Before I married, I loved coconut. I loved coconut chocolate bars, coconut sprinkled over rice pudding, and coconut in basboosa, an Egyptian desert. I loved coconut.
My husband, on the other hand, couldn’t stand it. He’s the type of person that makes a disgusted face whenever a food he dislikes is mentioned. It really only took a few short months and the thought of coconut made me feel sick to my stomach.
That’s the kind of conditioning one experiences growing up in Egypt. That’s how I was conditioned to have discriminatory feelings towards Egyptian Coptic Christians.
It is time for me to tell this story. I tell it with the utmost shame. But it is a story that must be told. Unless we admit we have a problem and try to understand why we have it, we will never be able to fix it.
Growing Up Among Western Christians
I was born and grew up till the age of 15 in the United States. My American mother’s family, all of Norwegian-Swedish-Irish decent, is Christian, some of them devout. Their religion to me was always irrelevant and way below my radar. Well, except, perhaps, when I was about twelve and found I had a crush on my 11-year-old cousin Noah. (Noah, dude, sorry for telling this to the whole world before telling it to you first.) According to what I understood at the time, we could not marry because he was Christian and I was Muslim. Christians, I thought, did not allow marriages between cousins whereas Muslims did. I had no idea this had nothing to do with Christianity but rather it had everything to do with American law. In order for me to marry Noah, I concluded, he’d have to convert to Islam. That’s the only time my American side of the family’s religion ever even occurred to me.
Almost all my friends in school were not Muslim. I say not Muslim rather than Christian because again, their religion was irrelevant. They could have been Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, or atheists and I would never have known or cared. They were simply my friends.
When I was in 6th grade we moved to Buffalo, New York for a year. Living right next door to us was an Israeli family. My Egyptian father quickly instructed us not to play with their children. The Egyptian-Israeli 1973 war was still fresh in his memory. But across the street lived a Jewish-Moroccan family. Their daughter, Natalie, was in my class and I loved playing with her. She often invited me over to her house to play, watch movies late at night, and eat popcorn. I would never have known what Natalie’s religion was or where her family was originally from unless my parents had mentioned it in front of me. My father, it seems, had started becoming a bit cranky that I was spending so much time at their house. Nevertheless, my mother still let me go over and play when my father was not around. Once she gave my brother and me permission to go with Natalie’s family to get ice cream. My father came back early that day and my mother got into trouble.
But besides that little episode, I never really knew the religions of my friends in the United States.
My First Encounter with Egyptian Discrimination
I came to visit Egypt for the first time in the summer before the 4th grade. We stayed for a full month in the house of my Uncle Hassan. My brother and I quickly took to befriending a brother and sister our ages, Ashraf and Enas. They lived a few floors above my uncle’s apartment. During that month, we got to know most of the kids in the neighborhood, but Ashraf and Enas were our favorites. No particular reason why. We just all liked each other. Ashraf and Enas then took us across the street to get to know other friends of theirs who were hosting an Egyptian family that was visiting from the States. They had a boy our age who spoke perfect English! So the group of us became close pals.
But perhaps one week before we were to leave, it seems my grandfather had a talk with my father. It wasn’t all right for us Muslim kids to spend so much time with the Christians. Ashraf, Enas, and the Egyptian boy from the US were all Christians, we suddenly learned. When my brother and I were instructed to stop spending so much time with them, we were heart-broken. And the explanation sounded absolutely absurd. Why was it all right for us to play with our non-Muslim friends in the States but it was not all right for us to play with our Christian friends in Egypt? I bumped into the Egyptian-American son on the plane from Cairo to the US. The seeds of discomfort had already been sewn. I looked him in the eye and did not even say hello.
Learning the Culture of Discrimination
I finally settled in Egypt in 1986 when I started med school at Cairo University. It took only one year for my Muslim friends to teach me about what was proper in Muslim-Coptic relations in the country.
I remember befriending Mariam who had come from New York. She had the dark black hair of an Egyptian but an uncanny New Yorkan accent. It was nice to meet someone who came from a background similar to mine. Quickly my Muslim friends explained I could not befriend her. She’s Christian, I was told. So what, I asked. In Egypt, it’s not all right, was the answer.
By the end of that same year I had heard my Muslim friends say it was yucky to drink out of a cup a Copt had drank from; they explained that the way to identify a Copt was by their odd smell and their oily hair; and I saw them secretly sign to each other if someone speaking to them was a Copt by making a cross on the inside of their wrist or by whispering the word “Kuftis”, a word Egyptians use in place of Copt, stupidly thinking the Copts don’t know that’s what they mean.
I was quickly conditioned. This was the way of Egyptian culture, I thought. Different cultures have different practices and one must go with the flow, I convinced myself. And I did.
In the second half of our first year of med school, an Egyptian-Peruvian girl from the U.S. joined us. She was Muslim. When I noticed she had started befriending Mariam, I took her by the arm and started educating her in Egyptian culture. Here in Egypt, I explained, it isn’t acceptable for Muslims to befriend Copts. This girl was much smarter than I was. She maintained her friendship with Mariam and grew further away from me.
I only knew one Muslim girl in med school who had a Copt as her best friend. They went to school together all their lives and were close neighbors in Shobra, a neighborhood in Cairo where a large number of Copts reside. No matter how hard my Muslim friends tried to convince her otherwise, Howeida refused to leave the side of her best friend. My memory of them is of two girls, arms hooked, with huge smiles on their faces.
A Pervasive Culture
Since that first year in med school in Egypt, I’ve witnessed many types of discrimination against Copts.
In one of the departments at the faculty of medicine, I was told by a trusted source that a Muslim doctor was given her PhD much more quickly than normal so that her Christian colleague of the same year, who was awarded her PhD two years later, would always be subordinate to her and would never be the head of that department some 30 years later.
I’ve also continued to see parents teach their children that it’s not all right to befriend Coptic children at school.
A member of my extended family recently told me that her teenage son had a crush on a Coptic girl. This conservative family member did not really have an issue with her son expressing feelings toward a member of the opposite sex. But she was bothered by the fact she was a Copt. I asked her why? Muslim men can marry Christian women, I said. When they grow up, they can marry. Copts in Egypt are mushrikeen, she explained. They do not believe in one God. They believe in God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This belief in the Trinity disqualifies them from being able to marry a Muslim man, she told me. She had a few harsh words with her son. It’s not all right to be friends with a Coptic girl.
Also in Egypt, many Muslims will refuse to buy goods from a Copt’s shop and will go out of their way to find another.
And anywhere a church is built, the Muslims in the community will make sure – and then boast – that a much larger mosque was built exactly across the street.
I need to emphasize that not all Egyptian Muslims discriminate against Coptic Christians. But this culture that I explain is definitely pervasive throughout our country. It took a lot of growing up and conscious de-conditioning of myself before my eyes opened to what was truly happening.
It now disturbs me to the core to hear Egyptian officials say there is no fitna ta’ifiya (sectarian strife) in Egypt. It is simply not true.
I have been working hard to remove the ugliness from within me. I hope one day the ugliness is removed from Egyptian society as a whole.
Note: this article was written to be intentionally biased. I acknowledge that some problems arise as a result of actions from some Coptic Christians in the country. But as a religious minority forming less than 20 per cent of the population, they are much less to blame than the religious majority. I acknowledge that Egyptians as a whole have other racist and discriminatory tendencies. It is almost unheard of for Nubians to marry non-Nubians, for example, or for a fair Egyptian girl to marry a black man. I also acknowledge that there are some bright examples of open-hearted Muslim and Christian men and women. Though I acknowledge this, I wanted this article to put the spotlight on a real and ever-growing problem in Egypt. A real problem that is being swept under the carpet and not getting the attention it deserves. A real problem that has can lead to violent actions and the potential loss of a dear and intrinsic part of our population to mass migrations.