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The cemetery's lesson in coexistence

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By Ahmed Tharwat

I stood in the Muslim section in a remote corner of a cemetery in Burnsville and mourned the death of a friend. 

In the United States, unlike in Europe, the members of the integrated Muslim-American community are very much free to choose where they want to live, and actually do live just about everywhere in the state of Minnesota. With our dead ones, however, our choices are more limited. The Muslim section is usually located in a remote part of an existing Christian cemetery. 

I never understood the religious taboo about the proximity between the Muslim and Christian dead. No amount of interfaith dialogue could bring the dead ones together; it is hard to argue that much when you are dead.

My visit to the Burnsville grave took me back more than 40 years, to the one Coptic Christian family plot in the heart of my primarily Muslim village cemetery in Meet Swaid, Egypt. We never questioned it, and we never thought of as something peculiar or unusual. 

As a hyphenated Muslim-American living in the United States, I wondered what it must have been like to live as a Christian in a majority Muslim village. After all the years since I left  my village, I decided to go back to find out more about the history of this Christian family and why my village was immune from the rift between Coptic Christians and Muslims that periodically surfaced on the Egyptian scene.

After a 24-hour journey to Cairo, and after meeting old friends and family eager to see their son back safely from the nowadays hostile American land, we hired a van for the three-hour drive to my village. It took one hour just to leave the congested city and reach the outskirts of Cairo, but only two hours to reach the village, 150 miles away. Along the freeway through the heart of the Nile delta, the road was lined by massive orange orchards and fruit peddlers. They dotted the landscape, oblivious to the ominous piles of trash everywhere. 

We finally arrived at my village. A lot has happened since I left 40 years ago, and the village now is taking the shape of a small crowded town. The village I remember was a small, unassuming place in the Egyptian Nile delta. Many people's lifestyles hadn't changed that much since the time of the pharaohs.

Before CNN and Al Jazeera, villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the world went 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 meals and raising kids to work in the farm as soon as they mastered their first step.

Everyone seemed to consult the same fashion designer, go to the same mosque to pray, eat the same food, celebrate the same holidays, and for generations  villagers kept the gene pool very much confined to the area's families.

The Christian family's lifestyle was peculiar and intriguing to me; in fact, it was a breath of fresh air to invigorate the monotonous village life. "They seemed friendlier than most, and they easily smiled," commented Haj Abdullah, one of the few relatives left with a sharp memory of the Coptic family.    Unlike other villagers, who worked on the farm, 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, Kariaquos, would vanish into the remote fields for days and suddenly resurface with his kill."

My cousin Ezzat remembered that "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."

Hajj Abdullah added,  "I knew Kariaquos, the father; he had a great since of humor. He was a joker." My brother Abdel Rafaa said this: "I never thought of them as Christian or Coptic, just my neighbor."

Growing up in my village, I liked to hang around with Samir Kariaquos, one of the Coptic brothers, known simply as the Coptic. Although I had the privilege and perks that came with being of the majority religion, my alliance with him was personal, and it might have resulted from our both being social outcasts among most of the villagers. Both of our families had chosen a career other than farming. 

My family members were the educators who, for years,  ran the only village elementary school.  Samir was in my class, and I always envied him for being a Coptic during our religion class; he was free to stay or go to the playground. I wished I could, too, if only to spare myself the abuse of our religion teacher. 

Besides his great personality, Samir had a unique skill:  He was a sharpshooter, exceptionally good at using the BB gun. I was good with the slingshot. In the summer, hunting small birds was our pastime. We both left the village early in the morning and spent the whole day roaming the field hunting sparrows.  The solitude of the empty roads gave us the emotional space to be close buddies; we talked about anything, kissing girls and other dreams. 

But Egyptian Coptics have the same life expectancy as Egyptian Muslims, and the father suddenly died. The family was not prepared, and neither was the rest of the village. Although the cultural tradition of the Muslim villagers accommodated the Christian family while they were alive, the burial traditions were not flexible enough to accommodate the mixing of their dead in the 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, Kariaquos, the Coptic father, asked your uncle to be buried with him at the Muslim cemetery," he explained. 

My father's part of the family was known for kindness and generosity. My uncle kept his promise to his Coptic neighbor. 

"There was some reluctance and hesitation from the villagers," my brother said. "Both religions prohibit mixing the dead in the same graves or cemetery." 

Before the Wahhabi-oil brand of Islam that is sweeping Egypt these days, there was more tolerance.  Nowadays Egyptian Muslims and Copts alike are expressing their frustration with their lives by using religious symbols and formalities;  even the Egyptian soccer team (all Muslims) are known for their trademark way of celebrating a goal: They kneel down for a group prayer, thankful for every score and victory.  

My father's family didn't much go in for religious zealotry. 

"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," explained my cousin Fekary  about Uncle Abd Elhafeez's view at the time.

"The family consulted no one in the village," said my brother Nasser. The burial ceremony was completed quietly in my family's cemetery plot. The grave was marked like any Muslim grave, with name and dates but no religious symbols or eulogy. Now, after all these years, just a Coptic family name remains, "Kariaquos," and the dates: "Born in 1911 and died 1962." 

What is so amazing today is that with all the rift between Christians and Muslims, and Islam and the West, and periodic flare-ups between Egyptian Copts and Muslims, this has never translated into hostility toward the Coptic family grave; no act of defacing or graffiti on the unfenced Coptic grave can be found, which is remarkable in the age of the Internet and religious fundamentalism. 

All those years ago, in my village, Muslims and Copts lived together and died together in peace and harmony. As my brother put it, "No diversity programs were required, no axis of evil was declared, and no crusade or jihad was launched."

My brother, Abdel Rafaa, who falls into the gentle camp of my family, had no trouble welcoming the Coptic family, alive or dead.  He told me in a reflective voice, "I stop by the Coptic family grave every time I visit our family cemetery."  As a joke, I asked my brother if he also recites Sourah "El Fathah" on the Coptic grave, which is customary for Muslims to recite when they visit their dead relatives. He answered seriously. "No," he replied, "out of my respect to their faith."

"Please relate this story to your friends in America," he pleaded.

I just did.

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Ahmed Tharwat, Minnetonka, is host of the Arab American TV show "Belahdan."