Mokattam

Medhat, my Arabic teacher, mentioned that he had once stayed for a couple of months in Mokattam, acting as an interpreter for some American students. I had heard of Mokattam and expressed an interest to see the place, so we decided to hold an Arabic lesson there.

Mokattam is the so-called Garbage City. In the late 60s those who collected Cairo’s rubbish were moved by President Nasser to this area, and they built makeshift accommodation. Almost all the rubbish collectors, called Zabbaleen, were Christian, and they were able to keep their pigs, which are of course unclean to Moslems. The village soon became established, though it didn’t have electricity or any facilities, not even a church. Nowadays, the population is around 60,000, but the road into the area is poor and muddy. However, ‘garbage’ is still the focus of life here. The rubbish is brought in from all around Cairo, and families go through it, dividing it into what is edible (and can therefore be given to livestock) and what can be recycled or sold. That is how people make their living, and it was fascinating watching vans loaded with rubbish negotiating the potholes on the road into the village and bringing in the people’s livelihood.

It is obviously still a poor area, with little infrastructure, and life can be difficult. A few years ago, for example, there was a cull of pigs by the government, for fear that they were spreading disease, and that affected the Zebbaleen adversely. However, Mokattam is the one place in Cairo where Christians can be upfront about their faith, and the shops are decorated with Christian symbols and pictures of saints. Also churches and NGOs are working in the neighbourhood with the most disadvantaged, and some of the houses have recently been brightly painted with murals. However, the area stands in sharp contrast to the glitzy shopping malls which now seem to surround Cairo.

Churches have since been established in the area, including a Presbyterian one, but the main one is the Coptic Cathedral, which is built into the mountain. In fact, it is more like an open air arena under the overhang of the mountain, seating 15,000 people. It is supposedly the biggest church in Egypt (and probably the Middle East)! Services are held there most days, but it is filled to capacity on Thursday evenings, when there are special healing services. There are other smaller meeting areas built in caves, and all are decorated with stone sculptures, mostly of biblical scenes. The sculptor is a Polish artist, Mario, who has lived in Cairo for many years.

It is a special area for Christians, as it is associated with a legend going back to the Middle Ages about how the Caliph challenged the Coptic Pope Abraham over the verse in Matthew 17:20 –‘if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here, and it will move’. So the Pope was challenged to move the mountain or else convert to Islam! With the help of a shoemaker called Simon (Simaan in Arabic), the mountain did move. While in the West we may see this as a nice story, it does sustain the Christian population here.

You can read more about this amazing church and community on their website: www. simaanchurch.com Also there is a good article on the Zabaleen in Wikipedia.

 

 

Ramadan

Wednesday morning, and it is Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of Ramadan. It is a holiday for most people, so I was not expecting to be woken at 5.00 am by a sermon broadcast from the mosque (it was as if there had been a speaker was under my window, it was so loud and clear!). It has been a long month for our Moslem friends here. Ramadan is a holy month, in which they fast during the daylight hours (I can’t imagine what it is like for a Moslem in, say, Shetland with long summer nights, though they may be given special dispensation to follow the hours when the sun rises and sets in Mecca). In Cairo this meant between the hours of 05.00 in the morning and 19.00 in the evening, so a long time without eating or drinking even a sip of water, though children, older people and pregnant women are exempt. It also coincided with a particularly hot spell where temperatures were regularly hovering about the 40 degrees Celsius mark.  I have been far more aware of Ramadan here in Cairo than I was when I lived in the Galilee and certainly more sensitive to eating or drinking in public during the day. Even though a tenth of the population is Christian, all restaurants and cafes are closed during the day (apart from those in tourist areas). When dusk falls, people prepare to break their fast and have iftar, breakfast, and suddenly there is a surge of activity.  I found it interesting to be on the metro at that time as people began to pass bottles of water round the carriage or in one case give out small cartons of juice to whoever was there. At the exit from the station, there was even a policeman at a table handing out cups of juice and little packetCairo8 010s of dates.

But it has also been a colourful month, and many of the streets are decorated with lights or tinsel, and often there are big lanterns, so it is far more atmospheric at night.  But it has meant adjusting my routine, as shops and businesses close around the middle of the afternoon and only re-open after 20.00, so I find myself having to shop late or go for a haircut at 21.00! It has also been a month of giving, as Moslems are encouraged to give to charity, which is of course one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and by giving during Ramadan, you are more blessed. Ramadan finishes with the Feast of Eid, which is a noisy time with families coming together and going on outings and buying new clothes, especially for children. The streets are apparently packed, and it will be good to enjoy the atmosphere. However, it will be also be good to get back to some kind of normality.