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Posts Tagged ‘Muharrem Bey’

Yesterday, Amm Abdu left a little scrap of paper on my desk telling me that, in the twenty minutes I had stepped out to buy vegetables, bread, and Coke, the deliveryman decided to see if I was home. Sometimes, I think he lurks outside and waits for me to leave makes before he makes his deliveries.

This usually means a ten minute walk to Sidi Gaber Station, where a quick trip through the backdoor of the post office puts me in touch with Sayyid, the local bosta that handles letters. He occasionally stops me in the cafe and asks me to read the addresses of a few things with Roman letters and no Arabic writing. Occasionally he lets me get away with not paying for packages that should have been paid for. Unfortunately, though, this elusive parcel I was currently after never even made it that far: one of Sayyid’s compatriots let me know that I had to go down to the main office in Ma7attat Masr, on the edge of Mo7arrem Beym in order to get it. I caught a cab on Abu Qir and, with a sigh, I was on my way.

Ma7attat Masr is one of those places that is so wonderfully and terrible Egypt in and of itself. It’s extremely colorful — the main train station that links the City of Memory in iron with the capital has a marvelous brick-and-marble facade, and the surrounding buildings, though decaying, still have shadows of their former grandeur about them (I’m particularly fond of the neo-Gothic arcade on top of the building opposite the Mo7arrem Bey “Centraal”). Here was once the edge of Durrell’s “garden city” with wide lanes and carriage-houses, Italianate villas and fountains. You could sit in the central gardens and be shaved by baladi barbers in the open morning air next to mumuring fountains. I’m rhapsodizing, yes, but up until thirty years ago, the open-air shave was still pretty common.

Nowadays, the square in front of the station is one hell of a headache — it seems that every street in the city intersects through this section of the city, and the place has one of the strongest smells I’ve ever encountered: gutter-garbage, urine, rotting vegetables, and occasionally something worse are relieved only every now and then by a mercifully misguided breeze or a wandering mabkhaar, who swings his charcoal-and-frankincense censer through your shop for a quick quid. It’s bizarre to suddenly encounter the clean smell I associate with darker Catholic churches in the smoky bright light of the square, surrounded by traffic and noise.

Asking for directions is always tricky. The best way I’ve found is like taking an opinion poll. Ask one shop, then ask another, and if they agree, head in that direction. If they don’t, keep asking. Keep asking when you head in the direction they pointed. Too many people don’t know where anything is and end up saying, “That way, straight ahead, God willing.” Thanks, but not helpful.

I find the post office eventually, and go inside; the place is huge and a big mess. Dizzy high ceilings, scraps of paper everywhere. New glass partitions between offices, but general chaos. Apparently (as I gathered from the people on the third floor) this is where they open your packages for inspection, seal them back up, and send them onward. This is also probably where half of the chocolate Katie’s boyfriend sent her got eaten by customs officials.

I sit in a broken old cafe chair that’s offered to me, hand my paper to a clerk and look around; broken desks and lots of ripped boxes, improvised seat cushions. Dust-covered, fake plastic vines decorated the walls — which was kind of odd and disconcerting (it was like someone was trying to “decorate” a factory). Every workstation had a collection of chipped glasses and a water boiler — old soda bottles filled with tap water, a box of powder tea, a jar of sugar.

Suddenly, I realize that nearly all the employees were women. Not only that, but the place was filled with kids — some of them had apparently brought their children with them to work, and they were running around the place kicking an enormous ball of used tape like a soccer ball.

After waiting for five minutes, I’m informed that if I had turned the piece of paper over, the delivery man had written his name (illegible) and his cell phone number (also illegible) to call. This, apparently, is how it’s done: call  him up and he’ll deliver it to the door. No need to come all the way down to the main office. But he’s on his way here, no problem; he’ll bring the package here. Give him ten minutes.

Ah.

Ten people must have seen that piece of paper. I’m assuming they thought the same thing that I did: that the scrawl on the back didn’t say “Ahmed, call me when you want the package,” but was rather someone trying out a new pen.

When Ahmed the deliveryman arrived, he opened the package, examined the inside, and charged me LE 30. He also asked what something was in the package.

“Pepperoni,” I beamed.

What’s that? he responded.

“A kind of pork,” I said.

He threw it back in the package, taped it up, and shoved the package in my hands. He said not to worry about the 30 LE.

I carried the box out of the office triumphantly.

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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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