Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
18 November 2014
Sarah Topol

Journalist Hanan Fekry holds a press conference at the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo.
(photo: David Degner)

In the Autumn edition of ONE, Sarah Topol reports on the “Coptic Renaissance” in Egypt. Below, she offers an additional perspective from covering the story.

When I reported the story on the influence of Copts on Egyptian history, it was a heady time for the Christian minority that makes up roughly 10 percent of the population. After a year of increasing sectarian attacks on rural Christian communities and a government run by Islamists, many Coptic Christians saw the leader of Egypt’s military coup as their savior. For decades, the minority has felt disenfranchised in their own country, and with the removal of political Islam from public life, many thought their position in Egypt would improve — no matter that the previous three military-bred presidents of Egypt had not improved their lot.

But that winter, the population was still afraid. It seemed most people I spoke with did not want to be identified strictly as Coptic. This was the most striking and puzzling part of reporting this story. On one hand, it made perfect sense to not want to be considered a token minority — it is understandable to want to be an Egyptian, no matter where or how one worships.

Being termed Coptic risks being seen as one-dimensional. “They were using me as a decoration, like a flower on a jacket lapel,” Hanan Fekry, a journalist who ran in the Journalist Syndicate Board election told me of her campaign, where many referred to her as the Coptic female candidate.

But what was unexplainable to me was how people who were campaigning for the rights of their minority did not want to be identified as that minority — even at a time of marked optimism for their future.

I spoke to quite a few people to put together this story — academics, cultural icons and public figures like Fekry; Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Coptic weekly al-Watani newspaper; George Ishaq, a famous Coptic political activist who was a leader in the Kefeya movement, the first activist group to openly challenge Mubarak in the mid-2000s; Lotfy Labib, a famous Coptic actor; and Gerges Saber, a-33-year-old political activist. None of them wanted to be known as Copts. They felt it marginalized them, even though (as you’ll see in the story) Copts have been marginalized by pretty much everyone else in Egypt’s history. Why would they want to brush aside their identity? Is that not also marginalizing themselves?

The best answer I could get was from Ibrahim Ishak, the Christian researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: it seemed to be, eh said, a vestige of the old fear. “In this part of the world, minority is a bad word,” Ishak said. “This is part of the culture here, minority means division, weakness. The Copts are speaking in this society, and the society doesn’t like this word [Coptic]. So if they use it, the society will dislike them more. It will look like you are trying to cut and divide the country.”

This, to me, was heartbreaking. Regardless of how you view the new Egyptian leadership, after so much turmoil since the 2011 revolution — and suddenly so much optimism — it felt like nothing was really all that different.

Read more on the “Coptic Renaissance” in the Autumn edition of ONE.

6 May 2014
Sarah Topol

After a study session in the Santa Lucia Home, students Enjy Yussef, left, and Nermeen Said stroll the halls to unwind before dinner. (photo: Holly Pickett)

In the spring 2014 edition of ONE, reporter Sarah Topol writes about the inspiring work being done for blind children at the Santa Lucia Home in Egypt. Here, she adds her own impressions of the facility.

The first thing that struck me about the Santa Lucia Home was the facility’s immaculate cleanliness. The red brick church and home are just a few blocks from the crashing shores of the Mediterranean and the smell of the sea wafts through the white-tiled hallways. The sisters took me on a tour through the living, studying, dining and kitchen areas. The operation was pristine.

Egypt is a country known for its poverty. Here, garbage lines the streets and public hospitals are unsanitary affairs. At the home, the clean and tidy desks and neatly ordered cabinets made me think the children themselves take pride in their surroundings — no small feat for 4-18 year olds, from what I remember of my own school desks.

I was surprised to learn just how many activities the home offers for the children, from playing soccer with a special ball that makes a sound when it’s moving, to swimming in the pool, playing instruments and performing plays. The children at the center seem to have a host of activities aimed at boosting their self-confidence.

The children were on extended holiday when we visited, so we were unable to meet them in person — though we spoke to some over the phone. The way the sisters and the students independently described the sense of community between the children was incredibly special. It was as if they had created their own family away from home. And that family enabled and encouraged them to grow and mature.

Sister Souda and Sister Hoda are the epitome of matronly figures. Their soft voices and calm shuffles made the place feel very much like a home. Their no-nonsense manner over the course of our interviews made me think the time the children are meant to spend doing their homework must actually be homework time!

The Sisters’ positivity radiated in our conversations. They refused to admit that the children were anything but normal and fit for productive and fulfilling lives in Egypt, to the point where I felt we were skirting some of the discrimination blind children and adults face in Egypt. Perhaps it was a product of years of repeating their positive mantra. But the challenges for blind children are very real. Seeing a center try to change the future for these children was heartening, but it was just as upsetting to realize that, as lucky as these children are, they still face a great many challenges in Egypt that they might not elsewhere.

The children still work on Braillers, which the sisters import from America, and which they have to send back to the U.S. for repair. The center has one computer that children share. To think of how many visually impaired students in the U.S. benefit from new technology — while children in Egypt continue to use typewriters — was difficult. Based on the stories we heard about them, and the dreams they themselves conveyed over the phone, these are creative and curious young people.

It made me wonder how they would fare if given even more of the opportunities enjoyed in the West.

Read more about efforts to bring young Egyptians Out of Darkness in the spring 2014 edition of ONE.

Tags: Egypt Children Sisters Education Disabilities

11 February 2014
Sarah Topol

A Christian farmer rides his donkey through Abu Qurqas, near Minya, Egypt. Click the photo to read the article in its full-color layout. (photo: David Degner)

Sarah Topol reports on the struggles of Coptic farmers in Upper Egypt for the Winter issue of ONE. Here, she adds some personal context.

When I visited Abu Qurqas, it was early summer and only the dawn provided respite from the sweltering heat. The small village in Upper Egypt, about 160 miles south of Cairo, is only a few miles from the banks of the Nile River, but inside the warren of dirt-packed alleys, there was no breeze. Frequent power cuts interrupted interviews and tours, but people were unfailingly hospitable.

In April 2011, 70 Christian homes in Abu Qurqas were vandalized in a week of sectarian riots. Dozens were injured and two Muslims were killed. Three days into the clashes, Upper Egypt’s military prosecutor arrested 12 Christians and 8 Muslims on charges of “murder, rioting, damaging public utilities and spreading panic among citizens,” according to local media. Three months later, a judge found all 12 Coptic Christians guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. The Muslims were acquitted.

While trying to find the family whose story I thought would be interesting to readers, I interviewed a cross section of Abu Qurqas’s residents and all of them expressed concern about what that verdict signified.

Atef Labib, the Christian farmer whom I eventually profiled for the story, was born and raised in Abu Qurqas. He lived in a predominantly Muslim part of town. During the riots, he found himself trapped on the roof of his house with his wife and 20-year-old daughter, fearful of the violence that raged below.

Mr. Labib described his concerns about their midnight flight to a safer part of the village: “The biggest ache wasn’t leaving the house; the worst pain would be if the women were attacked,” he said. “Even me, I couldn’t sustain that. I’m an old man with a weak body. I don’t know how to fight.”

As with residents of small towns everywhere, Atef Labib had known his neighbors for years. I found myself wondering what it would be like to live through a riot that eventually grew to include neighbors — people Labib saw every day and those on whom he thought he could depend. I couldn’t imagine the fear that they would attack you or the women in your family as you tried to flee. While Mr. Labib said many of his neighbors tried to help the family, the rest of his story was deeply unsettling. Eventually, he felt he had to move to a more Christian part of town.

Though I relied mostly on his experience in writing the story, he wasn’t alone. Christian residents in Abu Qurqas, as in many villages in Upper Egypt, were terrified of burgeoning sectarian attacks. Others also reported hiding on the roofs of their homes. Some said they had armed themselves with whatever they could find and waited, prepared to defend against a violent intrusion.

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was in control of the country. A military coup in July toppled Brotherhood president Muhammad Morsi. A subsequent crackdown on the group jailed the organization’s leadership and pushed members underground. Violence against the state has increased, allegedly perpetuated by Islamist extremists with no known affiliation to the Brotherhood. Today, I wonder if Atef Labib feels more or less secure under the country’s new regime.

I wonder whether he has placed his trust in the military-appointed government — or whether the dizzying increase of bombings and attacks on the military still has residents in Abu Qurqas wondering whether it is just a matter of time until it trickles down.

Tags: Egypt Violence against Christians ONE magazine Farming/Agriculture Copts

28 October 2013
Sarah Topol

Coptic Christians chant prayers during a candlelight protest after dozens were killed during clashes with soldiers and riot police in October 2011. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

In the Autumn issue of ONE, Sarah Topol reports on young Copts persevering during a time of turmoil in Egypt. Here, she offers some reasons why they dare to hope.

You read a lot of stories about Christians fleeing Egypt — they make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s 85.3 million people, and are now the largest Christian population in the Middle East.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s economy has crumbled, the political system has in some ways become even more repressive and instances of sectarian violence have mounted. One might imagine every Christian would want to leave Egypt — or at least they would be depressed by their prospects in a country they have inhabited for centuries. And while feelings of concern, fear and anxiety continue — and there are young people who want to leave — the kids I spoke with in Cairo want to stay put. In reporting this story, I was struck by how positive the young people I spoke to were.

It shouldn’t have shocked me, because you see this phenomenon throughout history; time and again, young people have asked for change because they are too youthful to have been disappointed in the past. They have less to lose than their parents. And let’s face it — your early 20’s are the time for idealism.

But what made their optimism interesting to me is that these particular young people have been disappointed. In Feb 2011, president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and many thought they toppled a dictator. They believed there was a New Egypt on the horizon.

Instead, the transition has been turbulent. Ruled by an interim military government that prosecuted more civilians in military courts in 18 months in power than Mubarak did in his nearly 30-year reign, they then saw the election of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi. Under his term, journalists have been intimidated, the economy has continued to fail, rolling blackouts have hit the country and protests against his term have ended in more violent clashes with security services. From inflation to security to trash collection, everything in Egypt seems to be stagnating, if not getting worse. Yet the young people I spoke with were trying to stay positive, though even they admit that’s not easy. But why?

The best answer I got was from Diana Maher Ghali, a 24-year-old who is expecting her first child this fall. She had this to say about their youthful optimism:

We believe that after the dawn there is light. That’s the rule of the world; it’s not dark all the time, and it’s not light all the time, and we feel this is our time to make a change.

We didn’t live under [Gamal] Nasser or [Anwar] Sadat. We didn’t live through all those wars. We didn’t live under the English occupation. This is our time to do something and this is our time to make history as young people.

If we don’t do anything, then our kids are going to blame us in the future for standing still and watching our country fall apart. I think we get our enthusiasm from this. We try to encourage each other. If we ever give up, it’s over. It’s always important to have hope that something will change, but it’s about taking action — not just sitting in your home.

Read more about Faith Under Fire in the Autumn issue of ONE.

Tags: Egypt Cultural Identity ONE magazine Coptic Christians Copts

5 October 2012
Sarah Topol

A boy plays with a toy camera he found in the garbage. (photo: Dana Smillie)

Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol covers events in the Middle East. For the September issue of ONE, she reports on Egypt’s Zabbaleen, or “garbage people” in Arabic. Here, she offers her personal impressions of a class of people struggling to live on what others discard.

The fetid smell of garbage hits you immediately. It is sickly sweet and hangs in the air, suspended in the desert heat. Honking trucks piled with bags of trash and bleating donkeys carting more of the same cram the narrow, unpaved road that cuts through the Christian quarter of Manshiyet Nasr, a neighborhood on the rocky cliffs outside of Cairo. This is the home of the “Zabbaleen,” the city’s trash collectors.

While men collect and drive the trucks, women sit outside in the narrow alleys sorting through the waste. Sometimes they hammer apart items, like cassette tapes: sturdy case plastic goes into one pile, and the black ribbon in another. Other times, their hands are dripping with remnants of refuse — the leftover yogurt from a container or bits of orange peel. Their children run barefoot through the congealed remains. Goats chew on the rubbish, while stray cats stare at visitors before returning to their scavenging or naps. Flies are everywhere.

This is one of the most squalid areas in Egypt. It is also home to one of the most efficient systems of disposal in the world — 80 percent of the garbage brought here is recycled. Life here was never easy, but for a long time it was at least predictable. Then in 2009, the Egyptian government decided to kill all of the country’s pigs as a foolhardy attempt to prevent swine flu. Now times are tougher; the goats don’t eat nearly as much trash as pigs did, and in post-revolutionary Egypt, many, especially those in the country’s Christian minority, are afraid of the near-constant political and economic instability.

Um Abanoub is a mother of six. She is 40 years old, but her harshly lined face makes her look older. When I approach, she’s hunched down sorting waste with her teenage daughter. “Now we have to pay money for disposing organic waste,” she tells me, referring to the fees people pay for using trash dumps. “Before, we fed it to the pigs.

“Things have gotten worse since the revolution,” she tells me plaintively, explaining that she owes money to many of her neighbors because she married one of her daughters and the two others are engaged. Weddings are expensive affairs in Egypt. “This is how we find ourselves in life. Only God knows how things will go,” she tells me.

When I ask her if she receives any charity, she says: “No, we don’t see anything from those organizations, or from the church — we thank God for whatever little he provides us.” The community is deeply devout, but most people I speak to agree they see little assistance from the church.

I take these concerns to Father Abraham, one of the five priests responsible for the Zabbaleen at St. Simon, an imposing church cut into the cliff face. “As much as it can, it helps its children,” the black-robed priest explains while fielding calls from congregation members with personal problems during our interview. “The church can’t satisfy everyone.”

As for the relationship between local Muslims and Christians, Father Abraham reports there are no problems and others in the community agree — relationships based on trade have continued despite the political instability.

“I deal with almost everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” plastics trader Francis Sawiris tells me of the conservative Islamist group that now controls nearly half the seats in Egypt’s post-revolutionary parliament. “It’s all about the attitude, not the religion: he needs me and I need him. That’s the benefit of a working relationship,” he explains while cheerfully sorting through plastic on the ground floor of his home.

But on a wider scale people tell me they are afraid. Egypt’s revolution has also unleashed more radical Islamists into politics, including the ultra-traditionalist Salafis who control a quarter of seats in the new parliament. Sectarian incidents are on the rise.

My tour guide, Mousa Nazmy from the Spirit of Youth Foundation — an N.G.O. run by and for the Zabbaleen — told me he was looking for a way out. Nazmy’s brother was killed during sectarian clashes that struck the neighborhood when a protest on 9 March spiraled out of control. He was 26 years old and left behind two children and a wife.

“After that we were all afraid,” Nazmy tells me. “We thought the revolution would lift people up, but the opposite happened.”

Tags: Egypt Coptic Christians