Posts Tagged ‘copts’

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.


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?”


“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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Yesterday was Coptic Christmas (6 December), and though the streets were filled with “Kul sena wenta tayyib”‘s to many of my misunderstanding neighbors (who, despite my constant explanations, don’t quite seem to understand how Christians can function on different calendars), the reverberations of the Qena province shootings in Nag3 Hamadi were felt all over the blogosphere — and in Cairo, where angry young Copts took to the street.

I redirect you here:

The Guardian: Gunmen kill seven after Coptic Midnight Mass

and here:

At Least Seven Killed After Coptic Christmas Mass

Two Muslim bystanders were also killed in addition to the five Copts.

The local bishop is supposed to be pleading with the local Christian community (and the national Coptic population) to keep calm and bear patiently. Apparently, this is to no avail, as in Middle Egypt, according to Tweeter “Pakinamamer,” (these tweets from less than two hours ago):

One christian tells me “the age of martyrdom is coming back … But we won’t change our religion w’eza kan 3agebhom”

Split among group. Police brought bus. Some hopped on it. Others say they “won’t be cowards. And must enter on foot.”

Brief clash w a group muslims. Police fled the scene. Bahjoura, where we’re going, experienced fierce clashes this morning …

Ok, police outnumbered. But gunfire dispersed them a bit. Back on track, towards bahjoura now where most of these live.

Clashes. Police firing in the air!!!

Police cars tagging along now. Trying to take batons and sticks.

Now attacking closed shops as we walk. Most of them carry wood from tree, from construction sites now.

Group of copts am walking with got batons and are attacking passing cars. Breaking windows. Obviously I chose the angry bunch. Around a 100

Walking towards share3 tahrir with christian youth where hospital (and clashes) are. Streets filled w broken glass. Army ppl w machine guns.

Church officials trying to calm christian youth down. Father kirolos forbidding them from going to jabal where burial will happen

Here, I should point out a number of things.

1. The Guardian is actually pretty keen on pointing out that the massacre is most likely in response to the alleged rape of a Muslim girl some weeks ago. According to The Free Copts, the accusation of “rape” is usually one that points to an undesired connection with Christianity; Muslims families accuse Copts of “rape” or abduction in the event of an undesired interest or (even worse) conversion to Christianity. I should also point out that The Free Copts is a pretty intent on Coptic rights at any cost. This may or may not be completely or partially true.

2. The Coptic response to this is equally outrageous. While the hierarchy has responded as well as it could (urging prayer and calmness, particularly Karillos telling everyone to remain patient), the youth seem to forget the words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52).

“The era of martyrdom has come again.”

Good God. This country is a mess.

I sympathize with the Copts. In recent weeks I’ve really begun to see (and encounter) instances of absolute racism. Perhaps nothing akin to the United States’ darker moments in terms of “Copts and dogs forbidden,” but have spoken with a number of people and find their ignorance appalling.

What I find disheartening is also the unwillingness to understand on the part of both religions.

When I took Stearns’ course on the Qur’an in my sophomore year in college, I was surprised to discover in most Muslims’ critiques of Christianity what seemed like a deliberate misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. To illustrate: The Holy Trinity to medieval scholars was understood to mean God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Blessed Mother. Any Christian will tell you (even the most ignorant, fallen, I hate-the-Catholic-Church-convert-to-Atheism) that Mary, though incredibly important, has no place whatsoever with the Trinity. And yet the myth persists: just a few weeks ago, our well-meaning Somali neighbor came by with what he called “Christmas presents” — books on the conversion of Christians to Islam. My favorite was “Priests who Found Islam”; a rather misguided title that seems to think that all Christian sects have priests (they don’t) — which never quite seemed to address the elements that converted the said Christians, only that their lives were that much better.

Amin means well. I understand he was only doing his best for the sake of du3a: the betterment and perpetuation of Islam. This kind of proselytizing is totally legal here: however, the distribution of Christian literature is actively forbidden — by Copts or anyone else. In a secular state, this is genuinely disturbing.

I remember I had a conversation with John some time ago about how I had given up on theological arguments. People seldom change their opinion; especially with religion, most people stick to what they believe and don’t believe in the possibility of Truth outside of their own belief. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Truth is bigger than both belief and argument. I don’t think that makes me a relativist. I think it just means that I expect someone to take my faith as seriously and sincerely as I take theirs. Which means “Butt out, buster.”

There are a few Muslims from Manchester which do the ones that formerly lived here quite the injustice. A number of times I’ve walked past them, greeted them with a harmless “Good evening” or a “Hello” (either in English or in Arabic, since they’re from Britain), and am greeted with the following responses:

1. No response. They turn, look at me in the eye, and return to their conversation.

2. A stare, and then a very deliberate, “3laykum as-salaam wa-Rahmatallah wa-Barakatuhu” (And upon you be Peace, the Mercy of God, and His Blessings, the full response to Salaamu 3laykum, or Peace be with you — the generally Muslim greeting)

I have no problem with the salaam. Jesus said it, Kahlil Gibran did too. In fact, I say it everywhere except to them. Mainly because it does nothing but confirm their idiotic smugness. And perhaps it’s little of me, but it’s almost enough to wrap their doorhandles in bacon and soak their clothes in alcohol. I don’t mean that, of course, but I say it to illustrate a bit of my frustration.

In a way, it brings “sectarian violence” a little closer to home. When someone pushes their own religious behavior on you — pressures or intimidates or ignores you (neighbors!) into saying what they want you to say or do or act like, it makes you angry. It makes you want to do the opposite, in fact. A few weeks ago, I ranted on Fadhila’s insistence that I call Muhammad “the Prophet.” I don’t have a problem with that. Really. I have a problem with the pressure. When someone can’t even be religiously neutral in public (and just say “Good evening”), we have a problem. Little things make people angry and defensive, and it’s those things that need to be changed.

And how can the Copts not be angry, living here, stuck here, not going much of anywhere, when the secular establishment (supposedly democratic, supposedly religiously neutral) so flagrantly favors the Muslim population? When it stops churches from being remodeled? When it refuses to intercede on behalf of the Christian populous? Can you really blame them for being angry?

You can blame them for their violence, though, and shame to the rioters. “They shall know we are Christians by our Love.” There is no conquest, no blood wite, no revenge in Christianity. Ours is to turn the other cheek, and by that the world should know us. Can the Muslim majority not call us hypocrites otherwise — when Copts and Catholics and Christians are the ones that drink and smoke and riot in the streets and retaliate against others?


Enough. This country is a mess. Tonight I am a little heartbroken for the Mother of the World and her children. My prayers are for the souls of all seven of those killed — and the rest wounded. God save Egypt. And let us hope tomorrow will bring healing.

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا

Oh People! We have created you, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another (and not despise each other). Q 39:13.

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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.


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.


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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Recently from Pete Willows, a writer at BikyaMasr — a wonderful article diving to the ins and outs and intricacies of the Zabaleen, “the Garbage People” living in the shadow of Muqattam in Cairo:

Read the awesome article

This harkens back to my own post some time ago.

Real post later on today: fun stuff on teaching. Stay tuned, Egypt.

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Friday I played tour guide to Katie’s parents, who hired a car to take them to the battlefield of El-Alamein for the day. Although the battlefield proper is closed (due to some 17.2 million landmines and unexploded ordinance just laying about), the war memorials are interesting enough and the drive pleasant enough to make a nice long day of the whole thing. Besides, it’s an article opportunity: in addition to the camel market article I’m working on, I might as well tack on an El-Alamein one.

We left around 10:45 from Sporting, with a driver that took us through the Agami road to the monastery of Mari Mina. There, the bodies of the Coptic hierarchy are interred —  and I figured that the Friday atmosphere would allow all to see Copts at their most Coptic (“High” Mass is sang on Fridays as well as on Sunday). After a fire that destroyed much of the monastery, the glittering white edifice that is the modern complex was built in 1959, including the present cathedral church, which is a splendid building of red and gray Aswani granite, covered on the inside with tasteful mosaics and iconography — not as common as you might think in Coptic Churches (if you ask me). Most Coptic icons tend to verge on the cartoonish, some even looking like anime depictions of the Holy Family.

After getting our whiff of incense of incense from the ongoing Mass, we ducked downstairs to the crypt, which was thronging with shoeless believers (Copts remove their shoes at holy places: the sanctuary, tombs of saints). There was a display of the finest order: something between a museum and a memorial wall. The last pope (Cyril) and one bishop (whose name I’ve forgotten) are encased in miraculously fragrant tombs: believers approach the sarcophaguses and place their foreheads on them, whispering their prayers down and coming away with the musk from the tomb on them. The walls are lined with glass casings displaying the two holy men’s clothes, favorite slippers, and glasses, as well as vestments for holy offices, and festooned with flashing Christmas lights, paintings and flowers and wreaths left by the faithful. It’s quite a sight, though a little disconcerting with its mix of crazy popular religious feeling and intense traditional solemnity.

Unless you’re a Coptic pilgrim (note: Nov 11 is Mar Menas’ Day, which is the moulid), there’s no real reason to see the modern monastery. What you want to see (if you’re a tourist, that is) is the ancient monastery.

You walk out the big battered iron gate that separates the dirty variety of desert from the monastery. You walk for thirty minutes over hills and midden piles of Roman pottery that goats graze over. Occasional puddles of muddy water. And just as the dust makes you sneeze and you begin to doubt that there’s anything actually out there, you stumble on it: a whole city of limestone, brick Roman baths, occasional slabs of glittering marble: it’s a complete city that looks like someone took a hacksaw to the foundation.

This is the site of the third-century monastery, the springs that rose up when the ashes of the Coptic martyr Menas were laid to rest here. Because of it’s location on the coastal road from Alexandria to Marsa (which was also a prominent port in the Roman period), it became a central trading point– and the miraculous healing waters, a pilgrimage site. But the wells dried up, and in the eleventh century, the place was reduced to an Ozymandias-like shadow in the desert, the local amirs and caliphs stripping the ruins of its marble columns to make their own mosques, leaving what was once called “The City of Jasper” to more humble monks in the desert once more.

After dusting off our boots and climbing back in to our car, we followed the road past the Abu Sir lighthouse (the last Greek lighthouse in Egypt, a tenth-scale, ancient prototype of the famous Pharos), and settled in for the drive to El-Alamein, which always takes longer than you expect.

Last time I visited the El-Alamein War Museum (which is a gem of a museum, by the way), Norman, Charlie, Kate, and I had about ten minutes to zip through the thing– because the place was closing at 3. It’s quite a wonderful collection of rooms that is pretty well-informed, if awkwardly written sometimes, which all of its paraphernalia taken from the battlefield. Outside, a collection of tanks and various vehicles from the battlefield are ready to pose with.

Unfortunately, the guards were insistent that they close the museum at 2:30 — for what reasons, I cannot imagine why. I’ve never seen someone so insistent about lunch, and no amount of pleading about Katie’s parents coming all the way from England (and no amount of lying about their grandfather being in the battle) could convince them. The officer in charge kept saying, “This is the army and this is how we do things.” My only thought (and this is the old First Sergeant in me coming out): Your shoes are so scuffed that they’re white at the tips, your brass has no polish, and your patches are fastened with safety pins = You have no authority, you funny man.


Inside the cloister of the British War Memorial at El-Alamein

The cemeteries, gracefully, are open at all times to any that visit them, and for me, this was a chance to wander through the British and German ones again, and finally see the Italian one. In my mind, all of the monuments seem to reflect something of the national character of the nation to which they belong: the British one is almost understated, about order, and is extremely bright and clean.

You go down a causeway to to a cloister that overlooks the markers. Each headstone has the crest of the soldier’s unit, his name, rank, serial number, birth and death dates, and a personal inscription that the family as written. Most are pretty standard quotes from Scripture, or sentiments of loss but they really tear you apart sometimes in their simplicity — and the effect of the place.

Some of the most poignant, I thought:

“Thy will be done.”
“No greater love hath man.”
“In all the silent moments, we remember him.”
“I have fought the good fight.”
“Not good-bye, but good-night.”


War graves at El-Alamein. Graves belonging to Polish support forces are actually pointed, as opposed to rounded.

The German memorial, on the other hand, is extremely Teutonic. It’s a giant castle-like edifice, enclosed and imposing, wrought-iron torches and an obelisk in the central courtyard. Big, black, maltese-falcon type eagles. Kind of scary, really. Instead of individual markers, the names of German provinces have tombs, and the names of all the soldiers are listed en masse on massive green-tarnished copper plates. The only thing I can say is that it feels very…German.


Outside the German mausoleum

These I’ve already seen. What was the most shocking was the Italian memorial. It’s positively enormous: huge marble front with a long causeway that you have to walk up towards. At least fifteen stories high. Slick, polished marble everywhere with a giant reception hall that echoes everything, a huge cross soaring above you. There are two rooms that list the Italian dead in mausoleum-like boxes, whole rooms labeled “Ignoto,” for unknowns.


Corridors of "Ignoto": haunting, really.

When I say that the memorial was shocking I think I mean that it was the most callous: the British one was about identity, I think (with each headstone meticulously detailed). The German one was about dignity, tradition (it seemed like a temple in which one could grieve over war). But the Italian one seemed less about Italians than it did about Italy. It seemed to be the most fascist of the monuments, and anyone that’s seen a photograph of Victor Emmanuel square can probably back me up.

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A few days ago I brought up the Zabaleen, and pointed out that the majority of them are Copts. Afterwards, I realized I needed to do a little more research befitting the insomniac I am and better inform the folks back home holding up the fort. That, and I felt like I was being unduly harsh on my Orthodox brothers (even if a monk once called me a heretic).

Briefly: in contemporary usage, “Copt” usually refers to an ethnic group of Egyptians that claims non-Arab ancestry (i.e., they are descended from the ancient Egyptians, not from the Arabs), and have been traditionally members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria– by some accounts the oldest sect of Christianity in existence (founded 42 AD in Egypt by St. Mark of Gospel fame). The word Copt is also linked to the classical fus-ha Arabic word for “Egyptian.”

Following Nasser’s rise to power in the 1950’s, the Copts experienced a twilight; prior to the pan-Arabist and socialist philosophies that the great Gamal espoused, the Copts were prominent members of occupational government. leaders of industry, while still remaining a large minority (15-20%, depending on who you ask). Here, I wonder if a favoritism of native Christian sects during the British occupation was employed; a la the French bolstering of Maronite Christian factions in Lebanon.

During the reign of King Farouk (the last reigning king of Egypt) they controlled over 50% of the country’s wealth. Nasser’s socialization of industries and massive reforms brought the Copts under fire and they were seen much as the “mimic men” of the colonialist — representative of the old era under the British. They were ousted from their positions, and industry wrenched from them. Remarkably, however, there is the persistent rumor (and popular myth) that under Nasser no mosque could be built in Egypt without an Orthodox counterpart (something about equal rights and secularization). I’m not sure how true this is, but popular legend is a powerful thing.

These days, however, Copts seem to think differently. I redirect you to The Free Copts, a not-quite-so-underground “liberation newspaper,” that fights oppression using journalism. The main issues seem to be the forced Islamicizing (?) of Coptic Christian girl — resulting from kidnappings and forced conversions. No less believable are the claims of fatwas issued against priests in the countryside, calling for execution of proselytizing enthusiasts of the Orthodox persuasion. Where it gets kind of fuzzy is when they start making claims for an international Saudi conspiracy of Islamicization, with 7000 LE paid out (to who, I ask?) for each convert girl, or the accusations of idleness (completely believable) toward the Egyptian security forces, only to have their role downplayed in articles such as this one, in which they arrest a woman that entered a church with the intent to kill two Christian children. That doesn’t change things like the 2005 Muharrem Bey Coptic Church Riot or the conviction of Abdulkareem Nabil Suleiman; these things actually happened and received widespread media coverage.

Speaking as a student of religious history, many of these accusations (on both sides) echo events from Andalusia, c. 14-15th centuries. Majority communities fear infiltration by the minority; minority communities fear dying out. Forced conversions, attempted murder…it’s a shame that things sometimes don’t change.

But wow.

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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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