Pluralism, Difference, Contestation, and Tolerance: Sacred Spaces of Non-Muslim Communities in the Islamic World
When I was growing up, I toften heard my my father lament the mass exodus of ethnic and religious minorities who fled Egypt in the wake of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s exclusionary brand of Arab nationalism. Reflecting on the religiously diverse, cross-cultural dimensions of the urban Cairo of his youth in the 1940s, he would bemoan the loss of my grandmother’s talented Armenian seamstress, Madame Marie, or the disappearance of the city’s prominent Jewish mercantile community, whose contributions to the country’s burgeoning economy were tremendous, especially through the downtown department stores of Benzion, Orico, or Gattegno (stores that my family admired and frequented) that fashioned their window displays in the refined mold of Galeries Lafayette or Printemps in Paris. Out of these intergenerational memories of a cosmopolitan and heterogeneous Cairo emerged a looming, seemingly inescapable sense of nostalgia not simply for a bygone era, but perhaps more poignantly, for a period that was more tolerant, accepting of social difference, and progressive. And yet, by contrast, there were stories of obstinance, insularity, and segregationist attitudes dividing religious communities as well. One vivid and initmate account detailed the clash and subsequent prevention of a marriage between a Coptic woman and my uncle, who lived in adjacent villas in Mohandiseen and who were in love; however, even in spite of the Qur’anic allowance for Muslim men to marry women of ahl al-Kitāb, or “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians), their would-be interfaith union was deemed improprietous and unsuitable, partially on the grounds that the clans lived in such close spatial proximity to each other. Yet my family’s experience of this culturally heterogenous and dynamic Cairo was far from exceptional, as countless stories such as these live on across the diasporas of the Middle East.