Yacoub or Jacob Abu Hasira. (photo:Wikimedia Commons)
Egypt – A court in Alexandria has canceled an annual Jewish festival commemorating the birthday of Abu-Hasira, a leading 19th-century Moroccan Rabbi (1805-1880). The festival was due to take place on January 9 and 10 in the village of Demittwah, near the city of Damanhur, in the Nile Delta’s region of Behira. The court stated that the festival “violates public order and morals” and that “the Jews have not had any particular impact on Egyptian civilization.” The court also ordered the shrine to be erased from Egypt’s antiquities records. The verdict is an inevitable outcome of a long journey of ignorance, misconceptions, and politicization of religious matters that has its roots in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This trend was skillfully maintained during Mubarak’s Egypt and continued to unfold, despite his departure from power.
Ignorance as the State’s policy
Following the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Jewish groups demanded officially organized trips for them to celebrate the festival. Mubarak’s regime opted for a dual approach to the Jewish request. On the one hand, it approved the visits, but insisted on a media blackout of the festival. Mubarak’s elitist Culture Minister, Farouk Hosny, did little to highlight the history or background of the shrine to the Egyptian public. This was hardly surprising considering how years of hostility between the Arabs and Jews have erased any Jewish traditions from Egyptian memory. I watched a video of the celebration, posted by prominent blogger Zeinobia. It showed rituals known to be practiced in any Jewish celebration, but understandably different to Egyptian customs. The residents of the small village of Demittwah must have been taken aback to suddenly see an alien group of foreigners with different dress codes and cultural traditions descending on them. Hostility was inevitable.
The security solution
When it came to facing the public and trying to explain its decisions, the Mubarak regime showed a marked reticence. Indeed, on controversial issues such as the annual Jewish festival commemorating the birthday of Abu Hasira in Demittwah, the regime opted not for open disclosure but for invasive security measures that angered the locals. Every year, before the start of the festival, residents of Demittwah have woken up to a large number of security personnel searching their homes and clearing the way to the Abu-Hasira shrine. In one report, a villager described how, under Mubarak’s regime, residents of the village had to endure house arrest during the festival until the departure of the Jews from the village. The security force’s mishandling of the Jewish visits to the area and their aggressive tactics to quell local resentment were clearly counter-productive. It aggravated local tension and popularized calls to cancel the Jewish celebrations.
Egypt’s legal system
The recent verdict to ban the festival is not the first. In 2001, the Administrative Court in Alexandria ruled for the cancelation of the festival and banned Jews from holding it. Later, in 2004, the high administrative court in Alexandria approved the banning of the festival and canceled the decision to include the cemetery among the monuments of Egypt. It is unclear what happened after those earlier court orders, but apparently the Egyptian authorities somehow decided to defy the ruling, further igniting local hostilities. Moreover, and in defiance of basic universal court proceedings, none of those cases have invited members of the local Jewish community to explain the rituals conducted at the shrine, in order to decide, in a fairer way, whether “it violates public order and morals.”
The first time I heard about Abu-Hasira was in the late 90s. It was also the first time I met a Jew in my life. She was a blind, elderly British lady, who proudly explained the many reasons she loved Egypt; Abu-Hasira was one of them. Who is Abu-Hasira? I asked. She sounded very surprised, but politely explained.
It took me years to gather more information about this mystical figure revered by Jews, but ignored by the country in which he was buried. I used to find his name intriguing, as Abu-Hasira in Egyptian Arabic means “the man with the matt.” Later I read that he had once nearly drowned in the Mediterranean but had clung to a matt and survived. The Arabic name did little to mellow local hostility to the man and his disputed festival, in stark contrast to an earlier bygone era of tolerance. In 1945 Abu-Hasira’s grave in Egypt became a shrine, with the approval of the governorate of Behira. Both Jews and Muslims revered the man with the matt, who eventually fell ill, died, and was buried in Egypt.
In his book, “In an antique land,” Indian writer Amitav Gosh describes his visit to the shrine of Abu-Hasira in the 1990s. He found a compound heavily guarded by “soldiers.” Amitav Gosh used an interesting term in his book – “the partition of the past,” which is a perfect way to describe the current controversy surrounding the Abu-Hasira festival. In our quest to detach ourselves from the official peace deal with Israel, we decided to suspend a rich part of our culture, tradition, and history and allowed it to vanish from our conscious memory. This tragic partition of the past is neither healthy nor productive for a nation that considers history its favorite asset.