Text size

There are two islands in the Nile as it flows through Cairo. First is Roda, which splits the river into two currents, one broad and foaming, the other narrow and marsh-mute, and fraught with tangles of papyrus reeds. According to one tradition, it was here that the daughter of Pharaoh found the infant Moses floating in a basket and there, among the reeds, that his sister, Miriam, watched as the princess plucked her brother from the water.

Not far from the place where the two currents merge, ahead of the stylized Qasr Al-Nil bridge, which is guarded by two large stone lions, the river's waters are again split into arms that embrace the other island, which is larger, and is named, simply, The Island, or Al-Gezira. This island carries, like a huge pharaonic ship, Cairo's new opera house - a kind of modern Alhambra with multiple domes and shaded porches - along with the Zamalek sports club and the bourgeois neighborhood of the same name to its north, and the luxury Marriott Hotel, which was originally a royal villa built to mark the opening of the Suez Canal. That was a period when the rich and powerful of Europe visited the Egyptian capital, among them the Empress of France, Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. She was one of the first guests in the villa.

Indeed, Cairo is a city of opera, of one opera, namely "Aida," which to this day symbolizes the city's commitment to continue to shine as a gem in the world of music, though it is remote from the cultural centers of the West. In wedding ceremonies here, the bride and groom stride to the sounds of the victory march from "Aida," which, as played by an Eastern orchestra, sounds like an original Egyptian work. Over the years I have seen "La Boheme" here and the ballet "Swan Lake," as well as chamber music concerts, jazz performances and concerts of Middle Eastern music.

This year we chose, from the great variety, a concert at the opera house of songs of Umm Kulthum, performed by choruses and soloists and an orchestra. The concert, which is a national event, attracted a diversified audience of nostalgia buffs who pine for the late great singer and are looking for replacements in the form of singers who mimic her voice to the best of their ability - anyone who comes close to the original is thanked with thunderous applause. On the night we were there, the audience liked the singers and their voices, and the concert went on, and the lengthy ovations and encores didn't leave enough time to perform all the works listed in the program. One singer gave a marvelous rendition of the wonderful and well-known "Fakharuni" ("They reminded me"). However, the central work in the concert was Umm Kulthum's lengthy song "Ahal al Hawa," ("Those who follow their passion"). The audience erupted into rhythmic applause at the end of every stanza, and we joined in.

Were we really the only two Israelis in this large audience who are passionately drawn to the songs of the great Egyptian diva? As it turned out, we were not. As we left the extended concert and walked into Sa'ad Zagloul Square on the island, opposite the stone lions of the bridge, someone greeted us in Hebrew from behind. It was Dr. Gabi Rosenbaum from Hebrew University, who has translated several Egyptian plays into Hebrew and is an expert on Egyptian theater. One of the reasons for his visit to Cairo was to get darbuka lessons from a drummer who is renowned in this field. He was also in Maimonides' synagogue, behind the Khan al-Khalili market. It was once customary for people with troubles to sleep all night in the synagogue until they saw Maimonides in a dream, assisting them with good advice. I thought to myself that I would willingly spend a few nights there, one night per trouble. Unraveling the large scarf he wore around his neck to keep the river chill at bay, Dr. Rosenbaum showed the necktie he had bought especially for the concert of Umm Kulthum; a jacket and tie are mandatory if one is to enter the opera house, as large signs above the box offices declare.

On another evening we attended a concert of contemporary Egyptian classical music, which was held as part of a festival called "Arab Perspectives." The star of the evening was the Egyptian deputy interior minister, Aadal Afifi, a senior police officer who, in the course of a lengthy police career, studied composing in the great academies of England and Sweden, and now his works are performed by European orchestras. The work by Afifi that was performed in the concert we attended is called "Romance, Valse and Fantasy for Cello and String Orchestra," and is as light and melodious as film music.

Then came the turn of the audience. The concert goers, among whom were friends of the deputy minister and members of his staff, gave the composer a standing ovation. Girls carrying large floral wreaths emerged from behind the curtain, more and more wreaths, which finally almost completely hid the deputy minister. One of the wreaths was contained in a vase, and the deputy minister tried in vain to stabilize it, but it kept falling over, once this way and then that way. The orchestra conductor's spectacles fell to the ground and the person in charge of the lighting, who tried to illuminate him, shone a round spotlight straight onto his private parts.

Mired in refuse

That's the luck of important people, who had the good fortune to be born in light. Alongside them millions of people live in obscurity, unvisited by shafts of light. In one of the feelers we put out in their direction, the number 982 bus (on which we were the only passengers that morning, as it was the Muslim holiday of the Sacrifice) took us to the foot of Mount Mukatam on the eastern approaches to Cairo, a many-ribbed hill primeval yellow abutting an unpopulated region. At the foot of Mount Mukatam lies a large garbage dump, a veritable mountain of refuse, where 30,000 zabalin - the garbage collectors of Cairo, most of whom are Christian Copts - have built their homes. We walked between carts hitched to mules, carts piled high with sacks of garbage, which entered and left the village. Women and children unloaded the carts and opened the bags of refuse on the thresholds of the houses in order to look for things they might be able to sell in the junk markets; the rest went to feed the swine.

Paper is collected and taken to an advanced recycling plant that was built with the aid of funds from Coptic philanthropists abroad. This is the life of these people of the shadows - mired in garbage, their lungs filled with the stench of refuse - while we, who arrived there inadvertently, searching for a site our guidebook said was a Coptic place of pilgrimage, wondered whether this excremental place with its inhabitants wallowing in dung was of this world, or perhaps without our noticing, an entrance to Hell had opened up, the one whose gate Dante Alighieri saw, inscribed with the words "Abandon all hope."

A few houses - in front of which people sat, sifting through sacks of fresh garbage - were adorned with crucifixes, and here and there were tiny portraits of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. One family had slaughtered a pig and placed its flesh on the ground for sale, in a puddle of spilled blood. A bus drove over the carcass, sending the contents of its intestines squirting out. The seller patiently collected the pieces and people came up to her to buy. We asked them about the pilgrimage site mentioned in the guidebook and they directed us to a church, the Church of St. Simeon the Tanner, who wrought a great miracle here a thousand years ago.

Two miracles

The miracle was the following: in the course of a theological debate between a Jew named Moses and the Coptic Patriarch Abraham in the presence of the Muslim governor, the Jew challenged the patriarch. If the Christian religion is true, the Jews said, let the God of the Christians move Mount Mukatam from its place. The Muslim governor liked the challenge and gave the patriarch three days to move the hill, otherwise his head would be lopped off. On the third day, God spoke to the patriarch and instructed him to go to the market and find Simeon the Tanner, who was blind in one eye and held a pitcher of water in his hand. Simeon instructed the patriarch to stand in front of the hill, cross himself three times and say, "God have mercy." The third time, the hill in fact rose from the ground.

The pitcher of Simeon the Tanner can be seen in a glass cupboard in a small church at the site. The caretaker who let us in said the church was built to house the pitcher, which was found 10 years ago in an archaeological excavation, along with a human skeleton that the Coptic Pope said was the remains of Simeon the Tanner. Some of the bones of the skeleton are on display in a church in the center of the city and some in a desert monastery.

The book we had brought with us, "Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages," by Otto Meinardus, published by the American University in Cairo Press, describes the resolute belief of the Copts in miracles and in the revelations of the Virgin Mary. One of the most famous of these revelations, which was sanctioned by the church, took place in 1968 in the Cairo suburb of Zeitoun. The Virgin appeared one evening, and then again and again, on the roof of the neighborhood church, a figure of light with arms stretched to the sides. Muslims who saw her converted to Christianity, and the Christians were strengthened in their faith. After a time, a portrait of the Virgin in a desert monastery began to bleed, and this, too, was witnessed by many who testified to what they had seen. Another revelation, in a village in Upper Egypt, ended in a bloodbath, because the village's Muslim residents refused to allow the place to become a site of Christian pilgrimage.

A great miracle befell us, too, when we did not retrace our steps out of disgust for what we had seen in the street ("What other woman would have come with you?" my wife remarked with no little justice), and instead went on to climb to the top of Mount Baasha. As the sun stood in the center of the sky and the stench of garbage rose heavenward like a powerful prayer, the whole nation of garbage collectors donned their holiday clothes and streamed after us carrying baskets of food for family picnics. At the place on the hill where the Patriarch Abraham crossed himself and commanded the hill to rise up, and the hill obeyed, artists have chiseled scenes from the life of Jesus in the stone. And with the help of donations from the United States, a huge amphitheater has been built in the miraculous space within the stone.

We sat off to the side. A Coptic priest, using a bullhorn, spoke to a small audience of parents and children. Below, families entered a cave to view an altar with a portrait of Jesus on it. Before entering, they removed their shoes, revealing socks full of holes. Children climbed between the statues hewn in the stone, and I joined them in the shop that sells sacred utensils as they stretched out little hands tattooed with a crucifix - that is the custom here - to receive stickers of saints.

I bought a poster of the Virgin from Zeitoun surrounded by seven doves, with the caption, in Arabic, "The Virgin of the Revelations." I also bought a children's book containing tales of saints, whose portraits open up into three-dimensional cardboard pictures. I also acquired a set of stickers in which, in the following order, are a portrait of Simeon the Tanner, the bleeding Virgin and the current Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, who has not lifted the boycott his predecessor imposed on the State of Israel, which prohibits Copts from making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem until the city is liberated from the heretics.

Last in a series