Our reading in the Cairo press this month takes us to two letters sent by readers to the weekly State-owned Rose al-Youssef. Since both letters, and the response of the paper to them, offer insight into our day-to-day realities, Watani will tackle them both.
No Christian encountered
The first letter came from a reader who signed only her first name, Maggie. It is not surprising that Maggie would not reveal her full name since she wrote on a topic that has come to be seen as taboo. Maggie wrote: “I am an Egyptian Christian living in Cairo, I constantly use the underground metro for transportation. I was recently on the ‘ladies’ carriage, the metro carriage allocated for women alone, when a woman wearing niqab came in with her little boy. They sat beside me and, since the trip was quite long and the boy was a very sweet outgoing personality, we were soon laughing together and got a conversation going. There was no problem whatsoever with his mother; she didn’t seem to mind one bit. The problem arose—it was actually no problem in the strict sense of the word; ‘shock’ would better describe how I felt—when the boy innocently asked why I was not wearing hijab. When I answered that I was Christian so didn’t have to wear one, he couldn’t understand what ‘Christian’ meant. It was obvious the word was outside the scope of his vocabulary. I understood the boy went to an Islamic school and, with no Christian in his immediate circle, he knew no Christian. I couldn’t help wondering how and when this boy, and many others like him, would have their first encounter with Christians, and what would happen then? Copts, I thought—whether justifiably or unjustifiably—were frequently accused of isolationism and asked to go for integration. Now it is Muslims who are isolating themselves and excluding Copts outside their circle.
“The incident sent shivers down my spine. What is to become of us?” I thought.
Islamic fashion show
Rose al-Youssef sent two reporters to investigate the ladies carriage in the metro. This carriage started off as a place where women commuters may be offered a safe, harassment-free ride, but has now become a world of its own. The vast majority of the passengers wear either hijab or niqab; it is a veritable fashion show of ‘Islamic dress’. The ones wearing niqab are naturally fully covered in wide garb. Others who also wear wide clothes with a hijab that falls across their back and chest to below their waist, commonly known as isdaal. Yet others wear Pakistani-style dress; next to them are the wearers of the so-called ‘Spanish hijab’ with a head dress composed of two overlapping scarves of matching colours wrapped around the head and neck in an artistic fashion. To go with the Spanish hijab the woman—more often than not, young—wears tight fitting, modern clothes that appear to have nothing to do with hijab.
Many of the women spend their time on the metro reading in a small mushaf [Qur’an Book], completing thus the show of religiosity. Others, old and young, take to preaching Islamic teachings to the passengers.
Even though the paper did not say it in so many words, there is no place for Christians in the ladies carriage.
Sharing a church
The second letter was sent by a reader from Upper Egypt to the Qassawsa wa Ruhban (Priests and Monks) page in the daily Rose al-Youssef, the page the paper prints every Sunday to shed light on the news of the Coptic community. The reader wrote of a church in the village of Beni-Ebeid in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, where both the Coptic Orthodox and the Evangelical communities pray. Since the village includes none but this single 80-square-metre church, the two communities take it in turn to hold their respective services. The Coptic Orthodox hold Holy Mass on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, while the Evangelical services are held on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. Sunday sees Mass in the morning and the Evangelical service in the evening.
Even though the reader meant to show the coexistence of both communities in the same church building—a rather rare occurrence—he inadvertently exposed the dire need for more than one church in the village. The letter from the reader is the best reply to all who claim Christians in Egypt have no need to build new churches. And, in this context, will the long-awaited unified law for building places of worship see light any time soon?
The General Authority of Cultural Palaces (GACP) has published a new issue of Ahmed Hussein al-Sawi’s book Muallim Yaacoub bainal-Ustourah wal-Haqiqa (Muallim [Master or Teacher] Yaacoub Between Myth and Reality). The book tackles the life and work of Muallim Yacoub (1745-1801)—Muallim was a title used to indicate a prominent or well-educated figure in society—who formed a Coptic militia during Napoleon’s military campaign against Egypt. This campaign lasted from 1798 to 1801 and was defeated by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson whose navy destroyed Napoleon’s fleet as it docked at Abu-Qir Bay east of Alexandria. The French campaign caught Egypt as it wallowed under the decadence and tyranny of Mamluk rule, and is widely viewed as Egypt’s first glimpse at modern Europe and the first stepping stone in the modernisation of Egypt which was to start a few years later, specifically in 1805, at the hands of Mohamed Ali.
Muallim Yacoub is one of the most controversial figures in Egypt’s history. Some view him as fighting, with his Coptic militia, alongside the [Christian] French and against the [Muslim] Mamluks. Others see him as a fighter for Egypt’s independence from the tyrannical, backward Mamluk rule. Muallim Yacoub left Egypt to France in 1801, reportedly to promote the cause of Egypt’s independence, but died at sea before reaching his destination. Sawi belongs to the former camp and casts Yacoub as a traitor.
Some Copts wrote against Sawi’s book and even asked the government to ban it on the claim that it questions the patriotism of Copts, but critic Hilmy al-Namnam wrote defending the book and the GACP for publishing it. The General Egyptian Book Organisation, Namnam wrote, had previously published other books that defended Yacoub as a national hero, so there was no point in claiming the State was casting Copts in a treacherous light.
Namnam ended by warning that extremist thought might be creeping among some Copts, a trait we can definitely do without. It’s bad enough with Muslim extremism.