A Summer of Surprises

Michael Calabria, OFM Friar News

For 30 years, Michael Calabria, OFM, has visited Egypt regularly, living there from 2001 to 2002. In 2004, he began directing and teaching a summer English as a Second Language program at the Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo. Below, Michael, who will return from Egypt on July 17, reflects on his first time visiting Egypt after the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

The weeks leading up to my departure for Cairo at the beginning of June were not encouraging. Several instances of sectarian violence, loss of life, and reports of lapses in security threatened the viability of the summer English course at St. Leo’s Coptic-Catholic Seminary.

Delta Airlines had cancelled its direct service from New York to Cairo, and even connecting flights were being canceled daily due to the lack of tourists and an overnight curfew imposed in Cairo. After weeks of monitoring the Egyptian press, consulting news briefs from the American Embassy in Cairo, and emailing friends and colleagues in Egypt, we decided it was sufficiently safe to proceed with the summer course with which I have been involved since 2003.

Pleasant Surprises
Accompanying me this year were St. Bonaventure University Arabic students Dea Hart and Ian Rogers (shown in rear photo). On the morning after our arrival, we set out from the seminary, both anxious and eager to see the new Egypt following the Jan. 25 revolution.

St. Leo’s Seminary is located in Ma’adi, a verdant southern suburb of Cairo, with upscale homes and air-conditioned cafés. I wondered what would be different. Would the neighborhood be as safe as it had been in past years? It didn’t take long to realize that there were no gangs of thugs waiting to prey upon foreigners, no angry mobs of wild-eyed Islamists waiting to attack Christians, just people going about their business as usual. Ma’adi is a neighborhood where people greet us warmly and remember us from year to year, and that hasn’t changed. Muhammad, a cab driver I employ frequently, was still at his post next to the grocery store, and welcomed me back with open arms, as did the baristas at a local café.

While the neighborhood seemed the same, the spirit of the revolution was still quite evident, however, in the numerous flags displayed on businesses and homes, on the tree trunks and balconies painted red, white and black (the colors of the flag), and on graffiti which displayed the cross and crescent with a big red heart between them.

Testing the waters further, we hopped on the metro and set out for the epicenter of the January revolution: Midan it-Tahriir, “Liberation Square,” in the heart of downtown Cairo. At the Sadat Metro Station, directly below Midan it-Tahriir, there were some clear reminders of January’s revolution: a long corridor lined with moving photos from the weeks of the protests that took place on the ground above and pictures of those who had lost their lives, now revered as martyrs.

Outside, Midan it-Tahriir rumbled with cars and buses and motorcycles as it always had. Businesses all around the square were open including the unsightly KFC, and there were still more signs of patriotism: men selling revolution souvenirs, Egyptian flags and tee-shirts that read: “I love Egypt.” On the side of a building facing the square, graffiti in Arabic read, “The Revolution Lives,” and in English: “Enjoy the Revolution.”

Caught up in the revolutionary spirit myself, I purchased from a street vendor several decals bearing the date “January 25, 2011” with the word thawra — “revolution.”

Looking up at Cairo’s skyline, the charred remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters served as a reminder of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power after 30 years of rule, the precise period of time I have been coming to Egypt. Mubarak became president just weeks after my first visit to Egypt in the fall of 1981.

Back in Ma’adi, I was eager to speak with the seminarians about their experiences during the past six months. I already knew that some of them had voiced support for Mubarak on their Facebook walls, believing that he had protected Egypt’s Christian minority from Islamist fundamentalists.

Indeed most Coptic Orthodox and Coptic-Catholic priests were not openly supportive of the revolution, for which they have lost some credibility with Egypt’s youth. A pleasant surprise awaited me when I spoke with Fady, a seminarian with whom I’d had a tense relationship in previous years. Two years ago, when we decided to introduce field-trips into the summer course to provide students with an opportunity to visit Cairo’s museums, Fady was repulsed by the idea: “Look at antiquities in the Egyptian Museum or Christian artifacts in the Coptic Museum? Why? What meaning do they have for me today?” he would ask indignantly. With no real opportunity to participate in Egypt’s political system, or vote in free and fair elections, Fady not only felt alienated from Egypt’s cultural heritage, he rejected it outright.

But since the revolution, Fady is a changed man. He said that the revolution has made him “feel like an Egyptian for the first time” because now he has some say in the country’s future.

He says he loves his country and its heritage because he is part of it: “I used to hate Egypt’s ancient history because we only remembered building the pyramids, so that after 5,000 years, people will only remember building the pyramids. But now, after the revolution, people will remember building the pyramids and the revolution. So now I love my country because I have built something that will be remembered. Now I love the history of my own country.”

Although the priests at the seminary would not allow him to participate in the protests, Fady’s brother was in Midan it-Tahriir throughout the protests and was shot in the leg. After Mubarak was driven from office, Fady did go to Midan it-Tahriir to help clean up the area with the protesters. Now, he eagerly monitors political organizing on Facebook, anticipating future protests of which he would like to be a part. Preaching on the Nativity of John the Baptist, Fady likened Egyptian revolutionaries to John and Jesus, railing against injustice.

Another pleasant surprise awaited me with another seminarian (whom I refer to as “Mina”). In past years, I have frequently and consistently heard extremely negative views of Muslims and Islam from the seminarians. Most have never visited Egypt’s Islamic landmark mosques and have no interest in doing so.

And so every year, I find myself preaching the story of Francis’ encounter with the Sultan as I did this year. The afternoon after I had preached, Mina caught up with me. He discreetly asked me to listen to something on his cell phone. It was the Qur’an being chanted! Mina confessed that he found this particular reciter of the Qur’an to be very moving, and he expressed his appreciation for some parts of the Qur’an like Surat Maryam, a chapter of the Qur’an that recounts the Annunciation to Mary. He agreed that current problems with Islamists are not due to Islam, but to an incorrect way of interpreting the Qur’an and the tradition, and he expressed his hope that the dichotomy between Egyptian Copts and Muslims would someday fade away.

Unpleasant Surprises
While it’s good to hear that seminarians like Fady and Mina are optimistic about the future, the harsh reality is that Egypt has a very long way to go to democracy, stability and prosperity. Egypt’s youth remain dissatisfied with the lack of progress since January’s revolution and once again planned large demonstrations for July 9.

Currently, unemployment stands at 11.9 percent. Tourism has declined precipitously since the revolution, and future protests may continue to keep foreigners away. In terms of human rights, justice, and freedom of speech, little seems to have changed. Military officials have admitted to jailing some 7,000 people since Mubarak’s fall from power, among them are protesters and activists.

calabria-rSectarian tensions are still high following violent clashes in past months, and there is a general lack of trust between Christians and Muslims. Most alarming, however, is a recent UN report indicating that Egypt is losing land faster than any country in the world, ranking first in the rate of desertification. Incredibly, the report said that Egypt loses 3.5 acres per hour of fertile agricultural land as a result of urban sprawl and construction. This is a loss that Egypt cannot afford as its population of more than 80 million people is increasingly dependent on food imports. Adequate housing, food and employment will severely test any future president.

In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s easy to become pessimistic, but the revolution has unleashed a youthful spirit of optimism, confidence and resilience. Speaking with Fady and Mina this summer has given me a sense of hope — hope that a new generation of men called to serve the Egyptian Church will do so with a courageous and prophetic spirit.

I am thankful for what my students have shared with me and most grateful for the support of the Franciscan Missionary Union which has once again made my service to our Egyptian brothers possible.

— Fr. Michael, lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies at St. Bonaventure University, Allegany, N.Y., has traveled extensively in the Arab world and speaks frequently on Christian-Muslim relations. He is currently working toward a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies through the University of Exeter, England. This reflection also appears onSBU’s website.