Saturday, May 7, 2011

Egyptian mosques get Christian touch

Outside a small shop, an old man in traditional Arabic robe called Tally brushes tools to complete what seems to be a minbar – a raised wooden platform, erected in the front area of a mosque to deliver sermons. Despite his age, he relies on himself to complete the work. Please meet popular Uncle Mikhail.
This Christian artisan excels in crafting Islamic minbars for mosques. For the residents of Nag Hammadi, some 700 kilometers from Cairo, Kuras Mikhail (70) is an unquestionable choice for ordering Islamic furniture of mosques.
For a stranger, reaching him is not easy in this south Egyptian city in Qena province. Six Christians and a Muslim, who was a policeman guarding the church, died in shooting incident at Coptic Orthodox Diocese on October 27, 2010. Subsequently, Muslim-Christian clashes inflicted significant loss of property and mutual trust.
Mikhail used to be a carpenter with no special skills four decades ago until his friend Zaki Mohamed Abed Al-Rahman insisted him to design and make a wooden minbar. Today, he credits his Muslim friend for exploring this hidden talent.
"I had no experience in the Islamic art but on my friend’s demand, I made several designs on paper, until we agreed on a minbar filled with arabesques and inscriptions of Islamic decoration.”
Rain or shine, Mikhail opens his small workshop below his apartment at 9am. From the looks of it, the shop is a junkyard of scattered tools, raw and half-processed timber and some crushed wood. Due to low roof of shop, he crafts tall minbars just by the street.
“Since a minbar is central piece of furniture in mosque for its importance and beauty both, I take three weeks to complete one after deciding its design on paper,” Mikhail says, while surfing the pages of his handwritten catalogue.
The old craftsman has special instructions for his predominantly Coptic Christian staff. “You have to stop smoking or swearing in respect and sanctity of your work,” he tells a newcomer at the outset.
So far, his has crafted 250 minbars for mosques, most for Qena and Saeed provinces, including the region’s largest Abdul Rahim Kenawy mosque.
Pauls Kairlis, head of the Church in Nag Hammadi, financially supports Mikhail when the payment offered for a minbar is less than expenses.
“We just want him to continue the good work without worrying about value for his skills,” says the bishop, pointing to a framed picture with Mikhail.
Despite Paul’s help, Mikhail faces financial crisis, hampering his life and work. "There is no steady stream of work for me as usually we sit here and wait,” says Mikhail, rubbing a wooden piece with sandpaper.
“The workers have no patience so they rush to find work elsewhere,” he says, in a rather dejected tone. Readily available and cheaper machine-crafted minbars pose serious challenge to Mikhail.
Beyond his craftsmanship and passion, Mikhail has a lot to share from his past in a pluralistic neighborhood.

“In 1984, my son was posted on a military deployment and we were not hearing from him,” recalls Mikhail.
At a ceremony of erecting a handmade minbar, he shared his anxiety with the imam, prayer leader. “They all passionately prayed for my son’s safety. I cried in thankfulness when he returned safe and sound after two days,” says Mikhail, adding that he slashed his value of services in minbars by one third from then onwards.
"The incident proved that I am on the right path," he says with optimism and joy.
Not everyone is happy with Mikhail’s work. Recent surge in tensions based on religions are affecting his peace of mind as well.
He says that Adel Faraj, one of his Christian neighbors, asked him to stop working for mosques. “When I turned down the advice, he stopped me from placing woods and finished parts of minbars under his house as thieves may use them to beak in,” Mikhail recalls in shock as both have been neighbors for decades.
Some six years ago, a group of Christian fanatics destroyed his workshop and two minbars.
“Those who resort to such violent acts to forcibly change others behavior do not believe in any religion,” he announces his judgment.
“We have lived together in Egypt and no one can separate Christians and Muslims from each other,” says the master craftsman despite threats to life and business.
More recently, he moved his family and workshop to a nearby building owned by a security agency. He thought that this neighbor will give him some security. Mikhail was terribly wrong. After the massacre of Nag Hammadi church killings, his workshop was destroyed for the second time. Ironically, this time under the nose of security officials but anyone neither helped nor investigated the matter later.
Girgis Mikhail, the carpenter’s cousin, has yet to receive compensation for his destroyed grocery shop. He blames inefficiency of police against rowdy dacoits and thieves for vandalism of his shop instead of giving it a religious color. “Criminals do not differentiate between Muslims or Christians,” Girgis explains.
Uncle Mikhail refuses to give up hope. “The new covenant after the Egyptian revolution would be better than the past when we had too much ‘security’ and media was branded as ‘spoiler and the instigator of the violence’.”
The aged Egyptian believes in fruits of the Revolution. “Throughout the entire month of uprisings, we felt safer due to the absence of security forces.”
Mikhail says not a single brick was stolen or a window pane was broken in any mosque or church despite demonstrations.
“This is true reality of the Egyptians,” Uncle Mikhail says with a winner’s smile.

by Silent Heroes