I was standing at the Muslim cemetery located in a remote corner of a cemetery in Burnsville as we were mourning the death of one our friends. In the United States, unlike in European Muslim “ghettos”, the members of the integrated Muslim-American community are very much free to choose where they want to live, and actually do live just about everywhere in the state of Minnesota; however, with our dead ones, we only have one choice. The Muslim “ghetto” grave is usually located inside a remote section of an existing Christian cemetery. I never understood the religious proximity taboo between the Muslim and Christian dead, and no amount of interfaith dialogue could bring the dead ones together; it is hard to argue that much when you are dead.
I couldn’t help to reflect back more than 40 years, remembering the one Coptic-Christian family grave in the heart of my primarily Muslim village cemetery in Meet Swaid, Egypt. We never questioned it, and we never thought of as something peculiar or unusual. So what is the story of this Coptic family? How did they live as a minority in my small village? As a hyphenated Muslim American living in the US, I wondered what it like was to be a Christian living in a majority Muslim village. After all the years since I left my village, I decided to go back to find out more about the history of this Christian family and why my village was immune from the rift between Coptic and Muslims that periodically surfaced on the Egyptian scene, especially in upper Egypt. I took my camera and decided to go.
After a 24-hour journey to Cairo and after meeting old friends and family eager to see their son back safely from the nowadays hostile American land, we hired a van for the 3-hour drive to my village. It took us one hour just to leave the congested Cairo city and reach the outskirts but only two hours to get to the village 150 miles away. Driving along the freeway through the heart of the Nile delta, the road was surrounded by massive orange orchards with fruit peddlers lining the road. They dotted the landscape with a burst of color displaying their oranges and tangerines in shapes of pyramids ambivalent to the ominous piles of trash everywhere you look.
We finally arrived at my village. Of course, a lot has happened since I left 40 years ago–places and people seemed to have moved on and the village now is taking the shape of a small crowded town. My village, as I remember it, was a small, unassuming place in the Egyptian Nile delta. Many people’s lifestyles hadn’t changed that much since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers couldn’t find any 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 fields. The men left with their animals for work at dawn and came back at dusk, while their wives stayed home, busy preparing hearty meals and 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. I was interested to know more about the Coptic family who lived among us where my family and relatives lived.
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 easily smiled,” commented Haj Abdullah, one of the few relatives left with a sharp memory of the Coptic family history.
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,” continued Haj Abdullah. “The Christian father, Kariaquos, would vanish into the remote fields for days and suddenly resurface with his kill,” he added. “The Coptic family would drag the dead wolf around in the streets 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” explained my cousin Ezzat. “I knew Karyaquos, the father; he had a great since of humor,” Hajj Abdullah added, “he was a joker.”
“I never thought of them as Christian or Coptic, just my neighbor”, shared my brother Abdel Rafaa. Growing up in my village, I liked to hang around with Samir Kariaquos, one of the Coptic brothers, known simply as the Coptic. Although I had the privilege and perks that came with being of the majority religion, my alliance with him was personal, and it might have resulted from our both being somewhat social outcasts by most of the villagers. Both of our families had chosen a career other than farming. My family members were the educators who ran the only village elementary school for years. Samir was in my class, and I always envied him for being a Coptic during our religion class; he was free to choose to stay or to leave to the school playground. I wished I could, too, if only to spare myself the abuse of our religion teacher. Besides his great personality, Samir had a unique skill: he was a sharp shooter, exceptionally good at using the BB gun and I was good at using the slingshot. In the summer, hunting small birds was our pastime. We both left the village early in the morning and spent the whole day roaming the field hunting for these “asafeer”, or sparrows. The solitude of the field greenery and the empty roads gave us the emotional space to be close and good buddies; we talked about anything, kissing girls and other dreams.
Years went by, and since Egyptian Coptics have the same life expectancy as Egyptian 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 Coptic 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 Coptic family wanted to bury their father at their cemetery located away from the city, as most of them do across Egypt”, said Haj Abdullah. However, “before his death, Karyaquos, the Coptic father asked your uncle (my uncle Abd Elhafeez) to be buried with him at the Muslim cemetery,” he explained. My uncle kept his promise to his Coptic neighbor. “There was some reluctance and hesitation from the villagers,” my brother Refaat said. “Both religions prohibit mixing the dead in the same graves or cemetery,” he explained.
Before the Wahhabi-oil brand of Islam that is sweeping Egypt these days, there was more tolerance. Nowadays Egyptian Muslims and Copts alike are expressing their frustration with their lives by using religious symbols and formalities; even the Egyptian soccer team (all Muslims) are known for their trade mark goal celebration now: they kneel down for a group prayer, thankful for every score and victory. Members of my father’s part of the family were not known for their religious zealotry, but for their kindness and generosity. ”If the Coptic family had lived in peace with the rest of us all these years without any trouble, there shouldn’t be much trouble while they were dead,” explained my cousin Fekary about Uncle Abd Elhafeez’s view at the time
“My family consulted no one in the village”, said my brother Nasser. The burial ceremony was completed quietly in my family cemetery grave. Now and after all these years , like all Muslim graves, which lack any religious symbols or eulogy—only a name and date — just a Coptic family name remains, “Kariaquos,” and the dates: “Born in 1911 and died 1962.” What is so amazing today is that with all the rift between Christians and Muslims, and Islam and the West, and also periodic flair ups between Egyptian Copts and Muslims, this has never translated into any hostility toward the Coptic family grave; no act of defacing or expression of graffiti on the unfenced Coptic grave can be found, which is remarkable in the age of the internet and global village and religious fundamentalism.
All those years ago, in my village, Muslims and Copts had lived together and died together in peace and harmony. As my brother Abdel Rafaa put it, “No diversity programs were required, no axis of evil was declared, and no crusade or jihad was launched.”
My brother, Abdel Rafaa, nicknamed Sheikh Obid, who falls into the gentle camp of my family, had no trouble welcoming the Coptic family alive and dead. He told me in a reflective voice, “I stop by the Coptic family grave every time I visit our family cemetery.” I jokingly asked my brother if he also recites Sourah “El Fathah” on the Coptic grave, which is customary for Muslims to recite when they visit their dead relatives. “No,” he replied, “out of my respect to their faith.”
“Please relate this story to your friends in America,” he pleaded.
I just did.
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American show “Belahdan,” which airs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. on Twin Cities Public Television (Ch 202).
Ahmed Tharwat/ Host BelAhdan…