From a sterile Easter to a sterile Ramadan

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Thu, 2020-04-23
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We hope our Orthodox Christian friends had a blessed Easter and we wish our Muslim friends a blessed Ramadan, the month of fasting which starts tomorrow.


Last week the Holy Week services that culminate in the Orthodox Easter celebrations had been cancelled. These are definitely the most important rituals of the Coptic Orthodox Church. What a difference this was between previous years and this time due to the preventive measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 virus.


In previous years, the Pope was celebrating in the cathedral with thousands of worshippers attending and dignitaries offering the Pope congratulations. This time the cathedral and churches were empty. The Pope celebrated in the Monastery of St. Bishoy, in the company of only a few monks. This was recorded and the Pope’s message of the resurrection, victory over death, was spread through TV and internet.


The Pope received no guests on Easter Sunday as is the custom. This was each year a great opportunity for clergy and community leaders, both Christians and Muslims, to meet with the Pope and each other. President al-Sisi [al-Sīsī] and Minister of Interior Mahmoud Tawfik [Maḥmūd Tawfīq] sent congratulation messages to the Pope. The Minister of Interior also congratulated Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq Sedrak [Ibrāhīm Isḥāq Sidrāk] and Rev. Andre Zaki [Andriyya Zakī], head of the Protestant Community Council. In the past this was often done through sending personal representatives.



Corniche el-Nil after Alexandrians have gone into quarantine (source: CairoScene Facebook page)


Coptic Orthodox Easter is followed by Sham en-Nessim [Shamm al-Nasīm], a spring celebration that traditionally has been used to go outside and enjoy the day with the family. This time there were hardly any cars in the streets. Even the always busy Corniche el-Nil in Alexandria was empty on Sham en-Nessim. It is hard for the government to tell people in an overcrowded country to remain at home. Most people would simply ignore this but the government stopped public transportation and banned traveling between the different governorates. This significantly reduced the number of people in the streets. It felt so unreal, so strange.


Ramadan starts tomorrow. It was customary for families to meet for the breaking of the fast. Now the fasting only can be broken in the confinement of one’s own family at home. It was customary to have tables in the street with meals for the poor. Also this is no longer possible. The families who want to do good to the poor will now, however, provide food boxes that the poor can eat at home. One of the significant practices during Ramadan were the congregational Taraweeh [Tarāwīḥ] prayers every night during Ramadan. This is not possible this year. These are major changes. Good news is that the curfew will start at 9.00 pm instead of 7.00 pm.


Flemish philosopher Herman de Dijn (77), stresses that all humans, regardless of their convictions, need rituals. This includes celebrating a birthday, a wedding or funeral, celebrating in a church, mosque, synagogue, Hindu temple or something else. This is something of all cultures, religious or not. Rituals always bring groups of people together in a particular location. Due to the virus crisis people are forced to be at home.[1] Fortunately, we can still celebrate in the setting of our own families, watch the celebration of the Pope or the sermon of a sheikh from behind a TV-screen or on a mobile phone. These technical support systems are great but will never be able to replace the physical celebration of a group of people at one location. The government measures to stem to spread of the virus are needed but are most definitely hard on all religious communities.


I have done much work on the Coptic Orthodox Holy Family tradition and if one thing became clear is that the tradition is only alive in places where people come together to celebrate. A place like al-Farma may be on the official route of the Holy Family but it is sterile since there is no longer a community that remembers the arrival of the Holy Family in al-Farma in a celebration.


The current celebrations feel sterile but we have no choice. In times of pandemics people needs to stay at home as much as possible but I hope with all of you that next years Holy Week and Ramadan our rituals will be treasured again with our families and friends.



April 23, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report


[1] Leonie Breebaart, “Wij mensen zijn door en door rituele wezens,” Trouw, April 18, 2020