A T-shirt that brings down a nation

Rana Allam
7 Min Read
Rana Allam
Rana Allam

“Muslim and Christian villagers hurled fire bombs at each other south of Cairo after a Christian laundry worker burnt a Muslim’s shirt”, that was the piece of news I woke up to one Ramadan morning this year. And Ramadan memories came flooding through my head.

I can recall my mother’s closest friend, a lady who I visited more than I did my own family. Tante Aziza, may she rest in peace, was a devout Copt living across town from our house. My mother and Tante Aziza shared a trait; being very religious. Tante Aziza would fast the whole 250 days of Coptic fasting without flinching. And because she did that, our fasting and hers would mostly coincide and we would all fast both ways. No food or drink all day, then break our fast to vegan foods. Hard hard days, but we came through. We spent our feasts together, we had  Christmas trees and Ramadan lanterns in both houses. Tante Aziza would bake kahk (Muslim feast cookies) and bring them to us because mum didn’t, and mum would prepare a big meaty meal to celebrate the end of Coptic fasting.

I remember that almost every Sunday (all through the summer vacations) we would wake up, have breakfast, do our morning prayers, and then head to Church with Tante Aziza and her daughters. We would afterwards have lunch together.

Everything was different, and yes, it was ok and acceptable to visit churches. The priest was very sweet to us and there was never a problem that we attended Mass. It was never a problem to our Muslim friends that we went to church. We hailed the Egyptian flag every morning at school, snuck with our Christian friends to the school hideouts to sneak a bite in Ramadan when we didn’t feel like fasting, while they took our meat sandwiches during their fasting days. Teenagers are alike, be they Muslim, Christian or any of the 21 major religions of today’s world.  I never thought Shi’ites or Baha’is or Protestants or Copts or…or…were any different from one another or from myself. I never knew going to visit Al-Hussein shrine had a meaning any different to lighting a candle for Virgin Mary at church …they were both means of prayer to God to help me get good grades at my finals. They were all possible means of communication with God.

Only twenty five years ago, not a hundred, the word “tolerance” was not needed. We lived it. The Muslim/Christian jokes flew over like any other joke, no offence was taken and respect was upheld. There was no need for that awkward moment when a Christian had his coffee in Ramadan and a Muslim got disgruntled.

Then one day, all of this changed. One day we woke up to the atrocity called the First Al Kosheh Massacre in the summer of 1998, where two Christians were killed by a Muslim because he thought they had poisoned his brother in the upper Egyptian Sohag governorate, an area with quite a heavy population of Christians. How our security apparatus dealt with the situation simply turned everything upside down. Our police rounded up 1200 Christians from Al Kosheh for investigations, and naturally that involved brutality. They also arrested Metropolitan Bishop Wissa and two of his priests, as well as the head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights for speaking up against the random arrests and torture performed by the police during the investigations.

The incident grabbed the attention of the world, international media started talking and this forced our esteemed public prosecutor to investigate the torture claims. As goes the usually-successful-plan, such investigation took months ’til things calmed, and although most of the torture accusations were proved to be true, the officers involved received no punishment, in fact there were reports that some of them were transferred to be promoted.

That was how it started. That was the first time we heard the terms “sectarian strife” and “discrimination against Copts”. But it was not the last. One year later the second Al Kosheh massacre happened, on the eve of the millennium, when a simple misunderstanding between a merchant and a buyer led to the killing of 21 Copts, with more than 40 injured, 260 shops and houses were destroyed and burned, over the span of two days. Two days and not our police, nor central security forces nor even the great army contained the situation. It was reported back then that no one ever tried to contain it. And to make matters worse, no one was convicted of the murders. No one!

When crimes are committed without law enforcement, without convictions or punishments, hatred and revenge are bound to follow. The years of peace and love ended, and the waters are always on the verge of boiling, waiting for a little something to burn up a whole country. A little something like a T-shirt in a small shop in Dahshour. Or a cup of coffee on a Ramadan day.

Thank God, Tante Aziza (may she rest in peace) is not alive to witness this.


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