MY EXPERIENCE IN EGYPT
Bimal Kerketta SJ
I landed in Egypt in August 02, 2002. Everything was new. I had to start from zero. Within a few days, I began an intensive classical Arabic language course in a language institute. The course was for the beginners and to my surprise, alphabets were not introduced to us. We had to look into it by ourselves. We were led to formulation of words without having any earlier background. The paradox was, I had to learn classical Arabic, but I was talking in colloquial Arabic, and on top of that the Community language was French. This was the first time I was listening French and Arabic simultaneously. A daunting task!
Learning the Arabic language is a long process. It has one of the richest vocabulary and a rather intricate grammar. It is a flowery, almost poetic language, able to present things in a creative way. Besides, there is Egyptian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic and Syrian Arabic………Being familiar with these has been very helpful as these countries are a part of the Near East Jesuit Society Province.
Egyptians are proud of their language. They are ever ready to help and encourage a non-Egyptian in learning their language. Facing these challenges with patience and persistence has been rewarding. Somehow, mere physical appearance and accent of my Arabic language make many of them judge, saying that I'm from Sudan. The word "Sudan" doesn't refer to colour alone but to one who is less equal in Egypt. I can understand how difficult it is for a real Sudanese who is mocked, ridiculed and looked down in the streets of Egypt just because he/she is a black! Hence, my response has always been, "I wish, I were a Sudanese to feel equal with black people."
Muslims are about 90% of the total population of Egypt. The other 10% are Christians, the majority of them being Coptic Orthodox. Cairo is called the city of minarets. On July 21, 2010, a daily Arabic newspaper called 'Al Ahram', in its weekly edition stated that in Cairo alone, there are more than 45,000 mosques and in the whole of Egypt, more than 70,000 mosques. After the Arab revolution, this number has rapidly increased. What strikes me most is how people, almost the whole country, pause to pray five times a day, after which they continue their works and duties. Initially, it seemed like a needless disruption of work. But I soon realized how much work and prayer are a part of one harmonious reality for the people here.
When in contact, many Egyptians are inquisitive and like to know all about you and your country. Once the ice is broken, which is very soon, conversation can go on and on. Yet, an Indian, who is not a Muslim but a Catholic priest, is beyond comprehension for many. My work has been mainly of service to one and all. I enjoy working among all. Through my work in the school and Jesuit Social Centre, I'm able to meet people from all walks of lives. Since I'm considered a black, I'm a wonder to many. There are questions every day, often the repeated ones. At times Egyptians wonder how one can leave one’s motherland and would work among them.
Over the years, occasional violence against Christians has surfaced but the most recent attacks on August 14, 2013 were the worst in years. I would call it a BLACK DAY for Christians in Egypt. Early morning, a minutely planned attack began by Islamists groups on Government establishments, police stations, Christian churches, their houses, shops, all properties and establishments, etc, all over Egypt. It is said that all over Egypt 58 churches were damaged, looted or torched down completely. In El Minia Governorate where I'm posted for the last three years, saw the highest number of churches and Christian properties destroyed.
In all ups and downs, I'm able to find signs of hope. I'm able to see more clearly than ever before the love and appreciation of people towards us, what we do, and what we stand for. Many friends, both Muslims and Christians, have been standing by our side – supporting us, defending us, and encouraging us to continue our services. These events remind us that our services are required even more than ever before.
Let the prayers of all Muslims and Christians people be heard by Allah, the most High and Almighty.