Saturday, July 09, 2005

Zaytun, Cairo, Egypt/Imbaba, Cairo, Egypt

From talking to Egyptian Christians, you would get the impression that the Holy Family sheltering in Egypt during the reign of King Herod was the single most important event in the history of Christianity. A stone monument in the courtyard of the Anglican cathedral where I've been a couple of times is inscribed with the quote, "Out of Egypt did I call my son," which, although in the Old Testament clearly refers to the Exodus, Christians took to refer to Jesus. The Nile valley is littered with site supposedly associated with the Holy Family's time here, and in bookstores you can find an English-language account from someone who tried to write about their time in Egypt based off these stories, giving the impression that Jesus's toddler years were spent productively smashing idols and working other sorts of miracles.

Egypt today is about 10% Christian. A very few of these are Protestant. I met some at All Saints, and was struck by their fervor - giving a hard sell on trying to get people to Bible study sessions, referring to Jesus with a loaded "He" with the Bible being "His Book," and in one case deeply disturbed by the fact that the used cell phone I bought happened to have the Muslim profession of faith as its intro screen when you turned it on. Someone who teaches at a Christian school told me that they were Evangelicals, which in Egypt is considered a denominational name, and followers of Billy Graham who had made several trips to Egypt.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptian Christians, however, belong to one of the Eastern churches. Some are Eastern Orthodox, of which there is an autocephalous church based in Alexandria, though most of its members today are in sub-Saharan Africa. The overwhelming majority, however, are Copts. The Coptic Church, which claims as its founder the evangelist St. Mark, broke from the main body of Christians that would evolve into the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church during the 5th century, though today that divide is being healed as the 82-year-old Pope Shenouda III, 117th successor of St. Mark, has built much of his papacy around the idea that unity of the basics of faith is more important the theological differences, and that in any event the main difference - whether Jesus has two natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, or just one nature which is both divine and human - probably isn't that big a deal.

I'm waiting to deal more with the historic landmarks of Coptic Christianity until after I visit Wadi Natrun (assuming I make it out there), but the church today is undergoing a signficant revival. When Bishop Maurice he was here he suggested I go to the Muqattam cliffs, where huge churches with were in recent decades carved out of the rock and are filled with congregations of thousands of working-class and poor Copts. (I actually haven't done this yet.) Many Copts have a fish emblem on their cars, and almost all will proudly display on their wrists black tattoos of the Coptic cross, with the four bars all equal length, each ending in three dots for the three persons of the Trinity. They also follow a very conservative morality with regard to gender issues. The three-hour worship services are segregated by gender (men and women on different sides of the church), and when you see the courting couples all hanging out along the Nile corniche the women almost all have headscarves because with Copts you need a chaperone of some kind if you want to meet someone of the opposite gender, and if you decide to get engaged, it is forbidden to see your fiancee between the proposal and wedding day.

Now a couple of weeks ago I indicated that the next protest would be in Coptic Cairo - that was a mistake. I read a bunch of stuff about being in a Coptic location to balance the Sayyida Zaynab protest, and thought I read "Misr al-Qadima," which is basically Coptic Cairo, when in reality it was "Misr al-Jadida," a region in the northeast which incorporates Heliopolis and Zaytun, the latter a neighborhood with a large concentration of Copts. The latter is where the Kefaya-inspired splinter groups held their protest the week after the march through Shubra, and where a friend of mine and I made our way by Metro to find the Church of the Virgin Mary where it was taking place.

In terms of the security presence, the Zaytun affair was the exact opposite of what happened in Shubra - the CSF was out in force - there were at least a thousand of them, more than I've seen since my first day here - and the streets were all completely closed down even to pedestrians for about two blocks in any direction. My friend and I got there late, and so couldn't get near the proceedings - you could see them in the distance down the street, the usual array of protest signs and banners supplemented by crosses, and the chants I later found out, sprinkled with calls to the Virgin Mary to intervene against Husni Mubarak, but as the people in the neighborhood (several showing off their cross tattoos as we met made introductions) gathered at the security barricades to check out the action the police and security people kept telling them to move along, raising the question of how valuable freedom of speech is if no one is permitted to listen.

Seeking a way in, we went down a side street lined with CSF trucks, the recruits within fairly relaxed and happy, perhaps because there were in the shade rather than lined up at attention along the hot street. Some were enjoying playing with some neighborhood children, bouncing an inflatable ball back and forth while laughing and smiling. Near the end of the lane, the squad in the last truck got called away by an officer - they jogged into an alley where we saw them talk to a plainclothes policeman, who gave them some directions and then they jogged off again, presumably to suppress some dissent somewhere, undoubtedly believing as they did so that they were acting in the right, brave soldiers off to protect the future of the country for the children who had just been bringing a light to their eyes. The entire scene made me think of Faramir's words to the dead Haradrim in The Two Towers film, about what lie had brought you so far from home, who are undoubtedly good men.

The protest ended, and the usual crowd adjourned to the Greek Club. After the press left there was violence, for someone - we don't know how - beat up some of the protestors when they tried to march again. Some of the protestors also took the Metro back downtown, where they sang protest songs between stops, for which they were later asked to pay a small fine for causing a disturbance on the Metro.

The next week - last Wednesday - the protest was held in Imbaba. This is a very different neighborhood from Zaytun, found on the west bank of the Nile opposite the north side of Zamalek. A poor district, during the early 1990's it was taken over by Muslim fundamentalists who declared it an independent Islamic Republic, a fact which those savvy in Cairo politics still find amusing ("It's the Islamic Republic, baby!") despite the fact that the Mubarak regime, somewhat offended at the attempt to establish an independent country in its capital city, sent in an army of 10,000 to restore order.

The Imbaba protest had a smaller security presence than usual - a couple of rows of CSF guys with arms locked together in a circle directly around the protestors. There were also few protestors than usual - only about 150 according to most estimates - and fewer people watching, perhaps because having had the army showing up in your neighborhood once during your lifetime is enough to kill off any more urges toward political activism. What was new was the greater Islamist presence, and the appearance of more open divisions among the protestors. The Islamists, for example, added "Allahu akbar," or "God is great" to the chants, which drew objections from the Trotskyites, until they agreed to go with, "Down with America!" instead.

Some plainclothes cops conjured up a pro-Mubarak protest of youth from the area, and the fact they were so close to the anti-Mubarak crowd made the scene a little tense at times. At one point the group I was with noticed were were standing directly between the two protests as they began to shout at each other, and someone suggested we find a better location. I made a quip to whomever was behind me about whether they didn't want to be in the center of the action; the reply was a curt, "No." Later the pro-democracy protestors made a concentrated effort to break through the CSF lines, which ultimately drew a bunch of regular police to form another arm-in-arm barrier around them all just in case, but the government lines held, and the protest remained contained.


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