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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Egypt, Part IV

Part I
Part II
Part III

Back in Cairo, with internet access at last, we scanned the news and posted a quick "we're okay" message on facebook. Say what you will about facebook, it's a great way to stay in touch while abroad. Same goes for skype. A bus accident had killed a group of Americans in Upper Egypt earlier that week, so Nicole and I definitely wanted to drop by facebook before hitting the town. For a special New Year's Eve dniner, we returned to Dido's, unable to pass up good pasta and great prices, and then had plenty of time to walk around the Zamalek area of Cairo. Passing a newsstand, I almost bought a paper, but the best English-language offering was a four-day-old USA Today. Pass.

We ended up at a great bookstore called Al Diwan and got a couple Egyptian cookbooks and a really useful book called What Every American Needs to Know about the Middle East, which I'm now halfway through. Some of the material is familiar (I've already read lots of stuff on Lebanon, for instance, and the neoconservative agenda for the region is old news) but the book is filling in some of the many gaps in my own knowledge of Egypt, the gulf, and the ins and outs of European colonialism throughout this entire part of the world. The latter, a subject for another post or two on this blog, gets uglier and uglier the more you read. Winston Churchill, not always the most honest guy at the table.

Anyway, an early Italian dinner, an evening in bookstores, maybe not the most exciting New Year's Eve ever, but we get points just for being in Cairo, right? Nicole and I did a lot of walking that night, enjoying the moderate weather, enough walking that we were ready to go back to our hotel (Meena had hooked us up with a suite!) and veg out with a little BBC World News, where we learned of freezing temperatures in...Phoenix. Maybe the world did stop turning during our media fast.

On January 1, we spent part of the day at the National Museum in Cairo, which claims to have the most priceless collection of any museum in the world. That claim might just be true. Naturally, King Tut's collection stands out as a highlight. The iconic gold mask. The gigantic Anubis, the jackal god (remarkable resemblance to Smokey) and god of mummification who ushered dead pharaos to the afterlife. The rooms and rooms of jewels. The stacking gold boxes, like Russian dolls, that housed the actual mummy. Amazing, as is the sheer volume of stuff that the folowers of the kings stuffed into those tombs. Like I said earlier, when you descend into the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, you encounter emptiness. At the National Museum, you realize those tombs were once like massive, efficiently packed storage spaces. The big anthropod coffins are a highlight, too, as are the boxes in which organs were placed during the mummificatin process. You can look into one of the organ boxes, divided into chambers, and see the dusty and dehrydated remains. Disgusting stuff.

By far my favorite thing in Cairo--maybe in all of Egypt--was the Coptic community. Our guide on New Year's Day, Michael, was a devout Copt. I had mentioned to our main guide Meena earlier in the week that I wanted to learn and see all I could of Coptic Cairo, so I think he hooked us up with Michael deliberately. The Copts are Christians who believe Jesus was fully divine, but not fully human. Roman Catholics, Maronites, and Greek Orthodox all believe in the dual nature of Christ ("fully human, fully divine"--thanks seventeen years of Catholic school!), and this is the main reason the Copts split. They venerate the holy family's journey in Egypt and tell stories about miraculous events that followed Jesus and his family during this period after the birth in Bethelehem and the settling down--once the King was no longer mandating the deaths of male children--in Nazareth. One story says a scorcerer, fearing Jesus, pushed a boulder off a cliff to fall on the holy family but the toddler Jesus reached up a hand and stopped the rock. The rock, Copts believe, still bears a tiny handprint. A lot of these stories emphasize Jesus' miraculous power, even as a child, stories that support the theology of total divinity.

Sadly, no photos allowed in the Coptic churches, so we picked up many postcards depicting the icons and architecture of this beautiful area. The "hanging" church, so-called because it's raised to avoid the flooding waters of the Nile, has a dual dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Dimiana, and has three altars side-by-side at the front of the chruch. Icons COVER the walls, incidentally in the same way that hieroglyphics COVER the walls of tombs and temples from ancient times. In the hanging church, you see many representations of St. Stephen, St. Anthony (the early monk, not the Paduan beloved by Italians), the holy family, the flight through Egypt, St. Dimiana, St. Mark, St. Thecla, and St. George--a lot of the same saints revered by Greek Orthodox and revered throughout the Christian Middle East). They also have an odd icon I've never seen before that shows Mary holding a large crucifix--not just a cross, but a cross with the body of Jesus still on it. Never saw that before. We also went to the chruch of Sts. Sarguis and Bacchus, early martyrs; "Sargius" is built over a crypt where the Holy Family supposedly hid during part of their time in Egypt. Needless to say, my dad would love it here.

Tragic postscript to our time in Coptic Cairo: a bombing the night before at a Coptic cathedral in Alexandria (home of the great, ancient library, an Egyptian city even farther to the north) had killed 21 and wounded many more. The bomb targeted Christians who were ringing in the new year by praying. As I'm writing this, the investigation has only begun, but many accounts suggest this was part of the same network targeting Christians in Iraq in recent months. Needless to say, tragic and awful. Strange to be at these churches only nine hours or so after the bombing up in Alexandria (just to be totally clear: we were nowhere near the church that was bombed) and you could see the increased security, as well as some of the anger and sadness. Our guide for the day, for instance, being a devout Copt, was so knowledgable and taught Nicole and I so much about the history and theology of the community, but his frustration over the bombing also informed the experience. I think he assumed we were Christian (we definitely are) and of the same opinion as him about Islam (we definitely are not). The comments started off subtle but eventually progressed to something like, "That is who Muslims are, that is how they spread their religion."

What do you say? I mean, the guy's community was just attacked, which doesn't excuse his words but certainly shapes his mindset at that moment. I asked him if we could just not talk about the subject and stick to Coptic history since we have loved ones who are both Christian and Muslim. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut, but maybe, despite the rawness of the post-Alexandria moment, it was one of those occasions where "saying something" is exactly the right thing to do--the refusal to sit idly by while people speak and act in a way that just keeps that cycle going. He later tried to spin the whole conversation as a misunderstanding--he was referring to the irrefutable, very old history of spreading Islam by military might. "You were referring to something that happened nine hours ago, not to 'very old history,'" I replied, pretty much my last words on the subject, even as he got in some later digs. Speak your peace, but then let it go. Would it accomplish anything to bring up the crusades, the KKK, violence in Ireland, and argue that no single religion has the monopoly on extremism or using God to justify violence?

Also went to Kahn Al Kalily, maybe the most crowded place on Earth. The Kahn holds Cairo's souks and markets and touristy souks (with scarves, gallabias, etc.) sit right alongside practical souks (butcher shops, fabrics and textiles, produce), so everybody is right there, walking the crowded aisles of the market distrcit. Vendors wheeling carts through the souk make a loud, hissing sound as they race through the aisles, a multi-lingual way of saying "excuse me," I suppose. You can't leave Cairo without seeing this spectacle, although Nicole and I focused on breathing and not getting separated, and we didn't actually buy a thing there.

A strange last day in Egypt. I can honestly say that we learned something. Any good teacher will tell you that sometimes tension is necessary in order for learning to take place. We had a fabulous experience in Egypt and I'm immensely thankful for the week Nicole and I spent there. An event like what happened in Alexandria makes riding on camels and dancing at a gallabia party seem pretty frivolous. It certainly makes reading, eating cheap Italian food, and grading papers seem mundane. But the contrasts among gravity, frivolity, and the everyday charecterize so much of life in the middle east. There are complex problems. Tragedies occur. But people eat, go to work, party, pray, and live. We took a late-night flight from Cairo to Beirut and got back to Hamra around 2:00 a.m., the same time we left the Viccini building eight days ago.

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