Cairo’s Shubra district: An island of religious tolerance

Shubra stands out as a heartening model of coexistence when many people identify by the faith they inherited from their parents.
Sunday 24/03/2019
Symbols of coexistence. A view of a church and a mosque sitting adjacently in Cairo’s Shubra district.   (Amr Emam)
Symbols of coexistence. A view of a church and a mosque sitting adjacently in Cairo’s Shubra district. (Amr Emam)

CAIRO - It took Hesham Sultan almost 15 years, when he was young, to realise that the woman living next door was not a Muslim like him. Yet Umm Joseph, as the woman was called, was a second mother to him.

“I liked to eat rice so much as a child and Umm Joseph always had rice to give me,” said Sultan, who is in his early 50s. “She gave food to all other children in the street, who happened to be Muslim, too.”

When Umm Joseph died, without children of her own, no one knew if she should be buried in tombs specified for Muslims or in the church cemetery.

“She was Christian but none of us had ever thought of her religion before,” Sultan said. “She was a mother to everybody in the street.”

There is almost a similar story in each street and alley of Shubra, a densely populated, middle-class district in downtown Cairo where religion is a uniting force, not a separation wall.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in the 18 sq.km area squeezed between the Nile and larger districts in the northern part of Cairo have chosen to turn differences in religion into a source of love, not hate or killing.

Shubra became known only when the Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha built his palace there in 1908. It is Cairo’s district with the largest concentration of Christians. Residents share homes, streets, transport, food, joys and agonies, as well as a lot of fond memories.

It stands out as a heartening model of coexistence when many people identify by the faith they inherited from their parents.

“Shubra is in the heart of metropolitan Cairo, which is why it is immune from extremist influences rampant in the Egyptian countryside,” said writer Gaber Asfour.

Shubra — the name means “village” in the Coptic language — is a cultural melting pot that buzzes with commercial activity. Shops lining the streets are owned by Muslims and Christians in a mosaic of faith and social connections rarely found anywhere else in Egypt.

Shubra is reputed to be the truest version of Egyptians’ nature and Egypt’s real life without blemishes. At the cafes that dot the district, men and women sit together, staying up all the night, playing dominoes and cracking jokes about everything from politics, to social traditions and religion.

Those sitting together sharing drinks and smoking shisha, remember their different faiths only at the doorsteps of the mosques and the churches, which are also present everywhere.

Shubra has approximately 700,000 inhabitants, most of them Christian. This is the only place in Egypt where Christian priests are cheered like heroes by Christians and Muslims alike and imams revered by both. The district’s most important landmarks are its churches, its mosques and its people.

Gameel Banayouti, a Christian trader in his mid-70s, said he was not concerned about the religion of Shubra’s residents. He has spread out a charity banquet for poor Muslims each Ramadan for the past 30 years.

Dozens of Muslims attend the banquet every day at dusk to eat the delicious, hot and free meals he offers. He delivers food to the poor too shy to attend the banquet.

“We grew accustomed to seeing each other as human beings, regardless of faith,” Banayouti said.

Banayouti’s father and older brother used to turn on the radio and listen to the Quran channel every day at their shop.

When he was conscripted into the army more than 50 years ago, Banayouti did not eat in front of his Muslim colleagues in daytime during Ramadan. He did not want to hurt their feelings.

Shubra’s Christian residents do the same during Ramadan today. They fast like their Muslim neighbours and eat with them at dusk.

On all religious occasions, Christian and Muslim families exchange good wishes and share their special cookies and sweets.

Noha Mahmud, a budding novelist from the district in her late 30s, grew up in these surroundings. She said she remembers Christian children decorating the streets with her to prepare for Muslim feasts.

“Most of my friends are Christian and none of us had ever thought of the faith of the other,” Mahmud said. “We hear and read about incidents of religious bigotry in other parts of Egypt and crack jokes about it.”

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