Egyptian IDs : A Tribute to my Father

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By: Alexandra Kinias –
I once asked my father, why it is that religion is written on IDs. We were driving back from school along the Alexandria shore, as we did every day for many years. Out of the window I would see the blue Mediterranean extending to the horizon. On warm days its crisp air carried the light scent of iodine that is distinctive of Mediterranean cities.

Without hesitation, my father responded that it was the government’s way to know whether to bury the homeless and those who died in accidents with no families to claim them in Muslim or Christian cemeteries. For a seven-years-old this explanation made perfect sense. My father sounded very convincing that it took me years before I questioned if and why the homeless cared to carry IDs.
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My endless questions were always answered by my father. In fact the answers lived between the pages of his books that were piled up around the house. And before my twelfth birthday, we were both reading the same books.

My grandfather was a Moroccan sailor who left his oasis in the southern Moroccan Sahara to travel the world. He met the love of his life in Crete and they settled to Egypt. I met neither of them. My grandfather died at sea, I was told. My father inherited the love of the sea from his father. He also had a heart of a sailor and a soul of a gypsy. His boat was his second home, or maybe the first, depending on whom you asked. Together we sailed some rough seas. And this is not a metaphor.
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Driving back from school was our bonding time. He was a great buddy; a child trapped in a man’s body. We spent hours playing with our toys and building projects together, which he genuinely enjoyed. We picked stray puppies from the streets and brought them home to my mother to feed. He taught me target shooting, bird hunting and fishing. But what I loved most about him was that he could stop the clock anytime an idea as important as showing me how to catch fish in a glass jar or flying a kite came to his mind.
I remember a summer afternoon together on the beach. He had a glass jar with a piece of bread inside it. I watched him as he covered the opening of the jar with a cloth, fastened a rubber band around it, and then cut a hole in the middle with his Swiss Knife. He immersed the jar under water between some rocks and we stood few steps away and watched as the little fish swam inside it.
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My father was never punctual. But for him there was nothing more important than enjoying an intellectual conversation, experimenting with a new idea or driving for two hours to Cairo to show me the mask of King Tut, obviously because I had asked something about it, and plotting together later how to rob it from the Egyptian museum while eating ice-cream at our favorite place.

My father’s religious affiliation is not of any significance here, but what is important though is that he was born in a cosmopolitan society that was vibrant and tolerant. At the first half of the twentieth century religion was a very personal matter and people practiced their faith within the walls of their homes, mosques, churches and synagogues. My father was a manifestation of this society. Being well read, he could debate any of the religions as if he were a member of that particular faith. He could have easily passed as a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, all of the above, or none of the above; I often wondered.
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As years went by, the issue of ID cards became less intriguing. I no longer believed my father’s explanation of course, yet certain issues eventually become accepted as a way of life, even if they don’t make sense. Even Egyptians who view this issue as a form of discrimination and advocate for its removal, they proposed no plausible explanations to support their arguments for why it was written in the first place.
The discrimination against the Copts and Jews started in 641 A.D. shortly after the Islamic Conquest of Egypt. Non-Muslim subjects living in the lands that were conquered by the Muslims paid the jizya, an annual tax, in return for their protection, since they were neither allowed to carry weapons to defend themselves, nor to join the Muslim armies.
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No official documents stated that, but presumably for that reason, people were then categorized according to their religion and somehow it was documented on their official papers. Egyptian Copts and Jews paid the jizya to the Muslim rulers from 641 A.D. until Mohamed Ali abolished this law in 1839. It is unclear, though, why religion still appeared on IDs, but most likely it was a decision made to avoid the wrath of the religious scholars who had strong influence over the people. In today’s society it serves nothing but creating prejudices between the various religious camps.

Over dinner at our favorite Pizza place I would have loved to disclose this revelation to my father and ask him if he knew that all along. My father lived large and enjoyed life to the extreme as he must have had a premonition that his life would be short lived. I lost him in a car accident shortly after I graduated from college. He died at a young age before I had time to ask him more questions about matters that I heard over the years, but never made sense to me. I always wanted to know if my disclosure had any relevance to why his family’s name was dropped from officials records after they settled in Egypt. As some lives end abruptly, their stories are left with no closure and it is left to our imagination to improvise and weave the end the way we like them to be.

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