A Coptic Christmas of Joy and Sorrow

There is complicating news today. It is significant enough that you may already know about it. Six Christians and a policeman were killed today in an ambush as they were exiting midnight mass in an Upper Egyptian town to the north of Luxor. I wish to be careful in conveying information because I have been far from the news in our relative isolation in Maghagha, over ten hours away from the attack, but it has been the talk of the community since we awoke this morning.

Our day began in Maadi, as we fought through Cairo traffic to get to the train station in Giza. We left a full hour to arrive, thinking this would be plenty as the station is just on the other side of the Nile River. We should have known better. We left on the 6th of January, a Wednesday, but in addition to all the Christians who would be in transit to get to their homes and churches, there was weekend traffic with which to contend. Coptic Christmas, the 7th of January, is a national holiday, so whereas Thursday night is often prime traffic with the Friday-Saturday weekend, Christmas led to a three day weekend for the entire country, and it seemed like the nation had emptied onto the streets.

We did arrive on time, but with only about fifteen minutes to spare. We appeared to be the only foreigners at the location, asked about how and where to board the train, had a policeman direct us informing him we were traveling to Maghagha, and settled into our seats, which were reserved by number. The train was very comfortable and we by coincidence sat next to another couple also traveling to Maghagha, and enjoyed pleasant conversation with them the entire two and a half hour journey.

Upon our arrival I am afraid we may have offended some. It was fairly comical, at least from our perspective. It is a bit complicated to descend from a train with two small children, a pack-and-play, suitcase, and backpack, but we managed, and it was no surprise to find a willing porter ready to help us with our bags. If any of you would wish to visit us, please be prepared for this at the airport. They can be friendly, helpful, and by comparison inexpensive, but they can also be insistent.

The first thing we should have noticed is that this porter was not very insistent. He offered to help me with the suitcase, and per custom I refused, with a quick ‘no thank you’, barely an exchange of glances, and began advancing. It may not be the most polite manner, but you get used to the necessity of not getting drawn into conversation, lest you be forever unable to escape.

My advancement, however, was quickly halted as I found the gentleman who was to receive us. Our stay was arranged with the priest of a village not far from Maghagha, but due to our late arrival (now about 9:30pm) he was already involved in leading mass. In his place he sent his brother, who now began helping us with our bags, but only for a moment.

Within two minutes he was surrounded by the police, among them the ‘porter’ who earlier tried to help us as we got off the train. It was all very friendly, and no one was unnerved, but Julie counted seven people who were involved in our arrival. Who are you? Who are they? Why are they coming? Where are they going? Each question had a very simple answer, and the appropriate people recorded the information, finally taking a look at our passports and recording our names. They continued to escort us to the priest’s brother’s car, with a small diversion as I remembered it would be better to purchase tickets for our return trip before we departed the station. It turned out this was rather unfruitful, for the trains were sold out on the day we had purposed to leave as well as the next day, except for either the 5:00am train or the one leaving at midnight. At this point we have no return ticket, but the police assured everything would be taken care of. As great as their attention had been to this point, it seemed the best thing to trust their word. They indicated, if I understood correctly, that we should just show up at the normal time of departure at 10:30am or 1:00pm, and we would (likely) find a place. In any case, the priest would take care of everything.

Here is the background, some of which is known, some of which is conjecture, all of which is the normal and expected procedure. My boss has been friends with this priest for many years, and he selected him for our visit to Upper Egypt in part because he has a very good manner with his Muslim neighbors and the regional authorities. In securing the priest’s agreement for us to visit, he then informed the police in our area, who also gave their approval. This is the known. The conjecture is that the policeman I inquired with concerning how to board the train likely conveyed his knowledge to the station in Maghagha. Therefore it should have been no surprise to find the concerned authorities as part of our official welcome.

The normal and expected procedure has been in place for many years. Egypt has had sporadic violence against foreign tourists who visit the Pharonic heritage sites in Upper Egypt, and consistently sends all tourists with a police escort. Foreigners who go to places like Maghagha, however, are much less frequent, and generally have very limited reasons to be there. Their presence attracts attention, and Egypt is concerned about their security. In a country which depends to a great extent on tourism and outside investment, the death of a foreigner could have wide ramifications. Upper Egypt has a reputation as being a haven of Islamist activity, and while the vast majority of people are against violence of any kind, including the vast majority of Islamists, there are pockets of extremist sentiment. Though the government has made great strides in combating these elements, they do still exist, as was seen today.

The police presence takes some getting used to, but it is very friendly. At the station the officer who recorded my passport information apologized several times. One of their number joined us in the car and accompanied us to the church in the village fifteen minutes from Maghagha, where the mass was in progress, and then joined with his colleagues who make up the normal guard outside the church during every mass, but especially during holidays. He came in a few times to check in on us, and when everything ended two officers joined us on the trip back to Maghaga. One sat on the lap of the other in the passenger seat, and they joked with the priest almost the entire trip home. The next day we returned to the village to join in Christmas day celebrations, and though they checked regularly with the priest about our program, they generally left us to ourselves, as best we knew. Even so, it is now 10:00pm, and an office just knocked on the door of the priest’s home to inquire if we are going out again tonight. After assuring him we were done for the day, we may have allowed him an early evening home.

In terms of the chronology of the day, however, we return to the Christmas Eve mass. We arrived about 10:30pm with an hour and a half of a four hour service remaining. Our girls were doing remarkably well given the hour, and though Hannah largely stayed quiet (but not sleeping) on Julie’s lap, Emma was having a great time. Automatically becoming the guests of honor we were ‘seated’ in the first row of the church, directly in front of the altar boys. Seated is a misnomer as most of the mass requires standing, and as I held Emma she preferred standing on the dividing wall between the congregants and the altar boys, and quite attracted their attention. Three of them in particular paid no further care to the mass and played with her the whole time. Emma was alternatingly shy and engaging, but was causing no stir. There were several children milling about in the pews, and the worshipper standing next to us was goading her the whole time, and was even father of one of the three altar boys. It was fun to join in the chants while at the same time catching Emma as she turned from the attention, slipped off the wall, and fell into my arms. It may not be acceptable behavior for most masses, but on this occasion we fit right in.

As the mass ended the priest left rather quickly and we returned to his home with the aforementioned escort. In the car our girls finally fell asleep, but of course woke upon arrival, which may have been good since food was waiting for all. Though actual practice varies, Orthodox Egyptians fast for fifty-five days before Christmas. The fast is of a vegetarian variety, as all meat beside fish is prohibited. Christmas then becomes the worthy celebration, and the meat flows freely. In addition to a plate of rice and a bowl of salad, there was chicken and the most delicious beef I have ever eaten. It did make me wonder, however, how many ‘foolish’ things we do in our celebrations of which we are unaware. After fifty-five meatless days, it seems strange to gorge on such a feast, especially at 1:00am. We did not have the most pleasant sleep that evening (morning?), but there were no regrets concerning the consumption.

To be continued…

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