The next morning I tore myself away from George Wassouf music clips and went down to the hotel lobby, where a fractious Swedish Lawyer informed me that upon attempting to leave the hotel to buy water she had been stopped by the plain-clothed (tourist) policeman stationed at the entrance who had told her that it was forbidden for her to go out alone.
Umm Nakad immediately launched into lawyer mode, and a compromise of sorts was reached when she agreed to leave her mobile phone number. The main problem was that the policeman wanted to know where exactly we were going; we unfortunately had no idea because none of us had any clue what there was to see in Assiut’s town centre, and just wanted to walk about until Sharshar & co. arrived. I am in any case incapable of rational thought before 11 a.m. and would have been unable to provide a cogent response.
Having escaped, we wandered around aimlessly in the gorgeously crisp weather looking at Jesus statuettes in shop windows and trying to find somewhere to buy coffee. The strange thing is that I didn’t see a single shop selling touristy knick-knacks of the type which proliferate in Cairo – Assiut apparently doesn’t receive tourists of any kind other than groups passing through on their way to religious sites, and it is this which explained, in part, the slightly puzzled response of the hotel staff to us. Our desultory walk was soon interrupted by the arrival of Sharshar and his coterie, who whisked us off to the magnificently-named Baloot, and el-Moharraq (the Burnt Monastery).
Baloot is approximately half an hour from Assiut, and is reached by a pothole-filled narrow road which cuts through endless seas of green. The village itself is a collection of ramshackle buildings surrounded by sheesha-smoking men, buffalos, donkeys and scampering children. As usual I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the surroundings and how hard life must be within them for those who wish to escape them but lack the means to do so.
Surrounded by an enormous fort-like wall, el-Moharraq consists of a monastery and churches. Its gardens have the feel of a 5-star resort, with shrubbery bordering wide, clean, tiled paths. The altar of the Church of the Holy Virgin is a sort of closed-off area, visible through square windows at which people stood and prayed (the Holy Family apparently lived in this exact spot for six months). The scene reminded me exactly of the Sayyeda Nefissa Mosque, where people also stand and pray while they look through small windows at something inside. I do exactly the same thing at the mogama3.
The faithful make up for what this photo lacks in resolution
While waiting for the others to come out of the church and put their shoes on I wandered round outside until an Abouna (Coptic priest) swept towards me waving in his black robes waving his finger back and forth and informed me that I had apparently trespassed into el-2alaaya, or monks living area. Another awkward moment when, after he asked me where I was from and I told him London, he said “ta3rafy Anba Anthony tab3an!” [“you must know Anba (ecclesiastical title within Coptic church) Anthony then!”]
I developed a penchant for Abounas while researching el Zeft, or my masters dissertation, which dealt with religious minorities in Egypt. In order to escape the boring old law I spent hours reading about Eastern Orthodox saints and their exploits in the desert, and was particularly fascinated by the ‘reward and redemption through hardship and suffering’ doctrine endorsed by the Orthodox Church (possibly because this credo gave me hope during the writing of el Zeft). Modern-day Abounas are the incarnation of these hundreds of years of history and mystery, and with their black robes and long beards and starred capes look excellent, too. Another bonus is that the monks at el-Moharraq answered the phone with ‘Agapy,’ which is Coptic for love, and which I am thinking of adopting.
At el-Moharraq we sat with an Abouna friend of Sharshar’s who turned out to have served in a Coptic church in Rotherham, a town in Yorkshire, which made me splutter because of the unlikelihood of the association between the two; it’s rather like hearing about the construction of a ministry of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Tehran. Abona impressed on Sharshar the importance of getting married while Sharshar told Abouna about Fartbook applications (Abouna has brought his spiritual presence to that addictive wasteland of sin, and his photo album is filled with smiling Abounas and their beards). While this was happening Oosha and Abou Fathy (another member of the crew) were in discussions of their own with amn el-dawla, who wanted full reports on who they were, how they know Swedish Journalist and how Swedish Journalist knows Haidar Wahm whose engagement she was attending the next day (she in fact had never met him) amongst other questions.
The telephone call concluded with instructions that our party should not move until the arrival of the police cars which had been sent to escort us wherever it was we were going next.
We waited for an age until we figured that since there was only one road out of el Moharraq we would meet them en route, which is indeed what happened. Two police cars holding three policemen and an officer each met us just after we had left the monastery one of which shot in front of Oosha’s car (in which Swedish Journalist was sat) while the other positioned itself behind Abou Fathy’s (where Umm Nakad, Sharshar and I were riding) and we raced through Baloot’s fields in this fashion until the officer in the police car behind Abou Fathy’s car realised that since it only contained Egyptians he shouldn’t waste national resources on protecting it and immediately overtook us, bringing up the rear behind Oosha’s car.
My thoughts on the police escort debacle
Our convoy raced along the road back to Assiut at full speed and sirens blaring in a quarter of the time it taken us to reach el-Moharraq. In the hotel reception we were met by 3amm Mostafa, the policeman who had taken Umm Nakad’s number in the morning and who informed us that allowing Swedish Journalist to go out this morning without police escort was strictly against the rules. Umm Nakad and Swedish Journalist by this point had had enough of what they regarded as harassment by the police and were responding to their questioning with a surliness which only aggravated the situation. The funny thing is almost exactly a year ago to the day I was in virtually the same situation when the Pig and I went to Dahab and was stopped at a police checkpoint for an hour and the police officer of course took my number and then proceeded to call me eight times a day. In Dahab I had been almost apoplectic with rage at our treatment, but in Assiut I parked myself on a sofa in the hotel lobby and just watched, having learnt the lesson that taking a combative approach or even resisting them in any form is like attempting to swim against the current of a stormy sea and will result in nothing other than your own exhaustion. But I was impressed nonetheless that in only a year Egypt’s security bodies had managed to make me regard what is wholly abnormal as routine.
After taking all our names and telephone numbers 3amm Mostafa & co. received further instructions by telephone that we had to provide a written itinerary of what we planned to do today and tomorrow, i.e. 2200 hours: eat dinner in Happy Dolphin, 2300 hours: make jokes and laugh 2304 hours: Swedish Journalist will visit toilet, 0100 hours: back to hotel…and so on. This Umm Nakad did using her own bile as ink. There still remained the problem however that Swedish Journalist could not leave the hotel without police escort. We now faced the choice of either waiting for the police cars to come back or have policeman 3amm Mostafa accompany us in one of our cars. We elected for the latter, and ate dinner in Cook Window under police guard, 3amm Mostafa resisting our invitations to join us and sitting a few tables down. While we were there Haidar Wahm passed by briefly and was introduced to the policeman, who he asked whether he had any children. 3amm Mostafa replied that he had three. “Ana saydaly we hazabbatak be talata kaman” [I’m a pharmacist and I’ll fix you up with another three”] was Haidar Wahm’s response.
3amm Mostafa himself was a quiet man with a constantly worried look who was embarrassed by the situation and repeatedly expressed his hope that we were not too annoyed by it. It was in any case him who paid the price ultimately; he had been on duty when we met him in the lobby at 10 a.m., and he was not allowed to go home until Swedish Journalist went to bed at 1 a.m. having to walk behind her at a discreet pace when she fancied a stroll and spend hours sitting in Happy Dolphin while we ate and drank. He did finally agree to sit with us after repeated entreaties, but was sent away by Swedish Journalist after his never-ending loud-volume phone conversations disturbed something she was doing on a laptop.
We concluded our evening with deliciously rich Feteer, which was consumed at midnight and which made a encore appearance at 7 a.m. when I woke up vomiting. The plan was that we would all be in Dironka Church watching Haidar Wahm take the first steps towards his life sentence at 9 a.m., so I concentrated on making the world stop spinning enough to go downstairs to the lobby where a suited and booted Sharshar & co. were waiting for us.
The general consensus was that the combination of nausea, dizziness and wanting to fall over which I was experiencing was “a cold in the stomach” – a term which I have never understood and sounds as credible as “a broken leg in the brain”. I would be hugely interested to know if such a complaint does actually exist. I didn’t give it much thought at the time as I was too preoccupied with not ruining car upholstery with the contents of my stomach while we (accompanied of course by the police escort) made our way to Dironka.
I have been wanting to visit Dironka every since I read about the pilgrimage made there each August and the fantastic views from it. Alas all my memories of Dironka are waist-level and largely confined to its car park: when I got out of the car I immediately sat down on the nearest available wall rather than fall over and roll into the path of the happy couple. I did attempt to venture into the church at one point because the engagement ceremony sounded so fun from outside (very loud, lots of castanet type thingies) but the strong smell of incense proved too much and I am not sure of the rules regarding expulsion of stomach contents and desecration of holy buildings. I conceded defeat and Abo Fathy took me back to the hotel, where I eventually fell asleep to the excellent el-Tareeq (I think), starring Roshdy Abaza in a wife-beater.
I was woken up by the kind Granddad at hotel reception who had seen me arrive back at the hotel in lamentable condition and who rang every now and again to check if I was still alive and whether I needed anything. I discovered this kindness in most of the people I encountered in Assiut, who are mostly lovely.