Month: October 2015

Egypt: Eid al-Adha in Abbassia

Warning to vegetarians: Explicit content and descriptions of violence.

You’ve hopefully noticed I’m not keen on the word tourist. I wouldn’t describe myself as a traveller either, as most of my time is spent getting up at 6am and going to work five days a week like most people. Holidaying expat might be more accurate, or migrant who visits nearby countries when he has time off. But when you have a fixed amount of time to explore a new place, especially one as famous and rich in culture and history as Egypt, it’s a little difficult to avoid seeing the Pyramids and Luxor. So I was more than ready to accept an invitation from my colleague to spend Eid with his family in the district of Abbassia in Cairo. Very much not on the tourist trail. It’s an old district, with old grand European-style houses mixed in with authentic traditional Egyptian families who weren’t looking to sell me anything. The fact that in central parts of Cairo, Giza and Luxor, people who usually relied on tourism constantly tried to lure me in with perhaps the cleverest and sneakiest tactics I’ve come across, it was a welcome break and much needed insight into the other Egypt. The real Egypt.

It began at daybreak in the centre of Abbassia, with mass public prayer in the street, and a general festive feeling. It’s very clearly a happy time, where everyone is extra friendly and generous. I stood in the middle rudely taking my pictures, all the while anticipating the main event of the day, the slaughtering of sheep.20150924_061408

We went to the family home, and I donned the traditional Egyptian gallabia. Commonly known as the thobe in other parts. I could smell the sheep on the balcony, alive and well, perhaps unaware of their fate. Now I say sheep, but if I saw them in Europe I’d most definitely be calling them goats. Once upon a time I thought I knew the difference, but my time in the Middle East has left me more than a little confused about the distinction. Even with fluent English speaking Egyptians I was told they were definitely sheep, and not goats. Bangs and small explosions in the street led us out to partake in the traditional firecracker throwing, at all and anything. Definitely a health and safety hazard at home, but a source of much amusement for the young and annoyance for the elderly in Egypt.

The first ‘sheep’ was brought out into the public abbatoir and the local butcher was called upon to do the deed. The sheep was calmly laid down in the doorway in the street. “Bismallah. Allahu akbar.” The throat, wind pipe and blood vessels in the neck were then cleanly slit, and the blood left to drain into the cobbles. Skinned, gutted and cut into pieces, ready for dinner. A third given to the poor (who literally came up to the family in the street asking for some), a third to their family, and a third for themselves. I have a lot of respect for the compulsory zakat (charity) in Islam. Whether it’s altruistic or not is irrelevant, it serves a noble purpose.

I’d never seen an animal be killed, or even die. I’ve flirted with the idea of vegetarianism for a few years now, going through phases and settling for being a vegetarian at home most of the time, but not when out of the house. It’s actually very difficult to be a vegetarian when outside of Europe, particularly when you’re a guest. My objections with eating meat revolve around agriculture and the environment, rather than murder. Cutting down a lot covers my argument usually, and I can’t fully explain why, but I think it’s better to eat what you’re given rather than cause a fuss. With a nod to my previous post, I always remember the Desert Father’s advice: If you’re going to fast and then make a big deal of it in front of others, then stay at home to avoid looking proud or rude. But anyway, I eat meat. It is different when you eat something you saw die though. I think we desensitise ourselves a lot in European cities. To actually see an animal be killed, and call it a killing, and then readily eat it later on…that’s ethically challenging. I joked that the experience had just turned me into a vegetarian and that I couldn’t put these pictures on Facebook. Then I went in and ate its liver. I know some reading this will see this as quite flippant, uncaring and dismissive of a genuinely important ethical debate, but I’m simply trying to show the conflict and contradictions in my mental battle with vegetarianism. Eating meat is readily accepted in the majority of the world, so it’s easy to not think about it much. I’m pretty sure if the majority were vegetarian I wouldn’t go against that grain either.

Shisha and coffee followed after my Eid gift of ten Egyptian pounds (about 90p?). The hospitality and generosity of my colleague and his family were exceptional. Another example of people treating a foreigner like a member of the family without hesitation. Would I invite someone I didn’t know very well to spend Christmas with me and my family? Probably not.

As a final point, the family I was with had spent several years in Lancaster. I’m regularly worried about Arabs’ experiences in Britain, but I’m very relieved to report that they all loved it, and were keen to point out that the warnings they had about us being cold, unfriendly and unhelpful were proved to be very wrong. Well done Lancaster. Another lesson learnt about me, Brits, and other cultures. Eid mubarak.

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Egypt: Scetis (Wadi el Natrun).

I wasn’t there long, but I sensed it was a place in conflict. In conflict with its neighbours, its history and its country. All the while, sitting there peacefully in the middle of the desert like an ancient monastic Tatooine.

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The Coptics recently had some issues with Da’esh in Libya, and then in Upper Egypt – apparently building a church to remember the Libyan martyrs was upsetting for others. Violent troubles in the region’s history and the treatment of the monks were often mentioned, and politically they seemed a little tense, but in general quite relieved that the current leader was in charge.

I’d randomly met a lot of Christians in Cairo and Alexandria, many more than I was expecting. To my surprise, I found them to be everywhere.

Brother Macarius was a very amiable fellow. A calm and friendly man at peace. He seemed genuinely delighted to show me around. He said he doesn’t meet many Brits, and was delighted to be informed by an English teacher that his English was excellent. He has some family in Manchester, but was slightly taken aback and at a loss for words when I asked where abouts. Apparently, “I have family in Manchester” is enough to please most people.

He gently led me around, telling me how the Coptics claim to be the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Their language and some rites descend from ancient Egypt, and Arabic is the newest influence upon their daily life. This was mentioned to me on two different occasions in the monasteries which implied it must be a contentious issue, or a point of pride to one-up the other guys. He told me about the martyrs, the Berber invasions and his Christian v Muslim debating skills. He was a little surprised when I started to reference some Desert Fathers and practices I’d read about. I’m not sure what kind of people actually visit Wadi Natrun, but I assumed it would be people who know what the place actually is as it’s not exactly on the foreigner tourist trail. But perhaps not.

He went on to confirm that when they say, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” they often (but not always) follow it with, “All are One.” I should have guessed why, as it made a lot of sense when explained. I’ve heard myself several times from Arab Muslims of how the Christians believe in three gods. So in an attempt to dispel this myth, the Coptics explicitly emphasise the unity of the Trinity. When I quizzed him about the theological training of the monks, I was politely informed that knowing lots of theories and ideas does nothing for giving you peace, loving your neighbour or bringing you closer to the divine.

I’m not sure why, but I felt like asking him if the Coptics believed in war. The question was met with a rather surprised and confused Brother Macarius looking straight back at me. “How can anyone who believes in Jesus and the New Testament be anything but a pacifist?” Quite. So no Just War Theory or justification for violence in any context? “We didn’t have the Roman Empire to twist our theology like you Europeans. So no, we don’t believe in violence.” Well good sir, despite the fact you’ve never heard of Benedicta Ward, I do believe I quite like you and your completely sensible talk.

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