Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

In giving, to receive

In giving, to receive
Al-Ahram Weekly

In a first-of-its-kind event last Thursday, Al-Ahram Weekly screened Alexander Kronemer’s award-winning The Sultan and the Saint at Al-Ahram’s Naguib Mahfouz Hall. One of several docudramas intended to promote interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, the film tells the story of the encounter between Saint Francis of Assisi and the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamel Mohamed, which took place near Damietta in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade. Narrated by Jeremy Irons and featuring Alexander McPherson and Zack Beyer as the saint and the sultan, respectively, it is produced and promoted by the California-based non-profit Unity Productions Foundation. 

The Al-Ahram screening, its Egypt premiere, was made possible thanks to the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister City initiative headed by Egyptian-American businessman Tharwat Abu Raya, who coordinated with the Weekly’s Editor-in-Chief Ezzat Ibrahim. The event drew in a large crowd of cultural and media figures. Spotted in the nearly full house were, among many others, the Provincial Minister of the Franciscan Brothers in Egypt Father Kamal Labib, the Armenian Catholic Bishop Krikor Okostinos Coussan, the wife of the Weekly’s late founding editor Hosny Guindy Moushira Abdel-Malik, the celebrated actress and Weekly columnist Lubna Abdel-Aziz, the veteran writer Yacoub Al-Sharouni, the filmmaker Sandra Nashaat, the well-known security expert Brigadier-General Khaled Okasha and the Sawt Al-Azhar magazine Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Al-Sawi. 


In giving, to receive

The screen could have been wider and the sound clearer, but all were deeply impressed by the technical inventiveness and powerful message of the film (fully reviewed here last week). This was particularly evident during the seminar that followed the screening. Coordinated by Ibrahim in the presence of Abu Raya (who told the famous joke about the silent debate between the bishop and the rabbi), the discussion brought together the prominent Catholic scholar and political writer Emile Amin, the Cairo University historian Mohamed Afifi and the Weekly’s Culture Editor Youssef Rakha. Among other members of the audience, Al-Sharouni, Al-Sawi, Okasha and Father Kamal Labib also made significant contributions to the discussion. 

Amin, who introduced himself as a Franciscan monk of the third (secular) order — one who marries and goes out in the world but observes the same precepts as his ascetic friar brothers — displayed remarkable erudition not only regarding Saint Francis’ life and evidently tenuous connection to the Crusaders with whom he arrived in Egypt but also regarding the life and character of Sultan Al-Kamel; he quoted the Quran, referred to himself as “culturally, a Muslim” and embodied the tolerant spirit promoted by the film. He detailed how Saint Francis’ encounter with the Muslims influenced his thinking about prayer (he recommended there should be times during the day set aside for prayer) and the terms in which he addressed God in later texts, reflecting the Islamic 99 Names of God.


The Sultan and the Saint

Afifi praised the way in which the drama fleshed out a significant historical moment from which the region can benefit greatly at present, explaining that history is not a single uncontested narrative but several possible narratives that need to be formulated to take on meaning. Rakha said how — exactly as Saint Francis’ visit to the Muslim camp during the Fifth Crusade demystified and humanised the Muslim other for him —  the human and spiritual side of the Crusades might demystify and humanise the Christian other for fundamentalist Muslims today. In this connection Afifi expanded on Rakha’s remark that the Arabic word for “crusader” — salibi, literally “of the Cross” — was deployed in hate speech by Islamists following the 2011 Revolution, explaining that no such word actually exists in the Muslim sources, which refer to the Crusaders as al-firinjah or the Franks.

In a moving address — “on behalf of the monks” — Father Kamal explained how ancient icons of Saint Francis would arrive depicting not only the Catholic monk but also the Muslim sultan, who would be identified, Father Kamal said, as Saint Kamel alongside Saint Francis, even though the word “saint” would usually be removed or written over. Here as in the predominant tenor of the evening, the message was one of tolerance and peace, although it was felt by some that the film targeted Americans (whom it informed about Islam) rather than Egyptians or Muslims. Al-Sharouni, for example, spoke of the need for “us” to make such films targeting our own people. Many also stressed the need to face violence against Egyptian Christians notably in Upper Egypt more decisively. Abdel-Malek wondered how best to counter hate speech and truly renew religious discourse.


The Sultan and the Saint

Taking his cue from this question, Okasha suggested that the way forward is precisely to hold such events and compete for the hearts and minds of the public more aggressively, since it is by positively winning over the majority rather than negatively trying to eliminate the voice of violence and discrimination that the situation will improve. Al-Sawi contended that it would help to pay more attention to reforms and initiatives by Al-Azhar, which, he insisted, has made huge efforts to promote tolerance and interfaith dialogue. But many in the audience thought this might not be sufficient. The effect of their encounter with Saint Francis was evident on the Muslim members of the audience especially, however. 

“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen away, and to bring home those who have lost their way. Many who seem to us to be children of the Devil will still become Christ’s disciples,” Saint Francis is known to have said. And, more briefly, “For it is in giving that we receive.”

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