Not long ago, standing with a few hundred Muslims at the Garden of Eden Islamic Cemetery located in a remote corner of a Christian cemetery in Burnsville, we mourned the death of one of our friends.
Reverence was shown not just by the Muslims who came to pay their respects, but by the staff at the Christian cemetery. Everyone reflected the gravity of the situation. Cemetery workers dug the grave, carried the coffin, lowered it into the grave and stepped away to wait quietly until the end of burial; then they cleaned up and walked away.
I thought: “Wow! What a contrast.” Muslims in the United States, in this post-9/11 era, are constantly exposed to all sorts of bigotry and discrimination — demonized in the media, attacked, racially profiled at airports, spied upon in schools and mosques, and young Muslims are entrapped by the FBI for show-and-tell news conferences.
But when they die, Muslims are welcomed and given the utmost respect at a Christian cemetery in unmarked graves not far from dead Christians.
I never understood the proximity rules between dead Muslims and Christians. Even if no amount of interfaith dialogue could bring Muslims and Christians together, death can.
As a hyphenated Muslim-American, I couldn’t help but remember and wonder about the one Christian family that lived in my village when I was growing up in Egypt 50 years ago. What became of them? What trace had they left, if any? I decided to make a trip back to Egypt and into that history to find out more about this Christian family and why my village was immune to the rift between faiths.
My village, as I remember it, was a small, unassuming place in the Nile delta. Many people’s lifestyles hadn’t changed much since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers couldn’t find any dramatic census changes for a long time. Before CNN and Al Jazeera, villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the outside world extended only as far as the edge of their fields.
The men left with their animals for work at dawn and came back at dusk. Their wives stayed home, busy preparing hearty meals and raising kids to work on the farm as soon as they mastered their first step.
People all seemed to consult the same fashion designer, pray at the same mosque, eat the same food and celebrate the same holidays. For generations, villagers kept the gene pool confined to area families. I was interested to know more about the Coptic family who had lived among us.
The Christian family’s peculiar lifestyle was intriguing to me; in fact, it was a breath of fresh air that invigorated the monotonous village life.
“They seemed friendlier than most, and they easily smiled,” said Haj Abdullah, one of the few relatives left with a sharp memory of the Coptic family. Unlike other villagers who farmed, the Christian family was still in the hunting-and-gathering age. “They made their living chasing wild wolves lurking on the outskirts of the village,” continued Haj Abdullah. “The Christian father, Kyriakos, would vanish into the remote fields for days and suddenly resurface with his kill,” he added.
“The Coptic family would drag the dead wolf around in the streets for show and tell, describing the grave danger they had just faced and the heroic adventure they had encountered, which earned them considerable admiration from villagers and a handsome handout of rice, corn or whatever the season offered at the time,” explained my cousin Ezzat.
“I knew Kyriakos, the father; he had a great sense of humor,” Haj Abdullah added. “He was a joker.”
“I never thought of them as Christian or Coptic, just my neighbor,” said my brother Abdel Rafaa.
Growing up in my village, I liked to hang around with Sameer Kyriakos, one of the Coptic brothers. Although I had the advantages that came with being part of the majority religion, my bond with him was personal; it might have grown from both of us being considered somewhat social outcasts by most of the villagers.
Both of our families had chosen a career other than farming. My family members were the educators, who ran the only village elementary school for years. Sameer was in my class, and I always envied him for being a Coptic during our religion class — because he was free to choose to stay or go to the school playground. I wished I could go, too.
Besides his great personality, Sameer had a unique skill: He was a sharpshooter, exceptionally good at using a BB gun, and I was good at using the slingshot. Our pastime was hunting small birds in the summer. We left the village early in the morning and spent the whole day roaming the field hunting for “asafeer,” or sparrows. The solitude of the fields’ greenery and the empty roads gave us the emotional space to be good buddies. We talked about anything — even about kissing girls and other dreams.
Years went by, and (since Egyptian Coptics have the same life expectancy as Egyptian Muslims) the father suddenly died. The family was not prepared for this, and neither was the rest of the village. Although the cultural tradition of the Muslim villagers was to accommodate the Coptic family members while they were alive, the religious burial traditions were not flexible enough to accommodate the mixing of their dead in the same cemetery.
“The Coptic family wanted to bury their father at their cemetery located away from the city, as most of them do across Egypt,” said Haj Abdullah. However, “before his death, Kyriakos the Coptic father asked your uncle [my uncle Abd Elhafeez] to be buried with him at the Muslim cemetery,” he said. My uncle kept his promise to his Coptic neighbor.
“There was some reluctance and hesitation from the villagers,” my brother Refaat said. “Both religions prohibit mixing the dead in the same graves or cemetery.”
Before the Wahhabi-oil brand of Islam that has been sweeping Egypt in recent times, there was more tolerance. Members of my father’s family were not known for their religious zealotry, but for their kindness and generosity.
“If the Coptic family had lived in peace with the rest of us all these years without any trouble, there shouldn’t be much trouble while they were dead,” my cousin Fekary said about Uncle Abd Elhafeez’s view at the time.
“My family consulted no one in the village,” said my brother Nasser.
The burial ceremony was completed quietly at my family’s cemetery grave site. Now, after all these years, like all Muslim graves, which lack any religious symbols or eulogy and have only a name and a date, just a Coptic family name remains — “Kyriakos” — and the dates: “Born in 1911 and died 1962.”
What is so amazing today is that with all the discord between Christians and Muslims, between Islam and the West, and also periodic flare-ups between Egyptian Copts and Muslims, this has never translated into any sign of hostility toward the Coptic family’s grave; no act of defacing or expression of graffiti on the unfenced Coptic grave can be found, which is remarkable in the age of the Internet, the global village and religious fundamentalism.
All those years ago, in my village, Muslims and Copts had lived together and died together in peace and harmony.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Mondays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.