Friday, November 25, 2011

An Evening With Coptic Christians



On Wednesday night, I accompanied a journalist friend to conduct interviews with a group of Christian men in Shubra. A vast neighborhood on the Nile, Shubra is where  a march on October 9th began before it was met with violence in front of the famous Maspero building downtown. That violence had been the worst since January, but now it looks like a tragic precursor to this week’s battles.

Most of the time, however, Shubra is a quiet lower class area, roughly 40% Coptic Christian (as opposed to Egypt, which is 10%), and in many ways indistinguishable from any other tightly packed popular area. Long streets of brick apartment buildings give way to bright fluorescent commercial blocks, where men drink tea, smoke shisha, and play dominoes and backgammon.

On one of those blocks, we entered a cafe cheekily called “Casino Choubra.” I cannot repeat enough how identical these cafes appear to an outsider; the same wooden chairs with the same stain patterns, the same faux marble tabletops clanking as they’re dragged across the tile floor, the same harsh white light, and the same busy young man placing coals from a swinging brazier on each shisha pipe.

At 10pm, in the back corner of Casino Choubra, we met the group of men, who would have seamlessly blended in had we not been introduced. They smiled and rose and shook our hands, Sherif, Ashraf, Maged…They took turns playing a game of backgammon, ordering sahleb (a milky, warm drink made from orchid root) and anise tea, and teasing one another, with surprising but charming immaturity.

They meet here after work many days to pass the time. Each has different stories and a different sense of humor, but all have both in spades. Some have worked as “pizza guys” in the U.S. and others professed to have seen the Virgin Mary.

I spoke with Maged, a quick-witted but goofy English teacher who told me that it’s not polite to ask about personal subjects, and then offered that all of his friends, and he, were unmarried. “Well I can’t ask why!,” I joked, and he slapped my hand jovially. “We are all still looking,” he said. “We have a lot of criteria, and it is very hard to find the right woman.” He detailed to me how she cannot be from too rich a family, too poor a family, how she must be educated. “Maybe we are too picky,” he concluded, as if quoting Seinfeld.

Eventually, or inevitably, we were talking about the protests. These men had not been to Tahrir square during the recent demonstrations, and Maged was critical of Egyptians he says show up at the square for five minutes, have their picture taken, and leave. “They are showy. Everybody wants to have his chance to be a hero,” Maged told me. “They don’t have any maxims, any values.”

But that did not mean he had any kind words for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He thinks they won’t relinquish power, in part, because it means they will be prosecuted. But more than that, he argues it has to do with their training. “It’s that army arrogance that forbids them from stepping down,” he told me. “They’re taught to have this arrogance. It’s part of their job.”

He explained that military men have to be decisive and confident in order to succeed in battle, but when this skill is transferred to civilian leadership, it forms the basis for a dangerous intransigence. Maged compared their current position to his own work as a teacher. “If my students all demanded I step down, I definitely would.” I was a bit skeptical. “Really?” “Yes. Absolutely. And there are only twenty of them. Here there are thousands.”

As for the elections, Maged told me he had planned to vote for the liberal ‘Free Egyptians’ party, founded by telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawiris. But, he said, “I won’t go if the polling places are violent. It’s better to abstain than to get killed.”

More than the possibility of violence, he was nervous about the possible electoral sweep of the Muslim Brotherhood, or even worse, the Salafi parties. Numerous news stories have described Christians in Egypt as “living in fear.” Many have found their churches attacked, and wealthier Christians are leaving the country.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have made massive publicity efforts in the last year to be seen as moderate, friendly, and practical, but have clearly had no effect on Maged. “They will put curtains on the ancient monuments,” he told me, “and this will lead to a drop in tourism. They will close all the beaches.” And of course, “they will threaten Christians.” He considered the Brotherhood’s now well-known efforts at providing social services as bribery for votes, the Salafis as men who “want to take Egypt back one hundred years.”

He then relished telling me a story about a recent television show, in which Gameela Ismail, a famous anti-Mubarak activist now running for parliament, whose poster seems to be everywhere these days, debated her Salafi contender. At the end of the interview, according to Maged, she held out her hand, on national television, knowing that the Salafi man would refuse to shake it. “What, you won’t greet me?” she implored, pulling her sleeve over her hand to highlight just how socially conservative, and in her supporters’ eyes, radical, the man facing her must be (skip to the end of this video to see it). Maged beamed proudly, as if talking about his own sister when he recounted the moment.

Our interview had by this point begun to feel formal, and I wanted to go out on a limb. “If they win,” I said, “do you think Christians like you will start to miss the days of Mubarak?” He tapped my knee. “You know, I was just feeling that this morning.”

A little after midnight, they invited us to come eat liver at a restaurant call The Prince. We declined, and they told us to come back to the café anytime. I climbed in a cab and watched the five of them drift, laughing, down an alley.

Photo From Getty Images

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