I heard the roars almost as soon as I arrived at El-Noor Mosque, a huge sound which poured out of its doors and swept across the road where bored young men in a blue police minibus sat, journalists stood, a crowd watched.
The Imam, hysterical in his ardour exalted Osama Bin Laden. Another roar. A prayer for the martyr. Allaho akbar! Allaho akbar!
An army microbus went past and one member of a group of young men stiffened and saluted with studied and solemn ceremony, his head tracking the movement of the van as it slowly went past. The soldiers ignored him.
A bypasser asked them, what’s going on?
It’s about Osama Bin Laden, one of the group responded.
What about him, the bypasser asked.
Breathlessly, insistently, the Imam announced a march from the mosque to the US Embassy in protest at Bin Laden’s killing, chants of impassioned assent followed from inside and then the supplicants began to file out as camera crews scrambled for their equipment and riot police fanned out across the road in readiness and a necklace of military police red berets formed a line outside the mosque.
Most men emerged, put their shoes on, and left.
A crowd of around 400 stayed behind, dallied briefly before moving en masse away from the mosque, and away from the Coptic Cathedral 5 minutes down the road where young Christian men were standing, waiting.
Journalists mentally rewrote their lead.
Off they went down the road leading to Ramsis. He’s not a terrorist, the US is the terrorist.
A middle-aged man in a turban and brown galabeya spent the entire march seated on the boot of a moving car, hoarsely leading chants. At one point he shouted out, at nobody in particular, condemnation of Salafi preacher Mohamed Yaqoub Hassaan because, “Hassaan didn’t say God rest his soul when he spoke about Osama in a television interview!”
They were a ragtag bunch: Salafis recognisable by their neatly-pressed, white galabeyas, sparkling in the sun, a couple of street kids, ordinary men, as well as a hybrid decked out in disco jeans, boy band sunglasses and puritanical moustache-less beard.
It was a hot day and lacking the religious fervour of their subjects most journalists opted for a ride in a flatbed minivan rather than walk for an hour and a half. Around 10 of them scrambled on board and stood pressed together, where they looked like fridges being delivered.
The central mass of the protest marched onwards flanked by protestors on mopeds and motorbikes – galabeyas drawn up around waists – and cars. As the march went past a road that leads to the cathedral the march stopped briefly, the chants paused, there was a moment of indecision, and then it continued.
Outside the Coptic Hospital a young man in the back of a car extended his arm out of the window and pointed, kept it pointed for around a minute, as the car slowly drove forward. People on the balconies watched, bemused. Again, the march continued.
With our lives, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Osama.
Imbaba is one of Cairo’s secret cities, a sprawling maze of alleys and unfinished houses and hidden people almost directly opposite one of Cairo’s most affluent neighbourhoods.
Bahaa “Bob” took my friend Noov and I down El-Loqsor Street in a Tuktuk. As we progressed further pedestrians warned him to stop and go no further. There’s gunfire, they said.
A gentleman, Bob ignored the warnings and took us to the back of the crowd near the Mar Mina church, as far in as he could go. We got out and joined the hundreds of people congregated at the police/army cordon. The sound of gunfire rippled through the air.
A man overheard us discussing how we could get nearer to the church. He asked us where we wanted to go, want we wanted to do, paused to consider when we told him we wanted to see what was happening, preferably from the roof of a building near the church.
“Come with me,” he said.
We went down a back street and he demanded to see our press credentials. We set off again with a warning: even if you’re not Muslim, if anyone stops you, say you are.
The backstreets were strangely devoid of army or police personnel. The man, whose name was Ashraf and who was a bodybuilder type, strode ahead of us, a bunch of keys dangling from his belt.
On one street we looked behind us and saw the shadows of men moving behind a fire. We rounded another corner and suddenly found ourselves behind the church. The gunfire at this point was so loud we had to shout to hear each other, the air was acrid with smoke, ahead of us men engaged in war stared at us.
Ashraf, never once breaking stride, looked back.
“Haa… Are you coming or not?”
“Do you trust him?” I asked Noov.
“No”, she said. We continued.
From the second to last floor of the building we were taken into we filmed a mob systematically ripping a café apart as the army and riot police watched.
“It belongs to Adel Labeeb”, the bawwab told us.
What struck me most about what I witnessed in the next few hours was that as we were taken up the stairs of a building we passed the open doors of people’s homes and saw families sitting in doorways as if outside all hell was not breaking loose. In a street leading off El-Loqsor residents ambled along and shot the shit. On the way out Ashraf discussed his exercise regimen and how he had given up kick boxing for something he described as Swedish weightlifting exercises.
Clearly the hell unfolding behind the good people of Imbaba was nothing new.
On the way home Hesham, a Twitter friend who we met shortly before we left Imbaba, discussed the events that night and the revolution generally with the taxi driver.
“If you’ve had a tap closed for 30 years when you open it some muck is bound to come out,” Hesham said.
The next day we caught a taxi home from Imbaba and got talking to another taxi driver, an Imbaba resident who had witnessed events and whose analysis slightly challenged what I had concluded about the events of Imbaba so far.
Abu Sayyed is a no bullshit loquacious sort of bloke with an ability to drive while maintaining almost unbroken eye contact with backseat passengers in his rearview mirror.
It was a long conversation but the two most important sentences he said were these:
- e7na 3alatool benetkhane2 we bendrab 3ala ba3d naar. 3ady. El sana elly fatet 7asalat khana2a we maatet 30 wa7ed [we constantly fight and open fire on each other. It’s normal. Last year there was an argument and 30 people died]
- makanetsh 7adsa ta2efeyya [it wasn’t a sectarian incident]
The government is markedly absent from Imbaba’s streets. Salafis are known to have gained a foothold there – to such an extent that for a while Imbaba was known as the Islamic Republic of Imbaba. It’s a tough neighbourhood. It’s full of illegal weapons. It’s poor. It has a high concentration of Upper Egyptians (famous for their propensity for violence and reluctance to compromise) and all that that brings. The Mubarak regime did little to give its residents a better chance in life.
Abu Sayyed presented the fight as just another installment in the history of Imbaba’s battles, a face off between two opposing sides that just happened to be Christian and Muslim, “but who usually live perfectly peacefully together”.
“Adel Labib is stupid” Abu Sayyed, said referring to the café owner whose café was destroyed. “Why did he open fire like that? He’s a donkey.”
Labib, Abu Sayyed said, had stood on the roof of his café while the church was surrounded and shot at people below. “Te-re-deb te-re-deb te-re-deb” he said, one hand firing an invisible gun.
“The problem is that the biggest arms dealers in Egypt live in Imbaba and some of the people who died on Saturday night worked on the railways. So their families will bring their railway colleagues for revenge and te-re-deb te-re-deb te-re-deb”.
But what about the Salafis alleged to have provoked the attack on the churches?
“What about them? Who is a Salafi? Anyone with a beard? Someone close to me died and I didn’t shave my beard for 10 years, in mourning. Does that make me a Salafi? Just because I had a long beard was I a Salafi even though I went out here and there and went to weddings and drove foreigners about and made friends with them and got up to all sorts?”
I don’t quite share Abu Sayyed’s nonchalance, but I would like to. I would like to believe that what happened on Saturday was just another rumble – like the huge, armed, street brawl that broke out last week on Abdel Aziz Street in Cairo between mobile phone traders.
But there is something that doesn’t fit into this version of the events as a shootout like so many shootouts before it: the video of the Virgin Mary Church being broken into, the sordid glee with which the mob marauded through it, the man they killed inside it.
Father Metraus sat next to a pile of objects recovered from the fire, including a children’s edition of illustrated stories from the bible and a magazine called El Karaza (the name for the jurisdiction of the Coptic patriarch).
The church was now various shades of gray after the fire, apart from the area to the side of the altar, which was an intense black. Melted ceiling fan blades hung like Weeping Willows. Young people wandered around taking photos and examining bits of debris, others talked to an army officer.
I got my video recorder ready and a man said to Father Metraus, yalla yaboya? [Begin, father]. The priest closed his eyes and tilted his head slightly, and began.
What happened was not the fault of Salafis, the priest said; it is the fault of the authorities that fail to take decisive action against perpetrators of attacks on Copts.
Why does it happen? Education, the media and preachers allowed to preach hate.
He delivered his analysis with an immoderate calm, given the events, only pausing occasionally to give the stink eye to people surrounding us making too much noise.
Let me pray, brother. Even if I pray in way different to you, let me pray.
My tentative conclusion is that an ideological spark (in the form of Salafi extremists) started the fire but it was kept burning by ordinary Imbaba residents, some of whom joined in driven not by considered anti-Christian sentiment but because they had heard a Muslim woman was being held hostage by a group of people who happen to be Christian (it could have been a Muslim woman raped by a Muslim man. Such happenings spark a million deadly feuds).
A woman (even one linked to a man as remotely as through a shared faith) is a measure of a man’s integrity and honour, his manhood. She is a public test. So of course he has to step up.
And this group of people who happen to be Christian were shooting at the crowd and throwing objects at them from roofs (in self defence but when the object lands on your head it doesn’t feel like that). Perhaps our ordinary Imbaba resident, or one of his friends, got hit by one of these missiles and it became personal. This is not an area where when one is the victim of a crime, one goes to the police. One deals with this sort of shit oneself.
Noov pointed out that the Egyptian revolution might not have happened if it wasn’t for protestors from Imbaba and Boulaq el Dakror (another working class area) who fearlessly turned out in their thousands and responded to police violence in kind.
Maybe religion wasn’t the driving factor behind events. Maybe equally critical factors were: the endemic violence in Imbaba; the position of women in Egyptian society generally and their disenfranchisement; the state’s failure to protect religious converts from both other citizens and the religious institutions they are attempting to break away from; the inability or reluctance of the police and the army to break the protest up in its early stages – if the army really wanted to stop the attack on Mar Mina Church in its latter stages they would have had to use force since this by that time it was an armed battle. They seem reluctant to use such force other than against unarmed protestors in Tahrir; finally there is the fact that the state frequently does not treat bring Muslim perpetrators of crimes against Christians to justice, preferring to use “reconciliation” sessions and hope the matter goes away.
None of the above eliminates the fact that religious tension does exist in Egypt. But an outbreak of violence in a community that take up arms for the slightest thing anyway, and which happens to position Muslims against Christians, and which takes place against a backdrop of a state which has continually demonstrated its complete inability to deal with similar incidents does not mean that Egypt is on the cusp of a sectarian war, as the media has suggested in breathless tones.
And anyway, the Salafis are too fucking humourless for their message to be embraced by Egyptian society.
* Literally, “you live”. Said when someone is asking about a deceased person who he doesn’t know has died. The humour is hard to convey in translation.