The flight into Egypt

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

None of this will make sense.

You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?

A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that “The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined “politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.


Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net

Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the ColdFor me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.

The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:

On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.

No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.

Revenge: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Revenge on the resistance: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.

The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.

There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa'ab Elshamy, 2013

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?

I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.

In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:

The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”

In 1973, Nelson wrote:

The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians  — both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.

Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.

If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?

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Young Palestinian woman in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.

It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.

But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

5 thoughts on “The flight into Egypt

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