After an explosion took the lives of many at St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church earlier this week, Monica Gerges reflects on why these events won't make her – as an Egyptian Christian who came back home after 20 years abroad – pack her bags and head back to Canada anytime soon.
Twenty years ago, my family picked up and moved from Egypt to Canada.
A year ago, I packed my bags and booked a one-way flight back to Cairo.
Yesterday, an explosion took the lives of 25 people at the Coptic cathedral in Abbaseya.
Between one sentence and the next happened so many things that “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
It was around this time last year that I overheard a colleague discussing Christmas holidays, pointing out that December 25th is not a holiday here, “and if they don’t like it, they can get the hell out of here.”
It was around this time last year that I failed to find Christmas outside the walls of my church and the homes of my extended family. It was hidden within the confines of where it was allowed to be celebrated – real Christmas, that is, not consumer Christmas.
It was at that point that I began to unravel just how different life is for Christians in Egypt compared to what I was used to in North America.
It was in July that I shared many a meal with my newly established Cairo family as they broke their fasts and prepared to fast the next day. It was in those moments that I felt welcomed into an element of Egyptian culture I didn’t understand – an element to which I was a foreigner whose differences were embraced.
It was also in July that a shopkeeper next door told me to wait in his shop as he handled the man who had followed me home from the metro saying things no one should hear.
It was over the course of the past few months that I’ve been asked the difference between Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox. It was over the course of the past few months that I’ve been asked about history and traditions and celebrating Christmas. It was over the course of the past few months that I’ve been told “take me to church.”
#MonicasMusings: Of all the things I've struggled to navigate in this country - from roads set up like konafa to the strange phenomenon that is everybody and their mama never having any change - I'd have to say #religion has been the trickiest endeavour. Do you only talk about it with people of the same religion? Do you only talk to others about their religion, not yours? Do you dare talk about your non-Muslim religion? Heck, do you even talk about religion at all? It's tricky, especially when religion is such a large part of your life. In Canada it's about not shoving religion down people's throats; here it's a whole other ball game. Am I allowed to say this? Can I write about that? Would I be treated the same way if I was veiled? Would he get those same looks if he didn't grow out his beard? Am I allowed to be in this area? Why are there army tanks surrounding this church? What do you mean if they don't like it they can get the hell out of here? As I walk down my street in #Heliopolis on my way to the metro, this tiny shop simply and beautifully answers all my questions.
It was earlier this week that I was invited by Muslim and agnostic friends to attend a candlelight Christmas celebration. It was in that church, at that moment, beside those friends who don’t share my faith but embrace it with me, that I finally came to terms with why I celebrate Christmas – because Christmas is one of God’s biggest declarations of love, the manifestation of love that knows no bounds.
It was yesterday that my Muslim friends frantically searched for me to make sure I was safe and offer their love and support.
It was yesterday that people began asking if I’m finally going to come to my senses and make use of my ‘get out of jail free’ card – my Canadian passport – and get out of here before things get worse.
Come hell or high water, Egypt remains home. Not only is it home to this Egyptian-Canadian, but also to the many who’ve felt the embrace of home somewhere between the sepia-toned walls of this concrete jungle – from the Swiss Pakistani to the Palestinian to the American; from the Muslim to the Christian to the agnostic and the Jew.
And yet it seems that most people are ready to leave, waiting for an opportunity that was granted to my family 20 years ago. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like home to them anymore, because home isn’t supposed to be this gut-wrenchingly painful. Perhaps it’s those 20 years that make it difficult for me to understand this rhetoric – one that says things like “this country is disgusting,” “I can’t wait to get out of here,” and “there’s no hope for Egypt.”
Yes, explosions are disgusting. Yes, death is disgusting. Yes, hatred is disgusting.
Yes, mothers wailing as they bury their sons is inhuman. Yes, people dying simply because they believe in something is inhuman. Yes, people killing people is inhuman.
But there is hope. There will always be hope.
For every act of aggression or hatred I’ve encountered for my faith, I’ve been immeasurably embraced by those who don’t understand but are willing to ask questions and overlook differences.
As a Christian – nay, as a human – I am called to love. Above all else, it is our duty to love without condition, especially in the face of adversity, though we often fall short. Yesterday’s tragedy – and the many tragedies this country has seen – is fierce. It’s heartbreaking and inhumane. It leaves most people questioning what good there is left in the world. It makes people angry, and rightfully so.
But there are enough bitter people in this world. There are enough angry people in this world. There are enough vengeful people in this world. We don’t need more of that.
We need people willing to shatter the cycle of anger and heartbreak. We need people willing to continue to love fiercely in the face of hatred. And this country is filled with people willing and wanting to love.
When it is easy to be angry, love. When it is easy to be divisive, love. When it is easy to hate, love. When it is easy to point fingers, love. When it is easy to hurt, love. When it is easy to rage, love.
When it is easy to flee, stay and love.
As a Christian in Egypt, a Muslim in America, a person in this world – stay and love.
Today I’m reminded that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” And so we continue to hope as we continue to love.
Come hell or high water, Egypt remains home.
Main image by Monica Gerges.