in the city. Though saying it’s only five times a day is kind of a misdirection: in reality there’s an optional prayer (before the pre-dawn one) that gets a kind of “whispered” shout over loudspeakers, and an accompanying iqama — a call to prayer that’s repeated about fifteen minutes or so after the main adhan to signal that the men are lining up in the mosque. That totals to twelve calls to prayer– a grand total of 72 “Allahu akbar”s. Some adhans last a good ten minutes, too, depending on how drawn out the muezzin makes it. And a lot of muezzins draw it out. I once clocked the mosque across the street: the muezzin chanted for nine and a half minutes, largely due to long pauses between phrases.

Objectively speaking, the adhan can be stunningly beautiful; unfortunately, however, most decide to blast it from oversquelching, often back-feeding megaphones that detract from the muezzin’s particular skill. If the volume were perhaps lowered by an eighth on nine-tenths of these speakers, the effect would be (aesthetically) all the more stunning. Cairo’s noise level has been such that, in some areas, it amounts to almost 85 decibels. It got the NY Times’ attention here, anyway. I’m pretty sure there can’t be too much of a practical aspect to it anymore; the only thing there are more of on my street (which is a pretty average Egyptian street) aside from mosques are ahwas, so I don’t think anyone’s going to miss prayers even if the muezzin whispered the adhan. Word would get out, I’m sure.

To my mind, the best prayer calls have been shouted; once, the loudspeaker for Mesgid al-Saddiq (the mosque across from my building) broke, and the muezzin was forced to make the call from the steps of the mosque. It was breathtaking.

Not with a whimper, but a bang

To those not accustomed to living in a Muslim country, let me clarify that Friday is to Muslims what Sunday is to Christians: it’s congregation day. It’s when you dust off the Friday galabiyya and saunter off to the mosque, best prayer-beads in hand. It’s the day where you sit and listen to someone lecture you on your religion and offer you advice — the sermon called the khutba.

Traditionally, the khutba is delivered with a certain amount of “shidda.” Shidda is a word that can describe any number of emotions: passion being the lightest of them, anger and force being the heavier ones. Think of a good hellfire sermon: that’s pretty much the force that you get with a good khutba, but through loudspeakers mounted on the street level, which always metaphorically (and sometimes literally) rattle the windows and shake the shutters. It’s pretty difficult to escape.

I’m pretty used to the Friday sermon — to the point where I can sleep through it or watch movies through it. Yet, every time I’ve complained about this (not frequently) I seem to come under fire, Lord knows why. Yes, I moved to a Muslim country. No, I don’t expect them to stop. But why can’t we ring church bells?

Churches have bells, of course, but only certain churches — like the monastery of Abu Mina in the middle of the desert. And only certain churches are permitted to ring their bells at certain times — like Sacre Coeur on Easter Sunday. They require permission.

“In your face religion”

One of the most outraging articles I’ve ever read was posted some weeks ago on Bikya Masr on the murder of a 60 year-old Copt in Assyut, where sectarian violence is at its worst, and tensions are still quite high between Christians and Muslims. Here’s the part that really got to me:

Permission for churches is controversial in Egypt, where by law the president must give final say in the use of a certain space for religious purposes. Rights groups argue that because the president delegates authority in the matter to local officials, Copts have been forced to use illegal places for worship.

Many Muslims argue that it is not the idea of having Christian places of worship that bother them, it is the manner and place where they are established. Mona, a 62-year-old mother, asked why a church is being built directly in front of a mosque.

“What is the point of that? They [Christians] know that it will create tensions among the population and this sort of in-your-face religion needs to end,” she argued.

Seriously? Do have to describe why Mona’s statement is completely insane?

Now, I’ve been rolling that around for quite some time. I’ve polled people on the subject, in fact, after I cooled down for a while. While there are some exceptions (“What’s the problem with bells? We have the call to prayer.”), they are few and far between. Khalid, one of the folks at the restaurant where I now have my 8 LE dinners also pointed out that shari’a explicitly forbids the building of new churches or the ringing of bells. This is keeping in accordance with such historical examples as the pact of ‘Umar II, which forbid the reconstruction of churches and the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

Hm.

Banning the adhan in Oxford

Fadhila’s often told me how, for the most part, it’s quite the inverse in Great Britain, where the Great Mosque of East London is only allowed to sound three of the five standard calls to prayer. When I asked if the fagr, the pre-dawn prayer, were among them, she laughed at me. No: it wasn’t permitted.

In all fairness, this isn’t acceptable to my mind, either. The issue of the adhan in England, however, poses several problems both socially and politically that the ringing of church bells does not. Dismissing the aesthetic idea (“A minaret is not English” or that the call to prayer is not as “aesthetically pleasing” as the ringing of bells or some other such froo-froo nonsense), there are a number of reasons why the two calls (angelus and adhan) are not the same.

First of all, there is the obvious issue of potential gheto-izing the area surrounding the mosque, forcing non-Muslim residents out and more Muslim residents in. While not a crime against democracy (people will live where they want to live, will they not?), it does seem something of a step backwards — and somewhat self-isolating. This seems to me to be the religious equivalent of immigrants not learning English or failing to integrate fully into an Anglophone society — which is not the point of immigration.

Additionally, there is the problem with the representative slice of the population. The call to prayer is pretty overpowering. But to have a loudspeaker intruding into the lives and homes of a majority non-Muslim population carries the same kind of absurdity to me that removing the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” from a nation of theists does. In a democracy, the majority rules. In Oxford, perhaps Muslims should turn down their loudspeakers just a little. Such a thing is neighborly.

But the situation in Great Britain is vastly different than the situation here in Egypt. They vary in that Britain hasn’t forbid the construction of mosques. The city of Oxford didn’t tell people to take their prayers inside and not be visible. Bishops are advocating for them. People are saying yes and no, but not because they’re Muslims; because they don’t want to be bothered. People in Egypt are used to the noise: the call to prayer rings out regularly, why not add a little more noise? In GB, church bells are less common, and you’re lucky to get the Angelus from the local traditionalist Catholic parish: you want to throw in something really, really, really noisy into a neighborhood not used to it? I’ll give you Fr. Justin’s number.

Furthermore, official government policy doesn’t back the Christian majority and lag for periods of twenty years when it comes to a building permit. But Egypt does. That despite the claims to free practice of religion, Copts and Catholics and Protestants can’t ring church bells. They can’t repair outer walls. Hell, they can’t even install a toilet.

Reciprocity

I want to move to close with a few thoughts on reciprocity. In the course of bouncing all over the internet for some support, I managed to find this, written by a pretty conservative Brit (I think?) that hits on quite a few good points — though I don’t agree with him entirely, or even at all, on some things (in particular, I don’t like his “antijihadi rhetoric,” which strikes me as ignorant) — but there are a few good hits in the highlights:

In Mecca, churches are illegal. The Bible and the cross are illegal. Priests are illegal. Preaching Christianity and other faiths is punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. Converting to Christianity or another faith is punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. In short, the heartland of Islam is one of the most appalling hellholes of religious intolerance in the world today.

[…]

The king of Saudi Arabia has announced that he is ready to support the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Moscow, a city with only four mosques for its more than two million Muslims. In response and probably to block this, Orthodox Christians in Russia have called for opening a church in Saudi Arabia.

After the Saudi offer was reported, three Russian Orthodox groups — the Moscow section of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, the Radonezh Society, and the Byzantine Club — released an open letter to Saudi King Abdullah suggesting that there should be another mosque in Moscow only after a Russian Orthodox church was opened in Mecca.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Toran, the head of the Papal Council on Inter-religious Dialogue, agrees: “If Muslims consider it correct to have a large and beautiful mosque in Rome, then it is equally correct for Christians to have a church in Riyadh.”

The British writer Adrian Morgan raises the same point:

Yet when one sees the number of mosques being erected in Britain, often with money from Saudi Arabia, I wonder why no Far Left individual raises the question of hypocrisy. Saudi Arabia funds the export of Islam around the world (even to Nepal), yet prevents any Bibles from being brought into their kingdom. No churches are allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, and migrant workers who hold unofficial Christian services have been jailed.

[…]

It’s probably better to look at it like a free trade issue. If a country is dumping its religion into other countries while prohibiting the entry of other religions into its own country, then sanctions and punitive tariffs must be applied to break down those unfair barriers. The restrictions on muslims under such sanctions would not be absolute. For example, the moratorium on mosque building can be lifted at any time by allowing free building of churches in Mecca.

Road sign denoting different roads for Muslims and non-Muslims in Saudi when transiting through Mecca

While I applaud these insights, Centurean2 conflates the idea of Saudi Arabia with Islam: that Islam is a politically entity that ideologically and religiously centers in Mecca. And while this is true to an extent (of course, with the hajj, Mecca and Medina are revered sites in Islam), the Saudis speak no more for a giant, overarching Islam than the President of the United States speaks for a giant, overarching Christianity. The significant difference being, however, that Saudi Arabia is a self-proclaimed theocracy, rather than a carefully defined democracy that has ambitions of secularism; Saudi’s adherence to a strict version os shari’a law comes off as pretty blatantly a violation of human rights. Saudi quite loudly claims to be a perfect shari’i government, not a perfect democracy. While I make no claims that any Western democracy is perfect in its practice of being blind to religion, it at least aspires to it, whereas the KSA doesn’t. And I suppose there is something strangely honest in that kind of human rights violation.

My point is that, if you’re going to call yourself a republic, or a democracy, you’d better shape up to the name. Britain better do it by letting the adhan ring out or, following the example of France, banning ALL religion (that’s hyperbole). And Egypt should do it by letting the bells ring.

And on earth, peace, and goodwill toward men

Back to bells.

Three weeks ago, around sunset, I was writing something long forgotten about when suddenly, my ears perked up. Three strikes on a distant bells. A pause. Three strikes again. What was it? Why did that feel so familiar?

The Angelus! Someone was ringing the Angelus!

I jumped up and burst into Tom’s room and onto the balcony, Tom looking up from his bed.

“Bells!” I cried. “They’re ringing bells! There’s a church ringing out the Angelus!”

Onto the balcony, and the sound continued. Three strikes. It had to be it! Where was it coming from? Cleopatra? The Jesuit Center? The church in Ibrahimiyya? I had no idea; and why tonight, why were they sounding them tonight?

I was ecstatic. It was like listening to the voice of someone long lost.

“What’s an angelus?” Tom asked. And as I turned to him to explain, the adhan drowned bells and explanation out.

As we turned to go inside where we could talk, I whispered a Hail Mary. At least that can’t be taken away.

And I suppose absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I haven’t heard them since.

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