Egyptian family welcomed its Christian neighbors in happy times, and sad ones too.
My home was in a small, unassuming village in the Egyptian Nile delta. Many people’s lifestyles hadn’t changed that much since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers have found no dramatic census changes for a long time.
Before CNN and Al Jazeera, villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the outside world went only as far as the edge of their cornfields. The men left with their animals for work at dawn and came back at dusk, while their wives stayed home, busy raising kids to work in the farm as soon as they mastered their first step.
People seemed to consult the same fashion designer, go to the same mosque to pray, eat the same food, celebrate the same holidays, and for generations, villagers kept the gene pool very much confined to the area’s families. As youngsters, we spent most of our days trying to kill time, and playing soccer was the only game in town.
However, there was something un-provincial about my village. Unlike most of villages around us, we had one Christian family living among us. They lived in the outskirts of the village near the cemetery, a place villagers would visit only when there was a divine call.
The Christian family’s peculiar lifestyle was intriguing to me; in fact, it was a breath of fresh air to invigorate the monotonous village life. They seemed friendlier than most, and they flashed a smile to anyone who cared to make eye contact.
Unlike other villagers, who worked on the farm, the Christian family was still in the hunting-and-gathering age. They made their living chasing wild wolves lurking on the outskirts of the village during a time when wolves were considered a dangerous species. The Christian father would disappear into the remote cornfields for days and suddenly reappear with his kill. The family then would drag the dead wolf around the village for show-and-tell, describing the grave danger they had just faced and the heroic adventure they had encountered, which earned them considerable admiration from villagers and a handsome handout of rice, corn or whatever the season offered at the time.
The students in the Christian family weren’t required to attend the daily religious class (usually about Islam) at the public school like the rest of us, who had to endure the daily dull regimen of the overbearing religion teacher.
It was customary for the well-fed, overweight teacher to call on “Sameer Kariakoos,” the only Christian student in my class, to leave the room. He left under the watchful eyes of all the Muslim students, looking on with a mix of envy and sarcasm. He freely roamed the schoolyard during the one-hour religious class.
One day, as the Christian student was leaving the room as usual, I started walking next to him. The teacher asked me where I was going; I said I was a Christian too. Being the son of the principal did nothing to help my ploy succeed.
I don’t know why I liked to hang around with Sameer Kariakoos, known simply as the Christian kid. I had the privilege and perks that came with being of the majority religion. My alliance with him might have resulted from our both being different from most of the villagers.
My family, too, had chosen a career other than farming. My family were the educators who for years ran the only village elementary school. We didn’t wear the galabiah, the traditional robe. We wore pants, and the village kids entertained themselves by poking fun at us because of the difficulty of going to the bathroom while wearing pants.
Years went by, and since Egyptian Christians had the same life expectancy as Muslims, the father suddenly died. The family was not prepared for this eternal fate, and neither was the rest of the village. Although the cultural tradition of the Muslim villagers accommodated the Christian family while they were alive, the religious burial traditions were not flexible enough to accommodate the mixing of their dead in the same cemetery. The Christian family wanted to bury their father in the village and not venture away to a segregated Christian cemetery, as most of them do across Egypt.
There was some reluctance and hesitation from the village leaders. Islam prohibits mixing the dead in the mausoleum. I guess they were afraid that the Christians might eavesdrop on the dead Muslims’ conversations with God.
Members of my father’s part of the family were not known for their religious zealotry, but for their kindness and generosity. The family logic was that if the Christian family had lived in peace with the rest of us all these years without any trouble, there definitely wouldn’t be much trouble while they were dead.
My family consulted no one in the village. As we had welcomed the Christian family alive, so we welcomed them among our dead. The burial ceremony was completed with a grave, like all Muslim graves, that lacked religious symbols or eulogy — just a Christian family name, “Kariakoos,” and dates: “Born in 1911 and died 1962.”
All those years, in my village, Muslims and Christians had lived together and died together in peace and harmony. As my brother put it, “No diversity programs were required, no axis of evil was declared, and no crusade or jihad was launched.”
My brother, Sheikh Obed, who falls in the gentle camp of my family, who welcomed the Christian family among our dead, told me in a reflective voice, “I stop by the Christian family grave every time I visit our family cemetery.
“Please relate this story to your friends in America.”
I just did.
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American show “Belahdan,” which airs Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on Twin Cities Public Television (Ch. 17).
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