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Posts Tagged ‘harassment’

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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Last night, Sarah called up and told me that the nurses had put some pressure on her to go down to the municipal courthouse to mitigate Sa’id’s sentence. Apparently, he gets three to seven years maximum for assaulting a foreigner– three to seven years in an Egyptian prison, which is a fate I wish on no one. Depictions of the treatment of prisoners (The Yacoubian Building, Heyna Maysara) can put one off to the excesses of Oriental “justice.” That in mind, Sarah and Katie have been having doubts. Three to seven years is a long, long time, and the man did get his guts rearranged twice.

That said, the officers of the court apparently wanted a confirmation of statement, so Sarah, Tom, and I piled into a taxi around 9 PM and headed to the Manshaya courthouse. It’s an old neo-classical remnant — lots of columns, cast-iron balstruades, galleries of arcades — that looks like a decaying bit of Paris that washed up on our little outcropping of Africa. Checkered marble floors in black and white, scratched and dirty; winged white marble staircases so scratched and old it looked as if the marble were tipping forward– the edges were so worn from a centuries’ scuffle of hard, formal shoes that they looked ready to break off at any moment. Garbage lined the corridors — dark, tar-coated passageways with chipping paint lit by a succession of naked light bulbs from the ceiling — and groups of people huddled in corners (leathery women in gaudy patterns, hairy-handed policemen in ragged white uniforms and cracked black leather boots, lawyers in threadbare soutanes), staring (I imagine) at three foreigners (and Sarah’s blazing red hair especially) marching down to the municipal offices of Bab al-Sharq, the district where the incident took place. Yet the way they punctuated the corridors (we climbed up a maze of stairs and turned down switchback corners) at the corners, it seemed like they had just finished whispering something secret, and had been discovered — that for a moment, we had intruded on something private that had taken place between whispers, and were unwelcome. Fingers pointed the way, and mumbled salaams.

A polished lawyer type with wiry glasses checked over sheafs of notebook paper, all written in an indecipherable hand. Nothing was typed on his desk. After initial confusion over the incidents in question (the lawyer thought Sarah was Katie) we narrated things as they happened; I say we because this was my first simultaneous translation — Sarah talking to me while I translated for the lawyer, Tom catching my back if I didn’t get something. The man seemed surprised that we were concerned about Sa’id, and wished to think over his sentence. He said it was up to us whether he went free or was put in prison for however long.

To my mind, this almost makes the situation even harder than it was. The purpose of an impartial justice system is to enforce the rules of a society, both so that no one is endangered and that no one is to blame; that is why vengeance — although it resembles justice and even possibly achieves equalization of the status quo — is not actual justice. And perhaps this is why the victim of any crime is not given an actual say in the punishment of the criminal. He or she remains apart, because then the burden of punishment falls on the victim. By his or her edict — his or her determination — the criminal is punished, and I wonder if anyone is so just (or at least honestly confident enough in their sense of justice) to measure out the smallest punishment for the smallest crime. Because then the burden falls on you as the cause of someone else’s despair — someone else’s pain. And pain is the reason you brought the criminal before Justice to begin with.

I know that the American justice system is flawed, but at least it avoids that.

Right now, I hate Egypt because it puts contradictory pressures on the girls involved; to my mind, they are quite just in letting the man lie where he is, and yet at the same time, quite just in letting him go. But both situations perpetuate two very different evils; by letting him go, it means going soft on crime — by not letting him go, you potentially ruin a man’s life.

The girls have four days to think it over.

I seriously welcome opinions on this subject.

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A few days ago, Sarah and I had to take Katie (Brits downstairs, check out Sarah’s blog here) to the hospital for serious stomach pains that didn’t quite fit the profile of ordinary “entry” digestive diseases, nor food poisoning. We checked her in to the university hospital (which was the same hospital that Andrea checked into two years ago after her accident), where hours later, they determined she had appendicitis. Seeing as Katie has no Arabic, it came as a complete surprise to her when, hours later (when Tom and I were visiting), that we told her that we had to leave because she needed to be prepped for her operation.

“Operation?”
“Yeah. Wait, you didn’t hear about this before?”

We left and came back later– Katie looks good and is really trooping it out. I will never forget the arabic word for appendix now — za’ida (الزائدة), (incidentally, a linguistically amusing word, as it comes from the root for “excess,” or “extra”).

In the midst of all this, there was Sa’id. Initially a very helpful orderly on the floor Katie checked into, he turned out to be an exemplar of my previous post on harassment. After Sarah had left the hospital, she later how he  told me he wanted to take a few pictures of her and then tried to kiss her hand– which she brushed off as being the usual creepiness. However, when she returned the next day, Katie brought up how she had caught him taking pictures of her with his phone (post-op), and trying to kiss her. They promptly informed the head nurse, who brought in the head of the hospital and a few others, and proceeded the beat the daylights out of Sa’id in front of her. They later brought him back with a number of police officers (and a translator) who beat him up a second time while they took down her statement.

This is not what was expected– naturally, Katie said she cried and told them to stop, but the translator’s response was, “People like him are not human.”

My sympathies are with Katie, and Tom seems to believe unquestioningly that such actions were warranted (Read Tom’s thoughts and colorful narrative here). In the final analysis, I think so too, but there is something in me that is made uncomfortable by beating a man into a pulp in retribution. I myself have wanted to kick the tar out of shabaab when they’ve belittled women. So why the discomfort?

What is the “appropriate” punishment for something like this? When we (I, expats, foreigners) get enraged by sexual or any kind of harassment, how would we turn the tables?  We want to be left alone. We want nothing to have happened in the first place; we wish for the status quo of living and letting others live — the real moral atrocity in harassment I think is that it removes that, it takes away someone’s dignity and makes them into something inhuman and provokes them into an animal-like state of defense. We snap, we are provoked to violence — to swearing, and the desire for vengeance. It’s horrifically ironic that, by response, the victim becomes the reality of what the criminal would have her be.

Rather, we want a moral victory — in which the perpetrator is shamed into  betterment, if just on the level of not bothering anyone — not retribution, blood payment for the single act that has been done to us. Deep down inside, I think we want to change the things in the society that make it acceptable for something like that to be birthed into the world. No one who has ever been harassed has simply stated that they want it to stop to just them. We want the man to be held up in front of the masses, act and identities revealed, and some great Voice to say: “This is dishonorable and such acts are disgraceful, and you must take responsibility for them, because they are of you and among you.”

And silently, each person in the crowd will turn their backs and walk away, shamed by the presence of something they allowed to grow in their midst.

Sigh.

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harassment It’s about time that I tackled one of the more difficult subjects that invariably every American writes about at some point: harassment. I hesitate to bring it up mainly because I’ve heard so many stories that, by this point, I would simply be laundry-listing incident after incident– each progressively (and regrettably) worse than the last. At the same time, though, I know that one has to discuss it, otherwise one risks becoming a part of (and a perpetuator of) the problem itself. My thanks in advance to Rumi for the informative Eid post, and apologies for shamelessly stealing his links.

For the last three nights, crowds of young Egyptians (shabaab) have roamed the streets, set free by their families after the evening meal to roam. And by roam, I mean overwhelmed and flooded; the streets were completely clogged with young men, teens, and tweenish boys, linked arm-in-arm (a custom of friendship here, not of homosexuality), blasting a million different songs from a million different speakerphones, hollering at each other. Scrawny kids in tight, glittery shirts in pink and purple–complete with rhinestones and senseless tiny hoods– blue jeans with a dozen zippers, acid washes, and huge, AirJordan style patent leather sneakers. Hair cut against the scalp with hair gel poured into it for the “cool” look. And everywhere, clouds of bad imitation designer perfume hung in the air.

Of course, there’s no accounting for fashion. Mahmoud tells me that girls with cropped or boyish hair are not just unattractive– they’re downright ugly. The Western media puts forth an idea of beauty that seems to revolve around figure-skaters and ballerinas; lithe, willowy types that wear clothes on the runway well. Here, such women get told that they need to fatten up or they’ll never have sons — or any children — and I think are held in something like contempt. And getting back to fashion — none of my Egyptian friends understand the recent trends of “boho chic” or grunge fashions; to them, girls get made up (almost clownishly sometimes) when they go out.

Imagine, if you will, armies of these boys wandering the streets. Literally, phalanxes of them, all astride. And as they pass you, they scream out any number of things:

– Hi! What’syourname. (It’s all strung together purposely; imagine it said really quickly with no question inflection)
– Welcome in Egypt? Hello!
– Hi! Howreyou? Howreyou?
– Fook you. Fook you! (Personal favorite)
– You…so stubid. So stubid. (Kid last night on the tram. I grabbed his ear and he ran away)

And once they’ve braved you — they’ve done the ritual tap to the foreigner — they turn back to their friends as if they’d recited the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from beginning to end, and congratulate themselves as if you didn’t exist.

The worst are the hisses.

Imagine a cat hissing. That’s the sound you make to say “Hey! Dude!” but mainly it gets used on the Corniche by idling shabaab to catcall girls; “You so beautiful, ” or “Muzza! Muzza!” (kind of like “babe”).

What continuously shocks me is that older women (who are present) do not intervene. In a culture that has such concerns for female honor, the idea of approaching a Western woman and propositioning her — of pulling out your penis and masturbating in public, of physically assaulting her or pressing against her — begs a number of contradictions that I cannot begin to get into: it makes me so angry. These incidents seem to have just gotten worse over the years, as well. In particular, I’m puzzled by an odd cultural double standard; there seems to be an acceptance of Western sexual mores when it’s convenient (i.e., when an Egyptian teenager is horny) but a rejection when someone else seizes advantage of them (i.e., an American has an American girl spend the night). Protect women, veil them — but only in certain circumstances.

At the risk of conflating religion and society, I’d like to bring up something that Michael Muhammad Knight mentioned in The Taqwacores (read it): if men are so weak as to warrant women praying behind them or secluded away on balconies (in mosques), why aren’t the men the ones that are sequestered off? Why seal the women off from the world if the men themselves are the problem?

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