In an article titled “We were born in a city of religious tolerance” in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, renowned Egyptian writer and columnist Anis Mansour discussed Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations in Egypt over the past decades. MEMRI prints the following excerpts:
“We residents of [the city of] Al-Mansoura were of French or Turkish origin, and among us lived large communities of foreign immigrants who had their [own] churches and schools. As children, we therefore spoke many languages. The foreigners taught us and gave us pocket money. Thus, as a boy I knew French, Italian and German, and so did many others. There wasn’t a day in my life that I did not utter the names Jirjis, Hanna, Cohen, Levy, Jacques, Marianne, Violet, and Arlette. These were the names of my friends from school, or of my neighbors. We all played together in the street, met at the public library, or got together in the shop of Mr. Cohen, who sold shoe polish, pins, and matches. We helped our friend look after the shop when his father was away, and we [helped] our friend Jirjis and his father, the tailor, who [likewise] used to leave us [in charge of] the shop. We served the customers who wanted their clothes pressed, and cleaned the premises.
“We never wondered why [we should do this]. My father and mother did not disapprove when they heard about it. My mother regarded it as a proper and moral [act] that reflected brotherhood and friendship. She also visited the Christian and Jewish women, and they visited her. I used to accompany my mother when she visited the hospital, bringing flowers and fruit for a sick child – one of my schoolmates – or for his mother or father. Once, she asked me to put on some clean black clothes and shine my shoes. I had to go to the church, since the father of one of my friends had died. My mother advised me to sit quietly and not talk, no matter what I saw there. I went and sat in the last pew, with my head bowed, and without understanding anything I saw or heard.
“Until then, I did not understand what it meant for a person to be a Christian or a Jew, and what the difference was. [I did not understand] the significance of being kissed by a Christian or Jewish mother, of seeing her visiting our house, or of accompanying my mother on a visit to Jirjis’ home or to the Cohen [household].
“Until [one day when] one of my relatives found me playing in the street, stopped me, and asked after my father and mother. Then he said: ‘I heard you saying [the names] Jirjis and Cohen.’
“‘Yes,’ I replied.
“‘Don’t you realize that one is a Copt and the other is a Jew?’ he asked (in an admonishing tone). ‘How [can] you play with them? Does your mother know?’
“‘Their mothers are friends of my mother’s,’ I answered.
“But he asked again in admonition: ‘Does your father know?’
“‘He visits them too,’ I replied.
“My mother asked me [about it], and she denounced our relative’s questions. At that point, I began to think and understand.
“[But] they [Jirjis and Cohen] have remained my dearest friends!”