It was the night before Christmas and all through the houses of Egypt there was vigorous chanting. Not of insipid carols though, but of political and religious standpoints. The contrast between what has become a commercialised version of a religious holiday and our day-to-day reality was never as stark as this year.
The lines of division that are slowly ripping the fabric of society into separate entities have been dug into deep trenches in the past few weeks and it smacks more of preparation for battle than standing of ground. The streets are pervaded with anger, mistrust, self-righteousness, violence and intolerance and we are sadly as far from peace as we could be. It is beginning to look a lot like everything Christmas is not portrayed to be.
While people voted for a highly contested constitution, TV channels insisted on broadcasting snowy, seasonal movies that contrasted sharply with the desert sands that surround us and on the radio someone kept dreaming of a white Christmas while the sun shone brightly. Dream on, I thought.
You may have guessed I am not much of a Christmas person; my state of mind in general leans more towards humbug than ho ho ho. I think it is creepy that some old guy supposedly knows my sleeping habits, I feel pity for the glow-in-the-dark nosed animal that stands out from the crowd and if I have to hear Wham sing about how they insist on making the same mistake twice by giving a recycled present to “someone special” this year, I will do something that will get me on the fat guy’s naughty list for many years to come. Have yourself a merry little Christmas sounds like a sneering putdown if you ask me and All I want for Christmas is you seems stalkerish and obsessive.
Depending where you are from, Christmas comes with boughs of holly, overcooked, dry turkeys, midnight mass, ill-prepared gigantic geese, tinsel and jolly, overweight, bearded men. The generic message of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, why the politically correct brigade haven’t tackled that one I will never know, is a nice sentiment though.
On my way to the airport to the Red Sea town where I traditionally spend the holidays I was thinking of how very different our reality is.
I passed the constitutional court and its makeshift campground; wood fires, tents and angrily chanting, bearded men who looked anything but jolly. Their message was more of strive than understanding and there was no goodwill in the stares they directed at me. It seemed they were taking the “towards men” bit very literally.
Waiting at the gate I watched the familiar sight of two newlyweds embarking on their honeymoon. He was nervously clutching the passports and boarding passes in a hand that sported a shiny new ring, while his brand new wife walked half a step behind him in a carefully colour coordinated outfit of long dress, turtle neck and long sleeved shirt and veil. There was an air of nervous excitement and shyness about them and they did not say a word to each other. Married but not that merry I thought.
The plane was sadly empty; when in previous years I would have had to book weeks in advance to make sure I would get a seat, now only half the plane was full and most of the travellers were businessmen. The few tourists looked lost and forlorn, very different from the thousands that would descend on the Red Sea shores of yesteryear. Do you hear what I hear? It is the echo in the empty hotels that struggle to stay open and keep their employees as tourism has reached an all time low.
Do they know it’s Christmas resonated through the tinny speakers in the arrival hall and I wondered whom they were asking. It can’t have been the parents who have lost sons and daughters in violence during demonstrations in the past two years. I doubt it were the families that lost loved ones in Port Said and the Assiut train crash to name but a few. All these hundreds went into the silent night, leaving devastating emptiness in their wake. They could not have cared less I think and their answer would be a resounding No.
Overall it did not make for a very Merry Christmas this year. The generosity of spirit and acceptance of differences that used to characterise so many Egyptians is fading and what has taken its place is often dark and ugly. It is sad and it is scary and maybe it is time to sound the alarm before it is too late.
Just please do not use Jingle bells.