By Elizabeth Vossen
They said they came because they love their country; because they want to see Christians and Muslims unified; because they’re disheartened by the violent events in Alexandria that marked the beginning of the New Year.
On Coptic Christmas, January 7, Darb 1718, a cultural center located in the heart of Old Cairo, hosted an open event encouraging people to come share in a day of peace. The concept was simple; come to the center and draw a heart on the ground. Their e-invitation read “Hearts cannot distinguish between racial, ethnic, social or religious differences, the heart only knows how to love. So let’s all give a message of love, as the true religion of God is love.” The event was accordingly entitled “Day of Love, Darb 1718.”
The event was modest and low-key: No speeches, no music, no set-up and no fuss; just colored chalk, a street and people. That’s it.
Throughout the day, visitors came together in Darb’s courtyard to chalk their hopeful messages on the coarse pavement. By midday, the ground was abundant with pictures and phrases encouraging peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Many drawings featured crosses alongside crescents and adaptations of the Egyptian flag. In keeping with the theme of the event, plenty of hearts were marked on the ground.
Attendees strolled about the courtyard, surveying the colorful images and taking pictures. Eman Mohamed Hassan, a seemingly shy young woman, drifted timidly about the venue, carefully photographing each creation. When asked what had motivated her attendance, she spoke easily, with conviction; “I’m here to express how I love my country. Whether we are Christians or Muslims I want Egypt to flourish, regardless of religion,” she said.
A series of self-portraits by famous Egyptian photographer Nabil Boutros was used in the “Day of Love” flier, and was a reoccurring image at the event. The series consists of nine self-portraits; the composition of each frame and Boutros’ expression remain exactly the same. The only variance from one photo to the next is what Boutros wears. In some portraits, Boutros sports a full beard and his style of dress unmistakably portraying a Muslim man. In other portraits, Boutros is clean-shaven and wears Coptic-style robes. In the remaining photographs, it’s the subject’s religion remains undetectable. Despite the variance of attire in each portrait, the expressionless man is the same. The well-suited series complemented the backdrop of the event nicely.
The crowd that attended throughout the day was small yet diverse. A woman cloaked in a niqab sat next to unveiled women, throngs of children chased after one another as the adults, both young and old, milled about. Though their appearances differentiated them, they were united by their hopes and love of their country. Purposefully, even dutifully, Christians and Muslims assembled together.
Darb 1718’s Operations and Production Manager, Myriam Makhoul, explained that the center began planning the event a couple days after the bombing in Alexandria took place. Initially, the idea was for just a few friends to draw hearts on the ground to make a statement, but then the idea to extend the invitation to a wider audience arose and was put into action.
“We thought, let’s make this big,” explained Makhoul, adding that they promoted the event through Facebook and fliers all over the downtown core.
When asked whether she was pleased with the turn out, Makhoul confessed that she was surprised with the degree of interaction amongst people: “I didn’t think that people would come and interact so much, it’s been really positive.”
Alaa Mohamed, a friendly smiling young woman in her 20s became solemn and purposeful as she spoke about her decision to attend the event. “There are lots of reasons why I decided to come today, but the most important one is that I love Egypt, I adore Egypt, and I am filled with pain about what happened in Alexandria,” she explained.
Mohamed then went on to reveal a much more personal reason. “I have a daughter,” she said intently, “She’s been asking me a lot of questions lately, and it worries me.”
Though Mohamed’s family is Muslim, some of her best friends are Christians. Although she’s only in preschool, Mohamed’s daughter has noticed the difference between Christians and Muslims, and has asked her mother whether it’s okay for her to play with Christians, even though she’s a Muslim. This among other similar questions shows Mohamed just how aware her daughter is of religious differences.
“This generation is not like mine,” warns Mohamed, “we never noticed these things at such a young age.” Mohamed says it was important for her to bring her daughter to the gathering, to teach her that people should not be judged by their religion, but their actions.
When Mohamed was explaining to her daughter where they would go for the day, she put it simply: “I told her that we will draw hearts to show that we love our country, we love our friends, and we love our neighbors, and to say that what happened in Alexandria was terrible.”
Although the small event will do little to relieve the tense relations between Christians and Muslims, it created a space for people to express their desire for peace, tolerance and unity. It was also a chance for parents to teach their children about these values.
When asked whether the center would consider holding similar events in the future, Makhoul remarked, “Many people have been asking us to continue, and we’re thinking about it.”