Tag Archive | "Arab Spring"

A Coptic Church with an All-English Service

A Coptic church in Manhattan rents a Swedenborgian church every Saturday for a weekly service – done entirely in English.

By Neha Tara Mehta

It’s a Saturday morning but the hymns are Sunday’s. The Lord’s name is being invoked to the clap of cymbals and the rhythmic clanging of triangles. The music has its roots in the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt, but the prayers are in English.

Eighty men and women are in their Sunday best. The women have draped delicately woven white lace scarves over their heads, and as they kneel forward in prayer, one side of the church is sea of white. No one seems to mind that they are out at 8 a.m. on what is Biblically designated their day of rest.

Sunday comes a day early for this congregation of Orthodox Coptics at the New Church on East 35th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lexington. They are here because they don’t have a church of their own in the city — and this is the only day they can rent the New Church, a Swedenborgian church.

There are 20 Coptic Orthodox churches in the tri-state area, but what sets the Manhattan one part apart is that it is the only one with a service entirely in English. Most parishioners here are second or third generation Egyptian Americans who have tenuous ties with Egypt and the Arabic tongue.

The Rev. Antonious Tanious, who comes to the New Church every week from his New Jersey home church, St. Mary and St. Athanasius, says following God isn’t about following a language. “If you have kids here who want English that is going to help their walk with God, then so be it,” said Tanious.

The congregation shifted to the New Church only a year and a half ago. It started out by renting an Armenian church just a few blocks away, but had to move because the church had only one sanctuary. They Manhattan parishioners are looking for a place of their own, but as of now, prospects are bleak.

“To have real estate in Manhattan is an impossibility, unless we found a way of getting a stream of outside resources,” said Tanious. The congregation is supported by the home church in New Jersey, but finances are tight. Of the $3,000 total income of the church, rental alone takes up about $1,200. Then, there are salaries for Tanious and Rev. John Rizkalla, who started off as a parishioner and was later handpicked to be a priest by Tanious.

A tight budget means everyone multi-tasks. Tanious goes the extra mile by using the trunk of his Buick as a storeroom. Every Saturday, he carts candle stands, the incense chest, the bokhour (the incense), the Holy tablet, tunics for the deacons, the chalice, liturgy books, scarves for the ladies, pamphlets for weekly readings, the offertory box – and several other articles for the Manhattan service from New Jersey.

But coming to church on Saturdays has its benefits. It’s a great way to start the weekend — and the fact that the service is in English also helps non-Egyptian spouses to fit in.

“We are living in a very international city, and English is what everybody speaks people here,” said the German spouse of an Egyptian-American, who didn’t wish to be named. What also appeals to him is the slice of community life on Saturdays. “It’s an opening into the soul and an opening into the Egyptian way of life,” he added.

Friendships struck at the Saturday church spill over to the rest of the week as well. Three weeks ago, a deacon married a devotee he met at the church. Nada Badie, a manager at American Express came here seven years ago from New York. She has found a home away from home at the church.

“It’s a very unique demographic here —  we are all mostly young professionals. I hang out with a lot of people from here outside church as well… It’s a very tight-knit community,” said Badie, who is in her twenties, after receiving her communion.

Surprisingly, the Arab Spring isn’t the talking point at this church’s brunch-hour. Iskander says it’s because families of most parishioners were persecuted in Egypt and forced to leave in the 1950s.

“When you experienced the most extreme forms of religious discrimination, you try to forget that part of your life and start anew,” said Iskander, pointing out that Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution and forthcoming elections are discussed much more in churches at Queens and New Jersey, which have more Arabic-speaking, recent migrants from Egypt.

Tanious sees the role of the Manhattan church as that of a resource for those Coptics who need help. “We have lost touch with Egypt and we try to support fellow Egyptians whenever we are called on to support them. But we don’t know enough about what’s going on in Egypt to make it part of our conversation,” he said.

Even so, the continuing persecution of Coptics in Egypt has cast a shadow over the Manhattan church. A bomb blast at the midnight mass at the al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria last Christmas led to security threats to the Free Church.

“In the previous years, we were worried about whether it might be raining or snowing when we came out of the church. This year, we were worried about bullets and attacks,” said Iskander. Many didn’t make it to the Christmas mass at the Free Church. This Christmas, they pray, would be a peaceful one.

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Tweeting a Revolution

Inspired by Twitter conferences in Egypt, New York’s Egyptians held their first Twitter conference with a leading political activist from Egypt, Esraa Abdel Fattah, on November 9.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, a leading political activist from Egypt who won Glamour's Woman of the Year award, kicks off New York's first Twitter 'nadwa'

By  Neha Tara Mehta

Last Wednesday, Darin Sawan, a freshman at Queen’s College, took the subway to the non-profit Alwan For the Arts in Manhattan with an unusual agenda: she would speak for exactly 140 seconds about Egypt, the country she left as a six-year-old, and then tweet her discussions with the audience in exactly 140 characters.

Sawan was part of New York’s first Tweet nadwa —  literally, a conference in which Web 2.0 enthusiasts take turns to speak on an issue and then tweet about it so that their discussions reach a large number of people. Tweet nadwas have gained currency in a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, with the smartphone-toting revolutionaries who brought down the three-decade long dictatorship swearing by the power of 140 characters to bring about political change.

The New York chapter of the Egyptian Association for Change created a special hashtag on Twitter to tweet the event: #TwNadwaNYC. The evening assumed special significance because it came just three weeks before Egypt’s first parliamentary elections to be held after Mubarak’s ouster. After weeks of a sustained campaign, Egyptian-Americans had won the right to vote in the elections; the nadwa, therefore, was themed on the forthcoming polls.

Kicking off the nadwa was one of the most prominent faces of Egypt’s social media revolution: Esraa Abdel Fattah. Fattah, 33, was in town to receive Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year award. She was being honored for being one of the pioneers of the Arab Spring, and tweeting and Facebooking Egypt’s revolution as it unfolded on Tahrir Square.

For Sawan, who is majoring in political science, there was no better person to tell her what the political situation was like on the ground in Egypt.

“I feel there is a plethora of parties in Egypt with the same ideas and opinions. Why can’t the background noise come together to form one loud voice?” asked Sawan in her 140-second time slot.

Fattah helped Sawan quantify the parties: “After the revolution, there were 73 parties. Now, many of them have merged to become five,” said Fattah, as fingers flew across the hall on Twitter feeds on iPads, cellphones and laptops.

Fattah overshot the 140-second rule in urging the expat Egyptians to cast their ballot. Tweets in both Arabic and English appeared on the screen behind her at a dizzying speed.

“Get educated, know the candidates, follow campaigns that exposes the candidates from old regime,” read one.

Soon, no one seemed to remember that they were allowed to speak for only 140 seconds each. The gigantic darting digits on an iPad stopwatch held by conference organizer Zaid Saleh on stage were lost on the audience.

Taking a friendly jibe at the often lampooned Egyptian sense of time, Hadear Kandil, a political science student at Hunter College who writes a blog on the political situation within Egypt, tweeted: “We’re so Egyptian. Was there a 140-second rule aslan [originally]? I think not.”

Not everyone shared Fattah’s enthusiasm for the forthcoming elections.

“How can we trust the military council that is organizing elections? We have a lot of broken promises from it. These elections will be a sham,” said Mina Ibrahim, a fitness instructor and psychology and political science major at the City College of New York.

“I agree with what you are saying. But the elections are the shortest way to get the military council out of the way,” said Fattah in reply to Ibrahim’s apprehensions.” Almost as soon as she finished her sentence, a tweet summarizing what she said appeared on #twnadwanyc: “The next elections may not be perfect but if it is better than before that’s progress.”

Diasporic Egyptians asked each other how they could make a difference to the emerging Egypt – outside of the electoral process. “Many of us want to invest in Egypt but are lost,” said Amro Ali, a former diplomat from Canberra. “I have met Egyptians in England, Denmark and Germany who have no organization to direct them,” he added.

Saleh, the conference organizer and one of the most visible Egyptian-American activists,  took the initiative to answer Ali’s question. “There are over 8 million Egyptians living abroad. We need to group together under a large database. Together, we can bring about the change.” Kandil tweeted in agreement: “@Zaidnewyork urges intl Egyptian community to come together under same motive: to change Egypt. No political agenda.”

For many nadwa participants, tweeting their discussions was a way of sending a message to fellow Egyptians back home. “I want to reassure them that those of us living abroad haven’t abandoned them,” said Sawan.

The 140 characters served to inspire and inform even those in the room. Ali, known for his stand-up comedy acts when not indulging in diplomatic affairs, came away vowing to tweet more often. He joked: “Other tweeters questioned me incessantly as to why I was underusing my Twitter account, using a tone of voice and seriousness you would use on someone refusing to pay child support.”

Fattah had another takeaway from the nadwa. “I learnt that Egyptians here are even more politically aware than us in Egypt. They are certainly more revolutionary than us. Some people here already want to make another revolution in Egypt,” she said.

(Nadwa photo by Nasry Esmat)





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