‘You must be Muslim in your heart to get my blessing for your marriage’, her mother told me. As much as I hoped for her blessing I could not promise my heart to something I didn’t understand, I could only promise what I knew – that I would and do love Mariam with all my heart. I cannot lie to those I care about, not even if it’s what they want to hear. This is the story of James who had no choice except lying to the state in order to get social recognition of his love.
Religion and citizenship
In a country where religion, state institution and legislation are strictly bounded, private choices often are subject to a cautious verification process. When personal attitudes and beliefs are regulated by countless bureaucratic steps can they still serve their initial purpose? Stuck in the crowded corridors, piled up on the dusted desks, handwritten countless times by apathetic employees in the official registry books. This is how personal attitudes become institutionalised truths. In such circumstances rule exceptions may be impossible to obtain.
In this way religion becomes an essential part of citizenship in Egypt. Should the record of religion on the identification documents be relevant to possess civil rights? Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the only recognised religions, any other faiths are officially ignored in all states records. This has led to court cases by the religious minorities and campaigns promoting deleting the record of religion on personal ID cards. There are also strict rules on mixed marriages. A muslim man can marry a girl from either of the two official monotheistic religions, while a muslim girl is allowed to become a wife only to a muslim husband. This becomes an obstacle for many, especially foreigners or Egyptian Christian men willing to marry a muslim. While foreign women are not always asked for an explicit religion proof while marrying a muslim, men will always need to submit a ‘certificate’. The deadlock of the situation urges some to search for alternative solutions to get the ‘paperwork’ done.
It was clear to James that he wants to marry an Egyptian girl on the second day they met. Everything else became a formality. Knowing that Mariam’s father has a liberal mindset was a relief. Still there are no exceptions in the civil law: to be with his beloved he had to ‘convert’, even if he does not feel like.
I went to Al Ahzar in Cairo, I had to say that I was there on my volition and nobody had forced me to do so. I believe their intentions were true and I actually felt bad lying, but what else could I do? James recalls questions asked during the conversion.
– Why are you converting to Islam?
– I believe in peace. Sufism is one of the closest things I find to what I believe.
The guy was a Sufi, so then I had to smile and nod, be open and accepting of what I heard, resisting the urge to debate. He said I was like an angel. I was reflecting on my love for my wife.
– Do you pray?
– In my own way and in my own words, silently in my heart
Others were asked to recite from the Koran, but that’s for people who say they pray and who know it. Then I had to repeat that there is only one God Allah and his prophet is Muhammed in Arabic, and sign a certificate. Following day I got the certificate back.
Each of us has its own path to spiritual fulfilment and infinite reconnection. Accepting the religion is a personal way to God, it is an intimate dialogue. It can obviously happen when meeting the right person to share life with, leading to the deeper reflection of oneself. As it can happen in other circumstances. Relation with God is not static and inherited. Even in a religious family children go through personal research which can differ from that of their parents.
When the state is involved, the judgement inevitably takes place. The examination of details and external proofs, because only visible evidence can be accepted. Then the objectification of a subjective belief happens as a paradox. To run efficiently, the state needs manuals, direct orders with little space for interpretation.
How an intimate, individual conversation can be treated on the state level? How can my own individual research for spirituality be converted into a bureaucratic system? Can a believe be enforced by the authority?
James chose to lie to the state, but not to the people. He uses every opportunity for a respectful discussion. I will be clear what I believe in, but in a tactful way. I do now have a faith after much reflection. I believe that one day we can all live in peace. A catholic girl actually responded to this with “Really!? How can you believe that?” Nice to be on the other side of the fence, with the faithful asking how you can believe such a thing. It switches the dialogue to one where the discussion is not about God, but about our human potential.
If asked I don’t lie, I speak truths with respect and empathy. It is not my job to confront, but I aim to be as true to my heart as possible. I was told never to tell people I don’t believe in God in Egypt, yet every time I have done so it has led to an interesting and respectful discussion. Only by bringing such discussions and dialogues into the light, in a respectful, peaceful and courteous manner can society change. Those who conceal who they are complicit in the social context that binds them.
Conformity to social pressure
When social pressure is stronger than individual choices conformity is a way to survive. Marriage becomes a general recognition of love and unity between two people by granting certain rights and attributing roles. In Egypt public attribution of gender roles and meaning to social practices often is clearly defined, allowing very limited variations. Therefore external conformity to certain institutional and social practices becomes a routine. While an internal struggle of how much otherness one can expose to be accepted remains. Still the only methods to deal with the lack of knowledge about the other is direct experience to different meanings of the same actions.
The lies that are harder to bear, aren’t lies as such, but the suppression James feels public. We hold hands, which already draws looks – but a white boy and an uncovered Egyptian girl will already draw stares so why hold back. We just look them in the eye and smile back. I can’t hold her tight and kiss her in the street, I can’t share my love for her as openly as I’d like but instead kiss my wedding ring to symbolise kissing her. She is more forward and I take my cues from her. Public affection is seen as haram, I cannot hug my own mother in law, I must suppress my physical desire to express platonic affection for female friends. This that is the hardest to deal with.