Text size

CAIRO - I experienced a small miracle here in Cairo when, after exhausting searches in the poor northern neighborhood of Zeitoun, we found the church where on April 2, 1968, the Blessed Virgin Mary was revealed on the roof to a worker at a nearby garage, who ran to tell what he had seen and for two entire weeks afterward thousands gathered every day to watch her hover over the church robed in a glowing gown, surrounded by shining doves. The apparition was photographed in black and white and published in newspapers. The clippings describing this are affixed to a large bulletin board in the Zeitoun churchyard, to give it validity, because it is well known that what is written in the newspaper is a little like the religious model of the 20th century.

On the eve of the day when my small miracle happened, more precisely - on Wednesday, December 1 - we met a woman who had witnessed that apparition. During a late afternoon meal in the garden of her home, which is adjacent to the synagogue of the Ma'adi neighborhood, Carmen Weinstein, the president of the Jewish community of Cairo, related that when the rumor circulated about the Blessed Virgin Mary who had been revealed in Zeitoun, she joined the masses of people who waited every night to see the glowing figure. And finally she saw it, although in a black dress, and according to her the hovering figure extended her arm and pointed to the home of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and all the populace understood from the pointing finger that their president's days were numbered. And the portent proved true: Nasser died shortly thereafter.

And again the figure in black extended her arm, and the roof of the ancient synagogue of Cairo, the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, collapsed all of a sudden. This and more was related to us by Carmen Weinstein, a veteran and practical fighter for the protection of the assets of the Jewish community in the capital of Egypt.

It was not from guidebooks for tourists that I learned of this pretty white church, a kind of poor man's Lourdes that attracts needy and sick and crippled pilgrims who pray to the Virgin to cure their bodies. I read about the church and the miracle that occurred there in a book that was published in Cairo two years ago, "Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages," by Otto Meinardus, and since them I have not stopped wanting to make a pilgrimage to it - though, of course, with the mixture of skepticism and cynicism of people who are convinced that blind faith has vanished from the earth and has remained only the province of lunatic fringes. Meinardus explains that the need for religious revelation was strong at that time, the spring of 1968, because of the great economic distress in Egypt and following its defeat a year earlier in the Six-Day War. It must be recalled, writes Meinardus, that with Israel's occupation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, the Copts of Egypt found themselves without a central site for pilgrimage, and an urgent need emerged to establish such a site in Egypt.

By this logic, then, it is possible to say that as a witness, though a completely passive one, to the Six-Day War (I was in ninth grade, and my entire contribution to the war effort was the filling of sandbags to defend the trenches that were dug in the pine grove that borders on the playground of the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv), I have a small part in the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Zeitoun. But last Thursday when I entered the gates of the church where the miracle occurred, and I saw the prayer alcoves where men and women worship before paintings of the luminous Virgin, their eyes often weeping and their lips murmuring prayers, I was jarred by the thought that during the years that have elapsed since 1968, I have continued to be a passive witness to a crude and cynical act of occupation, and therefore I have no right to a share or a portion in this splendor.

When I went to the souvenir shop in the churchyard and saw the plastic statuettes of the Virgin and the glass globes containing the scene of the flight into Egypt by Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, as described in the Gospels - and when you shake these globes, they fill up with silvery snowflakes - and the pictures of the miraculous revelation at Zeitoun made of glittery paper, my heart contracted at the thought that cynicism and crudeness of heart are not only our sin, but also the punishment we bear, never to find again the way to simplicity and innocence.

Outgrowths of outgrowths

I asked whether I was permitted to photograph inside the church, and when I was given permission, again and again I pressed the shutter of the camera and immortalized in the artificial light that flashed from it this woman who was pressed up against a column and was genuflecting time after time to the Virgin of the miracle, as she held a lit candle in her hand. A young man in a leather jacket, facing another alcove, who had come to visit the Virgin on his way to work, hid his face from me because his eyes were weeping. And a crippled old woman was brought by her son to the embroidered curtain at the front of the church and kissed the silky cloth, and she and her son raised their arms for a blessing.

The silence was tremendous there. The honking of the horns and the rumble of the heavy traffic on Tumanbay Street outside did not disturb it. This is because, as noted before, the Virgin can also appear to a garage worker in the midst of the noise and the racket of machines and of cars being repaired.

About a 10-minute drive north of Zeitoun (how would I have found the way were it not for Hisham, the driver of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, who took me on this pilgrimage last Wednesday morning? He asked people, each of whom offered a version of his own of where to turn until the correct place was found), in a neighborhood called Matariyya, there is a park and in the park there is an ancient sycamore tree. According to the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary rested under this sycamore tree with dry branches held up by supports - which looks dead, but always has an outgrowth that is newly green - during the flight into Egypt for fear of Herod's legions that were trying to kill the baby Jesus, the future messiah. At the entrance to the park, which is surrounded by a wall, there are policemen, and next to the gate there is a vehicle in which there is a unit of armed soldiers who, when they heard that we were from Israel, took it upon themselves to guard us and to accompany us with a kind of dubious honor that is given to people in the "problematic" category, without knowing exactly why.

The guide at the park is called Marcelle, and she rose from a red plastic chair where she had been sitting with her fellow guides waiting for the arrival of pilgrims, who would arrive later in the day. Marcelle told us that when baby Jesus dug in the sand around the tree, a fount of fresh water erupted from the ground, and with this water Mary laundered his diapers. When baby Jesus played with the tools of his father, Joseph the carpenter, the tools broke, Jesus stuck the pieces in the ground, and perfumed bushes grew from them. The name of the perfume is "balsam" inEnglish. Balsam is afarsimon in our Scriptures, which modern Hebrew has stolen to apply to the persimmon - one of those fruits in the supermarket that always look like they don't grow on trees, but rather are produced in laboratories. My eldest son, who is fluent in German, told me that in German the persimmon is called Kaki or Sharonfrucht. And the sycamore tree itself, which is bent to the ground from old age, is the selfsame tree that was written about by the French author Gustave Flaubert during his visit to Egypt in the middle of the 19th century, and it is a distant outgrowth of the tree that stood there in 1280 when the Christian traveler Burchard of Mount Zion bathed, according to his testimony, in the spring at its foot. Jacobus de Voragine, in his "Golden Legend," goes on to relate that the origin of the balsam in this garden is in Ein Gedi, and the exiles to Egypt are the ones who planted it here, in Matariyya.

And today we, of the community of exiles who have been replanted in their land, are gazing at the outgrowth that emerged from the outgrowth of the original outgrowth, and it too is already quite ancient. I went to Zeitoun and to Matariyya, and I did not know that at that very time, seemingly important things were happening between Egypt and Israel, which culminated in the release of the Israeli prisoner Azzam Azzam from prison in Egypt and the release of a few Egyptian prisoners from their Israeli prison.

Cairo is such a wonderful city that in one of its neighborhoods, the Virgin might well walk on a roof in a gown of light watched by thousands of amazed eyes, while in another neighborhood the roof of a synagogue will fall, and a president will die in a bed, and a fount of fresh water will erupt before the eyes of a baby playing in the sand, and one problematic journalist will scribble in a notebook things about a certain very old sycamore tree and will not notice that real life, current life, is passing over his head in the whistle of a jet plane. But during the evening, at a garden party with the woman who is the president of the small Jewish community of Cairo, this journalist realizes that the truth never resides in the hoo-ha and the ta-ra-rum of the strong, but rather in the silent wind that blows through the branches and caresses the leaves that have sprouted on the dry offshoots.