Bahaa Taher on Sectarian Tensions and Interreligious Understanding

Once upon a time in graduate school, I popped over into another department and took a Sociology of Religion course. At the very end of the course, we read The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which is some utter muck predicting a future world war (of sorts) between Christians and Muslims.*

Surely I argued against Jenkins’ smattering of “facts” as well as his conclusions. Surely some students in the class—if they can still remember my tongue-lolling, eye-rolling vehemence about Jenkins’ claims that Christians and Muslims can never get along—now think I’m a fool.

Well, so what! Yes, I did underestimate the rise of sectarian tensions here in Egypt, but I still refuse to find them either predictable or inevitable. Surely some people think Bahaa Taher a fool, so I count myself in pleasant company.

Indeed, yesterday I was remembering what Taher had said—in an interview with Egypt Today—about Western reaction to his beautiful short novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery.

A translation falls into a well of silence. They are mostly published by small publishing houses that do not have the means to publicize them. Khalti Safeyya [Aunt Safiyya] was different because the NYT wrote about it, but it did not make a great difference because it was published by California University Press, a small house.

The alternative is to respond to the expectations of the Western reader, who wants to read about the exotic East, and about the discrimination against women. They want to hear that the regimes are dictatorial, and that there are fierce problems between minorities. Khalti Safeyya said that things are not that bad, and this is something they do not want to hear. The BBC interviewed me about it, and the anchor kept interjecting, ‘Surely things are not really as you describe them.’ At the end I told her it is your testimony against mine. Go back to what Lucy Duff Gordon wrote, and she was a visitor to the area I write about. If I write a novel about [discrimination], it will become a best-seller tomorrow.

Indeed, Taher further told The Guardian in 2008 that he continued to believe in the possibilities of inter-religious understanding:

On a trip to Luxor last month, he was gratified to find it had been spared Muslim-Copt tensions, a benefit, he believes, of its constant stream of visitors. “It’s the wisdom of ages,” he says. “When you know the other, you’re tolerant. It’s when you don’t know the other that you’re afraid.”

Taher noted in an interview with the Daily News of Egypt that his depictions of Muslims and Christians in Aunt Safiya and the Monastery (1991) did stir controversy in Egypt. The Daily News asked Taher about the current rise in sectarian tensions.

According to writer Safaa Abdoun, “Taher cites more than 20 reasons for [Egypt’s sectarian tensions].” Unfortunately, Abdoun only quoted five:

There is the hypocrisy, the economic situation which aggravates people, and the education system as well as the media, both of which do not teach people the concepts of democracy and tolerance.

He also apparently said: “extremism is a general trait of our society…people get really angry because of a soccer match.” Here, I must respectfully disagree with Dr. Bahaa; I can’t think of a place where people don’t get wound up about their sports.

Things have gotten worse since then. But, in a 2009 interview with The National, Taher did seem to maintain some hope, in spite of himself:

I am still against the same things I was against when I was young: social and political injustice, especially against women or people of different origins or ethnicities. What’s different is that the hope I had at one time no longer exists. Hopefully things will change – but not, I think, very quickly.

Other Egyptian authors who have written about Muslim-Copt relations include:

Astasia (2010) by Khairy Shalaby, which was longlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), but not—to many Egyptian commentators’ surprise and disappointment—shortlisted. Astasia is a Copt living in a Muslim-dominated village, and the suspects in her son’s murder are mostly Muslims. Not (yet) available in English.

The Nabataen (2010) and IPAF-winner Azazel (2008) by Youssef Ziedan both have waded into religious territory. Ziedan’s Azazel is expected out from Atlantic books this summer.

Since we’re on the topic of the IPAF, 2011 shortlistee Khaled al-Berry (for Middle Eastern Dance) has also written a touching and underappreciated memoir about his adolescence, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise (2009 English and Arabic), that addresses—among other things—Muslim-Christian relations in Upper Egypt.

Several of the Alexandria-based books, about which I wrote yesterday, belong here, including No One Sleeps in Alexandria, by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid (1999 Arabic, 2006 English). This book—No. 18 on the list of the “top 105” books selected by the Arab Writers’ Union—is set in Alexandria during World War II. At the novel’s center is a friendship between Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim with peasant roots in northern Egypt, and Dimyan, a Copt with roots in southern Egypt.

St. Theresa (2001 Arabic, 2010 English), by Bahaa Abdelmeguid, also explores relations between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish characters in the post-1967 world in an interesting and fresh way.

Astigmatism in the Brain (December 2010), subtitled “Ironic Tales of Sectarianism in Egypt,” was co-written by a Muslim and a Copt, Mostafa Elsayaad and Mena Shenoda. You can find their Facebook fan page here. Not (yet) available in English.

Controversial author and feminist commentator Nawal al-Saadawi’s The Innocence of the Devil (1994 Arabic, 1998 English) looks at—and criticizes—the patriarchal structures of Christianity and Islam.

Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley (1959 Arabic, 1996 English) is also, like al-Saadawi’s book, more allegorical in its explorations of religion.

But: Back to the specific discussions of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, there’s Ibrahim Farghali’s The Smiles of Saints (2007 English), translated by our friends Andy Smart and Nadia Fouda-Smart. Here, as M.A. Orthofer writes in his review of the book: “The death of a close childhood friend, Emad, weighed heavily on Rami, and turning to Islam was one way for him to try and deal with it. The girl he loved, Christine, was similarly overwhelmed and, as a Christian, went to the extremes at her disposal, becoming a nun. Neither, however, could find true escape in the purely religious (coupled, in the case of Rami, with the militant-ideological): just as Rami abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood Christine broke her vows and returned to civilian life.”

As always, I welcome your input.

*In the professor’s defense, she also seemed to feel that it was muck.