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Sorry, people. It’s been an odd couple of weeks.

I confess, I feel a little odd writing this in American environs. A blog about an amateur orientalist’s adventures in Egypt – and misadventures teaching – should best be written by the one in the field. Otherwise, it ends up becoming a mirror for memory, and though I’m all about that, I’m not sure this blog should be about that.

Fear not, gentle readers, I do have a number of things to share with you, however. And this duck’s not about to stop writing anytime soon.

Zabaleen. Wow.

It’s not for the faint of heart. After reading a few articles online, I made up my mind to go, if only for the reason that I’d regret it enormously afterwards.

Interesting cab ride

I’ve written on-and-off about Medinat al-Zabaliyya for the past few months – it’s been a source of continuous fascination for me since I arrived, and it’s perhaps a little appropriate that it should be the last thing I visit.

I left around noon from Midan Falaky, catching a white cab that had AC, and about halfway through the ride, the driver (a large-ish man named Abdul-Rahman)  started up with the usual friendly chit-chat (You speak Arabic well, what’s your name, etc. etc.). I’ve gotten particularly evasive with the nationality question and usually duck it with shopowners by telling them to guess where they think I’m from. Most common answer: Germany. It’s obviously the blonde hair, but that usually gives me a chance to tell them that my grandmother would get mad (she’s of Polish stock).

I explain this because I usually find this kind of banter back-and forth usually quite useful. I’ve found that Egyptians tend to bristle or become less receptive  to conversation (or bargaining) when approached in a no-nonsense manner. They clam up, and if you attempt levity, pleasantries work wonders. I suppose the same is pretty much true stateside, but in Egypt, it’s triply so. It’s not uncommon to be offered tea, no frills, no strings attached. It’s just the hospitality gene kicking in.

In fact, Tammam once made a few suggestions for bargaining in the souk that I’ve taken to particular heart: among them, the recommendation to smile and laugh and try to joke has been the most helpful. Once you get someone joking, things tend to move a little quicker, a little smoother than you would expect. Ask about their family, their children – you’ll get pictures and they’ll want to see yours. People want to know where you’re going, where you’re coming from, and although I’ve found this occasionally annoying, I’ve used it far too much myself to get to know people better. It doesn’t really pay to get irritated at these things; rather, if you work with it, I think the culture has its own rewards.

I digress.

The point of bantering really relaxes things and allows the car ride to go a little faster – even knock down the fare a bit (in a black cab), or at least avoid the shouting match at the end of the ride. Things were going rather well until we got to the part where I actually say, “No, my name is Michael, and I’m a teacher, and American.”

“I hate Americans.”

No joke. Guy really said it. Expression changed, face fell, the works. Smile turned to dust.

“Really?”

Yep. He hated them.

Actually, what my recent acquaintance really hated were the Zionist establishments that America perpetuated (his words, not mine). Abdul-Rahman proceeded to lecture me for the next twenty minutes about how Americans had a corrupt government that was (obviously) headed by the Jews and an international Jewish conspiracy, and by they way, you’re not Jewish, are you?

Anti-Semitism lives, people.

At the end of this, I pointed out something.

“Do you like Hosni Mubarak?”

“What?”

“I mean, do you think Mubarak is a good president? That there’s no corruption in the present government?”

“Of course there’s corruption.”

“So is it fair if I assume that you’re a thief if your president is ibn siteen kalb (the son of sixty dogs, but for colloquial purposes, let’s say son of a bitch)?

He laughed.

“No, of course not. There’s a big difference between governments and people.”

“Well, Mister Abdul-Rahman, a suggestion: don’t think that I’m a bastard just because you think my government’s a7a (absolute shit).”

He laughed, and the matter was closed. He even knocked down the fare on the meter at the end.

I’ll have more to say on Zionism, soon: I’ve been working on a post about it at the behest of my students.

A view of the city from the gates of the monastery

The City of Garbage

The district of Zabaliyya is just at the foot of Muqattam: you ask for awal Mu5attam to get there. You wind your way around the old Ayyubid and Fatimid walls, get a pretty sweeping view of the southern City of the Dead, and plunge headlong into the blistering heat of the highway, above which hovers the giant magnifying glass of dust that turns the sky into the gray of hot metal.

You smell it before you see it.

It’s that sickeningly sweet smell: the acrid stench of burning garbage, smoky and dry , yet soaked with organic matter and decay. It feels hot and cool, and it’s worst in the streets you wind through, which haven’t yet dried on account of the alleyway shadows keeping the sun out and the roads still wet.

Entrance is through a large gate that proclaims the area name and the “company” that runs it, and the district itself has very much the feel of a village. Streets are narrow, not from the buildings being close together, but the garbage being stacked up in giant piles, compressed and bundled together in large plastic sheets. Trucks are coming and going, and there are people everywhere.

Men in tattoos go sleeveless, shirtless, some dressed normally, but with a single sleeve up. They show sometimes remarkable ink art – but mainly crude executions of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, or crosses. Graffiti, like everywhere in Egypt, abounds – but it takes you a moment to understand why it’s strange: because there are no spray painted “No god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger,” no stylized “Allahs” written in all manner of calligraphy, no “BismilLah ma sha5 Allah” (In the Name of God, What God Wills, a common phrase written above doorposts against the Evil Eye). Instead, you have Biblical injunctions, often with well-translated equivalents in English or French, but mainly just the Arabic for:

I can do anything through Him who strengthens me.

Have mercy on Your Children, oh Lord!

Pray for us, Blessed Virgin Mother.

Christ is Risen!

Abdul-Rahman takes the third alley to the right, which is a way down, and the monastery of St. Simon the Tanner announces itself through a large, colorful sign on the corner. We work our way up the hill. The cab stalls, and we rollick backwards, almost into a house, but start up again. Abdul-Rahman is a glob of curses as we inch up the hill, which is a little steep.

And suddenly, green.

Trees and gardens and the clean desert walls of sandstone. We are against the hills of the outer city. We climb up, stop at the gates, and the guard takes one look at me, and waves us on.

Stadium seats for Jesus! A view from the largest church at altar-level. Seats thirty thousand. Masses every week.

A Short Catechism

I don't buy this story: while excavating the present-day church, workers uncovered the "miraculous" carving of the Blessed Mother and Jesus. Adl (and apparently the monks) claim it has never been touched by human hands except to clean it. I'm not biting, but mainly because I like my miracles approved by Papal investigations and Vatican councils -- it's the Catholic in me.

The monastery isn’t as nearly as old as you want it to be, but the legends surrounding it date back years.

Meet the saint. According to Adl, he was entirely decomposed -- except for the face, which was perfectly intact.

Named for St. Simon the Tanner (or the Shoemaker, which tends to be the more affectionate name) the site of the current construction dates back to the original saint himself, who lived in and around Muqattam as a hermit, fixing shoes for support himself. Local lore has it that when a not unattractive young Copt came to have her shoes fixed, she hiked up her skirts a little too high (Adl said it was up to her thighs) in the process of removing her sandals. Naturally, the saint was scandalized, and (like any good monk), promptly went and plucked his right eye out. (Recall, if you will, the scriptural injunction of Matthew 5:29 that “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell”). A bit much.

Simon the Shoemaker and the woman who would lead him astray. Note the captions carved in English as well. It struck me as a little pandering to the wandering aganab.

The most neatly organized garbage you've ever seen. I swear, it's more organized (though not necessarily cleaner!) than most places in Egypt.

I was shown around by a gallabiyya-clad, portly fellow named Adl, who spoke incredibly clearly for using so many religious terms. He also liked to exclaim “Hallelujah!” at random points in his story, and cross himself rather excessively. But he made for a good story-teller.

The main church of Simon the Tanner is enormous: it has claims to being the largest church in the Middle East (hard to believe) and regularly seats over twenty thousand. The relics of the saint are placed just to the right of the altar-screen, and rock carvings (actually quite tasteful) abound above and below and everywhere of the miracles of the Mountain and the story of the Resurrection of Christ.

Visit the well-written website (!) here: http://cavechurch.com/home/index.asp

No, seriously, visit it.

There’s a great section about how Muqattam (which translates roughly as “cut up” or “broken”) got its name: the Copts claim it was due to a tenth-century miracle worked out by the dynamic duo of the Coptic Pope and the ancient saint at the challenge of the then-current wacky caliph. Copts believe that Simon the Tanner literally “moved the mountain” from the center of the city, dribbled it (like, bounced it up and down so that the sun was visible from underneath it), and dropped it where it is presently. No joke.

One of the awesomely-underground cave-churches in the side of the mountain. No shoes, and odd seating.

Thanks to a growing congregation, additional side-churches have been carved into the rock surrounding, totaling in five churches and a few monastic little chapels. Some are completely underground.

But talk about contrast.

crazy/beautiful just inside the gates

You walk out of the monastery gates, and the clean, but dusty environs of the well-funded cloister contrasts sharply with the mess of Zabaliyya. It’s dirty, but not disorganized. Remarkably. And there are strange aspects: like walls build out of crates, streets made not out of gravel, but crushed green glass, and people going barefoot. Actually, I was also surprised to see all the gold: I mean there was bling like whoa. Women had giant medals of Jesus (big, gaudy, gansta-type medals) from thick chains, and men wore big gold rings (I should point out that the wearing of jewelry by men — for the most part – especially of gold jewelry, is largely considered haram by most Muslims). And there were quite a few dolled-up girls, hair hanging out everywhere. But largely, the amount of gold was shocking, even on the people that looked like they were working.

And man, I have never been more self-conscious about having a camera in my life. How do you take pictures of that? Do we go to garbage dumps in the US and take pictures? Who would want a picture of that?

Part of me is outraged by my own tourist-ness. It’s deliberately making poverty into a kind of bohemian Disneyland. These people are obviously struggling, and if I were in their position, I would have dashed my camera to pieces and slapped my ass. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that, from the outside, the picture and place is still fascinating. It’s the same kind of argument that was posed against the producers of Slumdog Millionaire: you can’t just use poverty to your own artistic or cultural ends. But how do you raise awareness, combat poverty, make other people feel for it? They should already feel for it, but they don’t.

….

I’m a little disgusted at the end of the day, but not necessarily by the quarter. It’s not the stink of the district that makes me more than a little nauseous. It’s the realization that wanted to see something like what I’ve seen, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m walking out. I can’t really describe it as guilt, it’s not pity even: it’s more like heartbreak..

Heartbreak. Even now, weeks later, the cracks are still there.

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Palm Sunday, for the non-messi7in out there, is the commemoration of Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem and is traditionally held the week before Easter. Mass today was a little longer than usual at the crumbling cathedral church of San Katrine (Egypt’s patron saint), where I’ve taken to hearing the Latin rite in French, despite a whirling buzz of incomprehension throughout the hour of so. I usually prep the readings myself and sink into a healthy contemplation of the icons and the actual mystery.

When I say the church is crumbling, I mean it. It’s a beautiful old (or I should say, was a beautiful example) of trompe l’oeil paint — where mouldings and cornices are painted to resemble being carved — and has some pretty impressive statuary and iconography (including a giant, wall-sized oil painting of the saint behind the altar. Incidentally, it’s also the resting place of Victor Emmanuel III, the wartime king of Italy who died in exile in Alexandria during WWII.

Says E.M. Forster: “The saint is without grace in her native city,” which is also true. The cathedral, either through neglect or bad taste or both, has fallen victim to exposed lightbulbs, strings of Christmas lights, large fluorescents, and campy plastic flowers. Couple this with the terrible, terrible singing that the cantor does in abominable French (which even I can reconize), and it’s enough to frighten away most Catholics.

I come most every week out of obligation to the Sunday, but also because it’s the only daytime Mass in the city; most Catholic Masses are at night, and since I teach, this narrows things down a bit to where I can go to church. On an ordinary weekday, the place is sparsely peppered with Frenchified Egyptians — suited or decked to the nines and speaking to any and everyone in French, mainly old people, but some come with youngin’s.

Today, however, was different.

A large group gathered near the rose garden that leads up to the cathedral entrance, in the shade of a few broad oaks, and the introductory rite was read for the procession. There was a choir (kind of) of assorted nuns from all over the city (who were few and wizened, but habited in all kinds of grays and blacks and whites and browns), and they sang in French as the sacristan swayed the censer and we processed in with palm leaves and sprigs of oak and holly.

The Paternoster was said in Latin — and to a familiar tune! — which made my morning, because it’s seldom I get to sing in church these days (pretty much every week the songs are unfamiliar and the generally don’t come with sheet music). Incense and lots of candles.

We even got to ring the bells.

Bells! It was wonderful to hear them ringing as the procession went toward the altar!

As I left, palm leaves in hand, I could hear other bells. On my way to the Corniche, I walked past a group of girls with oak branches, and smiled. They smiled back. As I walked past another group clutching pussywillow branches (Armenians? Greeks?) I received a Kul sena wenta tayyib! (May you be blessed every year!). It was like a secret badge or handshake between Christians.

I felt really proud to be carrying palm leaves today.

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Longest post ever. I assure you, it’s good.

Ever since writing about the Antwerp headscarf ban (mentioned in The Economist some time ago by the wise Charlemagne), I’ve been turning over the ethics of freedom of choice and couple of the more controversial topics concerning Islam. It’s high time that I wrote about them.

Here begins a mini-series of posts. I have no doubt in my mind that what I’m going to say here will very likely make some people angry, but I want you to rest assured: I’m quite open on these subjects, and I’m simply trying to understand how they can be resolved as a function of both principles — both democracy and Islam. I want to be clear: they are not opposing forces. Ideally (and both in their ideal forms), they merge rather nicely. However, to reiterate my dear friend Fadhila’s observation, “Islam is perfect, not Muslims.” The same applies to the American brand of democratic idealism, to Christianity, and any ideology that might be worth naming: those self-same imperfections in the gap are really what make things difficult for all parties.

And so, rather than these being my observations of Islam, these are really my personal observations of Muslims, and a few of the meditations that those interactions.

“You have your religion, and I have mine”

I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic.

I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, I believe in a Trinitarian God and I believe that God, though God (and not needing to do things) has done a number of vastly un-Godly things: like Himself His only Begotten Son so as to provide an appropriate sacrifice for the sins of Mankind and for Himself. Like resting on the Seventh Day (NB: I think that it’s easier to say that God did all of that (because He could if He wanted!) then say that God can’t have rested or incarnated Himself or become Three-in-One and One-in-Three, because, let’s call a spade a spade here: He can. We might not understand it, but He can. He can dig a bottomless well and stand at the bottom. He can even find the end of infinity. He’s God; stop asking questions).

That’s my act of faith, and I think that the act of having faith is actually that: it’s quite unreasonable. It’s laying aside logic and putting your money on something you have absolutely no proof over. I try to stay away from theological arguments because, truth be told, I’m not going to convince anyone, no matter how logically I put it to them.

Muslim offenders

With that in mind, I recently tweeted about the up-and-coming biopic on Muhammad, pointing out that I was rather doubtful that it would draw anything but criticism from any and all Islamic parties. Read about Barry Osborne’s potential flick it here on BikyaMasr.

To understand exactly how serious the upcoming controversy, I refer you to the Wikipedia article on a similar (much beloved, very respectful) movie, Al-Risala (“The Message”), produced to critical and public acclaim in 1976:

On March 9, 1977, a group led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, seized several buildings and took 134 hostages in Washington, D.C.[2] The takeover led to the fatal shootings of a journalist and a police officer, and the non-fatal shooting of Marion Barry, who would become mayor of Washington, D.C. two years later. One of their demands was to prevent the release of the film. One of the hostage-takers specifically said, according to an on-site reporter, that “he wanted a guarantee from the whole world it will never be shown or they would execute some of the hostages…”

Dude: seriously?

The Message sported a score by Maurice Jarre (think: Doctor Zhivago) and avoided all depictions of Muhammad, his wives and his sons-in-law. The closest it ever comes to even remotely portraying him (or any of them) are a few shadows — maybe a staff or a sword (Ali’s double-pronged Zulfiqar). It’s much-beloved even today by Egyptians especially, and is seen by many as walking a nice middle path between “Western” art and halal portrayal. Probably because the director (Moustapha Akkad) was a practicing Muslim. Cool.

Let’s get back to that.

Apparently, German director Roland Emmerich was debating a Ka’aba explosion scene in his rather mediocre-sounding 2012, the much criticized film about the “potential” Mayan end of the world. Here’s what really got me:

Emmerich, who fathered such films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Stargate, told scifiwire.com that he wanted to create a scene where he would blow up Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, but decided against it for fear of having a fatwa issued against him.

His decision to preserve the sanctity of Mecca was a wise decision. It would not have added to the film in terms of plot or content and probably would have been received as the West flexing its empirical muscles over the Arab world, whether justifiably so or not. However, one has to question Emmerich’s understanding of culture and religion as he reluctantly withdrew the proposed Mecca-exploding scene, adding that, “we have to all, in the western world, think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have … a fatwa, and that sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is.”

I don’t understand this. At all. Why not the Ka’aba?

I can understand Akkad producing a film that was very careful about his representation of Islam’s greatest (and Seal) of the Prophets; he is, after all, a Muslim. But for a non-Muslim director to wince because he is afraid of a fatwa…?!

Books offend people. Movies offend people. The whole idea behind freedom of speech is that you have that license to do so. What I object to is not necessarily that Emmerich didn’t blow up the Ka’aba in his most recent film (which, if he did, I would have considered in bad taste anyway), but rather his reasons for backing down: he was afraid.

It’s not even like 2012 was even a movie about blowing up the Ka’aba. It was about the end of the world, and to Emmerich as a filmmaker, the end of the world involves blowing things up. It’s not the Ka’aba itself, and if you want to talk holy sites, the Vatican gets blown up in 2012. It’s a plot device. It’s a screen shot for shock effect! It’s almost incidental! For crying out loud, it’s not like it’s a whole movie about blowing up a holy site (anyone hear of Angels and Demons?).

To quote the Gateway Pundit’s interview of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, “When we got word recently that the movie ‘2012’ depicts the Vatican being blown up, along with the famous statue from Rio, Christ the Redeemer, we were unmoved. Why? Because this occurs during the end of the world in a massive destruction. This kind of sensationalism, we reasoned, is standard fare for director Roland Emmerich: he is the guru of the ‘blow ‘em up’ genre of movies.”

But it’s fear that keeps us from this. Fear that we might have to go in hiding because some nutty Irani ayatollah has issued a fatwa on us, calling on every good Muslim to execute us, and everyone who has translated our works to meet the same fate. I’m actually kind of disgusted at the potential of any religion to do that (and my own has no clean hands, I’m aware).

Peace and blessings be upon him! (But he’s not my prophet)

Offense is good, it forces us to question, to defend what we believe in. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary, but what the 2012 and Salman Rushdie controversies point out to me is a discomfort with the idea of free speech. Muslims around the world are crying out against the arrest of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world (around the world!) to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, as a violation of democratic freedom of speech.

I’m not saying that Awlaki speaks for Islam. No one speaks for Islam. But listen up, pal: Muslim, Christian, black, white, or purple, you can’t go around encouraging people to take up the sword; you can be against the war all you want, but you can’t tell people to kill other people in a public forum. That’s called assault. That’s called aggravation. Rights have limits, and even in the Land of the Free itself, you can’t say (even kidding) that you plan to murder the President, or that there’s a bomb on a plane — even if you’re just kidding. It’s illegal — and for good reason. Your right to speak freely ends where the other peoples’ begins.

This whole rant was really set off by someone telling me to call Muhammad the Prophet Muhammad. Her reasons for telling me so were simple enough: we should have respect for him. But to that, I answer: He is not my prophet. I never thought he was a prophet, my own religion expressly forbids regarding him as a prophet. I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic. I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, the Holy Spirit that unites them all in one giant Trinitarian mystery that I don’t even attempt to pick apart, but still have faith is somehow (quite incomprehensibly) true. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion here, that’s just what I believe.

What I don’t like is the should. We should refer to Muhammad as “The Prophet.”

No. I don’t believe he was. Asking me to do so amounts to stepping over my side of the line.

I’ve been stopped from calling Jesus Christ the Son of God by Muslims, I’ve been told that referring to Mary as the Blessed Mother of God is offensive to some people; I’ve gotten into arguments over how stupid I am for believing in the Trinity. Priests in Egypt are not allowed to proselytize, Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity, churches forbidden to ring out the Angelus three times a day. The government drags its feet about allowing Copts and Catholics to construct churches, and everywhere in Middle Egypt, there is outcry about an “in your face attitude” that uppity Christians have about when they do get to build or repair a church. And then riots ensue, and people freak about having Christians in the community. “There goes the neighborhood.”

I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying I’m offended. I don’t go around asking people to refer to Jesus as the Son of God, or Mary as the Blessed Mother. I just want the same courtesy of neutral titles extended to me. I’m not saying that that’s the “official Islamic stance.” In fact, the entire time, I’ve grown more apologetic; I’ve been the one to avoid talking about it. I explain it away because I’ve spent the better part of four years studying it, reading about it, going to mosques, and learning Arabic. You know what, though? It doesn’t work that way. Someone telling me to shush every time I say “when the Son of God was born” to explain the significance of Christmas or mention that Jesus was crucified, DIED, and resurrected on Easter Sunday…their blasphemy is my belief. My being told to shut up is really starting to offend me. I’m not going to shut up about it.

Let’s make this personal for a moment. Let’s say I should refer to him as The Prophet. Out of respect. I should perhaps say after his name “Peace and blessings be upon him!” (respect, right?). I should perhaps avoid reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and avoid being seen with it, because it offends people. I should read the Qur’an, I should maybe avoid being in rooms alone with women. I also shouldn’t drink, eat pork, or pray without ritual ablutions.

Oh, and by the way, I probably should convert to Islam, just while I’m at it.

No: I don’t think so.

I’m not asking you to eat pork; I’m asking not to be judged for eating it myself. You don’t like wine? Don’t drink it. Islam is predicated on the fact that no one (no one) can know the true deen a person possesses. Perhaps what I do is enough; perhaps you are not held to the same standard, being who you are. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right. Either way, I don’t think that popular practice or even sharia (which sharia?) should prescribe how I live my own religious life, though.

I really, really, really dig most Muslims I know. I love quite a few of them quite dearly (here’s to you, Fadhila, Halima, and all the Penacobas!), but I’m not going to call him the Prophet Muhammad on principle. I’ve read the Qur’an — even attempted the Arabic — I love listening to it. I think the Burda is gorgeous, and I find great value in learning from Islam: it enriches my own perception of Christianity as a historical religion. I respect the historical man, and I would like to point out Holy Mother Church’s praises:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, S. 841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Can’t we get a little for giving a little?

Peace and blessings be upon him, the Prophet of Islam!

But he’s not my prophet.

*                         *                             *

لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ (Q 109:6)

“To you, your religion; to me, my own.”

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Recently in the Times– how a distinct lack of pigs is destroying Egypt’s sanitation:

“Belatedly, Egypt Spots Flaws in Wiping out Pigs”

To give you a little background, some time ago, Norman sent this video to me on one of Cairo’s more shocking quarters. The focus of the video sensationalizes the poor treatment of Copts– which represent an oppressed minority in an increasingly conservative country. In fact, many Copts have perceived the recent mass-slaughter of khanazeer as a blow to Coptic communities: an interesting suggestion, considering that most Copts I’ve met detest pork just as much as most Muslims.

On the zabaleen (literally, the Garbage People), courtesy of an unnamed British exposé:

Zabaleen Part 1

Zabaleen Part 2

Zabaleen Part 3

Photo by Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

Photo by Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

I’m not quite certain where I stand on the matter. On one hand, I can’t make an great claims for the status of the Copts in Egypt– or the treatment of Christians at large, for that matter. My own personal experience with the Copts has been a disapproving one; they’ve struck me as insular and defensive– almost racist in their suspicion and distrust of their Muslim counterparts. Yet, conversely, I’ve met others– like Emad– whose best friends are Muslims.

Allow me to share one such experience with you. I’ve bought my groceries from Mahmoud on the corner for some time now: he is a Muslim– along with all the other Bashas that sit there nightly. Some time two years ago, I began also buying what Mahmoud didn’t have at one of the shops down the street, whose owner was a Copt. After noticing this, Hany (the owner) began to bother me about buying all my groceries from him– because “he was a Christian.” His point was that Muslims were just using me for my money, and that they really hated Christians– all Christians, not just the Orthodox. I’ve had a number of experiences like this, where Copts use it’s-because-I’m-Christian as the cause of all their troubles.

This may very well be true for all I know. But the problems of most Copts as I’ve encountered them are pretty much the same as everyone else: saving money and getting married. When you have something to blame, it might be easier to get more embittered by it. The result is a rather insular community that is not very welcoming to outsiders; at one point I was called a heretic by a Coptic monk at Abu Mina.

For the zabaleen, I’m uncertain. Doubtless, their plight is the result of widespread ignorance– either regarding the swine flu or Christianity. The trouble is determining which is the prevailing factor.

And sadly, it might be both.

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