Egypt and India: A Friar’s Summer

Michael Calabria, OFM Friar News

After returning last week from a summer in Egypt of teaching, touring and reading, Michael Calabria, OFM, concluded: “we truly are more alike than we care to admit.”

Once again this summer I returned to Egypt to teach English at St. Leo the Great Coptic-Catholic seminary. This year, with generous support from the Franciscan Missionary Union, I had assumed directorship of the summer ESL program, assisted by a Catholic lay woman and a female Lutheran minister, as well as by one of my third-year Arabic students from St. Bonaventure.

On the flight to Cairo at the beginning of June, I began reading a book by William Dalrymple titled The Last Mughal. A book about the end of Mughal rule in India might have been an unusual choice for someone about to spend five weeks in Egypt, but after finishing my work in Egypt, I would be travelling to India to do research on Islamic India for my courses at St. Bonaventure. 

By the time I landed in Cairo, I had barely made it through the introduction and first chapter, and for the next six weeks, I would not get back to it at all. For the next month and half at the seminary, my time would be consumed with orientation for new teachers, lesson plans, teaching, prayer, presiding, homilizing, field trips, meetings, pastoral counseling and social activities.

When I arrived in Egypt, Cairo was still buzzing from President Obama’s visit just days before, and Obama souvenirs were still to be found in Cairo’s bazaars. His speech at Cairo University proved to be a useful tool in the classroom and generated a great deal of conversation. The seminarians’ reactions to the president’s speech were mixed: some were genuinely positive and optimistic, while others felt it was tinged with kalaam fadi — “empty talk” — and some even felt he was far too conciliatory to the Muslim world. 

Sadly, as in previous years, newspapers continued to report occasional incidents of sectarian violence. While some seminarians were quick to note Muslim violence against Christians, the most recent victim of violence was, in fact, a Muslim teenager killed by a group of Coptic youth. But squabbles between Christians and Muslims are the least of Egypt’s problems.

In addition to a government notorious for its corruption and human rights abuses, Egypt’s economic woes are staggering: forty percent of the nation’s 80 million people live below or around the poverty line. A land that once fed the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic Empires now must import several million tons of wheat from Russia and the United States every year. Yet, earlier this year the U.S. reduced its economic aid to Egypt to $200 million while maintaining the amount of military aid at $1.3 billion.

I reminded my students that modern Egypt was built by Christians and Muslims together, and that its future depended upon mutual cooperation to address Egypt’s economic and political woes. Once again I reminded them of a flag used by Egyptian nationalists at the beginning of the 20th century, bearing the Crescent of Islam and the Cross of Christianity: Egyptians united against the injustices of imperialism. In Egypt’s current tense religious climate such a flag seems almost unimaginable. 

After six weeks in Egypt, it was time to begin my research in India. I brought Dalrymple’s book along with me to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Ajmer, but it wouldn’t be until near the end of my journey that I found the time to resume reading it. Finishing it back in the States, I was glad I hadn’t gotten to it sooner as the author described the horrific violence that occurred during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in and around the very places I had just visited. The rebellion, which had begun largely among Hindus and was brutally suppressed by the British, was blamed on the Muslims and used as an excuse to eliminate India’s Muslim emperor and establish direct imperial rule over India.

frmichael-bLike many Egyptians, Indians too have forgotten that their greatest challenge in past centuries has not been religious pluralism, but western imperialism. While India continues to experience incidents of sectarian violence — Hindu-Muslim and more recently Hindu-Christian — like Egypt, India’s most pressing problem today is unquestionably its poverty. Over 100,000 people sleep on the streets of Delhi every night; the World Bank estimates that 456 million Indians (42 percent of the total population) now live under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day (PPP). This means that a third of the global poor now reside in India.

On the day I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, I paused to read the passage from the Qur’an inscribed on its gateway: “But you do not honor the orphans, nor do you encourage one another to feed the poor. And you devour inheritance in greed, and you love wealth exceedingly…” (89.17-20).

Egypt’s poor, India’s poor, America’s poor — they all flashed before my eyes. Every visitor to the Taj, every person who passes through that gateway — Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist — we all share in the sin of neglecting the poor in spite of what our respective prophets have proclaimed. We truly are more alike than we care to admit. 

Pictured above is Michael with friend Jamal and family in Egypt. In photo behind: Michael is shown helping an Egyptian seminarian prepare a homily.

— Fr. Michael is a lecturer in Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.