Tugging at the closed door

Hala Halim, Tuesday 1 Nov 2011

On the discourses of national unity and Ahmad El-Khamisi’s anti-sectarian project

Copts and Muslims join in protest
Copts and Muslims join in protest in post-revolutionary Egypt (file photo)

It was on 14 October that I met, for the first time, Ahmad El-Khamisi, writer and leftist intellectual who has written extensively against sectarian tensions vis-à-vis the Copts. Two of the key subjects I wanted to bring to the table at our meeting in Cairo were his 2008 book al-Bab al-Mughlaq Bayn al-Aqbat wal-Muslimin fi Misr (The Closed Door Between Copts and Muslims in Egypt) and an anti-sectarian cultural project that he had proposed earlier this year which was given immediate impetus by the attacks on churches in the months after the revolution.

The meeting, needless to say, gained further immediacy from having taken place so soon after the Maspero incident of 9 October in which a protest by Copts -- in front of the state television building in Cairo and in the presence of military police -- against the destruction of a church in El-Marinab village in Upper Egypt ended in the massacre of about 23 demonstrators and the injury of many, state television having also presented a markedly biased picture with incitement against the protestors.

While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) denied responsibility – claiming that the demonstrators had been violent and blaming the massacre on “third parties” seeking to forge a rift between the army and the people – a forensic report established that 13 had died by being run over by vehicles and 8 by live ammunition (see Wafaa Sheira’s report in al-Badil, 21 October 2011).

To counter SCAF’s official story, the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth held a press conference on 13 October in which filmed clips were shown and eyewitness accounts by both protestors and families of martyrs delivered, attesting to the army tanks’ running over of protestors and the firing at them (see al-Tahrir, 14 October 2011). Other testimonies of army violence have proliferated, for instance the accounts given by the wounded as recorded by novelist Ahdaf Soueif (see al-Shorouk, 19 October 2011) and the eyewitness accounts printed in al-Ishtiraki of 14 October 2011, which include protestor Lobna Darwish’s statement that “the tanks hurtled at top speed… in zigzag, chasing a group trying to flee, driving on the pavement and crushing people.”

Comprising 17 texts and an appendix, al-Bab al-Mughlaq – published by Mu’assasat al-Hilali and now out of print – is a mixture of opinion pieces, autobiographical vignettes, reviews of relevant books, literary criticism, and a short story. Apart from the story that gives the book its title and the last essay, most of the texts have appeared in the column El-Khamisi has kept for years in the weekly literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab.

By virtue of covering the period from 1999 to 2007 (the texts are dated), responding to sectarian incidents and phenomena of discrimination as they unfold, the book also functions as a chronicle. Indeed, the appendix, acerbically entitled “Dates of incidents to be forgotten,” is a table that logs the date of a given sectarian incident (from 1971 to 2006), its place, the nature of the event and damage done, and the number of those wounded and killed. The painstaking work of documentation and analysis is complemented, albeit in a literary critical vein, by the final essay, in which he provides a selective overview of representations of Copts and issues of religious bias in Egyptian literature over the course of the twentieth century.

That he rejects such labels as “Coptic literature” and “Nubian literature” is to be lauded, given the resurgence of ethnocentrism fomented by neo-colonialism witnessed in Iraq and Sudan which comes to reconfirm the warnings to post-independence countries, made back in the 1960s, by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth and Kwame Nkrumah in Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. Despite its title and the themes of various essays, however, it would be wrong to suggest that al-Bab al-Mughlaq is exclusively devoted to the Coptic issue: the author discusses the problem of Egyptian Bahais’ citizen rights and Islamic religious authorities’ condemnatory statements concerning literary texts’ inspiration by, allusions to and quotations from religious stories or the Qur’an. These discussions are altogether relevant in that they promote secularism and the values of citizenship but – unlike some interventions relating to the Copts, which implicitly treat them as a pretext to call for a fully secular state – his book’s primary concern remains the situation of Egyptian Christians.

Elsewhere, I have written about syncretism, particularly as seen in popular religious festivals, and the inter-faith exchange of culinary gifts, and related these to the inter-faith practices of solidarity witnessed in the Egyptian revolution in its claim to citizen rights and social justice (see Ahram Online, 28 February 2011). Here, Iwould identify two of the signal terms and metaphors appealed to in different discourses that pit “national unity” (wihda wataniyya) against “sectarian sedition/strife” (fitna ta’ifiyya).

These are kinship, mainly but not solely “brotherhood” in the nation, this being construed as a “motherland”; and the inter-confessional dynamic in relation to the house or the home, this as a figuration of the homeland. These two elements are visibly interwoven in the name of the initiative “Bayt al-‘a’ila al-misriyya” (the Egyptian Family Home) originally proposed in January 2011 by the Grand Imam and sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad El-Tayyeb, in the wake of the bombing of the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria during a service on new year’s eve (see the article on the subject by Maha El-Bahnasawi and Emad Khalil in al-Masry al-Youm on 19 January 2011).

This initiative – which brings together high-ranking religious figures from the Azhar and different Christian denominations, with its task of minting “a new concept of citizenship” and promoting tolerance – was ratified by SCAF and the prime minister, Essam Sharaf, after the revolution.

It was a week, to the day, after the Maspero incident that the Egyptian Family Home disclosed its rejection of the draft of a long-awaited law, whereby the regulations and hence permits governing the building of mosques and churches would be identical, the absence of which has given rise to many a sectarian incident (see the article by Ahmad El-Beheiri, Emad Khalil and Haytham El-Sharqawi in al-Masry al-Youm on 17 October 2011). Given the differences in manner of worship between Islam and Christianity, as the Egyptian Family Home’s statement went, a separate, parallel law for building churches of various Christian denominations would be promulgated (see al-Masry al-Youm, based on wire services, on 16 October 2011).

In an opinion piece about the Egyptian Family Home’s decision, Ziyad El-Eleimi detects the remnants of the ancien régime, not least in the fact that the spokesperson (Mostafa El-Fiqi, though he does not name him) who delivered the resolution is a former media advisor to Mubarak. The revolution, El-Eleimi writes, aimed “to fulfill the dream of justice and equality among all Egyptians, regardless of their religion, gender or ethnicity” and hence “we, as Egyptian citizens, cannot accept that my family should be able to build a place of worship without trouble, while our brothers in the nation face bitter hardships if they wish to tear down a parameter wall or renovate their place of worship” (al-Masry al-Youm, 21 October 2011).

Addressing the Egyptian Family Home committee, he concludes, “You are not our family; your home is not our home. Shut your door onto yourselves and forever keep silent. Or else be prepared to join your family as Egyptians will push the door shut and lock you all up in one prison cell.” Word has it that Sharaf stated that the “unified law of places of worship” will be reviewed in light of the observations of the religious authorities, the Committee for National Justice and the Egyptian Family Home (see Mansour Kamel in al-Masry al-Youm, 27 October 2011) –attending also to churches that have not been granted permits – although it remains to be seen what the nature of these revisions is and what will come out of further deliberations.

Writers have taken the “kinship” and “home” metaphors, among others, from the repertoire of national unity and done rather different work from the Egyptian Family Home and governmental discourse. The first text in El-Khamisi’s book, the title story “The Closed Door,” is about a middle-aged childless couple, Maurice, who works in a bank, and Jeannette, a school teacher, and the daughter of their widowed Upper-Egyptian doorman, Hoda. The young girl runs errands for the couple – as she does for other residents of the building – and a mutual attachment grows. She lingers to watch TV, eat a slice of cake and sometimes spends the night at their place – about which her father has no qualms in view of Maurice’s age and kindness – and Jeannette works with Hoda on her reading and writing.

When the girl’s father dies, no one knows whether Hoda has other relatives; she ends up staying in the couple’s home, and Jeannette happily considers preparing the extra room for her. But her husband begins to notice all manner of insinuations and pointed questions about this arrangement whenever he stops in one of the shops, the word in the neighborhood being that “Mr. Maurice has taken the little girl and will have her convert to Christianity!” When a colleague he consults urges him to throw the girl out or find her some other home, Maurice is shocked and insists that Hoda is attached to them, but the colleague points out the gravity of the situation. Maurice shares all this with Jeannette – who weeps soundlessly and flees into the kitchen – then he asks Hoda to leave. The girl resists for several days, protesting that she has nowhere else to go, and buries her head in her reading lessons, but Maurice explains that though he loves her as a daughter she has to go. Finally, he thrusts Hoda out: “The girl clings to the door, scratches it like a cat and sobs, ‘Have I done anything to upset you, ‘amm [uncle] Maurice?’ By the Prophet, let me in. Let me in, by the Prophet.’ Standing behind the closed door, unable to hold back his tears, Uncle Maurice says, ‘I can’t, daughter. By the Virgin, I can’t.’ By the Prophet, by the Virgin, by the Prophet, and the door is closed and on each side is a lonely person in need of the other.”

Asked whether “The Closed Door” is fictional, El-Khamisi explains that it is based on true story that was recounted to him by a Christian friend whose credibility he fully trusts. In a later book, the collection of short stories Kanari (Canary) published by Akhbar al-Yawm in 2010, he includes a slightly fleshed out, more dramatized version of the story. He does well, however, not to identify it in either text as based on a true story so as to allow it to stand out as symbolic.

The second text in al-Bab al-Mughlaq is an autobiographical vignette about a childhood crush El-Khamisi had on Soad, the pretty sister of two friends among the neighborhood children he used to play with when he lived with his grandparents in Giza. While the few houses on the narrow street were known by the names of their residents, a friend once pointed to Soad’s house and said, “the house of the Christians.” Much later, “I came to understand the roots of what had deprived me of Soad,” the image of “‘the house of the Christians’ weighing on my conscience whenever some issue or the other concerning my Egyptian brothers who are Christian is broached.” El-Khamisi closes this text by stating that the persistent habits of differentiation along religious lines that are instilled in childhood, later leading to sectarianism, are the biggest danger that Egyptian culture faces. Muslims grow up seeing “solely Islamic culture, in the general sense of culture, while most Copts in turn are reared on solely Christian culture,” with the result that either group sees the nation and its history “with one eye.” While it is the case that Muslim practices have become very much part of public spaces in the past four decades – elsewhere, for example in the tenth essay, he critically inventories these practices – El-Khamisi may be exaggerating for effect when he suggests that Egyptian Christians’ vision is confined to Christian culture.

In the essay “The Monster of Discrimination,” El-Khamisi considers the causes of the crisis and proposes that whenever Egypt had a strong national project that would make for its revival; “the sectarian phenomenon” receded (he cites the reigns of Mohamed Ali and Khedive Ismail as examples). But he refuses to reduce the issue to the absence of a national project, citing other causes that rise to the fore in its absence such as “the religious nature of the state, poverty, ignorance… and the situation of a minority and how the majority relates to it.”

In terms of the state, El-Khamisi lays the blame on the Sadat regime with its support of Islamist groups and introduction into the constitution of a clause that identifies the sharia as the main source of legislation, then traces further phenomena of de-secularization of the state under Mubarak. In conversation, he elaborates that if one charts the areas in which sectarian incidents have occurred one would find that they are low-income ones, whereas areas free of such incidents correlate with affluence.

In other essays, he addresses the role of education and the media, underscoring the elision of Coptic history from school curricula and arguing that the resulting ignorance inevitably leads to othering. Among the recommendations he makes in “The Way Out of the Crisis,” are: cancelling the entry on religion on identity cards; giving equal media coverage to Coptic rituals; putting an end to all forms of discrimination in governmental employment and promotions; promulgating laws that criminalize “inciting hatred” in mosques, schools and curricula, as well as ensuring their application; revising school history textbooks to reflect the contribution of both Muslims and Christians and give space to Egypt’s Christian period; annulling all laws that oblige Copts to obtain governmental permission when renovating churches. This essay was first published in November 2005, and many of its valid recommendations have yet to be applied.

It was in May this year, in the wake of attacks on two churches in Imbaba area in Cairo, that El-Khamisi published an open letter addressed to the minister of culture in the interim government, Emad Abou-Ghazi (see al-Badil, 11 May 2011). Finding the expressions of solidarity by liberal and leftwing intellectuals ineffectual and pronouncing the ministry of culture’s long-standing discourse of enlightenment a case of preaching to the converted, he puts forward a proposal (already present in al-Bab al-Mughlaq, minus the institutional framework) that a committee for countering sectarianism be formed within the ministry in order to use its formidable resources (in conversation he observes that there are 250 cultural palaces nationwide), which would also make for more governmental involvement with the issue. The committee would be composed of writers, artists, directors, actors, musicians, historians and folklorists whose primary task would be to reach out to villages and low-income areas in cities through theatre troupes, songs promoting national unity, relevant film clips, and accounts of history that foreground the sacrifices of both Muslims and Christians in wars.

While more than one hundred intellectuals endorsed El-Khamisi’s proposal (see al-Badil, 14 May 2011), Abou-Ghazi responded that revisions to the law would help in the short term but cultural measures were more effective in the long run and that he was working on that front with a team of enthusiastic young people (see al-Badil, 12 May 2011). Asked about the fate of his proposal, El-Khamisi says that it was shelved by the ministry; delinking the issue from the person of Abou-Ghazi, he regrets the government’s abdication of responsibility which “makes it complicit in the crisis.”

It is the case that Abou-Ghazi, not long before becoming minister, was part of a team of scholars who reviewed school syllabi, in particular for Arabic and history, in terms of the values of citizenship, pluralism and reflection of ethnic and religious heterogeneity, the team’s quite critical report having been published this week (see the dossier on the subject in Akhbar al-Adab, 30 October 2011).

For his part, El-Khamisi continues to write lyrics that promote national unity and has reached an agreement with the state publishing house, the General Egyptian Book Organization, to reprint al-Bab al-Mughlaq so that the heavily subsidized second edition may reach a much wider audience.

Hala Halim is assistant professor of Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.

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