It is my opinion that only a bold author could have written such a book. Eib Ehna Fi-Keneesa (Shame on you! We’re in Church) by the writer journalist Robeir al-Faris, tackles sensitive subjects especially when it comes to the manner in which Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, inadvertently mingle religious and secular concepts. Small as it seems, the collection of 15 short stories explores the repressed emotions of people—mainly young people who feel lost, unbalanced and torn in a community that raises slogans of sublime morals and values but lives a hypocrisy which denies them all in practice, and underlies outbursts of repressed emotions that find release from the dormant layers of the pained soul.
The book reflects the agony of young people censored by the establishment—the social establishment, the Church establishment, to say nothing of censorship by the self. In a scathingly sarcastic style Faris exposes the double standards of both clerics and laymen. Khanq Riqaab al-Malaika (Squeezing the Necks of Angels) depicts a young man who, despite determinedly heading to church to attend Mass, finds himself unable to focus on the prayers and ritual while his inner thoughts are tied up with endless worldly problems. Tranquility and solace escape him, victim to an overwhelming feeling of guilt.
When problems overpower people, they naturally look for escape—preferably from life in its entirety. Suicide may even be welcome but, since it is incriminated by religion, another—religiously sanctioned—death has to be found. Worldly death can be achieved through taking orders, joining a monastery or a convent. In Nokat al-Malaika (Jokes of the Angels) the medical doctor Daniel decides to take orders to forget his love for Nadia, but all his repressed sexual desires are aroused when the abbot asks him to help a woman in labour. He makes up his mind he can no longer handle the physical repression, takes off his mantle and decides to get married. In Bara’at Laban al-Asfour (Innocence of the Pigeon’s Milk), a nun is unable to recite her prayers in church since the image of her lover haunts her all the time. We learn that her lover had died while working in a far-off land trying to make a small fortune to marry her.
Faris is probably one of the few writers who had the courage to condemn the double standards practiced by some men of religion. A heartbroken Umaima is shattered with devastation upon learning that the man she loves, a priest, has married Mary, the most beautiful girl in the church, leaving Umaima behind to lick her wounds and failures. Al-Harb maa Mary (War with Mary), has Umaima condemning her cousin whose priesthood never prevented him from finally falling for the trivially-minded Mary whose only asset is physical beauty. In real life, she says, priests are no better than the most common of men who look for beauty or power regardless of all the spiritual or intellectual values they propagate.
The stories are not as gloomy as they sound. Some may even get the reader to laugh out loud. In Gheir Fadeh (Not Scandalous), the problem which faces a young lover is that he can never kiss his beloved in public—or in the privacy of their families’ homes for that matter. He almost drives himself crazy wondering why such actions as dragging a woman from her hair, spitting on the ground, insulting and badmouthing opponents, lying, swearing and committing all sorts of sins is absolutely accepted on our streets, whereas kissing his love is not. Finally he gets the hilarious idea of walking with his beloved along the Nile bank in town and getting a cameraman friend to shoot the scene, while hanging the sign: “Stay off, we’re filming.” The young lovers kiss to their heart’s content.
Old wives tales, still promoted in rural communities, find their way to the book. Halawet Roh (The Last Few Minutes before Death) depicts a barren woman who hastens to take off her clothes—as was told by the village Sheikh—in front of an old man as he breathes his last, in hope that his soul would get into her womb and she would become pregnant. In real life people are indeed ready to go to all lengths to do what a man of religion would say.
A few stories carry symbolic connotations. Ghurab (The Crow) is a story of a beautiful bird which stands beside a poor sleeping boy shivering with cold. The bird plucks its feathers out one by one to cover the little beggar’s naked body. It then turns around treacherously and screams to the passers by how the boy pulled out its feathers to get warm. The people begin to beat the boy mercilessly until he dies under their torture. They leave as they shed tears for the “poor crow”, who then simply turns to the dead body and begins sampling a warm dinner. The crow is unmistakably the opportunist who dons the cloak of kindness and piety while preying on the poor and sucking them to the core. Some modern-day Pharisee in my opinion.
Part of us
Shame on you! We’re in Church is definitely worth a read. You may laugh or cry—probably do both—but, in the end you will likely read it again and again. The characters stare the injustices of society in the eye. They may be mean or absurd but they are us, or part of us—the part we manage to hide, repress and suffocate. The characters are not all Christians as the title of the book may fool us into imagining; they are Muslims and Copts—imperfect human beings as we all are.