The Cairo Meeting.

You Have Brightened Egypt

Volunteers, conferences, exhibitions - The Meeting, as in Rimini, but beneath the Egyptian Pyramids. October 28-29, 2010: an event of dialogue between Muslim professors, future cardinals, Israeli jurists and scores of students.
Davide Perillo

There are three of them, in Western dress, but with veils on their heads, sitting next to each other a few seats down from you. They are about 20 years old, and when Marco Bersanelli, astrophysicist from Milan University, who had spoken of the Milky Way, quotes Leopardi and his “Wandering Shepherd,” it all happens at once: their hands feel inside handbags, looking for pen and paper, and all three quickly begin to write, their eyes surprised and open, as people who don’t want to miss anything of the novelty before them. You look at them and the question that has been on your mind for the past 24 hours, since you met the welcoming smiles of the volunteers in blue tee-shirts–waiting for you at the airport as if your presence were a gift for them–comes out in all its strength. What is happening? How is it possible here?

Here is the Cairo Meeting, in Egypt. The theme: “Beauty, a space for dialogue.” We have already told this story. The idea came up one evening while Fr. Ambrogio Pisoni, CL responsible for the Middle East, was talking with Wael Farouq–lecturer at Cairo’s American University and a regular visitor to the Rimini Meeting–and a group of his friends, struck by the Rimini festival. It developed little by little, and what seemed at first to be a meeting for specialists was becoming an impressive event, with invitations, volunteers, and bigger spaces. We discussed it and imagined a little of how it would be, but what came about in these two days at the end of October is tailor made to surprise and confound all previsions. Usually, things like this are called “events,” with an emphasis that rarely corresponds to reality. But here it is different. It is really an event, something worth following to the end, taking in everything, but without expecting to understand everything–and without switching paths, because in that journey there is something mysterious, something to acknowledge and, in some way, to simply obey.

Farouq said as much, welcoming the first friends who came from Rimini, some of them guests, some of them Italian supporters of their “little Egyptian brother.” “What am I expecting? I don’t know what the fruits will be, but I am curious to see what happens here.” Farouq and the other organizers are curious. They had worked for weeks in a cellar (“At first, we would meet gathered around a car!”), the circle growing as the word spread: the judge who sent out the invitations, the manager who handled the phone calls, the lawyer who resurrected his past as a tour guide; and friends, relatives, and friends of friends. In the end, the volunteers numbered more than 200, coordinated by Wael and the other “magnificent three,” as everyone calls them at the end of the Meeting: Hosam Mikawi, a judge (the one who said, in Rimini, “Here, I am reborn.”); Abdel Heneish, a businessman; and Tahani al-Jibaly, his wife, Vice-President of the Constitutional Court and newly appointed President of the Meeting in Egypt.

Stucco and curtains.
It was she who gave the keynote speech on the first evening, in the Great Hall of Cairo University. The 2,000-seat hall is like a theater, with its curtains and stucco moldings. It boasts a century-and-a-half of history and an important recent past: it was here that Barack Obama made his appeal for dialogue with Islam in June 2009. Here, Farouq does the honors as the host, al-Jibaly speaks of “a promise fulfilled,” and of “Allah who is beauty.” Emilia Guarnieri, president of the Rimini Meeting, speaks about it and the friendship with the Egyptians. On the screen, beside the new logo, which incorporates the dove of Rimini with the pyramids, we are surprised to see a documentary of the faces that have made up the 31 years of the Rimini Meeting history. Fr. Giussani and John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Eugene Ionescu, Rose from Uganda and the convicts of Padua–the history of the Meeting.

It is fascinating to look at the audience, where you find Joseph Weiler, the Jewish American jurist, alongside a squadron of Egyptian ministers; and where Antonios Naguib, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts (recently named Cardinal), after the address of Emilia Guarnieri, said to Fr. Pisoni, “You can see she is moved.” You see businessmen and journalists mixing with clerics, press photographers, and ordinary people–a thousand or so, welcomed by teams of youngsters in blue tee-shirts.

These are the volunteers, a spectacle in themselves, 30 or so Italian youngsters, most of them university students (many of them are studying Arabic, while others just came to give a hand), and the rest are Egyptian. These are young people, like Mary and Sarah, who were waiting for us at the airport (the former is the only CL-er in Cairo; the latter is Muslim), or people further on in years, like Hariri, who works in the court, and who gives us a guided tour as we pass through the chaos of the Cairo traffic in a minibus. There is a familiarity with them and between them that you can’t explain; unexpected, because at first sight everything would be against it–language, culture, habits–but it’s there. It generates faces typical of the Meeting, like those we have been seeing in Rimini for years, and scenes like at the Meeting: hugs, smiles, the sing-alongs late at night, and everything that they will tell us later, over dinner at the Italian Consulate and in e-mails.

“No, nothing of the kind has ever been seen,” confirms Farouq. “Here, volunteer work is done, but only for religious causes, not for events like this.” But you find yourself in a car with a pair of drivers like Waleed, 28, who works for an insurance company, and Serim, his boss, who is 32, and has a wife “with a child of five months in her womb.” She, too, is a volunteer. Was it worth it? “Of course. We are interested to know what you think. And an event of this kind is an opportunity to show that Egypt is not backward. We are here, and we are able to do fine things.” You just have to dig down a little to make the real discovery: “Normally, you judge work on the basis of money, but what we have seen here is more important than money. This is beauty.” Why is the Meeting beautiful? “We talked about it ourselves,” answers Waleed. “As we met, we learned a lot: seriousness in work, punctuality, order.” Many of the volunteers repeat this, “but they tell each other what I tell myself,” explains Mertina, who speaks Arabic well and was a factotum amongst the other Italians at the event, “where else can you speak of truth and beauty as we do here?” Then I understood better the phrase she had just translated: “Sharraftu Masr,” something like: “You have honored Egypt, you have brightened it with your presence.” It is a traditional greeting, not something to get swell-headed about, “but they often repeat it to us.”

Second day brought us to the Opera House, on Zamalek Island, the heart of the Cairo Meeting. There are four conferences: with Emilia Guarnieri and Tarek Farag, a volunteer in Italy this past summer, on the Rimini experience; on the Milky Way with Bersanelli; on the heart and the desire for great things, with Jean Francois Thiry, university professor and founder of Moscow’s Library of the Spirit, and Saeed al Wakeel of Cairo University; and on the theme of the Meeting, with urban planner Samir Gharib and Fr. Ambrogio Pisoni from Italy. Fr. Ambrogio takes up the theme again to clarify further: “We are here because we are wounded, moved by a beauty, a strange beauty that leaves us restless, an order that we look for and acknowledge, a passion for the whole and for the details, an openness without bounds and prejudices.” And still more unforeseeable facts.

Safety belt.
On the stage, translating, is Abdel Fattah Hasan. We had met him the evening before. He speaks fluent Italian. He told us of the time he spent in Rome, when, as the Vice-Imam of the Parioli Mosque, he gave the first sermon after 9/11, quoting the Koran: “He who kills a single man kills the whole of mankind.” He told of his passion for Italian literary icons Foscolo and Cavalcanti, and of his political career (he is an independent deputy in the outgoing Parliament). Later, we discovered he is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, but in the meantime he was there translating the psalms quoted by Bersanelli, and for Pisoni who is speaking of Fr. Giussani and of the Beauty that became flesh and posed this question: ‘What are you looking for?’” “Encounters like this are a safety belt against the rancor that is assailing the world,” says Hasan. Similar words come from Fr. Claudio, a Comboni Missionary who spent ten years in Cairo before returning to Rome to be the bursar of the institute, but came back here for the Meeting: “It’s like magic: barriers fall that seemed impossible to knock down.” Then there is Sr. Rachele, from near Milan, still here in Egypt since her relocation in 1965, who knows the humiliations and the sufferings of the Christians in this zone very well. “If you start off from religion, you get nowhere,” she says with a smile, “but if you start off from humanity, things can happen.”

A printed question. The clear impression is that it is as if the very idea of “dialogue between religions” has been swept away, leaving room for reality: people who are in dialogue precisely because they are religious–that is to say, zealous for the heart, for the question of meaning, for beauty. One distinguished man, unidentified, during a pause, began a discussion with Emilia Guarnieri: (the English is rather improbable, but the point gets through), “You spoke of certainties and the fight against relativism; can you explain better?” She explains, and he nods, and replies, saying something like: “I understand. Whatever is an obstacle to man’s imagination is to be fought.” In his own way, he sounds like Fr. Giussani when he speaks of “the category of possibility,” which keeps reason open to the Mystery. Another point made by an Egyptian friend and highlighted was: “We are looking at things with your eyes.”

The final concert was an apotheosis of what we have in common and of what distinguishes us. The Schubert Trio and classical music inside the walls of Saladin’s Citadel: all eager to hear beauty (Brahms, Paganini, and Dvorak), many ready to acknowledge that it is only a relation of the other music, played by the Sama’a group the previous evening: Eastern chorales and polyphony entwined with “our” melodies. They, too, are beautiful, but different, without that note of melancholy that echoes, so to speak, in the 2nd movement of Schubert’s Trio, presented as “one of the pieces that Fr. Giussani loved most.” At this point, we realize how often that name has been quoted continually over these days, on the stage and off it, in both Italian and Arabic speeches, and how alive Fr. Giussani still is, present more than ever.

We come out, watching that strange trio walking back to the hotel, which in a way is a symbol–the Italian and Catholic Andrea Simoncini, a constitutional lawyer, and the Muslim, Farouq, accompanying the Jewish Weiler (it is the Sabbath and use of the car is out)–and the question emerges that you will read everywhere the following morning on the way to the airport, printed on the faces of others, or in the e-mail that Farouq will send to Marco Aluigi, responsible for the conferences of the Meeting–who had come to see him years ago in Cairo along with Fr. Ambrogio, and went back to Rimini to tell his colleagues, quite simply, “We’ve made friends!”–“You have passed on the virus of love to us,” writes Wael. “Let’s meet again soon; the volunteers have to make the spirit of the Meeting their own.”

Connecting dots.
It’s clear we need to meet again, and soon. But what will happen now? How can what has happened here go on? And what about the friendship among these kids, Mary’s life, the bond with the CLers from Alexandria? What impact will this Meeting have on public life and the Church?

Just think, just imagine, follow the first visible effects with your mind’s eye, like the e-mail from Ahmed Hady, the astrophysicist at Cairo University, who says he wants “to organize a meeting in Luxor, perhaps in March,” or the poem that Karim, one of the volunteers, sent to Fr. Ambrogio–a playful piece, in rhyme, ending with: “I met people who make me feel like one of them without saying a word.” You are already one step ahead! And thank God you quickly realize that you have one foot off the road. It will go on as it began; you just have to watch and follow. “Think of the game Connect the Dots,” Aluigi jokes. “Join the dots with the numbers and in the end the image appears.” Here there are many dots, all over the page in the most unexpected places, and the picture is still just a draft, but the signature is quite clear, and it’s not ours.