Last Updated: Fri Oct 14, 2011 10:22 am (KSA) 07:22 am (GMT)

Sonia Farid / Letter from Cairo: Was the black sheep ever white?

At a time where sectarian tension sweeps across Cairo, people should be reminded of a time where religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence were the norm. (File photo)
At a time where sectarian tension sweeps across Cairo, people should be reminded of a time where religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence were the norm. (File photo)

“Who’s Christian here?” asked the woman who peeped through the door. Three of my classmates put their hands up. I don’t know why I decided to do this. Maybe I felt they could use some reinforcement; maybe I thought there must be something special about this group so I’d better sign in. “I am,” I said. Members of the group to whom I was supposed to pledge allegiance smiled, while gave me the look that I would later realize to be the unspoken variation of “Too bad! She was quite nice!”

The woman disappeared for a couple of minutes before returning with two piles of books: one very tall, which was distributed among everyone except those who still had their hands up, and another very short pile, from which I received a copy. Everyone took the books and put them in their bags right away, while I, not knowing what this is all about, began to look through mine. I saw figures that looked like the ones I had been seeing on daily basis throughout my first childhood years in Athens in shops and houses and those big buildings that rang bells every Sunday morning. Nothing wrong so far. I put the book away and spent the rest of the day responding to do-you-want-to-be-my-friend initiatives by the two girls and one boy I had decided to back up while taking in everyone else’s suspicious looks, including those who had already befriended me when we started school a week earlier.

I went back home and forgot about the whole issue until my mother saw the book by accident as she was checking to make sure I had all the books needed for the next day. “Where did you get this from?” she asked. “From the teacher. She asked who’s Christian and I said I am so she gave me this,” I said in a matter-of-fact manner.

I could see she was quite taken aback and not sure what she should say next. After a couple of minutes’ silence, she finally said, “But you’re not Christian.”

“You never told me I am not,” I immediately replied.

“And I never told you are.” I could see she was getting nervous.

“It’s not my fault then,” I said before leaving the room, thinking we’d spent more time on the issue then it deserved.

A few minutes later, she came to me with the book and said hastily, as if not wanting to continue the conversation without figuring out her next move, “Return it.”

As she was leaving the room, I decided I wouldn’t leave her in peace so I yelled, “Do I return it and that’s it or do I get something else instead? There was another book, too, by the way.”

Silence again, then finally, “Get the Islamic religion book.”

“Turns out I am not Christian,” I told the same woman who had previously handed out books, who, I learned, taught Islamic studies.

“What do you mean ‘turns out’? What are you talkingabout?” She was horrified.

“I don’t know. That’s what my mom told me,” I shrugged amidst the class’ murmurs.

“Please tell your mom she needs to see me tomorrow urgently,” she said in a tone that reminded me of Cinderella’s stepmother and made me feel I had to kneel down and start sweeping the floor.

“Something is not right. The girl does not know whether she is Muslim or Christian,” the teacher said, trying to control her emotions as she spoke to my mother the next morning.

My mother seemed to have regained her composure after having thought about the matter for a few nights and later I understood that she realized she had to face this situation after moving Egypt and that she felt it was her one fault for not preparing for it. “Well, I have always made sure to raise her to know the difference between what’s ethical and what’s unethical rather than what is permitted or prohibited in religion. I think she is too young for talk about God and spirituality and I believe this should come at a later stage when her brain is ready to receive such deep thoughts.”

I am surprised I still remember what my mom said even though I was so distracted by the stunned look on the teacher’s face and which apparently did not bother my mother one bit. She continued: “Plus, you know, I really believe that telling a kid at such an early age that ‘we’ belong to one religion and ‘they’ belong to another will make her automatically assume that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong and I don’t want to nurture this kind of intolerance in her.”

The woman was now in utter shock though not sure if that was because she was against what my mom said or because she did not fully understand what she meant in the first place. I thought the latter of course. “But she has to know these things from the day she is born. This is wrong,” she snapped.

“It looks like you are about to right my wrong. Too soon, I would say, but what can one do,” my mother said with a smile that signaled the conversation was over.

I was sent back to class to be met with an overwhelming group of inquisitive faces and staring eyes; as other students got wind of the incident, they came to watch the freak who claimed a religion other than her own. Till the last day in my life, I will never forget the things they told me. “You should pray and ask God to forgive you because it was bad to say that you are Christian and God doesn’t love Christians;” “Did you eat anything they gave you? My mom told me they cast a spell on food and give it to you to be like them or so that something bad can happen to you;” “Christians are not from Egypt like us. Egyptians are good and they are bad;” “Muslims will go to heaven because they are good and Christians will go to hell because they are bad.”

I won’t be exaggerating when I say that I heard about 20 such sentiments, all with the word “bad” in them, almost simultaneously and I almost reached the point of believing I deserved to be burn in hell right there and then.

I was six years old, and so were the little fanatics who almost burnt me at the stake … This was a private language school where all the kids came from highly educated families who were constantly exposed to other cultures … It was the early 1980s, long before Egyptian culture fell under the influence of religious fundamentalism and at a time when hardly any woman, including that religion teacher and the mothers of my classmates, even donned the headscarf … That was the time everyone in my generation now refers to as one of Egypt’s most idyllic eras of tolerance and coexistence.

How many times do you need to multiply that by in order to reach a semi-perception of what the situation is now?

I bet anyone reading this will be wondering, “Why on earth is she bothering us with her stupid childhood stories?” The answer is quite easy. I have made a conscious decision not to write about Sunday’s massacre. I opted instead for dedicating this little anecdote to all those who claim Muslims and Christians have always lived in an eternal honeymoon and that some external force must have planned this sedition … those who hurry to post pictures of the cross embracing the crescent on their Facebook profiles the moment they hear of dead Copts and burnt down churches … Those who keep reiterating how they love their “brethren” even though they realize very well this was not what they were raised to believe and not what they genuinely feel now … Those who hide behind the politically correct rhetoric a deeply-rooted resentment against a people who they cannot get themselves to treat as their equals.

A little soul-searching might take them back to the time their mothers would tell them they are privileged while some people out there are not ─ just like it took me back to the time my mother told me all the inhabitants of the planet are the same. And while they spend some time tracing the blossoming of the first buds of prejudice, I will be spending the same time recalling the days I took the Islamic studies class in the morning and borrowed the Christian studies book in the afternoon and feeling grateful that I was lucky enough to be immune to the worst of human vices.

(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at:

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