This year in Egypt

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Last night marked the beginning of Passover, the holiday where Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. I am, of course, in Egypt.

I’m not really celebrating this year. In fact, I’m not celebrating at all. Last night I tried to go to a seder at one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to enter. (I suspect that at least part of the reason I was turned away was because I told security outside that I’m a journalist. I won’t prove them right by writing on the Internet about the seder or the synagogue.)

I understand that security is an important issue for the small (and shrinking) Jewish community here. It was just a few weeks ago that some crazy threw a homemade bomb at the main synagogue downtown. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to celebrate one of my favorite holidays—particularly one in which observers open their doors to symbolize inviting guests to the table.

Then again, I’m not sure I how I could celebrate Passover in Egypt. An important part of the seder service is, basically, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Egyptians. At its most grisly, this involves commemorating the ten plagues that God cast upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the first-born. The killing of civilians is something I always object to.

Of course we’re dealing with Biblical times here, when things were bloody and there was a lot of smiting going on. But there’s still something uncomfortable about glorifying the punishment that befell the Egyptian masses, especially when you’re in Egypt, surrounded by the Egyptian masses. Yeah, my boss can be a slave driver, but does that mean I want his first born dead? (As an interesting and relevant side note: “Pharoah” is the word sometimes employed by hardline Islamists to describe the Mubarak regime and other ‘secular’ dictatorships in the Middle East.)

And then there is Israel, which has been an ever-present issue in my mind for every Passover in the last few years. Passover is not just about the escape from Egypt, it is about its end point: the promised land of Israel. This doesn’t mean that observing seder is an endorsement of Zionism, but it gives context to notions of Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The seder ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a concept I’ve always found problematic but fascinating (hence the name of this blog).

Jerusalem is the holy city for Jews. Does this justify house demolitions and land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on movement? Of course not. But it helps, again, to give a context to the Israeli attachment to the city, an attachment so strong that the Israelis will take their policies to the heights of belligerence. This year, we’re having this discussion even more than usual. For a more a more religious and sentimental take on the situation than I usually have, check out Bradley Burston (a Zionist, but a bleeding heart) on how to think about Jerusalem at your seder this year.

Despite its problematic contemporary subtexts, I love the holiday. I appreciate its message about freedom and oppression and liberation. These are the values I find most important in my religion. And it’s a good opportunity to be with family and friends, drink wine, eat brisket and the gefilte fish (like a fish hotdog), and discuss the finer points of oppression. I’ll miss that this year.

I also like to keep kosher for Passover, something I have done with mostly success for the past ten years. I’m going to try to do it this year, though it will be especially difficult in a country that is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of bread. (Macaroni sandwiches, while not exactly common, are more readily available in Cairo than they are anywhere back home.) Not to mention the difficulty of getting a decent macaroon anywhere in this city.

But so it goes. I am a stranger in the land of Egypt and I guess I’ll have to adjust to the peculiarity of my situation. Next year in.

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3 Comments

Filed under Egypt, Holidays, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Life Abroad, Personal Stuff

3 responses to “This year in Egypt

  1. zeinab

    ya Max, I have encountered a reversed situation of yours here at Oberlin. I went to a sedar dinner where I was the only Egyptian in the room and all the prayers where cursing Egyptians! I had to count the 10 plagues that fell upon the Egyptians to punish them. Interestingly enough, I did not feel uncomfortable at all about the whole thing. These are all, for me as an atheist, mythical stories that are identical to the narrative of the children of Israel in the Qur’an. I also knew that the majority of Jews in room where secular and can took it for a metaphor. Actually this was the second time I attended a seder dinner at Oberlin, so I knew what was going to happen and was still more than fine with it.

    If it were another religious Egyptian, she would have taken it completely differently. I don’t know what to tell you about your opposite situation in Egypt, but I am sure you will find a way to negotiate with and reconcile things. Maybe you could feel fine about it too your own way.

  2. Max

    That must have been a strange experience for you the first time, ya Zeinab! Even if it is all metaphors (and you don’t have to be an atheist to believe that…) I imagine that it would still feel somehow personal.

    But it’s important to remember that it’s not about hating the Egyptians–even the long-ago, metaphorical Egyptians–as much as it’s about discussing history and themes of oppression and liberation. That’s not to say that the Old Testament God wasn’t cruel…

    I’ve found a way to reconcile things, I think. Just writing about it for my blog helped me to make sense out of some of my feelings about the holiday. So it’s good to know that you’re reading!!

  3. maxwell serenity

    Hey buddy,
    I liked reading your post, especially since I have been doing a lot of thinking about passover, its meanings and implications, this season myself. I was also at the seder in question above, and one interesting thing I learned involved a ritual I had never heard of before. Apparently in times of yore, or maybe even still to this day (you know I’m not the most involved in things Jewish), in many Jewish families it was traditional for the oldest son to fast the day before passover began in order to mark the tragedies that befell the Egyptians. Not that this solves anything, its just adds a nice twist of compassion.

    I hope your doing well. Its spring time here.

    Best.

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