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Egypt Exports Interfaith ‘Bridge’

Azadeh Ghotbi
Azadeh Ghotbi

IN IRAQ, ISIS zealots smash centuries-old artifacts and blow up churches. In Yemen, Shia militias plough through cities as Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia rains down missiles.

Egypt is not without its own religious tension, but a timely interfaith art exhibition in Cairo intersects with perhaps the only potentially good news coming out of the region.

Iran may be rejoining the international community, and Iranian-born Azadeh Ghotbi is coming to London.

Born a Muslim, educated in a Catholic school and married to an atheist beside a Jewish bridesmaid, Ghotbi has lived in five countries across three continents.

Her parents fled the Islamic Revolution when she was a child.

Today,Ghotbi is one of 47 premier and emerging artists featured at the CARAVAN visual arts exhibition. Founded in Cairo in 2009, its yearly offerings travel the world, dedicated to the message of interreligious peace and cultural understanding between East and West.

‘I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this noble mission,’ Ghotbi told Lapido Media. ‘I highlight in my art that strength and beauty come through openness to the “other” and the cross-fertilisation of differences.’

Soar

[Change your viewpoint. Photo: Sixpillars.org]

Her piece is entitled Crossroads, and her message fits perfectly with the theme of the exhibition, The Bridge.

‘I have suffered the consequences of religious obtuseness,’ she wrote in her artist’s statement, ‘but have benefitted immensely among open-minded souls from diverse religious backgrounds.’

Ghotbi’s art has been exhibited in top galleries in Europe, the United Statesand Iran. The last of these has informed several pieces.

In the Name of Freedom interlocks the E’s to symbolize encaged rights and restrained voices. The Trappings of Theocracy is constructed with unpainted, faceless miniature figurines.

They are not Iran-centric, Ghotbi said, as oppression is not limited to one country.

But in Give Peace a Chance to Soar, she directly critiques her country of origin.

Faced straight on, the black letters of peace are hard to read behind the iron bars of a cage. But the inset of the letters is radiant turquoise, a colour she associates with the beauty of Iran, and only visible if you changeyour viewpoint.

‘As for the small fragile turquoise bird that represents hope, peace and freedom for us all,’ she explains,‘I left the cage door ajar for it!’

Ghotbi crafted Peace in 2013, eager for change.

Savvy

Two years later, Ghotbi is enthusiastic about the framework agreement signed by Iran and Western nations. As Tehran reduces its nuclear capabilities and allows comprehensive inspections, international sanctions will be gradually eliminated.

Sanctions have disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, she said, while strengthening the political hand of the hardliners. The US Congressional Research Service reported a five percent contraction of the Iranian economy in 2013 along with a 56 percent currency devaluation and a 45 percent rise in the rate of inflation.

‘What Iran needs eventually is political change from within,’ said Ghotbi. ‘It’s youthful and highly educated population is quite savvy, but desperate for more freedom and better economic opportunities.’

CARAVAN founder Paul-Gordon Chandler echoes Ghotbi’s optimism.

‘I am very pleased about the deal going ahead,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We have to work toward peoples coming together.

‘Opening up Iran, which it will do, allows more people to experience the “other”, on both sides.’

Indirect

An American, Chandler grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.

It was not until his ten years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s historic St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. Initially, CARAVAN was held only in Egypt, but over the past two years more than 300,000 have viewed the traveling exhibition in London, New York, and Washington, DC.

This year, The Bridge opened at the oldest church in Paris, the Eglise Saint Germain-Des-Pres, during the United Nations week for interfaith harmony. Following its current station in Cairo it will move to St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square from June 1 – July 31.

But CARAVAN is not intended only for the Western elite, as important as it is for them to see this example of cooperation between Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The exhibition will travel also to rural areas in the United States, where misunderstanding of the Middle East is prevalent.

‘Art provides a context to address issues indirectly,’ Chandler told Lapido Media. ‘  It provides an atmosphere of contemplation and discussion that is neutral, when being direct causes tensions to rise.’

And in the Middle East, where spin-off projects are in development in Jordan, Tunisia, and Malta, the indirect approach of art can make all the difference.

Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.
Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.

According to Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, structured efforts at dialogue between religious professionals have not impacted reality.

‘We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,’ he said at the exhibition opening in Cairo. ‘Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.’

The Middle East needs CARAVAN, Ghotbi believes, but art is not enough.

Education, jobs, and women’s rights are necessary to ease religious clashes between groups that used to coexist peacefully.

Chandler agrees, noting that transformation through art is a long term process.

‘Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function,’ he said. ‘It can’t change events but it can change people.’

However much the Middle East needs this message, it can also export the example. 47 artists are living testimony.

 

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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CARAVAN: Art as a Path to Grassroots Peace

Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.
Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.

So much is wrong with the Arab world today, it can obscure all that is right. At the heart of both are interfaith relations, and the CARAVAN art exhibition showcases the good while addressing the bad. International in scope, its contributions stretch across continents, touching the famous and simple alike.

“We know much more about the West than the West knows about us,” said award-winning Egyptian actor Khaled el-Nabawi at the Cairo opening on March 4. “But art is sincere and can help us build bridges.”

The event was held at the upscale Westown Hub residential complex, and Nabawi is one of the famous, a group often associated with the arts scene. Prior to Cairo, CARAVAN presented at the acclaimed Eglise Saint-Germain-Des-Pres in Paris, and will travel next to St. Martins-in-the-Field, at the famous Trafalgar Square in London.

But it is the simple who are most affected by strife between the religions. And the arts often bypass them.

CARAVAN began in Cairo in 2009, seeking to promote interreligious peace and build cultural understanding. Nabawi’s words were well-chosen, for this year’s exhibition is entitled The Bridge. 47 premiere and emerging artists, all with connections to the Middle East, designed works specifically to highlight the unity of the peoples of the region – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Arab, and Persian.

“There is no true conflict between religions in their essence,” said Sheikh Abdel Aziz el-Naggar of the Azhar, also appearing at the opening. “It comes from those who use religion for their domestic or international interests.”

Perhaps this is a message readily received by arts aficionados in Europe and upper-class Egypt. But what about the common man, manipulated by forces touching his faith?

“We as a church believe in dialogue,” said Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of the Episcopal Church in Egypt, prior to introducing his Ahzar colleague. “But especially after 9-11, there have been many efforts between men of religion that have not impacted reality as these conflicts continue.”

Something more is needed, and Anis praised CARAVAN specifically.

“We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,” he said. “Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.”

Paul-Gordon Chandler is the founder of CARAVAN. An American, he grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.

There has to be a better way, he thought, but it was not until his years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. So while he now tours the world highlighting the religious unity represented in Middle East artists, he desires to see something greater take hold.

“In the Middle East the public visibility of things is very important, it gives credibility to endorse at the grassroots,” he said. “It is part of acclimatizing the environment toward positive religious relations.”

High-profile public events make possible the changes at street level. 40 percent of proceeds from art sales will benefit Educate Me, an educational initiative supporting the children of an underprivileged neighborhood in Giza. Last year, $48,000 was given to projects in Egypt and Morocco.

Spin-off projects for CARAVAN are in development in Jordan and Tunisia, and a Maltese-themed initiative will soon tour every nation of the Mediterranean. Middle Eastern art emerges from the region and is taken to the West, but it also returns to spread the message at home.

And lest one think the message of interfaith harmony for the West is only given to like-minded elites, Chandler is also taking The Bridge to rural settings in the United States where misunderstanding of the Arab world is prevalent.

“Art provides a context to address the issues indirectly,” said Chandler. “Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function. It can’t change events but it can change people.”

And this, for Nabawi, is the hope for CARAVAN and other artistic endeavors in the region. “I am convinced that humanity will prevail,” he said.

“Art is the only thing that can solve what politics breaks.”

This article was originally published at the Anglican diocese website.

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Beauty and Women Celebrated at Inter-Faith Art Exhibition

‘We came here today to satisfy our soul for its need of beauty.’ With these words Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Gamia addressed the crowd at the Caravan Festival of Arts, hosted by St. John the Baptist Church in Maadi, Egypt.

But then he continued, rather surprisingly given the oft-assumed perspectives of Muslim scholars.

‘When you look to the heavens, you see beauty and love. When you look to the kingdom of earth, you see beauty and love. When you look in the faces of people, you see beauty and love…

‘And when you look at the form of a woman, you see beauty and love.’

Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler

The rector of St. John’s is Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler who stated, ‘Art is one of the best means for encouraging friendship among those with differences.’

From left: Dr. Azab, Bishop Mouneer, and Sheikh Gamia

This evening, these differences were in short supply. In addition to Gamia mentioned above, Chandler introduced Bishop Mouneer, head of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, and Dr. Mahmoud Azab, head of the Azhar committee for interfaith dialogue.

Bishop Mouneer declared, ‘Many things divide us, but love, the love of God, brings us together. When we love God truly, we love each other also.

‘Art also serves a role in bringing us together.’

Bishop Mouneer is also a participant in the exhibition, supplying one of his photographs. Referring to it, he stated, ‘The road ahead in the revolution is to realize we are all in one boat.

‘All in the Same Boat’ – Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis, Egypt

‘We must take care of this boat, which is Egypt.

‘We must also row in the same direction.’

Dr. Azab declared, ‘Religion as a sign of civilization is an inspiration to scholars and artists alike.

‘Christianity is the religion of love, Islam is the religion of mercy, and Egypt is in dire need of both.’

The Caravan Festival of the Arts also featured two prominent Egyptian performers.

Yousra

Yousra is a famous Egyptian actress, and has also been honored by the United Nations as an advocate for the oppressed. She stated, ‘The arts are one of the most powerful ways to bring society together.

‘This is true even though those who wish to restrict freedom also often wish to restrict art.

‘Art unites us, it is a language of love, a language of peace; it goes straight to your heart.’

Yet Yousra expressed concern for the future as well.

‘One year after the revolution we are starting to hear voices that threaten our freedom.

‘This scares me, but it also makes me want to fight harder for it.

‘You can never negotiate a person’s freedom.’

Rula Zaki

Rula Zaki is a popular Egyptian singer. Though she offered no remarks, she captivated the crowd through her beautiful rendition of ‘People of the Book’, celebrating the unity of Muslim and Christian in Egypt.

Click here for a YouTube link of her performance with English subtitles.

The Caravan Festival of the Arts exhibition was entitled ‘The Road Ahead’, contemplating the future direction of the Egyptian revolution. It featured 45 artists from both the East and the West. All pieces are available for purchase, with 20% of all proceeds going to charities aiding the poor of Egypt.

The following are a few selected works of art. Remembering Sheikh Gamia’s praise, take note of the prominence of women:

‘She is our Mirror’ – Khalil al-Hakim, Lebanon; the portrait is of Alia al-Mahdi, who caused caused great controversy in Egypt by posting nude artistic images of herself online, in defense of revolutionary freedoms
‘He Holds the Future’ – Dr. Faris Fadel, Egypt; the image suggests an emergence from the desert in full faith in God to guide the road ahead
‘Unraveling’ – Julia Moran-Leamon, USA; a careful look will reveal this to be a woman’s dress, upon which is written the word ‘freedom’ in Arabic
‘Motherhood and the Future’ – Dr. Ahmed Salim, Egypt; Hailing from Aswan, this image depicts the Nubian people of Egypt and their hope for the future

In addition to these, two canvases bore particularly revolutionary images:

‘Colours of Hope’ – Renee van Lille-Demetroudes, South Africa; note the iconic revolutionary scenes of priests and imams embracing, under the banners of Facebook and Twitter
‘Bread’ – Julie Klimenton, UK; the text reads: By the year 2050 the population will increase to 60 million

This last painting is a reminder that no matter how beautiful is creativity, or how uniting is art, humanity must eat, and revolutions much achieve social justice. If not, all such celebrations are in vain.

Like many questions in Egypt, this one is still unanswered. The Caravan Festival is right to focus on ‘The Road Ahead.’

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CNN in Cairo: Ben Wedeman

It is not an Arab Spring, says Ben Wedeman, CNN’s Senior Correspondent in Cairo, as it has lasted through several seasons, and is likely to continue several more. He prefers the term Arab Revolt, and believes there is no going back.

Wedeman spoke at the Abraham Forum hosted by St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Maadi, Egypt on March 22. The forum is directed by church rector Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, and aims to promote dialogue between religions and cultures for the sake of peace and better understanding. The title of Wedeman’s lecture was ‘Reflections on the Current Middle East’.

Wedeman began with a question he is often asked: Did you see it coming? While he said the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that with Mubarak’s looming death a power struggle would soon emerge, no one anticipated Tunisia. Yet with the level of education and demographics of youth, the gains of the Arab Revolt are here to stay, even as the struggle will likely continue for a while to come.

Wedeman’s lecture walked the audience through the harbingers of the revolt in Egypt, stating why there was some evidence discontent was in the air. In 2000 several thousand Cairo University students protested Israeli policy in Palestine and Egyptian complicity. In 2003 there were clashes between police and protestors in Tahrir Square over the US invasion of Iraq.

Shortly thereafter the nation went temporarily silent as Mubarak collapsed while addressing parliament on State TV. Finally, in 2008 the protests at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta witnessed significant anger against Mubarak himself, with demonstrators smashing his picture and stomping upon it.

Still, the January 25 protests caught everyone by surprise. Whereas during even the sizeable protests of the past there were at least five policemen per demonstrator, on this occasion the security forces were overwhelmed. Being on the street, Wedeman noticed as well they were largely new, young conscripts, whose fear was palpable in their visage.

Among the noteworthy anecdotes Wedeman shared was his comment to a fellow journalist following an ‘alternate reality’ speech given by then-speaker of Egypt’s upper house, Safwat el-Sharif at the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, given on January 28.

Wedeman told his colleague to take a picture of this building, as he wasn’t sure it would last much longer. That evening, on the Day of Rage, it burned.

The evening grew even more interesting as Rev. Chandler opened the floor for questions and answers. The following is a capsule of the different topics:

SCAF?

I think the military council will hand over power as they have promised, as they do not want the responsibility of running the country. What they want is to keep their significant perks, as they control between 30-40% of the economy. SCAF will go back to their barracks while they maintain an influence, but their fate will be decided by their coming interactions with the elected parties.

Syria?

I can’t predict anything, but unlike Egypt there is a significant percentage of the population which is truly afraid of what will happen if the regime falls. The consequences could get very nasty. I recently spoke with activists in Jordan and asked if they were planning to push forward. No, they replied, we have been watching Syria and we think it is best to give reform a chance first.

Iran in Syria?

Certainly Iran has a lot at stake in Syria, as it is their main connection to the Arab World. Yet the news that their Quds forces have been operating is not sure, as it is mainly reported by Washington and Tel Aviv, where news should always be taken with a grain of salt. Iran’s interest is comparable to that of the Sunni Gulf states, which are heavily calling for the fall of Assad. It underscores a Sunni-Shia split in which the Gulf States are now retaliating against the interference of the Iranian regime in their region following the Khomeini revolution.

Egypt becoming Pakistan?

This is not a realistic scenario, because the Egyptian character will push back against the extremism which is seen in Pakistan. Yes, Egyptians are very religious, but they have a long history of welcoming foreigners and do not have a deep hatred of the ‘other’. Having a significant percentage of the population as Christians also works against a Pakistan outcome, as seen in the example of the historic Wafd Party.

Saudi Arabia?

Ah, they are the elephant in the room. Even President George Bush’s democracy promotion agenda left Saudi Arabia off the table. Their influence through oil is simply too large to ignore. There have been demonstrations there, which have been met with violence. Yet here we see how the interests of the West trump their principles – and then some. But yes, they definitely need change, especially in the area of women’s rights.

Muslim Brotherhood?

I see the Brotherhood as pragmatic businessmen who know they must compromise to get and stay in power. I’m not worried about them in the short term, as opposed to the Salafis, who are more hardline and seem to have come out of nowhere. But it is always a concern when a political group puts religion as a central focus. Religion is a least common denominator which serves to divide. Take Hizbollah, for example. It means ‘Party of God’. If you are against the party of God, you are against God, and if against God, you are an infidel. Still, many in the Brotherhood refer to the example of Turkey, which is not that bad a model, actually.

Democracy with Islamists?

It seems clear that the Salafis are not converts to democracy as an end but as a means to power. The Brotherhood is different, as they have struggled for decades to get into politics, even being persecuted. They talk the talk of democracy, but now they will be put to the test. The reality of governance will probably not allow them to descend into extremism.

Salafis?

Salafi success in the elections was surprising, but they out-Brotherhood-ed the Brotherhood. They engaged in social service work both traditionally and with the elections, and pulled on the power of religious allegiance. Yet it should be noted the Salafis have a long relationship with Egyptian intelligence, which sees them as a counter-weight to their ‘archenemy’ the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance the head of the Salafi Asala Party used to be the head of the Mugamma, the central administrative building in Cairo – just without a beard. Many parts of the regime fell with the revolution, but others remained, chief among them the intelligence services.

 

Ben Wedeman has won numerous awards in his journalism career and speaks many languages, even dabbling in classical Mongolian. He is married with three children.

 

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Coptic Iconography: From the Pharaonic Age to the Arab Spring

Magdy William is one of the world’s premier Coptic iconographers, having studied under the renowned reviver of the long neglected art, Isaac Fanous. William discussed his craft, its history, and spiritual impact during an exhibition hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Maadi, Cairo, on October 21, 2011, under the sponsorship of Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler. Jessica Wright served as curator for over fifty commissioned pieces, and provided translation for William’s presentation, entitled ‘The Making of Coptic Icons’. The event was part of ‘The Eternal Eye’, an exhibition desiring a new Egyptian society, which honors all its religious diversity. Bishop Daniel, bishop of Maadi and assistant to His Holiness Shenouda III, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, opened the event.

Rev. Chandler, Bishop Daniel, and Magdy William

There is a direct connection, William states, between Coptic icons – indeed all icons – and the artistic heritage of Egyptian Pharaohs. When a Pharaoh died, his portrait was drawn and placed on his sarcophagus to lead his spirit back to his body at the resurrection. The portrait was idealized, imagining his appearance at age 25 – the prime of life, but intended to be faithful in representation. So also do Coptic icons not seek to be a realistic picture of a saint, but to convey his spiritual reality to both teach and impact the viewer.

Production of icons also mirrors its Pharaonic history. Only natural pigments are employed, to preserve color for thousands of years as witnessed in the pyramids and royal tombs. William first prepares a piece of wood to use as the base, covering it with gelatin and then a cotton cloth. After an initial twenty-four hours he removes the cloth along with any excess, and reapplies the hot gelatin mixture. He repeats this process ten times over five days to smooth it properly for application.

Thereafter William applies a thin gold leaf over the wood, and adds first the darker colors. To this broad lines are added shaping the landscape for where lighter colors are added. A black outline then completes the picture to highlight distinction, and a final varnish covers the icon for preservation. It is a detailed process, and William is a perfectionist.

Jessica Wright, curator and translator

Early Christians in Egypt, like elsewhere, often worshipped in tombs, caves, or secret places, but drew their holy images upon the walls. Icons developed, at least in part, as a way to make their images mobile should their worship locations be discovered. Demonstrating continuity of culture, Egyptian Christians imitated the style and production of their heritage, and exported the use of icons throughout the Christian world.

This process came to an abrupt halt after the 6th Century when icons came under fire as idolatry, and many were burned as the art declined in Egypt. Elsewhere, however, Christian emperors became great sponsors of iconography, as Byzantium and Russia developed their own distinct styles. Yet except for a revival during the Fatimid period, Egyptian iconography stagnated until the 18th Century.

During this time Egypt produced only poor quality icons, as local rulers and patrons sponsored art and architecture from within their religious traditions, drawing the best artists away from the church. Seeking to outfit their community the Coptic Orthodox Church recruited Armenian iconographers, who produced worthy material on Egyptian soil.

This arrangement continued until 1965, when Pope Cyril sent Isaac Fanous to study iconography from a Russian living in Paris. He received a PhD, as well as a blessing from the Russian, who told him we received this tradition from you, and now we give it back. Returning to Egypt, Fanous revived indigenous Egyptian iconography, founding the neo-Coptic school, which William joined in 1986.

At the time William was an artist of a different sort; he created the templates for promotional movie posters, which were then mass distributed. He credits his wife for helping him turn to art of a more spiritual variety, which he called a transformation.

William was keen to impress that Copts do not worship their icons, which serve to remind of the person or event depicted. It is a lesson, recalling Biblical tales or stories of the saints, which among millions of illiterate Egyptians impart the values and knowledge of divine history. But it is more than a lesson; it is communion. Copts believe the spirits of the saints are present in prayer, drawing the believer into a wider fellowship. This is one reason icons are prominent in Orthodox churches, and many Copts set up a prayer corner with an icon in their homes.

Stories abound as well of the intercession of the saints being multiplied as an icon is contemplated, resulting in miracles of healing or fertility. Some icons are celebrated as having cried tears, which drip from their painted eyes. Such miracles happen around the world, not just in Egypt, William asserts, and is due to the choice of God, having nothing to do with the skill of the iconographer.

An exhibition attendee, contemplating an icon of St. Macarious

Today, many in the Western Christian world have turned their eye to the East, seeking additional sources of spirituality which ring with authenticity and history in a material and disjointed age. Stories of miracles may cause these sons of the Enlightenment to pause, but for Copts they are simply the continuation of the faith, for which God has worked miracles through his saints throughout the ages.

Regardless, the continuity of history is source of great comfort for Copts, especially in this current age, as Egypt and Egyptian Christians are facing an unknown future. Many fear the worst, worrying that sectarianism, even persecution, could be on the horizon.

If so, icons are a worthy reminder of God’s ultimate triumph. What are St. George, St. Mina, and even Jesus, but martyrs of earlier ages? Yet their icons are serene, reflecting the idealized portrait of their eternal restoration. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a martyrs’ church, from whose blood the seed of faith has sprouted. If Copts today fear, then a greater contemplation of their artistic heritage is recommended.

Icons are a tool to aid in connecting with the divine, and divine comfort and rebuke vary from age to age and from person to person. Magdy William is only one in a long chain of men who assist others in their path to God. Though his rendition of each saint varies slightly from the next, the eternal eye binds them as humanity, universalizing the individual, placing him in the divine story and spiritual reality of God. God’s means are many, yet the icon is there for all who wish to enter in.

 

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The New York Times in Cairo: Michael Slackman

Michael Slackman is the Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, having served in this position for the past five years. Previously he worked in Albany, Los Angeles, and Russia, and this summer he will be ending his stay in Egypt to become bureau chief of Berlin. This move is forced upon him, as he has become blacklisted in Iran, and all but blacklisted additionally in Syria, Libya, and Algeria. Covering the Middle East is nearly impossible if the doors to these nations are closed. He leaves sadly, but with full appreciation for life abroad and the privileges it brings in being able to see the world through the eyes of another.

This is the perspective Slackman spoke of during a public lecture the evening of April 15 at the Abraham Forum. This initiative was developed by St. John’s Church as an effort to build bridges between East and West, Muslim and Christian, at the point of intersection in the church’s backyard of Maadi, Cairo. Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler introduced Slackman with these words, believing the reflections of such a high placed journalist would help enlighten the local expatriate community about realities in the Middle East.

Slackman began his presentation by remarking that if those in attendance had done a Google search on his name, they may not have been interested to come. Spoken tongue-in-cheek, he explained how his work has come under much criticism. He has always made it his ambition to engage people in a free and open exchange of ideas, allowing the subjects he covers to be able to express themselves in a forum otherwise impenetrable. Unless the media carries their voices, the people of the Middle East will remain unheard.

Though Slackman emphasized he only reports, never advocates, this interest in conveying faithful representation has engendered significant controversy. He tries to show the cultural and political nuances of the word ‘terrorism’. He depicts wide questioning of the Holocaust. He even writes how the oft-perceived trash dump is in reality a loosely organized but effective recycling center. In all matters he defends his practice as both good journalism and in the interests of the United States. Should not a policy maker desire to know the reality of what people are thinking?

Slackman gains his perspective through the challenging but rewarding work of face-to-face journalism, certainly with political figures but primarily with people on the street. Though he requires the use of a translator he states that it is very easy to get to know Egyptians. As he has “hung out” with them he has sensed that they desire to make themselves known. Both here and elsewhere this gives him an appreciation for the “little things” that make such a difference in understanding a people and their culture.

Unfortunately, he states, these little things were lost on the United States during the invasion of Iraq. Everyone who lives in the Arab world understand that the hand signal for ‘slow down’ is to turn your palm upward and put your fingers together, bobbing it up and down. The US military signal, however, is to raise your fist and knock, as if against a door. Slackman stated he was reticent to say what this signal meant to the people of Iraq, as it was quite uncouth, but this failure to communicate caused countless incidents as Iraqis approached checkpoints and each misunderstood the ‘go slow’ signals of the other. Add this to the fact that the military could not comprehend that the “We love Bush” slogans they received were only the knee-jerk reaction mirroring the “We love Saddam” chants offered to the prior ruling power, and Iraq was a disaster waiting to happen, but could have been prevented.

A vital difference highlighted by Slackman which goes far beyond the “little things” is the role of religion in society. In the United States it is common that a newspaper have a religion reporter, who occupies a rather minor and generally limited sphere of importance. This pattern though is impossible in Egypt and the Middle East, where religion touches upon and intertwines with every subject imaginable. For most people of the region the first identity is ‘Muslim’, second is the particular nationality, and third is ‘Arab’. Any reporting must take these factors into consideration.

Unfortunately, not only is it difficult for many Western reporters to appreciate the primacy of religion, the nature of religious perspective is also incomprehensible to them. His first example was from conversation with Fayyoumi fisherman near the Cairo island of Manial. When asked what religion meant, they esteemed the traditional pillars of Islam – prayer, fasting, etc. – but emphasized it was that God had placed a ceiling on their life, and they were to be content therein. Questioned if this indicated they did not have to work hard they disagreed. Within their allotment they must work hard to succeed. Transcending their position in life, however, was impossible. It is, as is always heard, in sha’ allah – if God wills. Due to this fact, and the fleeting nature of life, the only solution is to pray.

The second example was from Saudi young men who accompanied him on trips to the desert. Over time he got them to open up and from them he learned much about their society. One such lesson, however, was quite disturbing. One young man accused Slackman of being reckless. When asked why, he responded that he did not consider the danger joining these young men in the desert accompanied by his female translator. Should he wish, the man stated he would get rid of Slackman and then sexually approach the woman, raping her if she resisted. The other young men all nodded along, none disturbed or offended by this line of communication. When asked how this fit into their understanding of morality and religion, they stated that the mistake of a man stays in his pocket, but the mistake of a woman shames the whole tribe. Apparently, for him, this was enough.

On a third occasion Slackman was being asked about his religion, and he responded with admirable notions: I try to be a good person, I look to help others, I maintain a good family. To his surprise this was responded to with the follow-up question, “So you don’t believe, then?” Since then Slackman has utilized his lesson from the fisherman, and now answers, “Life is fleeting, so what is there to do but pray?” This answer has received much better reception. Reflection on these episodes, however, has led Slackman to criticize much Western religious reporting as focused on ritual, rather than on spirituality; unfortunately, as he finds in many Middle Easterners, this is how they manifest their religion.

When asked specifically about religious relations in Egypt, Slackman compared the situation to race relations in the United States. When whites are polled about the state of relations most hold that things are just fine. Most blacks, however, state they are the same as always and not getting better. It is a matter of majority-minority difference in perceptions. Without confirming local Coptic opinion, he has experienced, and conveys, that they almost universally decry their position.

In proceeding to describe the murders committed at Nag Hamadi he indicated sympathy for some of their complaints. After the atrocities the government in issuing its condemnation clearly and unequivocally stated that this was not a sectarian incident. Yet when it put forward its explanation, it did so in clear and unequivocal sectarian language. They did not put it that an Egyptian took revenge against an Egyptian rapist, but instead it was for the Christian rape of a Muslim girl. Unless the government acknowledges that sectarian tension is a problem, Slackman insisted, things will never improve.

Throughout his lecture Slackman often reiterated his great privilege of living overseas in general and in the Middle East in particular. This has not been for the Pyramids, or the Nile, but because of the nature and friendliness of the people themselves. He ended his presentation, however, with a statement of disappointment. The first is that he had to leave the region due to blacklisting, and that in particular he would not again be allowed to enter Iran. It is such an interesting country, the most pro-American of any regional population.

His second disappointment was that he was never able to interview President Mubarak. Had he the chance, he would have asked two questions. First, what do you believe is your legacy? Secondly, with all seriousness, why can you not pick up the garbage? These questions best summed up the political and social coverage he has devoted to Egypt. Michael Slackman was faithful to the people of Egypt and devoted to cover both breaking news and slice-of-life stories. The next Cairo Bureau Chief will have big shoes to fill, and at least these two questions to pursue.

To read a recent article by Michael Slackman on the health of President Mubarak and the future of Egypt, click here.