Eyewitness in Alexandria

Alexandrian blogger Jar Al Qamar was at the scene of Friday's multiple stabbing and wrote an account of what he saw, which has gotten a lot of attention in the Arabic-language Egyptian blogosphere. The Skeptic has a translation. It's reproduced after the jump.



Yesterday we were a minority, and today I am a minority. Yesterday, [Alexandrian blogger] Solo and I were the only Muslims in a crowd of dozens of friends. We would would laugh from our hearts, share cigarettes, split the bill after dinner, and walk in the streets of Ibrahamiya and Sporting with Imad, Gamaloon, and Mark. Mark made a joke about the way you write the name of the Protestant church in Ibrahamiya. Then he told us about this man who would never stop referring to anyone he met as “our third brother.� We laughed so hard it hurt.

We said goodbye to them, then I said goodbye to Solo. I decided not to go home straight away. On my way to the seaside, I passed a church next a mosque. I was amazed at how tall the mosque had become, as if it were in competition with the church.

When I returned from the Corniche, I was astonished for the thousandth time by the drawing of a snake curling around an apple, biting it from the opposite direction. One day I had told my friend Socrates about this drawing and she explained it to me.

I remembered two friends who worked 24 hours a day in the church hospital. I used to love how quiet Khalil Hamada Street was, dozing peacefully in the heart of Alexandria. I crossed the street and walked about 50 meters to my home. I burrowed under the covers and went to sleep.

My mother woke me up the next morning. I rose grudgingly, washed my face, got dressed, and went off to pray the Friday prayers. I make a habit of doing this only because I meet my friends there once a week. I always pray in the Al-Shahid mosque. My great friend owns the Naggar Laundry across the street from the mosque. I’d stopped going to pray in the Shaq al-Medina Mosque ever since they got a sheikh whose sermons–irritatingly–never seemed to end.

As the prayers ended, I heard shouting and angry babble coming from the length and breadth of the street. I crossed the square toward two buildings side by side: the Al-Qadisine Church and the Al-Sharq al-Medina mosque. As far as the eye could see, people were gathered and a number of women were screaming.

Then things became clear: A youth had stabbed a man who was waiting for his family outside the church after the morning Friday service. Lots of people said that he was wearing a ragged white t-shirt and track pants and carrying a large knife. This he had plunged into the man’s stomach, shouting “There is no god but God.� The trail of blood led from the church door to the steps of the Mar Marcus hospital attached to the church.

He also attacked two young men who tried to stop him. One of them was taken to intensive care. They say the other is seriously injured.

I know the sweet old security soldier who’s always found living in his small wooden hut next to the two buildings, reading his Quran. “He was in league with the killer and didn’t lift his weapon to stop him. Rather, he threatened anyone who tried to stop the killer and told them to let him go, so they did.� This is the story every Christian I met at the scene told me. I heard it from the wife of the victim’s brother, who stood there screaming until she fainted. Even the fruit-sellers, who were waiting until the end of the service to sell their goods, said the same thing.

What is certain is that the killer took refuge in flight. As for where he had come from, some said he had been seen coming out of the mosque. Others said he arrived and left by car. The official story, at least as the government told it early on, was that the young man was a noted criminal and was mentally unstable.

Unfortunately, the story of mental derangement did nothing to assuage people’s anger this time. The main reason was that people started getting news that the same thing had happened in a number of churches in Alexandria at the same time. In his laughable announcement, the governor [of Alexandria] confirmed that there was only one criminal, a young man who worked in a supermarket, involved. He wounded two people in Al-Hadra, then made his way to Sidi Bishr to kill one man and wound two more (you have to go more than halfway across town to get from one neighborhood to the other). At times like this, people don’t like to be lied to or told silly stories. And so it’s only natural that the once sleepy street of Khalil Hamada is now afflicted with bigotry and hatred.

In the twinkling of an eye, Central Security trucks appeared and closed off the street from all directions. The chief complaint was about Security’s statement, which contradicted tens of eyewitness reports and the blood of the victim himself.

A senior figure in the NDP called Mohamed as-Saadani (of course)started talking about national unity, Egypt, and the usual bullshit. The crowd stopped him short, shouting “Persecuted! Persecuted!�

He tried to calm them, saying, “The government is investigating the matter.�

“The government? Tell the government I say ‘hello.’ What has the government ever done for us? Al-Kosha, Qarqas, and Muharram Bik [sites of previous sectarian violence in Egypt]. Where was the government then?�

The bystanders cheered. A youth raised an old, white-haired man on to his shoulders so he could face as-Saadani. He looked like he was a man of the church. He shouted at As-Saadani, “I’ve been teaching for 30 years now. I’m not happy with what’s in the curriculum. I have to calm the students down and stop them from being angry while I myself am not happy with it. And I know that they’re not happy with it. What’s happening here is wrong. The time of the martyrs has come again. We’re like dogs in this country.�

The people applauded vigorously. They seemed to have a lot of respect for the man. As-Saadani having lost control of the situation, left. A number of thoughts hit me, and I was beset by contradictory feelings: religious anger, anger at the government, anger at the passivity of its leaders, and anger at the privileging of one group over another. The anger of the crowd reminded me of a similar anger I’d seen among Kifaya protesters, with the exception of the religious element. Some were demanding that the governor come forward. Others demanded that the Interior Minister himself should come forward. A woman told me of her frustration at the lack of justice: “If only they’d just get hold of him, and we knew that he’d be held to account, then I could relax.�

Their numbers increased, and so did their rage. One man didn’t like what another had said about calming down and controlling himself so he and his friends started beating him up.

A man called “Engineer Samir� arrived, who seemed to be very popular. He asked them to be calm so they wouldn’t lose their rights. Then he warned them against paying heed to the voice of Satan.

A woman interrupted him, shouting, “It’s you and your type who’ll ruin us all!�

Someone else backed up what she said: “It’s our passivity that’s going to ruin us!�

Samir failed to make any headway. I started hearing calls for everyone to sit down. People refused. Then a man shouted, “Who ever loves Jesus, sit!� Some sat down and some ignored him.

One of the bystanders screamed, pointing toward the mosque: “لو حد منهم قالهم حاجه بسمعوله .. احنا مالناش امر على بعض ؟؟ اهوه ده اللي مضيعنا�

I couldn’t help but be astonished by the logic that both sides in this seemed to be using. I caught some of what the man next to me was saying: “Your enemy is the enemy of your religion. Everyone knows that.�

We all sat down and I felt a powerful sense of brotherhood with those who were sitting next to me. Two of them put their hands on my shoulder and patted me supportively. I man asked what my name was, and I said Mina, Mina Ibrahim. It’s the name of one of my friends.

I suddenly realized I was the only Muslim in the circle and that I was sitting the midst of an angry group who were attacking anyone who asked them to keep calm. So what do you think they would have done if they had found an enemy in the midst of their ranks. Perhaps I should have gone, but something compelled me to stay and follow the events to their conclusion.

As if fate were conspiring to terrify me, one of them suddenly shouted, “There are Muslims in your midst!�

I surreptitiously pulled down my rolled-up sleeves to hide the fact that I didn’t have a cross tattooed on my arm like everyone else around me did. For the first time, I felt as though I was a minority in a group that wouldn’t accept me on principle. I forced myself to talk to the man next to me to give the appearance of normality.

Suddenly I saw Ibram, an old friend of mine. We were together at school and we took part in lots of activities together at university. He’s my neighbor, and his father owns one of the biggest gold dealerships in the area. Ibram was carrying a gilt wooden cross and shouting at the top his voice, “Kyrie Eleison.� I never imagined Ibram amongst people like this. He was always one of the gentlest people I knew and one of the most respectful of others.

So now I have a problem. On my right is someone who’s calling on people to uncover the Muslims hidden amongst them, and on my left is Ibram, who’s leading a group of his friends in a chant. He was riding on one of his friends shoulders. He knows me well. Any indication from him about my true identity would make me a dead man.

As luck would have it, at that moment, one of the bishops came out with a priest who was a member of the local Coptic Council. People saw them and fell completely silent. I seized my chance and left the circle and stood by one of the walls of the church.

I watched the bishop as he talked with people and called for calm and civilized behavior. He spoke vehemently. “Don’t forget yourselves! If you really love the church and the people who pray there, then don’t strike in the street, strike inside the church.�

I have no experience of how Coptic churches work, but the calm and respect that descended on the street the moment these men appeared left me totally unprepared for the crowd’s response. The minute the father had finished speaking to the demonstrators, I was astonished to hear accusations of betrayal and treason fill the air. People were shouting that the man was an agent of the government, and that he was selling the blood of the martyr and their rights cheaply, that it was people like him who were putting the Copts of Egypt through these troubled times.

The authority of the bishop seemed terribly weak. Even when he tried to read out a prayer, “Deliver us, Lord,� only a very few repeated the words with him. The rest started screaming insults against him and against those who collaborated with the government and Muslims to persecute Copts.

Now banners tied to wooden polls were brought of the church, with “No to persecution of the Copts� written on them in English and Arabic. Drawn underneath these words, in the blood of the victim that still covered the church floor, was a small cross.

They started carrying each other on their shoulders and shouting together, “Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison! Hosni Mubarak, O pilot, Coptic security is up in flames! Hosni Mubarak, where are you? State Security is between us and you! The age of martyrs has returned again!�

As I leaned against the wall of the church, I heard people talking. A hysterical woman screamed, “It’s a religion of bloodletting. We don’t kill or do anything. They’re all criminals.�

Another lady shouted “Our God will take revenge on them. They die on the pilgrimage and die in the sea.�

I heard someone else say, “This country is ours, they’re the newcomers. We have to practice our religion in secret, while they’re just for show.�

A middle-aged man said, “They’re the police, they’re all a gang together. What are we meant to do.�

The first woman spoke of the weakness and the stupidity of the Quran and things like that. “If only they could explain just one verse. Just find us one Muslim who could tell us that he’s satisfied and understands the rubbish they fill their ears with day and night.�

Men shouted for them to ring the church bells, and a woman said to her daughter, “Yeah, just as they do to us day and night [with the call to prayer].� Her neighbor asked her about the nearby mosque, and asked what would the Muslims who couldn’t pray their afternoon and evening prayers do.

“Well, let it closed, then.�

I could almost cry. I’m not embarrassed to say that here. This religious bigotry was torture. Seeing Ibram shouting about burning the mosque hurt me deeply. Seeing a woman hit a small Muslim boy, the son of one of the neighboring bawabs, hurt me deeply. “Get out of here, you son of a dog!� she told him. “You’ve destroyed it and now you’re coming to sit on the ruins. [a proverb].�

On the pavement opposite the church, police colonels were sitting and sipping tea and fizzy water. One of them opened the door of the mosque. The incensed the demonstrators. A group of security troops surrounded the door.

Suddenly, Hussein Abd al-Ghani, the Al-Jazeera correspondent, turned up. People rushed toward him in terrifying numbers. He backed off and security interposed themselves between him and the crowd. People calmed down when they were satisfied Al-Jazeera’s cameras were filming everything: the shouts, the banners, and the numbers.

I heard a man talking on the phone asking that all the Christians from Al-Hadra, Al-Falming, and Abu Qir return to their churches because the media had turned up in Sidi Bishr. Abd al-Ghani returned with his cameraman and tried to enter the church, but the crowd stopped him from entering. “No Muslim is getting in here,� some shouted, before the church custodians succeeded in getting him in by force.

The demonstrators got even angrier and carried on shouting. As they were trying to prevent Abd al-Ghani from entering the church, the demonstrators failed to notice that the police were going to the mosque and taking off their shoes. They ordered the iman to perform the afternoon prayers.

After 100 soldiers had lined up outside the mosque, the imam began the call to prayer and everyone turned around. A sudden silence descended, the silence that precedes the storm. The demonstrators started singing hymns to compete with the call to prayer. It was a terrifying situation… At any moment I feared the mosque could come under attack from Molotov cocktails or even gunshots. But the demonstrators just raised their voices until their throats burned. They tired to stop people from performing their prayers. Some of them asked the church custodians to ring the bells, but the church workers refused. Some tried to lay in wait for those praying inside the mosque, but Security lay in wait for them.

I suddenly felt weak and wanted to leave. Before I collapsed from exhaustion, I found an American journalist trying unsuccessfully to make herself understood. I offered to translate. And while the American lady was asking a young Coptic man about his views, I heard dozens of sick views about how the Muslims were planning to corrupt the joy of Christians this coming Christmas, other theories about Mossad and its role, and a third theory about Mubarak and his vested interests in causing civil strife.

Magdi Girgis, an accountant, insisted that the American journalist write the truth for the world. She must understand, he said, that Pope Shenouda didn’t want to let people know that there was a persecution going on to prevent a real explosion. More than once he said, “We don’t want America to intervene like in Iraq, we just want a fair deal, this is our country after all, and we’re far more worried about it than they are.�

I translated the slogans and the chants for her and then I immediately went to the nearest Internet cafe, where I am sitting now, writing what happened. I still don’t know how it all ended. As I’ve been sitting here, I received the pictures that you see above [he’s inserted some photos from BBC Arabic of the murdered man]. Everything I’ve written here hasn’t been edited or looked over. It’s just impressions of what I saw and I record of what I heard. I might fill you in later on the details, or I might not.

A final word: This country is far more beset by meanness, racism, and hatred than I’d imagined. Of course I understand the Copts’ response. But just because a criminal comes from one religion doesn’t mean you should criminalize all his coreligionists. All this does is foster resentment, persecution, and bigotry—and more importantly, charges of betrayal.

As one of the demonstrators hysterically told me: “For more than 1,400 years we’ve been treated like shit. It’s enough. We’ve had enough of burying our heads in the sand like ostriches.�

And to Mark: There’s no brotherhood in this country, not a third brother, not a second brother, not a tenth brother. Nothing.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.