“I am an Egyptian citizen, I do not belong to any party, I don’t belong to [the formerly ruling] National Democratic Party. Yet I have been classified as a member of a Coptic party,” writes Christian cartoonist Phillip Fikry in his new book, "I Am From This Country: The Diaries of a Sarcastic Copt."
A collection of personal anecdotes – many from the author’s formative years – the book seeks to shed light on the intricate details of discrimination against Egypt's Copts, who constitute up to 10 percent of the country's population.
“Since my early childhood, I learned that I was different. Sometimes I feel distinguished because of that difference but some other times I feel despised and lonely. I am not like all my neighbors nor like most of my classmates,” writes the 37-year-old.
Fikry’s book belongs to a burgeoning category of writing that seeks to offer strictly personal and anecdotal accounts of various aspects of discrimination faced by non-Muslims in Egypt. Last year, a book titled “The Christian Ghetto” by a Coptic engineer followed the same model, depicting a plethora of revealing daily encounters.
Fikry writes about his experience as a student at a Cairo public school. He faced the tyranny of some of his fanatical Muslim classmates and was denied the right to study Christianity but sometimes forced to study Quran with his Muslim classmates.
In one particular vignette, Fikry succeeds in showing the flagrancy of persecution and the irremediable harm it inflicts on young Christians. In 1987, when Fikry was a student in middle school, his Muslim art teacher encouraged him to participate in a national contest named “Jerusalem is Arab.” Participants were required to present a drawing dealing with a highly sensitive political issue – proving that the holy city belonged to Arabs rather than Israelis.
“My painting featured the Aqsa mosque, old Jerusalem and scenes of Israeli violence against Palestinians. All that was surrounded with an Arab turban to ascertain that the city was Arab,” remembers Fikry. A few days later, the ambitious painter learned that he had won first prize and would attend a prestigious ceremony to receive his award from the Ministry of Education.
“I could not help it, I yelled, laughed and cried. I hugged Mr. Hussein. He was happy but quite surprised at my reaction. He thought it was exaggerated. To him, my winning was a foregone conclusion," Fikry says.
At the ceremony, as the panelists were about to call the name of the winner, Fikry rose to his feet. But another name reverberated from the speakers – the prize went to a different student. Fikry was declared second-place winner.
“I climbed to the stage to pick up my award… I looked weird… I was staring at [the panelists] and trying to look at the papers they had in their hands as if I was asking them to double check the names. There must have been something wrong,” he writes.
Later, his Muslim teacher explained to him what went wrong. “The committee decided that your drawing was the best and informed our school and the rest of schools. To our surprise, later on, some official said the prize should not go to ‘a different’ student – he wondered how a Christian student could win the first place in a contest about the Arab nature of Jerusalem," Fikry writes.
One would assume that the author, who is indirectly preaching equality and unveiling the ugly face of discrimination, embraces a comprehensive liberal agenda that respects individual rights and liberties. Yet a deeper reading of his memoirs shows that Fikry adopts a conservative discourse, albeit subtly.
One particular chapter attests to this paradox.
In “I Used to Love Movies,” Fikry decries an Egyptian film released a few years ago for allegedly misrepresenting Christianity and Copts. The author dismisses arguments in favor of freedom of expression as irrelevant and echoes the conservative discourse of the Coptic clergy who vehemently denounced the movie.
“Would anyone accept that his religion be cursed and insulted under the pretext of freedom of creativity?” writes Fikry about the film “I Love Movies.” The film featured a conservative Copt who refrains from sex with his wife out of religious ascetism, bans music and television in the house and reprimands his young son for his passion for movies. Eventually, his sexually frustrated wife sleeps with a colleague.
“Can the principle of freedom of expression be applied to a movie that justifies adultery?” writes Fikry, insisting that the movie – which is written and directed by a Copt – as an infringement of his faith.
Besides the dualism of the author’s discourse, the book has another shortcoming. Fikry defines himself as a satirist but his satire is pretentious and mannered – most of the jokes he throws at the reader are recycled, lack spontaneity and fall short of entertaining.