It was a Thursday. The school bell rang, and waves of movement started to take over the quiet classroom. The teacher collected his notebook, chalk and wooden stick. As the class had just ended, he left and a colleague came in.
The norm is that students stay in their class and teachers switch places. But this time, students had to split into two groups, or maybe three: the good, the ugly, and the bad. It’s the religion class.
As they’re the majority of the class, Muslim students have to stay in the classroom while their Christian counterparts move out. It’s a mechanical adjustment that takes places without any negotiations.
“We’re the best people that Allah brought to earth, so be thankful for that”
Now, everyone in the classroom feels more space and stretches their arms and legs. Interestingly, a Christian student left his book behind, and the Muslim students found it in the classroom. They opened it, read a few words, and looked at the pictures. The teacher is still busy talking to a colleague while leaning on the door of the classroom.
The students started laughing at the word “Mazmor” which means a biblical verse in Arabic. They think it’s funny because it resembles the word for a whistle or a horn. The teacher now turns into his class.
A guy in the back row imitates the Christian way of praying while pretending to be singing from the bible. Everyone laughs. The teacher comments “What happened?, did you draw it?, Our Pope!”. He refers to the dominant practice of drawing a cross tattoo on the back of the wrist of Egyptian Christians.
The class laughs. The student replies: “No, I still want to get four wives.” The teacher answers: “Well, you still can do it, just go confess and light a candle, and you can do whatever you want”. Everyone laughs, and the teacher concludes: “We’re the best people that Allah brought to earth, so be thankful for that.”
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Mrs. Janette is a teacher of physical activities, but she is also a Christian. This makes her qualified enough to teach a religion class about Christianity! The Christian students meet with their teacher in the tiny dusty playground of the school. She is sitting on her chair, while students are sitting on the stairs by the side of the playground.
"As this group was looked upon as the Ugly, the Ugly looked at that student as the Ugliest.
She started talking about the story of Jesus’ miracle of walking on water, but gradually she shifted to talking about the role of ministers in Orthodox Christianity and the idea of confession.
In the right corner of the group, one student was not feeling that comfortable as he is a protestant. Last class, he made some comments that did not appeal to his teacher and he was cursed by her. As this group was looked upon as the Ugly, the Ugly looked at that student as the Ugliest.
He is the mystery of the class. Last term, he was in the Christian group, and then he started to join the Muslim group this term. Interestingly, this student knows about both Christianity and Islam. He memorizes Biblical and Qur’anic versus, and is trying to be part of both groups.
When he attended with the Muslim group, the teacher asked him “Are you a Muslim?”. He, immediately, answered positively. He kept switching back and forth between two groups over two years. In fact, he did not belong to any of them, but he had to pretend.
His parents finally came asking for permission that their son does not attend the class with either of the groups. They had to mention that they were Baha’ais. After that, as the bell rang, he neither stayed in the classroom nor head to the playground, but tried to disappear from their eyes and questions. For both groups, he was the “bad”.
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This story is a recollection from my own time in a primary level public school in Alexandria, but it is not unique. Rather it is repetitive in almost every Egyptian school; the splits, the classifications, the mocking, the exclusion, and the hypocrisy. It’s everyday life, but the state of denial continues.
These students are going to grow up and become the future citizens, policy makers and thinkers. However, these tiny details of their schooldays cannot be ignored as factors shaping the future of Egypt. Well, we’re not talking about politics here, are we?